Forging a more inclusive Singapore

Mr Shanmugaratnam (left) and Prof Koh engaged in a lively dialogue on issues ranging from social mobility to inequality

Developments in social, political and economic spheres and how they might impact the lives of people in Singapore were discussed at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) on 26 October to mark the Institute’s 30th anniversary. Themed “Diversities: New and Old”, the conference kicked off with a Pre-Conference Dinner on 25 October.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who spoke at the Dinner, said that the government recognised some 30 years ago that it did not have a monopoly on the best minds in the country. Then Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Goh had mooted the idea of a think-tank “for Singaporeans [from diverse backgrounds] to contribute ideas…to the government”. Highlighting IPS’ deeper salience in view of the current rapid social and economic transformation globally, Mr Goh said, “How do we manage these changes and better the well-being of Singaporeans? How do we anchor our citizens to the country, rally and commit them to Singapore? No one will have all the answers to Singapore’s internal and external challenges. We need to stimulate and harness all possible ideas and solutions to address present and future problems.”

Mr Goh hoped to see more synergy between IPS and the LKY School as he believes that there is great potential in combining their respective strengths. “The LKY School provides a foundation in terms of academic resources and research and breadth of activity in teaching and global outreach. IPS could complement this with its strength and depth of focus on Singapore-based issues of policies and governance,” he elaborated.


Mr Goh, who mooted the establishment of IPS some 30 years ago, said that IPS continued to remain relevant today in view of the rapid social and economic transformation taking place globally

The Dinner included a dialogue with Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, chaired by NUS Law Professor Tommy Koh, IPS Special Adviser; Rector of Tembusu College; and Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr Shanmugaratnam made three key points regarding sustained social mobility and managing inequality — “it is critical that we sustain a system where everyone is moving up”; social mobility will get more difficult because Singapore has “succeeded in the past”; and that “a good part of inequality in Singapore is actually generational inequality”.

Elaborating on the country’s escalating stratification, Prof Koh challenged the premise that inequality is a generational problem. “We are unequal not only in wealth, income, occupation, housing type, the school you went to, the way you speak...we live in a very class-conscious society,” he said.

On another point about ensuring that people live in dignity, Mr Shanmugaratnam concurred with Prof Koh, saying, “We’ve got to make sure that everyone can live in dignity, live a dignified life, at work as well as in the community, and see their lives improve over time…We have to work harder at this task and prevent poverty from getting entrenched.”

How do we manage these changes and better the well-being of Singaporeans? How do we anchor our citizens to the country, rally and commit them to Singapore? No one will have all the answers to Singapore’s internal and external challenges. We need to stimulate and harness all possible ideas and solutions to address present and future problems.

The second panel session at the conference on 26 October, titled “Emerging Forms of Social Identities and Social Formation”, featured Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development; and Professor Paulin Straughan, Dean of Students and Professor of Sociology (Practice) at the Singapore Management University as speakers. The session was chaired by Associate Professor Eleanor Wong, Vice Dean (Student Life & Global Relations) and Director, Legal Skills Programme at NUS Law.

Diversity could be a double-edged sword, argued Mr Lee. “If we group tightly and exclusively along our own set of identities, it can segment and stratify us, and diversity becomes a method for division. But if we establish a broader, common identity and also draw strength from our differences, diversity can be a method for addition and cohesion,” he explained. Turning to the issue of the Singaporean identity, he said that this had to be constantly tweaked as society and its aspirations changed. Mr Lee ended by exhorting the audience to take action and jointly forge a new social compact alongside the government.


The final session of the conference featured Mr Chan (with microphone) and fellow panellists Ms Chua (far left) and Ms Han (far right), with Ms Tan chairing the dialogue

The final panel session featured a dialogue between Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry; Ms Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times Opinion Editor at Singapore Press Holdings Ltd; and Ms Han Yong May, Editor of the Chinese Media Group NewsHub at Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. The dialogue was chaired by Ms Dawn Tan, Channel NewsAsia Presenter and Senior Producer of International News at Mediacorp.

Peppering his comments with insightful anecdotes from his personal life and quotes from his grandmother, Mr Chan said that his ultimate concern for Singaporeans is whether the current system allows each Singaporean to fulfil his or her potential, bearing in mind that everyone is gifted in different ways. Income inequality could be addressed through two policy principles, he believed. “One is that there is a rising tide that can lift all boats. Two, we know we can’t stop the rising tide. There might be some who are left behind, relatively [speaking], and that it’s incumbent on those who have done well to reach out to those who have not done as well,” he explained.

The other panel sessions saw speakers such as Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs; Nominated Member of Parliament Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences; Professor Cherian George from the Hong Kong Baptist University; as well as Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Communications and Information; and panel chairs Mr Manu Bhaskaran, IPS Adjunct Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor Suzaina Kadir, LKY School Vice Dean (Academic Affairs).


(From right) Prof Danny Quah, Dean, LKY School; Prof Kishore Mahbubani, NUS Senior Advisor (University & Global Relations); Prof George; and Mr Ng Chee Khern, Permanent Secretary (Smart Nation and Digital Government) and Chairman, Government Technology Agency of Singapore take time out for a wefie

The event at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre attracted more than 900 attendees, including policy makers, academics, practitioners, business leaders and students.

See media coverage.