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I am sold on bold – but what bold moves?

The thing I remember most about the previous Presidential Address to Parliament is about the need for Singapore to get its politics right. And if you recall, plenty of changes were indeed made, such as increasing the number of non-constituency MPs and more importantly, to the office of the elected presidency.

It looked like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was laying the foundation for a strong political structure for his successor and the next generation of leaders to govern effectively. But besides putting more steel into the backbone, the next question is how to flesh it out, so to speak.

Frankly, a lot of the spadework has already been done. At almost every National Day rally, for example, the PM has promised changes to the landscape or cityscape, with regional nodes where communities live and work together in wonderful surroundings. Now, the 4G will have the pleasure/pressure of seeing those buildings and gardens come up, something which will depend on whether the State has enough money to keep those promises, which is contingent on an ever-humming economy. (Let’s not talk about the coming GST hike)

With a political structure, security measures secured through Parliament and a blueprint for the economy set by the Committee for the Future Economy in place, it’s time for the younger leaders to show what they can do with what their predecessors have laid down.

It’s going to be tough, given that the 4G leaders are starting from a high base. As President Halimah Yacob said:  “We may feel that we have more to lose now. We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins. That would be the wrong approach.”

This was to me the most significant point of her speech. But what sort of bold moves can we expect? To the extent that sacred cows will be led to the abattoir?

Expectations are now high given what the 4G leaders (through the President) have pronounced as their statement of (bold) intent. How will they go about demonstrating this through word and deed? For that, we will have to wait till next week for ministers to respond formally to the Presidential Address.

I’ve always thought that the younger leaders are starting with a handicap. It is hard to show your imprint if the G keeps insisting that everyone puts up a collective front. We have no idea what the 4G leaders argued for or are most passionate about in Cabinet meetings. We don’t know if their vision is much the same as the older members.

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My own view is that the 4G should try and make a clean break from the past in some way or other. I recall the excitement when the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down for Mr Goh Chok Tong to take over. Mr Goh promised a kinder, gentler nation – which many interpreted as moving away from the tough love (?) Mr Lee exhibited. Mr Goh was also very concerned about the intangibles, such as the values Singaporeans hold, even as the economy powered up and delivered more material progress.

I think there are two areas which the 4G leaders can be said to already “own’’: Gearing up for the future economy and changing the concept of education as a paper chase exercise.

Mr Heng Swee Keat has been doing much of the first bit as Finance Minister and he is now responsible for seeing through the Industry Transformation Maps. But the other big change is the speed at which the future economy is sweeping through Singapore, whether we like it or not.

Our laws and regulations are, for example, trying to catch up with the changes in the ride-hailing and bike-sharing economy. How fast can we deal with fintech, as newer, speedier financial instruments are dangled in front of the laymen?

Transforming industries will be a slow process with results that can only be realised years later. But agility is needed to handle new economy changes – and to convince old economy to shift. This could mean encouraging the set up of new types of companies dealing with data and AI – as well as getting an elderly person to go cashless.

It will also mean convincing Singaporeans that we don’t have all the brains to achieve this, and this would mean having to import them. This will be tough given the aversion some quarters have towards foreigners, despite their slower rate of importation. Note that Mr Heng himself had floated a trial balloon on the need for a re-calibration of the foreign worker policy.

I think the education sector is the best field for the 4G leaders to demonstrate its mettle. It is good that two 4G leaders had been tasked in the past to handle the ministry, each with a clear focus. This showed that education was clearly a 4G affair. Mr Ng Chee Meng, who handled the mainstream schools, has since moved to the NTUC, so Mr Ong Ye Kung, who dealt with higher education and skills training, is the only one with the ball.

It is through this 10 years of compulsory education, and beyond, that many of the ideals espoused in the President’s address can be fulfilled, whether it is tackling social inequality or building a Singapore identity.

Some changes have been made on the education front, such as to the Primary School Leaving Examination which will take place in a few years – although it will be said that the “bold’’ move would be to do away with it altogether. “Applied learning’’ is also a core tenet in secondary school.

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Then there is the shift away from academic grades to a skills and practice-oriented education that will lead to meaning jobs. In fact, the pronounced emphasis on skills is making some people worry that we’re going to the other extreme of denigrating the worth of a degree! (A Prime Minister with no degree?) Yet, for others, the change can’t come fast enough, as most parents are still set on seeing their children with a mortar board on their head.

But change has indeed begun. I see the SkillsFuture programmes as part of attempts to change the mindset of parents. If the parents think such programmes are good for their own careers, then they might not be so averse to setting their children on a technical path and to realize that learning is forever.

What will be worth watching are programmes to level up underprivileged families so that their children will be at the same starting line in primary school along with their more privileged peers.

Now this is new.

We’re shifting from the problem of getting more babies born, to the kind of support we’re giving to the babies that we do have. We must hope that KidStart and the changes at pre-school level will have an impact on pulling up the bottom of the population.

But once in the school system, what happens? Will the best still be with the rest or will there still be closed circles where they interact mainly with their own “kind’’? How can we make sure our children from different socio-economic circumstances cross paths more often and grow up together?

That requires a hard look at admission programmes, school resources and alumni ties because, try as Mr Heng might, every school is not a good school in the eyes of parents. Parents used to be assured that even if their children aren’t in top schools, so long as the end point is a university graduation ceremony, everything will turn out fine for their kids. That concept too is being turned on its head with the current skills-oriented emphasis.

It is a confusing period we’re in.

Madam Halimah said the new leaders “will need to listen to the views and feelings of the people, and by their words and deeds, show that they have heard; yet never fear to lead and mobilise public opinion to support difficult policies in the long-term interest of Singapore’’.

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She added that trust between Singaporeans and their leaders does not pass automatically from one generation to the next.

“That right cannot be inherited.’’

Well said. Now we wait to hear how the new leaders will do this next week.

Something for the 4G leaders to consider: Please allow the broadcast or streaming of parliamentary sessions live. I happen to think it’s a small move, but it might be bold in your books.


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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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