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Singapore must renew its social compact, address inequality amid global challenges: DPM Heng

Singapore must renew its social compact, address inequality amid global challenges: DPM Heng

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the Singapore Summit on Sep 20, 2019.

SINGAPORE: Singapore must address widening inequality, a growing intergenerational divide and deepening political polarisation so its people can weather global challenges together, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday (Sep 20).

These are issues which societies around the world face, and even though Singapore has “so far been spared the full force of these challenges”, the country is not immune to them, Mr Heng warned.

He was speaking at the Singapore Summit, which brings together business and thought leaders from Asia and around the world to discuss perspectives on various issues. It is organised by Temasek Foundation.

Across the world, there has been a “fraying of the social compact that holds societies together”, said Mr Heng. 

Those who feel marginalised have pushed back strongly, there’s been a retreat from globalisation, as well as more populist movements and disenchanted young people, he added, citing examples such as the Brexit referendum, the Hong Kong protests and the Yellow Vest movement in France.

“Unless some of the fundamental tensions across society are resolved, all will find it difficult to weather these (economic) challenges,” said Mr Heng.

“It is therefore important for each society to renew its social compact.”


Sharing Singapore’s experience on tacking a widening inequality, Mr Heng said the country has had to ensure that its economic and social policies go hand in hand, so that people can “work for reward, and be rewarded for work”.

Apart from staying open to opportunities from trade and innovation, Singapore is also committed to investing in education, Mr Heng said, noting recent efforts to boost pre-school education.

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On the other end, efforts are in place to encourage lifelong learning, so that workers can continue to upskill amid the rapidly changing global environment.

“We will make sure that no one is excluded from opportunities because of their backgrounds or circumstances,” Mr Heng said.

“As economic disruption becomes more frequent, people who suffer setbacks will require concerted efforts to get back on track. This is not easy, but if we do this right, we will be able to deliver broad-based progress for our people.”


Providing for inter-generational equity is critical to maintaining the social compact, said Mr Heng, given the varying interests and concerns of different generations.

“When each generation pays for its own spending, it internalises the costs and benefits of the spending. Yet we must also invest in our young, and our young must in turn share the fruits of progress with our seniors,” he added.

This is also why the Government must plan for the long term, said the Deputy Prime Minister, citing investment in infrastructure. There is also a need to tackle climate change, and “act now, before it is too late”, he said.

“For our people, this means an equal commitment to ensuring that future generations have enough to also see through crises and plan for their future.” Mr Heng added.


The third major challenge, Mr Heng said, is the increasing political polarisation seen in many parts of the world.

“Political polarisation is damaging because it pits people against one another and ultimately undermines the cohesion of a country,” he said, adding that technology has exacerbated these divisions by enabling echo chambers, silos and fake news.

Singapore needs to address these issues by broadening the common space and bringing those with opposing views together, said Mr Heng.

He added that the country has safeguarded social cohesion by resisting political pressures to pander to narrow interests, taking instead an inclusive approach to bring together all Singaporeans.

“For instance, we have put in place measures to ensure that race and religion do not divide us. We ensure that there is a good racial mix in our housing estates to avoid segregation. We enacted laws to maintain our racial and religious harmony, and to safeguard the rights of minorities,” Mr Heng said.

He added that Singapore’s tripartite system, where the Government, unions and businesses work hand in hand, has deepened this cohesion and helped pulled the country through difficult times like the global financial crisis.

Still, Mr Heng noted that it will be challenging to maintain this course, as sharpening income and wealth disparity, as well as a society’s diversifying needs could trigger a divide.

He emphasised the importance of letting the younger generation have a stake in shaping the nation’s future, by providing them with opportunities to work with other youths in the world to build a better understanding and commitment for global cooperation.

“These sentiments are consistent with those of young people all around the world, many of whom are demanding a larger role in civic society and the political process,” Mr Heng said.

Source: CNA/gs


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