What it means to be human

The 3rd edition of the Raffles Dialogue, held from 27 to 28 November, focused on issues related to the future of human well-being and security, as well as resilient and empowered societies

Leaders from government agencies, academia, industry, media and civic society gathered from 27 to 28 November to discuss complex issues regarding human well-being and security in the third edition of the Raffles Dialogue, jointly organised by the National University Health System (NUHS), NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS and the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. The event was graced by Guest-of-Honour Madam Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore and NUS Chancellor, as well as Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong.

Some 260 delegates heard distinguished speakers debate and discuss various facets of the road to resilient societies over five sessions during the one-and-a-half-day conference, themed “The Future of Human Well-being and Security: Towards Resilient and Empowered Societies”. Topics included the role of the private sector in promoting healthy and sustainable living; the impact of future developments such as digital transformation and climate change on human lives; promoting healthy longevity; and lessons learnt from Singapore’s experience in working towards global health and the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In his welcome remarks, Chairman of the Raffles Dialogue Organising Council, Chief Executive of NUHS and NUS Senior Vice President (Health Affairs) Professor John Eu-Li Wong emphasised the importance of collaboration between various sectors. “We have amazing science and incredible technology, we are in the middle of a data and digital transformation and we have very talented people...in our governments, universities, healthcare institutions, industries, social enterprises and global organisations. Think of what could happen if we all came together to reduce the burden of disease,” he said.


Prof Wong delivering his welcome remarks

Kicking off the conference, the first session, moderated by Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, saw panellists — Mr Gan; Dr Noeleen Heyzer, social scientist, former Under-Secretary-General of UN and NUS Trustee; Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); and Professor Alan Lopez, Rowden-White Chair of Global Health and Burden of Disease Measurement at the University of Melbourne — muse on Singapore’s role as a potential leader in global health and in assisting other countries achieve the SDGs.

Mr Gan shared that Singapore’s small size and limited resources underscored the importance of sustainable development for the country. Adding that the SDGs are integrated into long term plans and used as a framework to benchmark policies, he spoke about three key shifts Singapore is focusing on to enable sustainable healthcare. “We’ve decided to move from hospital to community...it's far more important to deliver healthcare systems in the community, through primary care and long term care to support the community. Secondly, move beyond quality to value. Instead of just focusing on the quality of care, we should talk about what the patients really want and how we deliver better value to the patients…and lastly, how to move beyond healthcare to health. Rather than just treating the sickness, what we can do to encourage healthy living to avoid sickness?” he said.

Dr Heyzer envisioned a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to sustainable healthcare. “When we talk about who our partners are and who we collaborate with, it can't be state-centric, it cannot depend on the top-down policy approach of states, it has to be a bottom-up approach of empowered citizens and individuals. It has to be not just the state or the government but also the private sector. You have to focus on better business for a better world,” she added.

We have amazing science and incredible technology, we are in the middle of a data and digital transformation and we have very talented people...in our governments, universities, healthcare institutions, industries, social enterprises and global organisations. Think of what could happen if we all came together to reduce the burden of disease.

Ms Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of the UN Development Programme delivered the keynote address on the first day. Ms Clark, who is the first woman to hold these positions, reflected on the global efforts in achieving the SDGs and what has and has not worked. She urged the prioritisation of issues surrounding poverty, hunger, inequality and access to basic healthcare, in an effort to leave no one behind. “We won’t have achieved the SDGs if they are achieved only in zones of peace and prosperity. A failure to extend inclusive and sustainable development to all will continue to have spill-over impacts on the peace, well-being and security of all of us,” she declared.

She emphasised the need for everyone to play a part, from the government to the private sector, communities and consumers, and added that continuing to invest in the rise of women and the youth will lead countries closer to their goals.


From left: Mdm Halimah, NUS Chairman Mr Hsieh Fu Hua and Ms Clark sharing a laugh at the conference’s Gala Dinner

The keynote address on the second day focused on recent paradigm shifts that could impact future health and development systems. Dr Sania Nishtar, co-chair of the High-level Commission on Non-communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization noted the increasing emphasis on human capital, calling it the single most important determinant of long term success. “It is becoming increasingly clear that this digital age requires countries to urgently invest in their people if they hope to compete in the economies of the future,” she said.

Society needs to “step away from business as usual”, added Dr Nishtar. “To change behaviours, what we must change is the design of institutions and the incentive structures. We don't just need standalone solutions and for them to be tested only in demonstration sites. We need solutions deployed in appropriately designed systems with the right incentive structures capable of making the quantum change. We need new standards, new regulatory capacity, and a culture of partnerships as envisaged in SDG17,” she elaborated.


Prof Chan moderating the conference's final roundtable that summarised the key points made over the course of the conference

The final roundtable of the conference brought together Dr Horton; Prof Wong; Professor Mari Pangestu, Former Minister of Trade and Minister of Tourism and Creative Industries of Indonesia; Professor Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology at LSHTM; and Professor Rifat Atun, Director of Global Health Systems Cluster at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to summarise the key ideas and solutions brought up over the course of the conference. The session was moderated by Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NUS Trustee.

Prof Chan commented that a key message was the importance of social intervention. “Agency, I feel, is very important. It’s not what government can do or what technology can do for us.  It’s what we can do for ourselves and how to promote that. The comment that I take away most from the whole session...social interventions are just as important as technological interventions. As a social scientist, I cannot agree with this more. In this world of technology and technology disruptions, of so many new things coming in, how do you help the individual to cope and to find a place?” she elaborated.

Other topics discussed during the Dialogue were the importance of mindfulness in personal health, the impact the deluge of accessible information has on trust in healthcare systems, dealing with inequality, minimum wage, aging with dignity, and the possibility of new value propositions for businesses to focus more on people than profit.