SINGAPORE: If Singapore strengthens its social compact, it can turn challenges into opportunities, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Jun 28).
"We can find the silver lining in whatever comes our way. We can be a bastion of stability and opportunity in this world, and leave behind a better Singapore for tomorrow," he said.
Mr Wong was speaking at the launch of the year-long Forward Singapore exercise, which aims to "refresh and update" Singapore's social compact. It will be led by Mr Wong and the fourth generation, or 4G, leadership team. In April, Mr Wong was named as the leader of the 4G leadership team, paving the way for him to become the country's next Prime Minister.
He said Singapore is "at a crossroads" in its journey.
The world around Singapore and Singapore's own society has changed and will continue to change, he added.
"So we know in our guts it cannot be business-as-usual. For the stable state of affairs we now enjoy can easily be disrupted," said Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister.
"And if our social compact fails, a large segment of Singaporeans will come to feel estranged from the rest of society, believing the system is not on their side.
"Trust in the Government and among various segments of society will plummet. Politics will turn nasty and polarised. We will become a low-trust society like so many others in Asia and Europe, and Singapore will surely fracture."
Singapore had expected a strong recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic but has flown into stronger headwinds, said Mr Wong.
The war in Europe is fuelling global inflation, and a possible recession, if not stagnation, he added.
"We face rising geopolitical tensions, especially between the US and China, disrupting supply chains and ushering in a more dangerous and bifurcated world."
Singapore also has to deal with domestic social trends with long-term consequences, said Mr Wong. This includes a rapidly ageing population, a concern that social mobility is slowing, and mounting anxieties about being displaced by others.
"These are very real fears in our stressful society. The fear of not doing well enough, of being left behind," said the Deputy Prime Minister.
In his speech, Mr Wong said he understood these concerns.
"Our students feel pigeon-holed in a system where the stakes are high from very early in their lives. Our graduates and workers are anxious about their careers and worry they will be priced out of the property market," he added.
Older workers sometimes struggle to be considered for new jobs after being displaced or retrenched, he said.
"Sometimes, those who do not meet the traditional yardsticks of merit may find opportunities closed to them. They may feel beaten down by early failure, and feel discouraged from trying again.
"I know these are genuine struggles that our people face, perhaps more so today than in the past. I hope we will have honest conversations about these concerns and how we can tackle them together."
The Forward Singapore exercise will consider some questions to focus the 4G leadership's efforts, said Mr Wong.
"How can we do more to equip and empower our people, whatever their starting point in life, and ensure everyone is able to maximise their potential?" he added.
"How can we as a society better assure Singaporeans and better care for their needs in this volatile and unpredictable world?"
The team must also consider how to build "an even better home" and steward shared environmental and financial resources to meet the needs of Singaporeans of today and of the future, with an increasing demand on resources, said Mr Wong.
"And finally, how might we unite our people and foster a greater sense of shared ownership and responsibility, so we can all pull together as one to take Singapore forward?"
The Forward Singapore exercise will build on the ideas gathered from other engagements in recent years, like the Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations, and the Conversations on Women's Development.
The Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations were launched in June 2020 by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat to collect ideas from Singapore residents about taking the country forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Heng had been expected to become the next Prime Minister, but announced in April last year that he was stepping aside as leader of the 4G team.
HOW THE ECONOMY IS RUN
Mr Wong addressed how Singapore's social compact might evolve in four areas.
The Forward Singapore exercise will examine how Singapore's economy is run, and "whether the system benefits all or just the few", he added.
"We have long relied on open and free markets to grow the economy. And that must remain the case, for it is by staying open to investments and talent from around the world that we create wealth, keep our economy innovative and vibrant, and thus provide better opportunities and good jobs for Singaporeans," said Mr Wong.
"But we also know that left unchecked, the workings of the free market can lead to excessive competition and rising inequalities.
"And that's why we have always tempered extreme market outcomes and resisted a winner-takes-all economic regime."
SYSTEM OF MERITOCRACY
In his speech, Mr Wong also noted that Singapore's system of meritocracy is "still the best way" to organise society.
"Because it encourages people to strive to make the best use of the opportunities available to them, and preserves upward mobility," he added.
"After all, if we do not reward on merit, then what other alternatives do we have? Surely, we can't do so on the basis of connections, just because I know someone, or networks or worse, social pedigrees."
However, meritocracy has its downsides, said the Deputy Prime Minister.
For example, the rich can give their children more opportunities, and those who have succeeded by their merit naturally seek to pass on their advantages to their children by any means possible, he added.
"So there's a risk of privilege being entrenched across generations," said Mr Wong.
"We cannot abandon meritocracy, but I believe we can improve it and make ours a more open and compassionate meritocracy."
As a society, people in Singapore must learn to value the contributions of every worker in every profession and field, said Mr Wong, describing this as "the most important change".
"This means respecting all, including those in lower-income jobs, who keep society going in so many ways," he added.
"Let us all recognise them, treat them with dignity and respect, treat them kindly, never turn up our noses at anyone, and pay them well," said the Deputy Prime Minister.
"This is my deepest belief. I hope to see a society and a system that benefits many, not a few, that rewards a wide variety of talents, not a conventional or narrow few, that values and celebrates all individuals for who they are and what they can achieve, and provides all with opportunities to do better throughout their lives."
New forces of technological and economic disruptions call for Singapore to rethink if current assurances are adequate, said Mr Wong.
As a society, Singapore must do more to provide "greater assurance" for fellow Singaporeans, he added.
"Every Singaporean must know and feel that they will not be left to fend for themselves when times are hard," said the Deputy Prime Minister.
"And that's why we will study how we can do more to help our workers tide over difficult times, and how we can provide better care for our growing number of seniors."
All this will require more resources, and Singapore must also determine how much more the Government should spend and on what, said Mr Wong.
It must also consider how much more people are prepared to pay to fund this spending.
"Beyond that, we must also consider how families, corporates and the community can complement what the Government is doing."
"Some things should not, cannot, can never change, like our fundamental principle of multi-racialism," Mr Wong said.
"Our diversity is a source of strength, but it also requires constant adjustments to make sure we get the balance right, to progressively expand our common space, while allowing each community as much room as possible to go about its way of life."
A strong social compact must provide "not just for this generation's needs but it must also provide across generations", said the Deputy Prime Minister.
"We are fortunate to have inherited a well-endowed Singapore. And for this we owe it to the foresight and prudence of past generations," he said, adding that it is a "sacred duty" not to squander it.
"If we were to use up more than our fair share of fiscal resources, or to neglect taking care of the environment, our children and future generations will end up paying the price. They will be left with bigger challenges down the road," said Mr Wong.
"So even as we tackle the challenges of today, we must consider the needs of tomorrow. The social compact we forge must be one that is fair and equitable across generations."