Unexpectedly, Lee Kuan Yew rose to speak. He insisted on making his way, somewhat unsteadily, to the rostrum, waving away the microphones that were brought to him.
Once there, he stood silently for a moment, gazing into the crowd gathered at the Istana.
"Old friends," he said, finally. "Thank you for coming. Thank you for making time to attend my book launch."
He went on to talk about the book, "One Man's View Of The World", a collection of his thoughts on world affairs.
an earlier interview, he had said his main reason for the book was to
make this point: that the world does not remain static, and every
society evolves - for better, or worse. Which way it goes depends on the
choices its people make.
Uncharacteristically, he also confessed
that he "had given up" trying to solve what he saw as the most pressing
challenge facing the Republic--its declining birth rate, which remains
stubbornly low despite his efforts over the years to give couples a
nudge into having more babies.
The twin challenge of falling
fertility and rising agedness was for a younger generation of leaders to
figure out. Hopefully, they will find a way, he added wistfully.
encountered Lee over the years, as a reporter covering his political
activities and overseas trips as well as assisting with his memoirs, I
left the event last Tuesday a little forlorn.
No, it was not
because of the frail state that the former prime minister seemed to be
in. That was to be expected, given that he will turn 90 next month.
Rather, it stemmed more from a sense of foreboding of the big challenges
looming, which Lee and his book seem to allude to.
Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), which has just wrapped up, was an
attempt to crystallise these challenges and fashion a response. It
sought to draw out the hopes and fears of Singaporeans, and settle on a
way forward that most could agree on.
After over 660 sessions in
which nearly 50,000 people participated, what is the outcome? The
committee has summed up its discussions under five broad headings:
Opportunities, Purpose, Assurance, Spirit and Trust.
No doubt some
will find this rather underwhelming, given the seeming lack of policy
proposals, sacred cows slain, or road map to the future.
anticipating this, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who helmed the
committee, signalled in a major speech last Tuesday that policy shifts
are in the offing, arising from the OSC process. He stopped short of
giving details, pointing out that these will come soon enough when the
prime minister delivers his National Day Rally next Sunday.
Thursday, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong also gave a glimpse of what he
might be thinking when he said that the government would "play a bigger
role to build a fair and just society", which will entail changes in
housing, health-care and education policy.
Going by what has
emerged so far, it would seem that his government has heard the cry for
"assurance" from Singaporeans wanting to know that it is aware of their
worries about the rising costs of housing and health care, congestion in
the trains, buses and on the roads, as well as the stresses and strains
in the school system and the need to keep access to opportunities fair
and open to all. Many, however, will want to know just how it plans to
address these issues.
Indeed, these day-to-day concerns were
topmost on many minds during the OSC discussions, which seemed to centre
on the here and now. The talk was largely on what Singaporeans want, or
say they need, with relatively little attention given to what we as a
society will have to do to realise those aspirations.
looking on might be forgiven for concluding that Singaporeans have
turned inwards, jealously guarding and endlessly stirring up a precious
pot of curry. In contrast, external issues and events, from a rising
China and rising sea levels from climate change to how rapid changes in
technology might impact workers and industries here, seemed a world
This somewhat narrow focus of today's national conversation
was noted in an article in The Straits Times last Wednesday by Dr Parag
Khanna, a thoughtful Indian American who now lives in Singapore and
often strikes me as being more upbeat and passionate about this
city-state and its prospects than many Singaporeans.
efforts to tackle the short-term housing and transport woes highlighted
in the OSC, he went on to argue that what was missing was a bold new
Singaporean dream for the future.
His suggestion: Singapore should seize the opportunity to be the "capital of Asia".
will bestow the title of capital of Asia on Singapore; it must seize
it," wrote Dr Khanna, an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of
To do so, Singapore would have to embrace the
responsibility of being a global city, he said. This entails keeping
Singapore open to the world, and taking steps to build up the city's
infrastructure so that it could cope well with the flow of people who
will be drawn to an Asian hub city, even if this meant having a
population of eight million people, he added.
I did a double-take
when I read this. Given how politically toxic immigration has become in
recent months, it took quite a bit of gumption for Khanna to articulate
Yet, it is not such a new or radical idea. Rather, it
is a longstanding ambition that Singaporeans have shared for years, of
building an Asian metropolis on the island's mudflats, not as an end in
itself, but as a means to a better life for themselves and their
That vision appears to have lost its lustre in recent
years, in the face of the overly rapid influx of immigrants, which
outstripped the pace of development of the city's infrastructure. It
gave rise to popular resistance to any talk of allowing in more
foreigners. In the process, alas, it also emboldened the little
xenophobes among us.
With sufficient time, investment and resolve,
the present physical bottlenecks in infrastructure are likely to be
resolved. But the political roadblocks to keeping Singapore open,
connected, and relevant to the world will remain a major challenge.
his speech earlier last week, Heng cited the work of Harvard Professor
Ronald Heifetz to note that some of the challenges Singapore faces are
"technical" problems, which could be tackled by an appropriate policy
response or deploying sufficient resources, such as building more flats
or train lines.
But there are also deeper "adaptive challenges"
which call for society to rethink its values and change attitudes in
order to arrive at a new consensus on the way forward. In my view, the
task of steering Singaporeans back to the goal of being an open, global
city, is one such challenge.
Tackling these issues will require a
deep sense of trust among leaders and people, Heng rightly noted. Yet,
in today's world, trust is no longer just a matter of blind faith, with
leaders playing on their track records or political brand names, in a
"look how far we have come" fashion.
That no longer works. Rather,
trust will be fostered only when people sense that they have been
brought into the decision-making process, and more importantly, accept
that their leaders are sufficiently apprised of their concerns and
aspirations to figure out a way forward they are willing to support.
this is why the OSC has stopped short of addressing the longer- term
issues for now, seeing these as a task best taken up another time.
might be politic. Still, at some point, Singaporeans will have to face
up to these "adaptive" challenges. Unless we do, the perennial
existentialist question for Singapore--namely how a little red dot stays
relevant, survives and thrives in a world that is changing
economically, geopolitically and technologically--will not be answered,
and our prospects might well be constrained not so much by a paucity of
resources, but a lack of imagination and resolve.
story would turn out to be a tragedy if an earlier generation, who,
despite the odds and limitations, harboured big hopes of building a
bustling capital of Asia to help secure their children's future, came to
find that this bold aspiration ran up against a constraint they never
imagined--that their children would one day shrug it all off as a dream
that was just not worth the effort to make happen, or even strive for
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