On the President’s Address – Speech by Leon Perera

Mr Speaker sir, in my maiden speech in Parliament over seven years ago, I argued that the Singapore glass is half full. While there are always areas for improvement, we have done well with governmental efficiency and urban planning relative to other countries. 

However, back then I said that we have not done as well in fostering strong non-state actors and institutions to balance a strong state. And, I would add now, we have not done as well in fostering a strong sense of participation in our democracy; a sense that we can speak out and if needed disagree with the dominant narrative, with our views actually having a chance to make a difference.  

An article by Tan and Preece in the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics Dec 2022 reads “We find that mechanisms of diagonal accountability related to media and civil society have declined. Vertical and horizontal accountability remains weak…”  Published research from the book “The Wellbeing of Singaporeans” by Tambyah, Tan and Kay in 2010 reaches similar conclusions. They cite survey data to show that 56% of Singaporeans agree with the statement that generally speaking, people like me don’t have the power to influence government policy or actions, while another 23% are neutral. Only 20% disagree.

Countries that succeed in drawing strong participation in democracy will be more successful in fostering a confident populace, a people who deeply feel that this is my country, my home, a place where my voice counts for something, a place I will sacrifice to defend.

We all want Singapore to be a country where everyone feels that they have a chance at realizing their full potential and giving life to their dreams. A place where tomorrow can be better than today, for ourselves and even more so for our children and grand-children. Not a place where many cannot even envisage a better tomorrow; not a place where economic pressures and ever intensifying competition from school to workplace lead to ever greater stratification in living conditions, social capital and social standing.

Sir, the first part of my speech will examine how we can cultivate an active citizenry while keeping politics and political discourse fair, vibrant and constructive.

The second part of my speech will address how we can build economic optimism, so as to create a virtuous cycle of economic dynamism.

The third part of my speech will suggest “a Singapore model” that can be a beacon for the region  and also a bulwark against attempts by great powers to suborn or divide us.

Part 1 – Politics and Political Discourse

Firstly, on politics and political discourse. President Halimah’s speech called for “an active citizenry” and “a passionate civil society”.

She also spoke of the importance of avoiding political polarization and gridlock, having trust between “our political leadership and people” and keeping political discourse respectful and rational.

Such calls are not new. But as I reflected on this, I found that my unease was captured in a public comment from former media editor and academic Bertha Henson. I will quote an excerpt here:

“I am always bemused when I hear politicians warning Singaporeans against such “polarisation’’. Our politics is nowhere as partisan. We do not have a two-party system (yet?) nor a civil society which will take to the streets. Yet we hear about divisive politics as though we are teetering on the edge of an abyss….I don’t think we should be guarding against “divisive politics’’ but “mono-politics’’: That there is only one narrative, one view and it must necessarily be the right or the best perspective – unless you don’t trust me. That is too tall an order for any citizen to submit to.”

Let’s unpack and interrogate some of these assumptions in what I term the dominant narrative.

Firstly, do we want an active citizenry that feels that it is worth participating in politics by speaking out, listening, caring and getting involved in political discourse versus just retreating into private life? I think we should and I hope all Hon members want that. 

If we take that ideal seriously, we should never treat differences of opinion as necessarily equivalent to polarization. 

Polarization happens only if some groups of people oppose others for the sake of opposing and not in a reasonable, fair-minded way. Polarization happens only if vindictiveness and tribalism trump thoughtfulness and basic human decency.

Secondly, disagreement and agreeing to disagree does not imply disrespect. One can disagree with respect, courtesy and decency. It seems that everyone nowadays welcomes that well-worn phrase “robust debate”. But we do sometimes hear in this House that the other side has not explained the trade-offs properly and therefore was being dishonest in some sense. 

During very major recent debates in this House, the Opposition explained how there were alternatives to a GST hike that would slow the rate of growth of reserves; and that there were alternatives to a housing eco-system based on the promise of asset appreciation, and that these alternatives would lead to some weakening in the resale market. 

Were those trade-offs denied, hidden, glossed over? No. The trade-offs were explained.  

I think in our political discourse and even in our debates in this House, we should strive to treat Members’ views, other parties’ views fairly and accept when there is a philosophic or ideological difference, call it what you will, rather than being too quick to label the other side as disingenuous. Such labels can affect the tone of discourse in the wider society, if alternative ideas become demonized or labelled uncharitably.  Rather than chip away at trust in the Opposition with such labels, the government should focus on explaining why it disagrees with the Opposition.

Thirdly, on the need to keep political discourse rational. I don’t think anyone would disagree with this. 

However, to have rational political discourse, we need transparency of information. We don’t always get this. There are many examples of Parliamentary questions that do not elicit the information requested, without an explanation as to why that is the case.  Sometimes outcomes of public consultation are not made public. There is a great deal of public opinion surveying done by the government, some of it through opinion sensing agencies like Rysense, for example. Not all of this is made available for public scrutiny and debate. 

Lastly, I come to the oft-repeated call for trust in government. I think trust in the independent institutions of the state is a very good thing, where it is warranted. 

But should the public blindly trust the government as in the political leadership, regardless of whether relevant information has been shared; regardless of what the government says or does?  Surely not. That goes against the active citizenry which the President’s speech referred to. 

Some speak of a democracy of deeds. But surely, we don’t want a citizenry that is active in deeds but blind, apathetic or timid in thinking. Such a citizenry may engage in the wrong deeds.

And to trust the government – does that mean that, since the government and Opposition sometimes disagree and not, hopefully, irrationally; does that mean that it is right that the public distrust the Opposition? Surely not. 

We should not strive for a political landscape where the public innately trusts the government but innately distrusts the Opposition or vice versa. If any member disagrees with this, please make your views known later. 

We should strive for a politically educated, engaged populace that accords trust based on facts and evidence from independent institutions that function as intended.

What can we do to strengthen everyone’s confidence that we have an open society, where citizens can and should care, listen, understand and debate policies? How can we make everyone believe that there is a more level playing field for ideas, and not primarily one dominant narrative that you would do well not to challenge? 

In the interest of time, I will suggest just a few ideas, which WP MPs have expanded on in previous debates in this House. 

  1. Delink the People’s Association from the ruling political party. The current system creates a sense that state resources are invested in promoting the government’s thinking and the ruling party’s politicians, which unlevels the playing field for politics and ideas. My Hon friend Aljunied MP Faisal Manap will elaborate on this.
  2. Create an Ombudsman with investigative capacity, to strengthen confidence that the state and ruling party are accountable and cannot simply shut down a grievance that may be politically costly or for other reasons. At the very least, a second unbiased opinion would be of value. I have argued for this previously, as have other WP MPs.
  3. Thirdly, ensure that funding for civil society, the arts and so on is handled by independent committees who are not linked to the government of the day. This would certainly help build the passionate civil society that President Halimah spoke of; and counter any fears that civil society groups that advocate alternative policies to the government may be penalized using state resources.
  4. Fourthly, since we do not have a Freedom of Information Act, we should publish every single public opinion poll and data collection effort conducted with state funds, redacted only for anything that has clear and strong commercial or national security sensitivities, for better-informed debate amongst political parties, civil society groups and citizens.
  5. Fifth, allow Opposition MPs to engage school students in their MP capacity, alongside ruling party MPs and Ministers, a subject I have raised in this House before. We need to mould the mental habits of our citizens from a young age to nurture independent, critical thinking. Exposing them only to PAP politicians and barring non-PAP ones in most student engagement contexts does not achieve this. Our future citizens need to be able to see both sides of a question in a way that will innoculate them from the demagogues and foreign interference attempts of the future.

Sir, we must not allow any sense to congeal that there is one dominant narrative and that everyone who has a different view has to be marginalised or go on the defensive. 

Part 2: Will tomorrow be better than today?

I now come to the second part of my speech on the optimism of Singaporeans. Will tomorrow be better than today?

According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, only 36 per cent of respondents in Singapore felt that their families will be better off economically in five years’ time, the lowest level for this measure since Edelman started surveying 23 years ago. This 36 % for Singapore compares with the 40 per cent global average across 24 countries.

Sir, the Leader of the Opposition spoke of the risk of there becoming two Singapores. Right now, close to 50% of households live in 5-room HDB flats or more expensive homes – executive condos, maisonettes, private condos, landed homes, etc. A little over 50% live in 4, 3, 2 or 1 room HDB flats. 

At the risk of oversimplification, those who live in less expensive homes may be the ones feeling the economic anxiety and pessimism that the Edelman survey measures. They may struggle to compete in the workplace or academia, especially if they did not receive the inherited advantages of wealth or social capital that President Halimah spoke of. The elderly on fixed or no incomes have to grapple with rising food prices. Whereas others, the optimistic 36%, may feel that they can thrive in this very competitive society with high prices and expensive homes.

In fact, poverty and social inequality ranked as the third big area of concern in a national survey done in 2020 by Ipsos, after jobs and healthcare.

At this point, I declare my interest as the Chairman of a Singapore company that undertakes market research and consulting.

When we have discussions like this, it is often pointed out that real wages are still growing. But the Edelman survey, plus a great deal of anecdotal experience from my conversations with Singaporeans in the Serangoon ward of Aljunied GRC and in East Coast GRC previously, suggest that this anxiety is very real. Many fear that, the way food, house and other prices are rising, the way the job market is becoming more competitive, those with fewer advantages will truly struggle to build a tomorrow that is better than today.

Also, we should recall that real wage data may mask some things.

Real wages may appear to be rising, but that may mask the fact that certain demographic groups may feel the pain of inflation more than others. Previously in the House, I have called for CPI data to be published by demographic group, eg parents with young children or empty nesters, as inflation affects these groups differently. Also, within each income decile, there will be those who do less well than the median for that decile. And lastly, the Edelman survey shows that, whatever the real wage growth data suggests, the thinking of many Singaporeans about the future reflects a lack of confidence that they can thrive going forward.

This economic pessimism could be one reason for our globally low Total Fertility Rate or TFR. In the previous housing debate, I also cited academic evidence for a causal link between high home prices and low TFR in Singapore. 

If left to fester, such economic pessimism could lead to a brain drain as people leave for more live-able countries. If that happens, that may tend to create over-reliance on foreign manpower.

We need to address this economic pessimism fundamentally, not only through ad hoc measures such as an additional grant here or an additional rebate there, helpful as that is. More far-reaching reforms are needed to make everyone believe that the society has their back. The Workers’ Party has called for many such reforms in the past.

In the interest of time, I shall not expand on these but I shall refer to them.

1stly, a national minimum wage.

2ndly, a redundancy insurance scheme. This is something the WP has championed for some time and I was intrigued that DPM Lawrence Wong referred to some form of unemployment support.

3rdly, seriously tackling the issue of poverty and breaking the poverty cycle. I have called for a war on poverty in this House. My Hon friend Prof Jamus Lim has also weighed in on this topic yesterday as have other WP MPs over the years.

4thly reforming the HDB housing system to lower BTO prices by revisiting the formula for land valuation as well as introducing various other reforms, as we argued in the recent housing debate.

5thly, revamping trades or vocational jobs to overhaul them for higher productivity, pay and conditions. I have spoken about this in the House several times.

Lest anyone says the trade-offs have not been explained, these ideas taken together will slow the rate of growth of reserves but will not draw down reserves. I believe slowing down the growth of reserves is wholly justified at this stage of our nation’s history, given the needs we have with an aging population in a turbulent world and given the much larger size of reserves now versus GDP. My WP colleagues and I have explained this repeatedly, on multiple platforms. 

We must invest to ensure a confident current generation, lest our fertility go so low that there will be few people in the generations to come.

Before I move on, I want to refer to DPM Wong’s comment yesterday that the Opposition should offer concrete alternative policy ideas. We have been doing this. We offer alternative policies that differ substantively from the ideas of the PAP – eg on slowing reserves growth to enhance liveability, social justice and social mobility; and reducing BTO prices based on tweaks to the land valuation formula. The alternatives we have championed in Parliament, in our manifesto are too numerous for me to mention here. I only have 20 minutes. We championed universal healthcare insurance and delinking BTO from resale prices long before they were adopted by the PAP government. We championed anti-discrimination legislation and redundancy insurance, policies the PAP are now considering. The DPM, the PAP knows this. 

Sir, I have a sense of déjà vu now, recalling how I was debating a similar issue about what the PAP said about our housing paper just a few weeks ago.

Sir, let us be honest in our political debates. Honest. Not going for false but flashy soundbites that smear our opponents, that the media then viralise. I don’t want my children to grow up in a post-truth society. 

Part 3: A new Singapore Model as a beacon

I come now to the third and last part of my speech, about the development of a Singapore model that can inspire the world.

As I said in my maiden speech, we have got certain fundamentals right. The glass is half full. Let’s fill in the other half with measures to enhance our active citizenry, civil society and engaged, rational politics.

This thinking can extend to regional leadership in economic projects. Such projects can be designed to reflect Singaporean values of good corporate governance and efficiency but also incorporating consultation and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders. And the KPIs for such projects could advance goals like poverty alleviation, reflecting Singaporean values of egalitarianism and inclusivity.

Singapore has positioned itself as a leader in economic openness, having the most FTAs in the region. But one of our distant competitors is putting a twist on this approach. The UAE’s diplomacy focuses on playing a supporting role to Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc. who have much bigger populations and armies, even as the UAE positions itself as the business gateway to the Arab World and MENA region. 

But the UAE has taken a step further. It invests in overseas assets, with a very outsized investment in renewables. 

The scale of this is extremely large: just the renewables arm of one of their SWFs has targeted 100GW of renewables at home and abroad by 2030, quadrupling the current commitment, and being worth around $100B. By comparison, Temasek-linked Sembcorp’s 2025 target is 10GW; Keppel’s is 7GW.

An example of UAE dealplomacy is where its government-owned renewables business Masdar committed to a 10GW mega-wind farm in Egypt in a deal on COP27’s sidelines, which would save Egypt $5B in annual gas costs and offset about 9% of its emissions. 

In comparison, Singapore has supported renewable energy companies’ expansion into the region and internationally, but largely on a commercial, non-diplomatic basis.

Why Green investments as the backbone of these regional leadership efforts? Because it is cheap, lasting, and critical. 

IRENA estimates that if Southeast Asia were to build enough renewables to cut energy-related CO2 emissions, it could also save US$160B from now to 2050 as well as $1.5T in health and environmental costs related to fossil fuels by 2050. 

But to pull this off, $7T in investment is needed from now till then. 

In 2018, I spoke in this House about the idea of Singapore leading a flagship project in the region on renewable energy or some such theme, to serve multiple economic and diplomatic ends.

Such projects need not be primarily government financed but can raise financing in capital markets globally.

Leading and catalysing such a regional flagship project will help bolster Singapore’s economy but also Singapore’s soft power in the ASEAN region, a region which has a potentially important historical destiny – namely that of a bulwark and zone of buffering and balancing between the great powers of China and the West. 

And what if Singapore demonstrates how its traditional bureaucratic efficiency can be combined with policies that ensure openness, accountability and democratic ownership among an active citizenry? That could serve as a good example for this vital region that will inspire emulation and perhaps help form an ASEAN identity around such principles.

Thank you.