ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

‘Forward Singapore’ Offers a Timely Opportunity for Difficult Conversations

The government-led initiative should spearhead an effort to review and renegotiate the city-state’s social compact.

‘Forward Singapore’ Offers a Timely Opportunity for Difficult Conversations
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 28, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong launched the Forward Singapore initiative, kicking-off the year-long exercise aimed at reviewing and renegotiating Singapore’s social compact.

This exercise is different from the last few nationwide reviews or consultation exercises, such as the Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations in 2020, the Committee on the Future Economy in 2016, or the Our Singapore Conversation in 2012. These tasks were aimed at either collecting feedback and inputs from the public on Singapore’s future or building on strategies already recommended by expert committees.

While I imagine Forward Singapore will incorporate some of these thrusts as well, its differentiating factor is that it will focus on having honest and difficult multi-way conversations with the public and other stakeholders on issues that matter to Singapore’s future. A consensus on their outcomes will form the basis of a new agreement between the different stakeholders of Singaporean society as the city-state embarks on the next stage of its journey. While previous initiatives were relatively broad, Forward Singapore will focus on six pillars: empower, equip, care, steward, build, and unite.

Timing is Everything

With Singapore’s political leadership transition now firmly underway, it is timely for the next generation of political leaders to tackle some of the difficult questions facing the nation and chart the best way forward.

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It is thus no surprise that Wong and a suite of fourth generation (4G) ministers are driving the Forward Singapore initiative. If the People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to form government for Singapore, as expected, then these leaders are primed to be the key drivers of its future. They will want to have their own contract with society – one that allows them to govern effectively, purposefully, and with moral authority.

Moreover, with the world currently in the midst of a “perfect storm,” there can be no better time to review the things that have worked well for Singapore so far and identify what needs to change. Even though the external environment is not explicitly stated as one of the six pillars of Forward Singapore, this small and open country cannot ignore factors such as the Russia-Ukraine war, global inflation, supply-chain shifts, slowing growth in China, and intensifying geopolitical rivalries.

There’s also still the small matter of COVID-19, since we are seeing new wave of infections globally, signaling that we are clearly not out of the woods.

All of these mean that Singapore is at a cross-roads, and  must make sense of the world around it while exploring ways to remain competitive and relevant.

The Pillars of Society

Given the plenitude of challenges facing Singapore, both internally and externally, it is no surprise that the 4G leaders have used Forward Singapore to zero in on issues such as economy and jobs, education and lifelong learning, health and social support, the home and living environment, environmental and fiscal sustainability, and questions of Singaporean identity.

These are cross-cutting, existential issues that impact all segments of society. To that end, they are not just pillars of Forward Singapore, but are also the pillars of Singaporean society more broadly.

The economy, jobs, and education have traditionally weighed heavily on the minds of Singaporeans, but these concerns appear to be intensifying. Last July, the Institute of Policy Studies published a  paper titled “Lived Experiences in Singapore,” which contained key findings and analysis from the World Values survey. The paper reported that “a majority of Singaporean respondents indicated that they were very much or a good deal worried about losing their job or not finding a job.” The study also showed that compared to 2012, more Singaporeans, particularly younger ones, were more worried about their children’s educational prospects.

With an ageing population and few or no natural resources, it is inevitable that issues such as environmental and fiscal sustainability as well as healthcare and social support – along with the infrastructure needed to create an inclusive, technologically world-class city-state – will be at the fore of any future planning for Singapore.

Ultimately, Singapore should be a place to which Singaporeans have a sense of belonging, a place that they not only leverage for its economic or educational dividends, but one they can call home even beyond the transactional aspects of their relationship with the country. Judging from a survey by Ipsos in 2020 that examined national pride and what Singaporeans identify as being Singaporean, only three out of 10 Singaporeans believe that their country is a better place to retire than elsewhere. Clearly, much work needs to be done in shaping the Singaporean identity and its importance is in creating a rooted and distinct society across all demographics.

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Difficult Questions

The efficacy of these six pillars will hinge greatly on how much of an honest conversation can be had during Forward Singapore and beyond. There will be difficult, and sometimes inconvenient, questions to tackle. But address them Singapore must.

On many counts, these may seem practical, even mundane, questions. Are Singaporean consumers willing to pay more for that plate of chicken rice so that lower-income earners get a significant salary bump and help narrow the inequality gap? Are vehicle owners comfortable maintaining the sky-high prices of fuel because that may help nudge Singapore towards a car-lite society or one with more cleaner fuel options? Are employers willing to hire workers without the necessary paper qualifications but the right aptitudes and skill sets to help create more diverse and deeper pathways to success? Are locals comfortable with more foreigners taking up lower-wage level jobs in Singapore if that segment of its local workforce prefers the flexibility of gig economy work?

These questions may sound too simplistic to some, but Singaporeans need to discuss these issues, weigh the trade-offs and together, as a society, ink a new social compact that enables it to forge ahead. Here, it is time that the social compact be expanded to beyond the government and citizens. Complex societal issues require a multi-pronged solution and a true social compact needs a buy-in and commitment from all stakeholders – civil society and the private sector included.

The fact that Forward Singapore was launched at the national trade union’s tripartite dialogue, not only signals the emphasis that jobs will play in this exercise but also provides employers and companies the opportunity to be important and accountable stakeholders in Singapore’s future.