I’ll be honest – this year’s National Day Rally left me rather confused.
“Why did PM Lee talk about diabetes? Why not terrorism or politics?”
“Smart Nation sounds great on paper…but what about getting our old folks on board?”
Therefore, I was pretty excited when I found out that Young NTUC was organising a Post-NDR dialogue.
Graced by Dr. Janil Puthucheary (Minister-in-charge of GovTech), Mr. Saktiandi Supaat (Member of Parliament and Committee on the Future Economy), Dr. Gillian Koh (Deputy Director at the Institute of Policy Studies at NUS) and Johnathan Chua (Business Director/Partner at GRVTY Media, and my colleague), the panel of 4 were from different backgrounds and hold a diverse set of experiences.
The majority of the audience that Wednesday evening was mostly tertiary students – chatting excitedly among themselves and during the discussions, earnestly listening to the speakers.
Hardly surprising though, since Young NTUC, the youth wing of the labour movement, reaches out to 18-35 year-old youths.
Compared to the usually subdued Singaporean audiences, the one I was sitting amidst was one that had many questions for the panel, and asked away fearlessly.
Here are six questions that caught my attention, and how the panelists tackled them with both poise and insight.
Question 1: Exercise is said to be very important, but what about those without time to exercise?
A participant cited that some of us are “working up to 16 hours a day”, hitting the gym might not be a viable option.
Here’s Dr. Puthucheary’s practical advice for busy individuals.
“Try to get exercise of at least 150 hours – oh wait, minutes – don’t panic, don’t panic! [If you can get] about 20 mins or 10,000 steps a day, that’ll be great, but that doesn’t mean to you need to go hardcore.”
He shared his personal strategy of getting some extra steps into his busy work day – by taking public transport versus driving to work, which makes people more sedentary.
Did you know he did not own a car before he entered politics?
But his current work requires extensive commute and a car became necessary.
Frankly speaking for me, a big part of my exercise regime for many years was just my commute! Just by taking the bus or MRT, you get so many more steps than just staying in a car. And on a good day, you get off a stop early and take a walk or you run – that’s what I used to do.
“Yesterday, I came (to the NTUC Centre) for another event, and I cycled here. The main reason being that I could cycle home. But at the end of the day, just as a function of getting home, I could also have a work out.”
With new services like oBike, ofo, and Mobike, shared bikes can be found everywhere, and getting home on one of them is just an app away.
For those who can’t ride bikes, simply alighting one bus stop or MRT station earlier is also a great way to pack in some exercise.
Added Dr. Puthucheary, “It can be done, it’s just a matter or not you see it as a priority. So 20 to 30 minutes a day is not an onerous amount.”
Question 2: How can we change to healthier options when we’re already used to our usual tastes?
Dr. Puthucheary shared how his mother-in-law “psychologically conditioned” their entire family to convert to brown rice.
“My mother-in-law cooks for my family [but one day] I came home and the pot of rice was a few other colours other than white. So I asked “Ma, what happened to the rice?” She said, “Oh I ran out of white rice, so I just tambah (Malay for ‘add on’), because your father brought home some brown rice from FairPrice.”
“Then it happened again, and what she did was that she increased the proportion of brown rice and white rice, and kept on making excuses to why this was so. And basically over the course of a month, before we knew it, it was all brown rice! Right now, there’s no white rice in the house at all.”
This was where Dr. Puthucheary came in with another personal anecdote – how he went from regular kopi (coffee with condensed milk) to kopi o kosong (coffee without milk or sugar).
And this is all because of a phenomenon called ‘taste plasticity’.
“The good news is, human beings are one of the few creatures that have taste plasticity – it means that we can eat anything. Different people have different food that we grow up with, but we can get used at any taste.”
“And the science suggests that in between 8 to 10 servings, you’ll adapt to that food.”
Not wanting to just believe the theory without testing it out, he then experimented on himself, by slowly reducing the sugar in his daily cuppa.
I gave myself 10 cups, and each was with less and less sugar. So just over a month, I went from the normal kopi to kopi o kosong.
Question 3: Char kuay teow is so much cheaper than salmon! Is there anything the Government can do to make these healthy foods cheaper?
Johnathan directed this question to his fellow panelists from the public service – much to the amusement of the rest of the room.
“When I go and eat, we all know that salmon and salad is great, but char kuay teow is only $3! So what I’m trying to say right, is that don’t tax char kuay teow to be $6, but maybe make salmon $3?”
Dr. Koh wholeheartedly agreed and said she doesn’t understand “why unpolished rice is far more expensive than polished rice”.
“It might be also because it’s due to supply, and it’s branded to be ‘super cool health food’, but it’s really weird – please, explain this economics!”
Mr. Supaat, an economist by training, suggested that the prices could potentially go down if we “nudge the hawkers towards producing brown rice items”.
He also brought in the example of local company Kühlbarra, which has been farming barramundi (or Asian sea bass) on an offshore fish farm.
I think that we can help these local companies create supply, it can be beneficial in the end. [As compared to just sticking to salmon], we can always start with other fishes first.
As consumers, we can’t do much to push the prices of healthier items down, but we are able to push the demand up – especially by picking those with Healthier Choice symbols over those without them.
Question 4: With Smart Nation comes more risks with it comes to adopting to new technology – will the Govt be more receptive to them (eg Tesla cars)?
If you’re a fan of Tesla or a close watcher of electric cars in Singapore, I’m pretty sure you’ll remember when Mr. Joe Nguyen imported a used Tesla Model S, a high-performance variant of Tesla’s line of Electric Vehicles (EVs), into Singapore.
While expecting to receive the full S$30,000 CEVS rebate applicable for environmentally-friendly vehicles, he was instead imposed a S$15,000 carbon emissions surcharge.
Less about the extent of the fine, the message on the Government’s stance on less conventional vehicles in Singapore rang clearer.
This was the exact example that a participant raised, and he asked Dr. Puthucheary pointedly about Smart Nation and how it might mean that we’ll need to increase our risk appetite.
“Smart Nation will inevitably mean that we’re not just early adopters of technology, so will there be a point whether we’ll make a choice to take a risk. But what about the frameworks that hold progress back, like how LTA fined the Tesla car? Will we be open to take risks knowing that it might not give us the expected return of investment?”
Dr. Puthucheary fully agreed, saying that while “we should have a bigger risk appetite, and we should accept some degree of failure” – who are the ones who are affected by taking that risk?
When people are saying that, they’re saying, “You, the Government must open up and be prepared for failure.” But risk appetite is for all of us to take. If I take the risk, it’s us Singaporeans that are taking the risk.
“We cannot afford the failures that companies can take – where we abandon the company and trademark and do something else. When we talk about the acceptance of risk and failure, it has to be one that we can carry on from and learn from. Not something catastrophic and would hold us back.”
He then talked about regulatory sandboxes that the Government has set up so that new concepts can be tested out in a controlled environment.
“We accept that this is a new thing with risks and failures. It can be a space where these new items can be tested. It can even be conceptual spaces – so we’ll let you play and develop, as long as you don’t break the laws, then 2 years later we’ll come and regulate you.”
“It can even be something a bit tangential like Airbnb, where we don’t officially say that we’re going to shut you down, even though technically you’re breaking a law. It’s effectively a regulatory sample, where we see how the market develops and then step in and say “This is how we want to manage it.””
We (the Government) have the responsibility to everyone’s lives and livelihoods, so we cannot just take on any risk in the world, and the risks are of very real consequences.
Question 5: China has been very successful with cashless payments. How should we learn from them?
There’s been talk about how countries like China are far ahead of us in going cashless for payments.
According to Dr. Puthucheary, as hyped up as this form of payment is, its degree of engagement isn’t as “dramatic as it’s reported”.
“It only makes up about 13-15% of payments in China. But it’s very visible, because you see the QR codes everywhere.”
“We’re actually doing very well for non-cash payments. We have credit cards, nets, ez-link payments, Paylah, PayNow…today, 99% of bus trips are cashless.”
He admits, however, that there is still much to be learnt from China – “it’s just what lesson we want to learn”.
“The lesson is to have an easy system to make those cashless payments. We are implementing QR codes for easy payments, but we’re not going to let one company dominate the industry. It will be open for all to participate in.”
“We also learn this lesson – how to make it easy and pervasive for the vendors to come on board. [In the end, it] is about how to reduce the amount of cash in circulation and how to make it easy to use.”
The same goes for getting older Singaporeans on board these new apps and initiatives – but it’s less about how ‘friendly’ the services are, but more about how pervasive they are in daily transactions, which he admits is the biggest problem that GovTech is facing now.
“Why is it so easy for the elderly in China? Is it because the government said that the elderly must use it? Did the government give grants or training? Did someone make a big speech? No! The answer is, just the need and the product availability that made the elderly come on board.”
There’s a whole bunch of grannies that play Pokemon GO. So if they can play Pokemon GO, and you know the complexity of that, going cashless should be no problem, provided that we can help them along the way.
“So we must not put down our elderly here in Singapore. Our elderly are just as capable, just as interested and will benefit just as much as everyone else.”
Question 6: Why did PM Lee not talk about geo-politics or ‘heavier’ topics during NDR?
This was perhaps the elephant in the room that everyone was waiting to pounce upon.
Dr. Koh revealed that she was asked the very same question by Chinese newspaper Lianhe Wanbao the day after the Rally.
“They asked me, “Wah, why he never say this, never say that ah?” I said “We’re reading it in the papers every single day! Which part of Singapore vs. China, Singapore and Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia do we not know?””
And we didn’t need to talk about race and religion and elected presidency because now we’re going to be listening to it all day and all night – unless you’ve not been reading the papers.
“The big politics kind of speech was made in 2016. But of course, everyone disregarded it because of PM Lee’s incident.”
A quick look back at the National Day Rally last year showed PM Lee talking about pretty heavy topics – disruption, jobs, terrorism, race relations, and leadership succession.
So perhaps in comparison, this year’s subjects seem ‘fluffy’.
Continued Dr. Koh, “I know that critics were saying that it’s a very insipid, banal speech. I totally disagree. Because if you’ve been tracking developments and critiquing social policy, you would say we did up to 90% of what we needed to do – and the last 10% is preschool education.”
“We really need to get the teachers up to full force, and that’s important, because if we want to be an inclusive society, we need to sort out preschool education. And there’s no point doing all that if we’re all going to grow up and be sick – so, diabetes.”
“And of course, jobs and more jobs. Smart Nation is about problem-solving and turning that into an opportunity for businesses and careers.”
So I think that it was a great speech, but it wasn’t delivered with all that drama. I guess it wasn’t done with sparklers, but I don’t know what it’ll take for people to sit up and listen.
“Pay attention because it matters to all of us. This speech was something on a micro-personal level […] and it requires all of us to do something. The geo-politics isn’t something we can do anything about, but what was addressed in the 2017 speech was everything that we can do for ourselves.”
Added Dr. Puthucheary, “I think PM Lee chose his topics very carefully, because these were the topics nobody was talking about, and no one was putting any attention on it and that was exactly what he wanted to do.”
The National Day Rally Isn’t Just A Platform For Recaps
After the session, I think that I can safely say that just like the rest of the audience, I managed to leave with a better understanding of why PM Lee covered the topics that he did.
The National Day Rally isn’t organised for recaps of issues – it’s a once-in-a-year platform for PM Lee to address the nation with topics that we might be overlooking.
Just like what Dr. Koh mentioned, this year’s didn’t cover ‘juicy’ topics like geopolitics, but they were ones that we could take into our own hands.
Hang On – But What’s Young NTUC Doing, Organising A Post-NDR Dialogue?
With both leaning towards helping millennials navigate the rocky waters of work life, I wondered out loud why they were organising a Post-NDR dialogue.
Fortunately, Labour MP Desmond Choo, who is also the Executive Secretary of Young NTUC, was there to answer my queries.
Is this the first time Young NTUC is organising such an event?
No! We’ve been doing a lot of Post Budget, Post NDR types of dialogues.
It’s really a platform for young workers, or soon-to-be young workers. It’s also for us to understand their thoughts better, and for them to also get views from the decision makers, academia, and people of interest to them, so this has been ongoing for quite some time!
Have you seen an increase in engagement with each event?
Yes, definitely. There are actually two things we’ve seen – we’ve seen a broader spectrum of people coming in. It used to just be students from autonomous universities like NTU, NUS and SMU.
But recently we’re starting to see all the private universities and polytechnics being represented. The other observation is that we saw a lot of first and second career people wanting to be heard. So we’ve grown in diversity of the composition and we’ve also grown in the scale of the sessions.
We’re quite encouraged by that, because it shows that young people want a platform to talk about issues they face. And that, to us, is a very important step to being active citizens, especially when they’re going to be the future decision makers.
We’d like to thank Desmond Choo for his time, and the Young NTUC team for organising the event!
The Labour Movement wants you to know that nation building is something we all have a part to play in – regardless of how small it is.