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Singapore needs to 'future-proof' its society: Chan Chun Sing

At the Economic Society of Singapore dinner, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing said Singapore needs to look at strategies that will enable it to "future-proof" its society for possible challenges ahead.

SINGAPORE: Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing says Singapore's future will be shaped by a combination of social, economic and geopolitical forces, and while it is not clear how these factors will develop in the decades ahead, Singapore needs to look at strategies that will enable it to "future-proof" its society for the possible challenges ahead. For instance - how to contribute back to the country, leveraging Singapore's strong brand, and developing the right social compact and values.

Mr Chan was speaking at the annual Economic Society of Singapore dinner on Thursday evening (Aug 7). It was attended by policy makers, economists, businessmen, bankers and academicians.

He said the aim of the exercise was not to predict the future but to think about the fundamentals that Singapore needs to put in place. Mr Chan said relations between the US and China will be one of the most important geopolitical issues facing Asia and Singapore. And if competition between the two major powers intensifies in the years ahead, this could impact the future of countries in the region. To this end, he said much depends on the Chinese and American leadership to find a common ground.

Closer to home, Mr Chan said that Singapore also faces the challenge of developing a constructive and complementary relationship with its closest and fast-growing neighbours - Indonesia and Malaysia. He added that if Singapore is unable to create value and lose its strategic weight, it could easily be marginalised.

Domestically, Mr Chan cited challenges such as balancing immigration and integration with the creation of opportunities for Singaporeans. He said how well the country integrates new immigrants will determine its ability to forge a forward-looking and inclusive national identity. Mr Chan also offered some strategies to tackle these issues.

He stressed the importance of being connected to the world, but also getting Singaporeans to stay rooted to home, and contribute back to the society. Leveraging on its brand in terms of standards, law and trust, is another key strategy. This would enable Singapore to use its competitive advantage to stand out amid global competition.

"When I was young, I travel past Serangoon Road everyday on my way to school. I was always very intrigued why Indian tourists came to Singapore to buy gold from India. Recently, I was very tickled when someone told me that the pharmacies in Changi Airport were doing a roaring business. I did not understand. Could it be that there were so many transit passengers that fall sick in the short time that they are with us? Actually, both of these episodes demonstrate the faith that people have in our standards and systems. And strangely, it allows us to make a living," said Mr Chan.

But he said he believes that these successes can only be achieved with the right social compact and values, that would allow the country to adapt and compete globally. These include leadership, openness, meritocracy, cohesion and resilience.

"Darwin said that only the fittest will survive. But fitness is not just about strength but more about the speed of adaptation. To adapt fast, we must be open to ideas and talent. Ideas and talent are attracted to systems that protect and reward them." 

Mr Chan said resilience in both individuals and systems will help Singapore chart its direction in an uncertain future. 

After his speech, Mr Chan also fielded questions from participants, including one on last year's Population White Paper, and the eventual population size that Singapore can manage. Mr Chan says the focus should not be on the number, but on whether society can adapt to the make-up of the population and any foreigners brought in to meet manpower demands.

"It is not a given that we can or cannot manage six million. Much depends on us. But we also know that it must be at a pace that our society can accept. What I am more concerned with is not just how many people we bring in. What I am most concerned with is how fast we are able to make sure that our middle-income group can compete for those jobs that their level of expertise, skills can be used to replace the people that we brought in because we don't have those skills today," explained Mr Chan. 

"There are some industries which we don't have the critical mass yet, so we brought in some of them, the question is how fast we can train our people and incentivise these companies to train up our people so that we reduce our dependence on them."

Responding to another question, Mr Chan also said the Government will always seek to do more to address issues such as public transportation, long-term care for the elderly, and unemployment. But the question is, he said: How to do it better?

"Let's say housing, as an example - we can pat ourselves on the back and say, 'Well, most Singaporeans have a roof over their heads.' And in most societies, there will be those that struggle. Then the question for us is not whether we give them a roof over their head. The question in the social sector side is how to help them stand on their feet again."

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