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4G leadership: what’s your imprint?

So everyone’s reading tea leaves now.

After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s New Year’s message that new Parliament in May will have an agenda that will “bear the imprint of the fourth-generation leadership’’, ESM Goh Chok Tong came out on social media to suggest that the G get a move on and start naming the next leadership.

Now everyone’s back to the guessing game of “who ” and “when”. It’s a pity that Mr Goh chose not to explain why he considered the establishment of the 4G leadership an “urgent challenge’’. Instead, he suggested a time frame of six to nine months.

Who knows what the PM has in mind? There’s nothing the people can do to influence the choice of PM, who will have to be thrown up from among his peers. But we can do something about the sort of agenda the 4G leadership should carve out and the imprint we, the people, would like to see.

But before all that, we should have an idea of the sort of imprint the 3G leadership is leaving behind. From the top of my head, I would credit them with the creation of the healthcare and retirement mechanisms. Medishield Life protects us from sky-rocketing medical bills while CPF Life makes sure we aren’t destitute in our old age. Of course, both are dependent on sound financial and economic policies to make sure we can afford to sustain them.

There are actually already some policies that the 4G can lay claim to, especially on the education front. The two “newish’’ ministers of the 4G pulled out quite a few stops to re-work the school system to put more emphasis on the individual’s strength and potential rather than the grades. The change has started, even at pre-school level, but it would take some time to show results. Perhaps, the SkillsFuture programme, which focuses on adults, would help change parents’ mindsets on getting their kids to the “best’’ school.

I would think the economic policies which focus on industry transformation is another agenda the 4G leadership can be said to own. It was, after all, a product of a committee led mainly by members of the team.

There is one big burden that they will have to carry – tax increases. Whether increasing GST, lowering the income tax threshold, increasing taxes for the higher income, taxing e-commerce or even bringing back inheritance taxes, they would have their hands full explaining why.

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But it might not be so difficult a job if they can articulate the basis upon which Singapore will fund itself and for what vision. I don’t just mean where the money will come from but the sort of the balance between welfare and work income, and the contributions to society expected from different sectors and classes.

What sort of trade-offs are we willing accept now in return for better infrastructure and better care for the rapidly ageing population? Would higher marginal tax rates really hurt our status as a wonderful place for foreigners to park their money? Are the affluent doing enough for the bottom of society? Are we looking to raise the water level for all boats or just aiming for a Nobel Prize winner? Of course, we want both, but something’s got to give.

A 4G leadership will have to answer these deeper, bigger questions before deciding on how much to tax the people. In other words, give us a new vision please.

Frankly, it’s really not a good time for a leadership change – anywhere. Social media can rattle people’s convictions and unsettle even the most confident of politicians. Think back to how much easier it was for politicians in the past to set directions without the distracting and discordant internet noises.

So the 4G would have to deal with this greater fractiousness too. Would they do so in an authoritarian manner in the name of national security?

Truth to tell, the climate has become cooler over the past year, especially with the promises of even more legislation covering the limits of expression. How the fake news legislation, amendments to the much-waited Broadcasting Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act will be shepherded through to their final forms will be a big reflection of how the 4G wants to operate vis-a-vis the people in this brave, new world.

Whoever emerges as first among equals might also consider what ESM Goh said in August about building a “stronger and more inclusive millennial generation team”.

“The fourth generation leaders will have to quickly establish themselves as a cohesive team and identify the captain amongst them,” he said.

“They must try their utmost to bring in potential office-holders from outside the Singapore Armed Forces and public sector to avoid group-think.”

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He added that talented people outside the public sector should step up and serve. Clearly they aren’t, or the circle of contenders wouldn’t all be former public servants.

For whatever reason, notwithstanding generous ministerial salaries, the G hasn’t been successful on this front. I have said many times that the issue of salaries is a poison, reducing the relationship between the government and the governed to a business transaction.

So here’s one sacrilegious suggestion for the 4G leadership: Ditch the formula and come up with another one.  Then maybe people won’t be so tetchy and demanding of their money’s worth and the talented wouldn’t be so afraid to be derided for working for money.

That would be a magnificent move for the 4G leaders. Wah liao! Talk about imprint!


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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