BY CHIA YAN MIN, Straits Times
A KEY member of Singapore's fourth-generation leadership has set out what he sees as the country's challenges over the next decade and beyond, and proposed strategies for staying competitive, relevant and united.
Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing was addressing members of the Economic Society of Singapore at their annual dinner, days before Singapore, whose existence as a small, independent nation he said he never takes for granted, celebrates its 49th National Day.
He kicked off his speech with a survey of geopolitics, where one uncertainty comes from United States-China ties.
For a small country like Singapore, another challenge is how to stay relevant as its larger neighbours reach milestones: Indonesia on the threshold of middle-class status, and Malaysia seeking to break into the ranks of developed countries.
"The challenge for Singapore is to develop a constructive and complementary relationship with our closest and fast-growing neighbours. Our risk is that if we are unable to create value and lose our strategic weight, we can be easily marginalised and relegated to irrelevance – where others dictate what we do and not do."
Singapore must also learn to adapt to rising volatility due to disruptive technologies. Here, he highlighted as a key concern the displacement of middle-income jobs, which could accentuate inequality and fracture society.
Stating his stand on a much-debated issue among economists on the right scale of transfers between rich and poor, Mr Chan said: "Our real and greater challenge is to strengthen the ability of our middle-income earners to compete on the global stage, rather than only arguing about the scale of transfers."
The key principles behind Singapore's established approach to social transfers to the needy will remain unchanged, he added.
These are to provide targeted rather than universal help so that those with the least get the most help, and to keep spending sustainable – so as not to transfer the burden to future generations, ensure continued support from society's most productive members, and avoid running down the national reserves so they can remain a buffer against the vagaries of intensifying economic cycles.
Mr Chan also offered four strategies for Singapore to prepare for significant social, political and economic shifts.
First, even as Singaporeans "scale the mountains of the world", they must remain rooted to home and want to give back to the country. Second, Singapore "must continue to turn constraints into opportunities". Third, it should leverage the faith others have in its standards and laws. Finally, it must stay cohesive, adaptable and resilient, with "the right social compact and values", and good leadership with the four Cs of being "committed, capable, connected and clean".
On social mobility, he defended Singapore's meritocracy, saying there is "nothing intrinsically wrong" with a system that rewards talent and effort, rather than kinship ties and inheritance.
"We can never equalise inheritance or endowment. But we can endeavour to allow our people to have the best opportunities to realise their talents and blessings," he said. "We must continue to push hard for continuous meritocracy. That one's fate and achievement is not pre-ordained by one's initial endowment, or any single achievement in life, but shaped more by one's talent and continuous efforts."