Debate on President’s Address – Sylvia Lim

Exceptional Nation – An Empowered Nation

In his address, the President asked Singaporeans to progress as an “exceptional nation, with a thriving economy, and a caring and inclusive society”.

This aspirational statement bears examination. What is an “exceptional nation”?

SG50 has come and gone. 2015 also saw the passing of our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee is widely regarded as an exceptional man. But to be an exceptional nation takes more than an exceptional leader. It is akin to organisations. Any organization that cannot sustain its performance after the departure of a particular CEO cannot call itself a great organisation.

The current economic climate seems dire, with some analysts predicting that it would deteriorate further, and hoping it will not be as bad as post-Lehman period of 2008. The major stock markets continue to dive, including the STI Index. China’s growth has slowed down, affecting many countries especially Singapore. Worldwide, jobs are being cut, with Singapore as no exception. There is weak demand for office space, with vacancy rates here expected to be in the double-digits this year (BT Jan 23-24, 2016).

“Exceptional Nation” Not By Bread Alone

Amidst this climate, what does it take to be an exceptional nation? The government has laid out its Addenda to the President’s Address, setting out in broad strokes some of its plans. We will debate them in the coming days.

For my speech today, I would like to focus on the role of the people of Singapore in building an exceptional nation.

According to World Bank data, Singapore in 2014 had a GDP per capita of about USD 56,000 or S$70,000, making us apparently one of the richest countries in the world. Of course, this aggregated figure at the national level is no measure of wealth distribution among citizens, and no indication of inequalities that exist. I have spoken in the past about the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of the people’s well-being, and I believe that is clearly accepted in many developed countries. Neither is a high GDP per capita a measure of how committed a population is to the country.

In my past teaching career and travels, I have encountered people from countries far less wealthy than ours, countries whose GDP per capita is about 1,000 USD or less. What strikes me is that even though the international community may laugh at them or even use their countries as negative case studies, the people have a strong commitment and passion to their home. When natural disaster strikes, the people use their own resources and energy to help each other, knowing that they have to take the initiative. Should there be a border incursion by a neighbouring country, the people are up in arms and willing to fight with whatever outdated weapons and ammunition they have, to ensure that not one inch of their soil is given up. To me, these are exceptional displays of love of country, of passion for their country that money cannot buy. Fundamentally, these citizens strongly believe in their ability to make a difference, and that it is up to them to make their countries stronger.

About twenty years ago, in a speech to the Singapore Press Club, Mr Lee Kuan Yew expressed sadness that a young Singaporean had considered emigration because she could not fulfil her dream of owning a house and a car. “Man does not live by bread alone”, he said, quoting that famous Biblical phrase. Dreams should move beyond material wants. He recalled that when he first set out as a young man, he had a “Singapore dream”, a dream that Singapore would be “a democratic society, keen and vibrant, a united people”. (7 June 1996).

Madam, a nation cannot be exceptional by bread alone. Its people should have dreams for the country, a vision of what the country should be, and the gumption to go out and realize that vision. They must believe that they are the ones who can move the country higher, and be unafraid to take risks, even if they should fail. An exceptional nation should have a people whose DNA is being unafraid to fail.

Empowering a Nation to Dream

What then can be done to unleash Singaporeans’ potential to dream and be agents of change?

To foster a climate that supports dreaming big would require a thorough examination of a Singaporean’s life cycle – how children are brought up, what role models society celebrates, safety nets for failure, and the extent of citizen empowerment. Today I would like to touch on just two areas that I believe are worth looking into:

(a) Aspects of our education system

(b) Scaling back government in non-core government functions

Our Education System

Over the years, our education system has been a social leveler, and a key to social mobility. It is important for us to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds continue to have equal access to education opportunities in Singapore.

The government has stated that it is making efforts to ensure that our students’ experience is holistic. For instance, it has announced that schools will move to “reduce excessive focus” on examination results. However, in a somewhat conflicting move last month (December 2015), after the release of the PSLE results, MOE issued a directive to schools to no longer consider appeals for transfer from students who did not meet the PSLE T score cut-off for entry into the school. This sends a signal to parents that academic results are still THE most important criteria for progression within the system. Parents will continue to pressure children to achieve academic scores over and above all else. Students will be hard-pressed to spend more time to pursue other interests against society’s pressures.

Madam, it is assessment that drives student behaviour. If we accept that, then I believe our education system could still produce Singaporeans who can dream and chase rainbows, if we fundamentally review the way students are assessed. If we want Singaporeans to be able to dream, our assessments should nurture a spirit of exploration, and encourage students to think out of the box and to have differing opinions. To ensure the message is not diluted, such an approach should not be just in one or two subjects, but be a pervasive and consistent theme throughout our assessment system.

For instance, could our educators be required to give credit for answers that do not regurgitate what has been taught? Instead of only rewarding students who give the right or ‘model’ answers, can extra credit be given to students who give alternative solutions or different approaches to questions posed? Granted, each subject is different and what is possible would vary from subject to subject. The last thing we should do is to blindly mark a student down because his or her answer does not conform exactly to the expected answer. That has been happening, and is the surest way to discourage creative thinking.

As dreams also carry the risk of failure, students should also learn that some things may be worth doing even if one fails. The school syllabus should highlight case studies of persons who failed to achieve what they set out to do, to appreciate why certain endeavours are important even if the outcome is uncertain.

Madam, our education system plays a vital role in nurturing Singaporeans from young. If we believe we need a different mould of Singaporeans to face the future compared to the past, our education system must support these goals.

Scaling back government in non-core government functions

The PAP government has been in power for more than 50 years. Our civil service has known no other governing party. Over these five decades, the governing party has established strong connections within the public sector and outside. A power network is in place. The government’s presence is felt in practically every aspect of life.

Singaporeans want a strong government. However, even the government understands that there must be “stabilisers” and “checks and balances” in the system.

It is not sufficient to talk about letting alternative views be “articulated” and “taken into consideration”. Singaporeans must feel that they can make a difference. In other words, our citizens should be free to have a vision for Singapore and to be a mover to achieve that vision.

To truly empower citizens, there must be real power centres outside the government – in local enterprises, in the private sector, in civil society, in the people sector, so as to effectively check and work with the government.

Lately, the government has been using the phrase “collaborative governance”, referring to a collaboration between the public sector and the private and people sectors. For true collaboration, no partner should be dominant. The Government needs to let go and devolve more power first, so that there is real and meaningful collaborative partnership among equals.

Singaporeans should be given more voice and more say in the running of their lives and society.

To this end, the government should re-examine and reduce its presence in matters which are not core government functions. For a start, there are government nominees on the boards of professional bodies and sports groups. Is there a need for the government to nominate persons to such bodies, instead of leaving the organisations to manage their own affairs?


Madam Speaker, Singapore is facing a different world today compared to the founding years. While in the past we could get far by being technically competent and hardworking, today’s ever-changing world requires a people who are visionary, adaptable, resilient, and empowered.

Singapore is our Home, and Singaporeans must take ownership of it. Empowered Singaporeans will not blame others when the going gets tough, but will face difficulties squarely, with an unwavering faith that they can be overcome.