Speech by Minister Ong Ye Kung at the Singapore‑China Leadership Forum 2017
DPM Teo Chee Hean
Mr Zhao Leji, Minister of the Organisation Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen
1. Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to share my views and experiences at this forum. This forum is a unique arrangement between Singapore and China. It provides a regular platform for officials to exchange views on governance, leadership and the relationship between the government and people.
2. This arrangement reflects the deep friendship and ties that Singapore and China have built up over the past decades. It also reflects the shared beliefs of both governments that long term planning is important in preparing our countries and people for future challenges. The ability of the government in improving the lives of people is critical in ensuring the peace, stability, and prosperity of our countries.
Principles of Governance – Apply Principles According to the Changing Times
3. The Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has spoken about the three key principles of governance in our national innovation journey. First, the government has to adopt a long-term view in planning, while being prepared to adapt and improve our policies (长期规划，适时应变). Second, the government must be citizen-centric and collectively achieve our goals with the people (以民为本，众擎易举).Third, the government must uphold meritocracy and recognise a broad range of talents (任人唯贤，唯才是用).
4. These principles are distilled from the life experiences of our founding fathers and pioneers in nation building, and represent their collective wisdom. They reflect the characteristics and constraints of Singapore’s geography and society. The younger generation needs to understand and internalise these principles.
5. However, the external environment and demographics of our society are changing. While our principles are anchors that provide us with a firm footing, we need to be innovative in our thinking and approaches and apply the principles flexibly to benefit our people. I will share Singapore’s experiences in applying these principles in a few specific areas.
Taking the Long-Term View, Adapting to the Changing Times
6. There is a general gravitation towards dealing with present challenges rather than actively plan for the future. Because in a rapidly changing world with technology advancements and disruptions, plans can become irrelevant in three to five years. Politicians in some countries also tend to focus on shorter term issues, and are unable to carry out long term planning due to the short electoral cycles.
7. Being a democratic society, Singapore also faces similar concerns. However, our perspectives and actions are different from some other countries in that we maintain the discipline of actively planning for the long term. The government does not operate like a listed company that has to issue quarterly reports, nor do we depend on public polls to develop policies.
8. Our leaders are deeply convicted that we must plan for the longer term interest of our country, while promptly responding and adjusting them as circumstances evolve.
9. Take urban planning for instance. For Singapore to become even more effective in land use and vibrant, we have to carry out bold changes in the decades ahead to transform land use and infrastructure.
10. We are developing the Jurong District in the western part of Singapore into a new business district. To facilitate the re-development of Paya Lebar in the central region, we will shift Paya Lebar Air Base eastwards to where the Changi Airport area is. With PSA’s container port moving to Tuas in the West, the prime land in Tanjong Pagar area will also be freed up for re-development.
11. These plans will prepare Singapore for our next ten, twenty years, or even longer. Our people may not see the immediate benefits or rationale for the plans, but leaders must have the vision and muster the political will to turn these plans into reality. To press ahead and overcome difficulties is also a true test of leadership ability.
12. While Singapore’s development plans may be smaller in scale as compared to China, both countries are alike in our thinking in re-orientating land use. Last year, I visited Shenzhen. The local officials briefed me on the project to shift the Whampoa Port (黄埔港码头) downstream. China has been rapidly developing its high speed railway network. Recently, China announced plans to re-develop the Xiong An New District (雄安新区) in Hebei, which includes developing more efficient transportation networks.
13. Looking ahead, Singapore will have to face the significant challenge of an ageing population and changing demographics. The impact is already felt today.
14. For example, school cohort sizes are falling. The government will have to merge schools and rationalise resource allocation. With declining birth rates, fewer male citizens will be enlisted for National Service. The Singapore Armed Forces will need to transform its operations and become a more efficient and effective military force, with less manpower.
15. The rate of young citizens joining our labour force will also slow down. Our economic model will have to be adjusted as manpower-led growth is no longer an option. The future economy will have to be driven by innovation and higher productivity. The government is developing 23 Industry Transformation Maps to help our industries in these areas, and to plan for the future economy.
16. Declining birth rates and an ageing population will impact our society in many ways. The government needs to plan ahead at the macro and micro levels. If we do it well, our society will continue to remain vibrant and prosperous even as demographics change.
Delivering Citizen-centric Services, Collective Contribution to Outcomes
17. Second, the government needs to be citizen-centric in long-term planning and governance. This is both a means and an end.
18. Being citizen-centric revolves around three key aspects of the people. First, the voices of the people (聆听民声). Second, the lives of our people (改善民生). Third, the hearts of the people (赢得民心).
19. In engaging the people, the government must be sincere and respect the views of people, and not pay lip service. In this information age, governments are unable to and cannot monopolise information and public discourse. It has to provide different platforms for engagement, and consider the views of all stakeholders. Amidst the diverse views of the people, the government has the responsibility to strike a balance for the greater public good. In the process, this will help to foster a greater sense of participation and belonging to the nation.
20. To deliver citizen-centric services, we need to better integrate the services of various government agencies. The outcomes will not be ideal if each agency only optimises solution at their level. Hence, the government has been strengthening coordination and stepping up our efforts to solve cross-cutting municipal issues to improve the lives of our people.
21. For instance, we have set up the Municipal Services Office to coordinate and improve the delivery of municipal services, such as managing the cleanliness of public areas, horticulture maintenance and pest control. Citizens can now use their mobile phones to access a one-stop reporting platform and submit any feedback on municipal issues.
22. Two years ago, the nation mourned the passing of our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. There were different suggestions to honour Mr Lee and other founding fathers of Singapore, including building a Founders’ Memorial. As this is an effort to reflect the spirit of our founding fathers and inspire the ideals and values for future generations of Singaporeans, the government decided to solicit views from the public.
23. The Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointed an independent Committee to engage Singaporeans from all walks of life, to discuss issues such as whether to build a Founders’ Memorial, who and what should be honoured and its location. The Committee organised a series of dialogue sessions for the public, and held discussions with academics and experts. The Committee shared their findings with the public, and even held an exhibition to explain the engagement process and get more public feedback.
24. In many countries, memorials are designed by a few. But our Founders’ Memorial is shaped by Singaporeans. While there is top-down direction to commission a Committee and determine its scope of work, the conceptualisation and implementation of the Founders’ Memorial is driven by ground-up participation.
25. Next, with technological advancements, some current business regulations will become obsolete. The government has also adjusted how it implements its regulations. In this aspect, China has come up with its free trade zones and negative list, while Singapore is advocating an environment to implement regulatory “sandboxes”.
26. Businesses are also part of the citizenry. In a “sandbox” environment, we take a business-centric approach, so that businesses are not constrained by current regulations and can try out new ideas, and boldly seek innovation.
27. This approach is similar in spirit to the ancient agriculture method – to burn land to encourage rejuvenation of new crops.
A Wider Definition of Talent and Meritocracy
28. The concept of meritocracy is deeply entrenched in Singapore. Singaporeans are very clear that the idea of meritocracy is to attract talent based on abilities, regardless of their family background or race. We have zero tolerance for corruption, nepotism and factionism.
29. So, whether it is for university places, job vacancies or contracts, we compete on merit, such as quality, price and ideas. This has become a widely accepted way in which our society function.
30. The difference is that, in the past, Singapore’s economy was still developing and there were limited opportunities for education. Only a small minority had the chance to go on to university. Among them, those who performed even better would be awarded with government scholarships. They are hard to come by, just like the top scholar in the Chinese imperial exams. Then, our definition of talent was narrowly linked to academic results.
31. But times have changed. Today, there are more opportunities for education. In a few years, 40% of each cohort will attend publicly-funded universities. Therefore, the definition of talent needs to be widened, as there are a growing number of students with impressive academic results.
32. A few years ago, we launched SkillsFuture, which focus on lifelong learning and skills upgrading as the best way for people to prepare themselves for the future, to master their craft, and achieve their goals in life.
33. Under the SkillsFuture initiative, we widen the definition of talent. Talents are not just top academic students. We must also respect and recognise craftsman and artisans (工匠精神), who honed their skills through experience and practice. Skills cannot be replicated by computers or robots, making it even more valuable in this era.
34. The widening of the definition of talent is a huge change. Many universities now do not admit students based on academic grades alone. The selection criteria include personality traits, character and interests. Companies have also widened their recruitment criteria, preferring candidates who can fit into the organisation culture. They value character traits such as resilience and accept applicants who have picked themselves up from setbacks in life. Our scholarship selection criteria also include qualities such as values, leadership ability, and the willingness to serve. We have to learn how to uncover and evaluate talent using criteria that are harder to quantify.
35. Under the new environment, the yardstick for selecting leaders will also change. Our criteria to select public sector talents have broadened. When selecting candidates for elections, we look for different talents and skill sets. What they have in common is the ability to connect with different segments of the population, and the passion to serve the people.
36. Singapore and China share many similarities, but there are also differences. We are both Asian societies, and the Chinese forms the majority of our population. But beyond that, embedded in Singapore’s collective consciousness are the cultures and traditions of Malays, Indians and Eurasians too. Being a small and open country, Singapore is also influenced by Western cultures. But fundamentally, we are still an Asian society.
37. The challenges faced by our countries are different in scale. The stage at which the challenges are at, and the speed of development are also different. Being a small and open country, Singapore is often seen as a bellwether for others. We may have experienced some of these challenges earlier. These include tackling an ageing population and falling birth rates, providing affordable and high quality healthcare services, and promoting harmonious tripartite relations in a rapidly changing world.
38. As the saying goes, it is easier for a small boat to change its direction (船小好调头). Singapore can be faster and more flexible in trying out different solutions in tackling our challenges. If a solution does not work, we can quickly learn from our experience and adjust.
39. China faces challenges of a vastly different scale. With rapid urbanisation, China has many modern cities. Each of them faces similar challenges as those in Singapore.
40. That is why Singapore and China will have much to learn from each other in governance and leadership. In this rapidly changing environment, we must have a set of enduring principles to govern our countries, but be flexible in applying them. May we strengthen and deepen our bilateral relations and cooperation in the years ahead.
41. I look forward to the exchange of views with our friends at this Forum. Thank you!