TL;DR – Ultimately, people and the Government must work together to keep Singapore successful.
People like Mr S R Nathan fought hard for Singapore to have a seat at the table in the global arena. Time and time again, he put his life on the line.
It is fitting that the inaugural S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture was about the challenges we face and how Singapore can continue to be successful, that the hard seats the pioneer generation sought and the hard-won legacy they’ve left behind, will continue to thrive.
In that lecture, Minister Chan Chun Sing spoke about the four immutable challenges that Singapore, as a sovereign nation, faces:
- First, we live in a geostrategic and geopolitical environment that is complex and volatile.
- Second, economic survival without a conventional hinterland.
- Third, forging a sense of nationhood among people of diverse backgrounds and with diverse aspirations.
- Fourth, bringing forth exceptional leadership teams that can win the trust of our people.
He highlighted that in order for us to survive and thrive we must always remember the following fundamentals:
- Understand the geopolitical forces clearly and deeply
- Strive to grow beyond the constraints of our geographical size and position
- Build a cohesive and broad middle ground
- Forge committed leadership teams that can engender deep trust and unite our people
A keen sense of geopolitical forces
Minister Chan reminded us that we must see the world as it is and not what we wish it to be. He said:
“We know small countries are often “price-takers” in global affairs, so we need to be sharp and clear on where our interests are, navigate the geopolitical waves and maintain our course to achieve our goals.”
He reminded us that the big powers will only continue to engage us if we are economically successful. To do that, we need to stay relevant and add value to the relationship with them. That means we need to keep asking if the areas of cooperation are still relevant to the parties involved. If not, we must proactively pursue new areas of interests. To generate new ideas, we must have a deep understanding of our partners’ priorities and perspectives.
These aren’t just things for diplomats or politicians to think about. As Singaporeans, we need to understand the dynamics too, so that we will be able to stand united in the face of overt pressures and covert influences. Minister Chan emphasised:
“What’s clear is that we cannot become parochial – only looking at our internal issues.”
Transcending our Geographical Size and Location
Minister Chan pointed out that we transcend our geographical size and location by connecting with the world as our de-facto hinterland, we seek to transcend our geographical size and location. We used to connect to the rest of the world via air, land and sea. That’s no longer enough. Minister Chan highlighted:
“Going forward, we must seek to better connect to the world and go even further, through the four complementary non-physical dimensions of data, finance, talent and technology.”
Minister Chan also reminded us that in these times of rapid change, we also have to press on with efforts to renew our economy and prepare for the long haul so that we can continue to provide good opportunities for the next generation.
Businesses have to innovate and explore new markets and adopt new business models.
Workers will need to learn, unlearn and relearn quickly to stay relevant and seize new opportunities. We will have to double our efforts to realise an extensive continuing education system.
Building a Cohesive Broad Middle
Minister Chan cautioned that even as we seek to transform the economy, we must also guard against a widening gap between the “winners” – those who are able to reap benefits from the new economy, and those who are lagging behind. He said:
“We need to have a broad middle ground that enables us to stay cohesive. This would require us to keep up social mobility and, at the same time, grow our common spaces.”
He also highlighted that we will need to remain conscious of the fault lines that may emerge. Issues concerning race and religion remain sensitive topics, and these must always be delicately managed even as we grapple with the new fault lines.
Forging committed leadership teams
Minister Chan highlighted that our survival will also depend on our leaders’ commitment to never shirk their responsibilities towards our current and future generations. We must not shy away from making difficult decisions. Instead, our leaders need to have the commitment and conviction to work as a team and do what’s necessary for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans, both for today and tomorrow.
Minister Chan emphasised that decisive leaders would only be effective if there’s a deep sense of trust between government and our people.
Apart from trust, each generation of leaders would have to keep the country united to tackle challenges together. Unity will not emerge naturally. Instead, Singaporeans must develop a sense of a common threat, challenge, mission and vision.
Defying the odds won’t be easy
For Singapore to continue to thrive, we need to constantly defy the odds of history. People and government must work together to keep Singapore successful. This must be grounded by a strong sense of trust and unity.
But that won’t be easy to do.
Judging from some of the comments to Minister Chan’s speech on social media, there are some people who think that our leaders are disconnected from the the experiences of the common man on the street and that they won’t suffer along with Singaporeans should difficult times hit us.
So our leaders have their work cut out for them. Regardless who the next PM is, all our leaders will need to work closely as a team to to build a connection with Singaporeans and win our confidence over time.
But if they can do it, if they can galvanise Singaporeans to stay united in facing the challenges and help each other to see the world clearly, then Singapore can continue to be successful, and we would have built a strong foundation that will enable future generations of Singaporeans to do even better than our generation.
(Click here for an edited excerpt Minister Chan Chun Sing’s speech at the Oxford and Cambridge Society’s S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture on 11th Jan 2018.)