Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Book Launch of Singapore 206503 Aug 2015
Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo,
Professor Bertil Andersson, President, NTU
Professor Wang Gungwu,
Professor Tommy Koh,
Professor Edwin Thumboo
Professor Euston Quah,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. It is a pleasure for me to join you here for this Book Launch.
2. The fifty year time frame in this book is ambitious. But Professor Euston Quah has brought together an interesting and diverse set of opinion makers and thinking about Singapore’s future. Their questions and perspectives illustrate the challenges facing us as a country, as well as our promise as a nation still young in its history.
A world in transition to an uncertain destination
3. The one unchanging fact about our future is that we will be a small country in a region with larger players, and in a world that is changing in unpredictable ways.
4. So we must always start by observing the world, and finding a way in which, even as our own society evolves, we can earn a meaningful living and remain a resilient, dignified people amidst the larger currents of the world.
5. No one can tell with any confidence what the world will be like 50 years from now, just as few could see how fundamentally the world would change in the last half century. But there is a sense of unease around the world – in the advanced nations, where confidence in being able to sustain broad prosperity has been weakened, and in the many developing nations which once held hope that with decolonisation and globalisation they would catch up with the advanced world.
6. What we do know is that the future will be different from the past. Possibly very different. The developed countries face the prospect of prolonged slow growth, after a surge in prosperity in the few decades after the War. They are now restrained by debt, and by the much smaller increases, or absolute reductions, in their working age populations. Productivity too has slowed across the advanced world.
7. Slow growth is also shaping a new and more fragmented politics, weakening both the resolve within nations to build a stronger future, and equally damaging, diminishing the appetite for global cooperation and multilateralism. In many advanced countries, overextended social welfare systems will require significant adjustments, fraying the compact between the young and the old.
8. In the developing world, the process of convergence with the advanced world has been the exception rather than the norm, contrary to what economists expected 50-60 years ago. Economic confidence remains stronger in Asia than in most other regions, but here too there is much uncertainty. There is surely no linear projection into a prosperous Asian future based on past growth. We should expect disruptions from time to time, everywhere in the region.
9. Globally, climate change continues unabated. There is more that we can do, but the sum of what is likely to be agreed in multilateral forums will not be sufficient. Turbulence in the Middle-East is likely to persist for many years. Conflict and tensions based on religious and sectarian beliefs, now globalised, have become the defining political challenge of the times.
10. And everywhere in the modern world, a new wave of technology is reshaping the world of work. Robots are becoming cheaper, safer and more sophisticated – improved sensors and machine vision, and softer, lighter materials that enable robots to work alongside humans. They will lower costs for companies and consumers, but also replace many human jobs. Meanwhile, jobs in the more advanced economies are also moving from the traditional world of corporate employment to the so-called ‘shared’ or freelancing economy, with the result being less security for the worker.
Singapore’s next phase of development
11. We embark on our next phase of development as a nation amidst these changes and uncertainties. But we start from a position of some strength, coming out of the sustained transformations we achieved in our first 50 years of nationhood.
a. Living standards for all segments of our society have increased five to six times since 1960s, even as the challenge of inequality remains. Our education system has transformed Singaporeans’ potential dramatically. Social mobility remains alive, and better than in most developed societies, although we have to work hard to sustain it in the future.
b. Our reserves, built up through years of prudent fiscal policies, now give Singapore a strategic advantage that we never had in earlier decades. Besides offering security for the future, it now means a steady stream of investment income in our government budget each year to spend on economic and social priorities. It is quite different from most developed countries, who have to service large debts by either raising taxes or cutting expenditures today, or by imposing an even larger burden on the next generation.
c. Our urban planning and public housing have also enabled ethnic and social integration to a degree unparalleled in other cities, and broadly-distributed access to quality schools, healthcare, and to parks and recreation. Homeownership, extending to the majority of Singaporeans even in the lowest 20% of incomes, has enabled a culture of shared progress.
12. But it is the continual improvement in our human capabilities, in every vocation, and our ability to work together to achieve common goals, that is Singapore’s most significant strength.
13. We must keep evolving these capabilities.
14. Our future will depend not only on adapting and perfecting what has been done elsewhere, but more and more on creating value in Singapore – through new skills and technologies, original business solutions and a spirit of experimentation in society. We must provide space for young Singaporeans to explore their interests and develop a deep sense of fellowship with their peers as they grow up in our schools. And we must develop a system that supports learning throughout our lives, and help everyone acquire skills to work alongside and take advantage of new technologies.
15. We are making an even better Singapore, both more innovative and more inclusive. We must do so with the blend of imagination and practicality that got us to where we are today, and always with a sense of fairness.
16. It will help too that public debate continues to advance. We have more ideas and views coming from scholars, public intellectuals, and a broader range of commentators today compared to even a decade ago. There is more active scrutiny of government policies, and more active listening by Government. But it will do Singapore good if we also have more debate and peer review within civil society itself, with participants evaluating each other’s analyses and proposals, and pointing to the trade-offs, thoroughly and dispassionately. This debate, which does not depend on only the government responding to arguments being put forward, will help us mature as a society.
17. I am sure this book will make a valuable contribution to this healthy debate on the choices we must make as we go forward together.
18. Thank you.