Debate on President’s Address – Leon Perera

Madam speaker, it is my privilege to address this House today. It is not a privilege I take lightly.

I shall speak today on the subject of national unity and specifically what ideas and values we should unite around.

My starting point is the reaction to the results of GE2015. One keynote quickly emerged from some quarters. It was said that the results showed that we were “one united people.”

Madam speaker, I find that casting the election result as a badge of national unity is deeply unhelpful for our nation-building. It suggests that what unites us as Singaporeans is our support for one political party.

I am sure that most Singaporeans believe that what unites us is not that. Madam Speaker, real unity should be built to last, it should be built on a sterner stuff. Real unity recognizes that the different voices and the debate among them is precisely what makes Singapore stronger. Singing with one voice is neither proof of unity nor is it conducive to real unity.

What unites us is our shared heritage, our shared values and our common hopes for the future.

Our bedrock as a nation should lie not only in the trust between government and people. Our bedrock should be the trust we have in one another, our collective sense of self-worth and national purpose. This will outlast any government and any party and is a firmer foundation on which to build our nation.

To me, there is no more eloquent statement of what defines us than the Singapore Pledge that our children recite every day at school. There is no point asking our children to do this if we don’t fashion our institutions around the values that it enshrines.

The Pledge enjoins us to be “one united people” but united in building a “democratic society based on justice and equality.”

Some say that the Pledge enshrines abstract principles. Yes it does. But are we a people who do not hew to any abstract principles? Are we a people who only recognize purchasing power as the touchstone of progress? Surely not.

Madam Speaker, the Pledge gives us principles but to concretize those principles, I will argue that we can unite around two major themes that will build the Singapore story on strong foundations for the 21st century.

The first is a “confident Singapore.” The second is what I call a “big Singapore”, a Singapore where not only the state is strong but non-state actors are strong and influential in steering our course as well.

Today our economy faces major headwinds, as many members have noted. Such challenges are likely to recur in the 21st century. This is because we have already picked all the low hanging fruit of economic growth.

Future growth in the 21st century, as a developed economy in an increasingly competitive and globalized world, may not come from pursuing exactly the same economic development strategies that got us to where we are.

Madam Speaker, what should unite us at this time is the same thing that will secure our long-term economic future as a developed economy. And that is to build a confident citizenry and a confident base of local companies.

Confident citizens are not so worried about the cost of living, or their ability to retire or afford property or afford to have children, that they cannot take risks or make career choices with longer-term pay-offs. Confident citizens would dare to switch industries, to start a business, to take time out from working to re-skill or further their education.

Confident companies would not be so insecure about future business costs and rentals that they cannot invest in big bets about the future, or secure funding to do so.

A confident citizenry and companies would drive productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Confident Singaporeans would not only want to work for MNCs but to found their own MNCs.

Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party has proposed several measures to foster confidence among Singaporean citizens and companies.

We should continually strengthen our risk-pooling, social safety nets and management of the cost of living.

Insecurity about the risks and costs that lie in the future holds back risk-taking and breeds short-termism.

We should cherish social mobility, take steps to enhance it and measure it regularly.

We should do more to ensure retirement adequacy. Right now many Singaporeans who reach their draw down age have little or nothing to withdraw from their CPF whereas the CPF Life pay-outs they will receive are insufficient to retire on. If Singaporeans fear retirement, they will not make confident choices that a 21st century economy needs them to make.

We should do more to groom our local companies to become world leaders and form a strong third engine of economic growth, alongside MNCs and government-linked companies.

The Workers’ Party has called for a National Secretariat to bring a whole of government approach to this critically important task for our nation’s economy, together with a raft of other measures that not only provide government support and help SMEs to manage costs, but also help to nudge SMEs towards greater productivity, by way of setting long-term productivity targets and enabling them to benchmark their own productivity performance within their industries.

Lastly we should look at our education system when talking about confident Singapore. Is our education geared to producing leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs? Or are our students focused more on content mastery at the expense of cultivating soft skills like leadership, problem-solving, initiative, communication skills and confidence? It is said that in Singapore a child raises his hand only when she is 100% sure she has the right answer whereas in Silicon Valley a child would do so even if she was not completely sure. Are we nurturing Singaporeans who have enough self-worth and self-esteem to make confident choices?

Madam Speaker, what is a sunrise or sunset industry will change, and change more frequently, as the 21st century meanders on. Confident Singaporean citizens and companies will be able to seize opportunities in any new sectors that emerge.

But when we talk about future-ready economic sectors, we should not forget those sectors where Singapore’s small size and high population density force us to develop expertise. We have developed technologies in water recycling and management due to our water scarcity.

In the same vein, we should consider becoming pioneers in the fields of indoor urban agriculture and urban as well as offshore solar power generation, which bolster our food and energy security. We should explore using underground space for indoor farming and optimizing rooftop and maritime options for solar power generation, thereby developing potentially exportable know-how and IP.

Some would say Singapore is already confident enough. I disagree. In my grassroots work in EC and Aljunied GRCs, I see many residents who feel insecure and in some cases overwhelmed by the COL, the challenges of retirement and by fears about whether their children can afford housing.

The second theme we should unite around is that of a big Singapore. A Singapore that is not dominated by a very strong state but one where non-state actors are also strong, confident and influential. Here I refer to the private sector, civil society, alternative political parties and citizens themselves.

How can we face the future as a developed country if we are dominated by a very powerful state that is in turn dominated by an entrenched single political party? This structure creates too much dependence on a small group of people. The risk is too high. When the leadership core comes overwhelmingly from one kind of career background – life-long civil servants – the risk becomes far greater.

Madam Speaker, I respect our civil service and the civil servants who have devoted their careers to serving the needs of the people. But to have a core leadership that has very few with any other kind of career profile – that opens up the danger of groupthink, self-rationalization and self-congratulation.

Recently, some individuals in the Arts Engage network of Singaporeans artists commented, in an op-ed piece, that there were “cases of works censored to protect the Government from embarrassment rather than for society’s good.” They said: “Singapore has yet to achieve the ideal of “arm’s length funding” where public money is given out by an independent, non-government body.”

We have some degree of public debate involving scholars and public intellectuals. But we need more civil society bodies that take on the role of policy debate and advocacy.

And what of our politics? In GE2015, it was said that voting for the Opposition went against human nature because it was human nature to thank a party for good policies.

There is something else that is more or less predictable about human nature, in my opinion. When too much power becomes entrenched in one party or group of persons or individuals, inevitably that power breeds complacency and a tendency to be self-serving. It is only a matter of time.

There is another argument for diversity and debate. If policy ideas are not tested in open and public debate, not only in Parliament but outside Parliament, there will be less public understanding and buy-in to the thinking behind policy-making. This will make it harder for us to truly move as one.

And yet we came close to having no elected Opposition MPs in this house. With a Parliamentary super-majority for one party, what is the greater danger facing Singapore in the longer-term – that of gridlock, a word we frequently hear? Or that of the non-existence of any viable alternative party other than the ruling party?

Madam Speaker, we must celebrate diversity of views, debate and disagreement – this must start in our schools and carry forward into this Parliamentary chamber, and to all social spaces in between. We must celebrate debate and disagreement as the best way to test ideas. We must learn to agree to disagree without branding one who disagrees with us as our enemy or as someone who has disrespected us.

This is real unity. This is real respect.
Let us debate and disagree but remain united as Singaporeans. That’s real unity worth fighting for.

Let us not forget that in 2019 we face another anniversary – 200 years of Singapore’s existence as a modern society.

Madam Speaker, I believe that a Confident Singapore and a Big Singapore can stand the test of time.

And if we focus on the longer term, there is one way in which Singapore can be a beacon to the world, there is one purpose which can serve to focus our hearts and minds in the 21st century.

The Singapore glass is half full.

We have done well with civil service, government efficiency, urban planning.

However we have not done as well in fostering strong non-state actors and institutions to balance a strong state.

We can be an example to countries around the world of how efficiency in government, economic and urban planning can be combined with democracy, balanced politics, active citizenship and an active civil society and private sector. We can show the world how a country can be vibrant economically while having a vibrant political life and a deep sense of belonging.

At SG51 and staring out at SG100, which I will almost certainly not live to see but our children will, I can think of no better mission for the country that we love. With that, I support the motion.

Thank you.