Shaping the future of Singapore: Three pillars to build on

A sense of unity, strong creative capacity, and a solid social compact – these are the three strengths that Singapore possesses which will help the nation achieve a brighter future, according to Deputy Prime Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat.

“(Our founding fathers) turned our disadvantages into strengths. These strengths put us in a good position today,” said Mr Heng, speaking on 13 Aug on the topic of “Shaping the Future of Singapore” at the NUS115 Distinguished Speaker Series.

“The first strength is our sense of unity – regardless of race, language or religion… Our founding leaders were determined to create a new nation that had an equal place for all races.”

Mr Heng noted that recent racial incidents are a reminder of the undercurrents that still exist – and have provoked much public debate and reflection.

The key, he said, is to expand common spaces and assume the best in others, even if they step on our toes.

“Indeed, we should be firm in calling out transgressions when we see them, but also have the humility not to assume the worst of every action or comment. We should exercise forbearance when engaging with such issues, given the deep and emotive undercurrents. Progress cannot be made by advocating loudly for a single viewpoint. We should instead seek out the different perspectives and expand the space for convergence.”

If every generation embraces and strengthens Singapore’s unity, the country will be able to flourish in the coming decades.

Forging our own path

Singapore’s second strength is its creative capacity and willingness to go against the tide.

“If not for the creativity of our early generations, we would not be where we are today,” said the Minister. Examples include welcoming multinationals when critics saw them as the new colonialists; and building an airport at Changi which allowed room for expansion.

“If there is one common thread running through this, it is our openness to the world,” he said. It is this “openness” that needs to continue, if Singapore wants to thrive.

A stake for all

Another key point is that everyone must continue to have a stake in the country. Quality education and public housing have lifted the lives of Singaporeans across the board, but there is a need to further strengthen the social compact.

Lower-wage workers remain a focus area, and the government is in the process of expanding the Progressive Wage Model to more sectors. As for the ageing population, Mr Heng encouraged all to play their part to ensure that seniors remain actively engaged.

An emerging challenge is mental well-being, said Mr Heng.

“The pandemic has added further strain. As a society, we can better tackle mental well-being – raising awareness and de-stigmatising the issues, and better support those who need help.”

With all parties playing a role, Singapore will be able to strengthen its social compact to build a better future for all, Mr Heng said.

Living with the pandemic

Given these unprecedented times, much of the discussion focused on the pandemic’s impact on society and the economy.

“The COVID experience of working from home, has made remote work more commonplace now. But ‘working from home’ is just one step away from ‘working from anywhere’. And if workers can work from anywhere, employers can easily seek out the best skilled workers from all parts of the world,” observed Mr Heng.

The implication, he added, is that it is not possible to “bubble wrap” Singapore workers from foreign competition.

In this regard, the government is transforming companies and equipping people through the Industry Transformation Maps and SkillsFuture. “We should embrace openness and equip our people with the experience and skills to succeed – this is how we will thrive in a rapidly evolving world,” he said.

Work in the New Normal

It was a point that he re-emphasised in the Question and Answer session moderated by Associate Professor Suzaina Kadir, Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

Remote working will become increasingly prevalent – and with that, the possibility that we can be working for foreign companies from Singapore, and that local firms can hire talented staff living halfway across the world.

“Working from home, for example, was initially very hard for me,” shared the Minister. “But it has now become a norm and there are many other people who tell me, ‘oh, you know, it’s so nice to not have to travel and spend two hours a day going from home to the office – and that is quite productive.’ ”

Such changes – in the way work is done – will in turn make the workplace more resilient.

In response to a question on how students can prepare themselves to take advantage of this interconnectedness, Mr Heng said Singaporeans should have confidence in themselves and their skills, and yet have the humility to learn from other people and other countries.

Learning about bus routes

Mr Heng described a time many years ago when he and his wife were in Indonesia, on board an intercity bus. A gentleman was paying much attention to the details of the journey, rather than enjoying the scenery.

Turns out, he was an engineer in Germany, struck by the efficiency of the Indonesian bus system despite there not being any fixed timetable or register. In contrast, some German buses, rigidly following the schedule, runs almost empty.

“I was very struck by the humility and the openness of this German engineer, to say ‘let me see what I can learn from this system that is so different from mine’,” said Mr Heng. There have been recent developments with Artificial Intelligence allowing bus routes to be flexible – in a sense, vindicating the German engineer’s openness to learn.

NUS’ role in Singapore’s future

NUS has played an indelible role in the country’s success since independence, and this will continue.

One area is in research. As Chairman of the National Research Foundation, Mr Heng encouraged NUS to step up its already-strong R&D efforts because technology and innovation will be key to Singapore’s future as well as to the global community’s future.

The University has also played a key role in educating multiple generations of students, and one area of focus is in nurturing socially-conscious students.

“From this academic year, NUS is introducing a new pillar to our General Education curriculum, called Communities and Engagement,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye in his welcome remarks at the event.

“Our students will learn about project management and design thinking by putting them into practice through actual community projects. These projects address a range of issues, from climate change, to caring for an ageing population, to promoting mental health and wellness.”

Mr Heng commended the initiative: “It is important for an NUS student, for a Singapore university student, to understand our community and what it is that we can do.”

The event was the third and final instalment of the NUS115 Distinguished Speaker Series, held in conjunction with the University’s 115th anniversary celebrations. The earlier sessions were with the then Education Minister Mr Lawrence Wong on the Future of Education; and with Gojek co-founder and Indonesia’s Minister for Education and Culture Mr Nadiem Makarim who spoke on the Future of Work.

“In this series, we have explored what the future might look like for education and work, and their attendant challenges,” said Prof Tan, adding that it was fitting that the series was ending with a discussion on the future of Singapore in aggregate.

“Indeed, there is much we have to tackle together, and we will need to continue to build new strengths, and to stay united. In a plural and diverse society like Singapore, each brings their own perspectives, experiences and skills to bear, we must come together to co-create solutions.”

View a recording of the session.