“Where is our country headed? What can we do now to secure the future we hope for? How can each of us contribute to this process?”
These are some of the questions that Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong posed to unionists at an NTUC tripartite dialogue held at NTUC Centre earlier today (June 28).
This is the first time DPM Wong is addressing the public since he was appointed as the 4G leader. Earlier, he had announced that the 4G team will embark on an exercise to “review and refresh [Singapore’s] social compact, and chart a roadmap for the next decade and beyond.”
Called ‘Forward Singapore’, the roadmap involves six key pillars: economy and jobs, education and lifelong learning, health and social support, home and living environment, environmental and fiscal sustainability, and the Singapore identity.
At the core of it, DPM Heng stressed the importance of holding on values and beliefs that have been set out at the founding of our nation.
“They are expressed in our pledge: ‘one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’; ‘a democratic society, based on justice and equality’. These are timeless values [and] we must continue to hold fast to them, as we write the next chapter of the Singapore story.”
Refreshing our social compact
What is a social compact and why is there a need to refresh it?
“A social compact, broadly, is a shared understanding of how all of us in society relate to one another. It’s about the respective roles and responsibilities of various groups,” explained DPM Wong.
“A social compact that is deemed fair by all segments of society strengthens social capital and fosters trust. This is what enables us to progress together as a nation.”
He further stressed that it is important to refresh and update our social compact so that it remains “fit” for our evolving context and circumstances.
He added that there are many external trends at play, citing examples of fraying social compacts and more fractured societies across Europe and North America. This has led to many societies turn inward and become xenophobic, as they are unable to find a consensus on national issues.
“Fortunately, our situation is not as dire as it is in many other countries. Economically, we are in a better shape than most,” he remarked.
“Unlike most developed countries, we have been able to achieve inclusive growth over the past decade — real wages of lower-income workers have risen faster than that of the median worker, so our income gaps have been narrowing.”
“We are still creating many new jobs, thanks to the investments we have been able to attract from overseas, as well as the growth of our own companies and the skills of our workers.”
Singapore is now at a “crossroad”
Throughout the last two years of the pandemic, Singapore has managed to stay nimble and adapted quickly.
“But we now find ourselves at a crossroad in our nation’s journey,” said DPM Wong. “We had expected a strong recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but have flown into strong headwinds.”
We are currently seeing a war raging in Europe, fuelling global inflation and a possible recession; as well as rising geo-political tensions — especially between the US and China — which are disrupting supply chains and ushering in a more dangerous world.
Closer to home, Singapore is also faced with a number of social trends with long-term consequences: a rapidly ageing population, and a concern that social mobility is slowing. As such, there has been “mounting anxieties” among many of being displaced by others.
“These are very real fears in our stressful society — the fear of not doing well enough, of being left behind.”
DPM Wong shared that he understands these concerns, which are valid for different groups of people. Students feel “pigeon-holed” in a system where the stakes are high from very early on in their lives; graduates and workers are anxious about their careers and worry they will be priced out of the property market; older workers sometimes struggle to be considered for new jobs after being displaced or retrenched.
“Sometimes, those who do not meet the traditional yardsticks of merit may find opportunities closed to them. They may feel beaten down by early failure, and feel discouraged from trying again.”
As the world and society keeps changing, it “cannot be business as usual” because the stable state of affairs we currently enjoy can easily be disrupted, he adds.
“If our social compact fails, a large segment of Singaporeans will come to feel estranged from the rest of society, believing the system is not on their side. Trust in the government and among various segments of society will plummet, and politics will turn nasty and polarised.”
“We will become a low-trust society, like so many others in Asia and Europe, and Singapore will surely fracture.”
As he paints a picture of these dire consequences, he stressed the need to strengthen our social compact instead. We need to turn challenges into opportunities, and find the silver lining in whatever comes our way.
At this juncture — as Singapore prepares for a post-pandemic world and navigate an increasingly treacherous geo-political situation — he said that his 4G team and himself are committed to lead Singapore forward.
“Let us reaffirm our fundamental values, reexamine our principles, review our priorities and principles, and chart a new path together. This is what ‘Forward Singapore’ is about.”
What they hope to achieve with ‘Forward Singapore’
DPM Wong outlined four key areas where the social compact can evolve: the economy, meritocracy, social support and solidarity.
First, on how the economy is run, Singapore has always relied on open and free markets to grow, but if left unchecked, the workings of the free market can lead to excessive competition and rising inequalities.
“That’s why we have always tempered extreme market outcomes and resisted a winner-takes-all economic regime,” he said.
For example, staying open means accepting some degree of competition from foreign workers and professionals both here and overseas, which can cause anxiety.
DPM Wong said that Singaporeans are always at the centre of everything the government does, pointing out heavy investments in skills retraining and upcoming legislation to ensure employers uphold fair employment practices.
In the same spirit, the government will ensure public housing remains affordable, especially for the young and first-timers, and will continue to uplift vulnerable workers through schemes such as Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model.
The progressive system of taxes and transfers will be further strengthened, so that everyone contributes something but those with more give more to help those with less.
Second, on meritocracy, DPM Wong said it is still the best way to organise society, but acknowledged its downsides, such as the rich giving their children more opportunities and the risk of privilege being entrenched across generations.
“We cannot abandon meritocracy, but I believe we can improve it and make ours a more open and compassionate meritocracy,” he said.
One way to do so is to do more early in the life of every child, especially those from less well-off families, so that the circumstances of their birth do not determine their future in life.
Another way is to broaden the conception of merit beyond academic credentials by recognising and developing talents in diverse fields and providing opportunities for people to advance at multiple stages of their lives.
“The most important change is not something that the government can legislate into reality, because we must all, as a society, learn to value the contributions of every worker in every profession and every field,” said DPM Wong.
Third, technological and economic disruptions call for a review of whether current social support is adequate. The government will study how it can do more to help workers tide over difficult times and how it can provide better care for the growing number of seniors.
But all this requires more resources, so society has to collectively determine how much more the government should spend, and on what, as well as how much more people are prepared to pay to fund this spending.
Lastly, on solidarity, DPM Wong said the evolving social compact should consider how to unite Singaporeans and provide for future generations.
“Some things should not, cannot, can never change — like our fundamental principle of multi-racialism,” he said.
Singapore’s diversity is a source of strength, but it also requires constant adjustments to get the balance right — progressively expanding common space while allowing each community as much room as possible to go about its way of life, he added.
A strong social compact must provide not just for this generation but across generations, and “it is our sacred duty not to squander what we have inherited”, said DPM Wong.
He adds that he envisions the Singapore of tomorrow in which opportunities are open to all, where all are assured of access to basic needs like education, healthcare and housing, and where all Singaporeans contribute their fair share to the common good.
Last but not least, he hopes to see a Singapore where “every man and woman is valued, every child treasured, and every senior respected.”
These are his hopes for the future, but he cannot make this a reality alone. He urged everyone — unionists, business leaders, and fellow Singaporeans alike — to offer their ideas and energies, help shape the vision, and work hand-in-hand with the government to turn the common vision into reality.
Featured Image Credit: Lim Sin Thai via Ministry of Communications and Information