Debate on President’s Address – Low Thia Khiang


Madam Speaker, the President asked an important question that should concern all Singaporeans in the next decade, “How do we ensure our island-nation remains a shining red dot, so that our children and grandchildren will thrive?”

In the last 50 years, the question that has occupied us was different, it was how to make sure our small island state and our multiracial people will survive an unforgiving and hostile world. Our solution has been to discipline ourselves and to make sacrifices under a strong one-party top-down rule to guide the development of the economy and society.

National institutions were built and tied closely to the PAP so that the leaders could steer the ship in the direction they thought best and everyone else was not to rock the boat.

Times have changed. We are now a globalized society with a well-educated people. We are now seeking to ensure our children will thrive, not just survive. The ship model has to change. Singaporeans are aspiring to set sail on their own to fulfill their aspirations, many have become leaders in their field. Global conditions are now very different, we need to be nimble and experiment as a country to search and seize the hidden opportunities in the next industrial revolution. We cannot simply rely on a group of so-called super talents in government steering society from high above.

For Singapore to continue to shine as a red dot, the people of Singapore must shine, Singaporeans must shine if Singapore is to chart our own path. The red dot will no longer be red if its people turn pale in the face of challenges or when face with intimidation. Hence, nurturing a confident Singaporean people is the way to ensure that our children and grandchildren will thrive.

Empowering Confident Singaporeans

I believe the government’s SkillsFuture programme contains the DNA for empowering confident Singaporeans. What is this DNA? First, it is all-inclusive and does not discriminate on the basis of household background, income and employment status, educational attainment or age.

Second, it trusts individual Singaporeans to be the ones who know themselves best and have the wisdom to know where they should head to next in life. The government takes a step back and only provides counselors to help those who want advice to help them decide.

Third, it does not measure value in the narrow terms of economic value-add and caters to people’s passion and interests. It has been said that one could even use the SkillsFuture credits to improve one’s skills in calligraphy.

Fourth, it exemplifies what some analysts call a nudge policy instead of the usual carrot-and-stick approach favored by the government. A nudge policy is said to be more effective for today’s modern citizens and does not mean less or weaker government. Although the $500 SkillsFuture Credit is not a big sum, many people are exploring ways to use the Credit. The Credit is nudging Singaporeans to engage in lifelong learning.

Fifth, and most importantly, the whole policy is focused on empowering Singaporeans, instead of trying to direct or steer them to fit into the planned economy or the needs of corporations.

Empowering Singaporeans’ future is something the Workers’ Party will fully agree with.

Madam, SkillsFuture is not enough. If we want to empower confident Singaporeans, this policy DNA – all-inclusive, trusting Singaporeans, seeing value broadly, nudging, and empowering Singaporeans’ future – should be applied to many other policy areas.

It should be applied to at least the schools and the SME sector. These two are important and also because they are related to SkillsFuture. If the graduates of our schools are not self-driven and unafraid to take risks to pursue their interests, then SkillsFuture will become meaningless over time.

It would also be a terrible waste of synergy if SkillsFuture helps Singaporeans to be more enterprising but the lack of funding and business opportunities, as well as high operating costs continue to hamper the growth of SME sector.

In the schools, we need to nurture the thirst for learning and to revamp the syllabus and assessment methods so that we won’t kill the natural curiosity of children. In the last few years, we have been discussing educational reforms in terms of reducing the stress on children.

I think we might have been wrong in focusing on the symptoms of the problem. Empowering our students to think critically and creatively and to solve complex problems can also be stressful, but it will be a rewarding and fulfilling kind of stress.

We have also been emphasizing too much on cohesion as a value in schools and have not appreciated the importance of diversity, differences and even dissent for cultivating critical thinking and creativity in schools. Our curriculum and culture in schools should avoid influencing our students to think in narrow practical terms, and not in relation to their interests and passion. Graduates of our schools should have a strong sense of self-driven purpose with the right values of tolerance and respect for diversity and differences.

Although the ASPIRE Report is the correct road map, we have a long road ahead to redefine our long-ingrained notion of success from the focus on material gains and academic achievements to the pursuit of passion and happiness and the possession of different kinds of skills.

Right Politics as Insurance

I agree with the President that we need to get our politics right. But while empowering confident Singaporeans is the way for us to ensure our shining red dot stays brilliant, getting our politics right is the way for us to insure against bad government and the failure of governance.

The outcome of good politics is not just good policy and ensuring no gridlock. That would be a narrow technocratic view of politics. The outcome of good politics is the fostering of a political system that is able to withstand shock and turbulence, including the unexpected collapse or slow corruption of the ruling party, to ensure the continuity of the nation as a united people. Such a resilient political system must be able to make adjustment in the face of adversity.

How should we do good politics to produce a resilient political system and a confident nation? I believe the same principles making up the policy DNA for SkillsFuture are pertinent.

First, our politics must be all-inclusive. National interest should be defined by consensus and the narrative should not be shaped and monopolized by the ruling party. The government should recognize that there are many ongoing and independent national conversations and should allow for differences in opinions to flourish without marking these conversations as disloyal and divisive.

Second, our politics must be nudging instead of censoring. We should not be afraid of narrow interest-based politics, which I do not think we can avoid. In fact, if we look at SkillsFuture, it leverages on the so-called narrow interests of individual Singaporeans to pursue the collective good.

Instead of rejecting narrow interest-based politics altogether, we need to nudge Singaporeans with narrow political interests to talk to each other. We should take such discussion as an educational process for Singaporeans to learn and to discern what is politics for the collective good of the nation and society. We should not design a system of shutting out discussion based on assumption that it is interest-based and narrow.

Third, our politics must trust Singaporeans to be independent, rational and wise social actors. The government and the ruling party must be able to let go and allow the building of independent institutions trusted by the people regardless of race, language, religion and political affiliation.

Our universities are a case in point. For a while, they were tightly controlled for fear of their political influence. But since they were released and their autonomy protected, we can be proud of our universities today for achieving world-class status. Today, our academics could disagree and criticize the government and a few have even join alternative political parties to contribute to the national debate and in politics. Our political system has not been destabilized as a result.

Fourth, our politics must see value in the broadest sense. The outcome of good politics is not to ensure no gridlock.

Excessive fears of political gridlock will lead to a society depending on only one political party, waiting for it to rot to the point of no return before any alternative party can be formed to take its place. We must see value in having alternative parties around and having the opportunities to develop.

Alternative parties are valuable because they are insurance to any collapse or failure of the existing ruling party. We cannot expect a political party to transform itself into a credible alternative party overnight. If this government truly believes in preserving this shiny red dot, then the onus is on it to build a political system conducive to the growth of alternative parties as well as the renewal of the ruling party. Political value must not be narrowly construed and concentrated in one political party. That is too dangerous for a small state such as ours.

Chasing the Pledge

In all this talk about the future, SkillsFuture, Right Politics for FutureSg, we must not forget our foundational ideals enshrined in our national pledge – to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew said “in 1966 my colleagues and I settled the words of our pledge. We did not focus on our navel or we would have missed that rainbow in the sky.”

Madam, no other nation in Asia has such lofty and progressive ideals, and it would be an injustice to the memory of our founding leaders and pioneer generation if we do not chase this ideal and keep focusing on the PAP navel instead.

Singapore needs to choose and make our own destiny, but we cannot depend on one political party or the government for charting and directing our path, if we are to be not just an exceptional, but an outstanding nation that is example to all in Asia.