At the Singapore Perspectives 2020 organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, a junior college student asked Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing where he saw Singapore in the next 20 to 30 years.
Minister Chan gave his answer straight from his heart.
My long-term vision for Singapore is not just for the next 20 or 30 years. I grew up in a part of the system where I understand that the last 50 years of our existence have been an aberration in the history of Singapore, and the history of this part of the world.
If we go back a few hundred years, Singapore had never been independent, and some would argue Singapore had never been allowed to be independent, because as a small city state without a natural conventional hinterland, it is very difficult to survive. Without those external links for resources, supplies, markets and talent, it is very difficult to survive.
The last 50 or more years, we have had to eke out a living for ourselves. We have had to defend ourselves, take care of our security. We have had to earn our keep and not depend on other people’s charity. We have to value-add so that we entrench ourselves in the global environment. Nobody has sympathy or charity for a small country.
In the last 50 years, we have had to navigate a domestic environment in which we all came from different shores. To have a country, regardless of race, language or religion, is not the norm. In fact, in many other countries, the national identity has to do with race, language, religion, ancestry, geography and so forth.
Even today, we don’t have the geographical, cultural and linguistic buffers against many of the global forces impacting us.
Amid all this – having to take care of our security, take care of our own lives and economic survival, and take care of our own cohesion for the last 50 years – nothing has been very natural. Nothing.
Take nothing for granted
And I’ve worked my whole life believing this. If we are careless, if we are not careful, if we are not sensitive to the larger forces in the world, if we take what we have for granted, we can very easily lose all this and have to start all over again. So I never take it as a given that we will arrive at SG100 effortlessly. Never.
When I went back to the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) and talked to them, I asked them: “How many of you think we will celebrate SG100, based on the current trajectory?”
Many put up their hands, and I’m very proud of them. But I reminded them: “While you have the confidence – and I’m proud that you have the confidence – never forget why you are still in uniform. The very fact that you are still in uniform tells us that we have many other challenges that require you to be in a uniform, and it’s not a job done. It is always a work in progress.”
No one owes us a living
Now at MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry), every day, my economic team has to go round to the rest of the world and convince people, local and foreign, to put their investments in Singapore so that we can have good and better jobs for our people, not just for today, but for the future.
EDB officers grow up very fast. They grow up learning that nobody will owe us a living, that we have to give a value proposition to the rest of the world, to tell them why they need to do business with us.
From equally poor to unequally rich. The challenges are no less.
When it comes to social issues, we have succeeded on many fronts, but the challenges are ongoing.
In the past, we were equally poor, today we are unequally rich. The challenges are no less. In the past, everybody felt they had a chance to rise to the top, and today, we still pride ourselves on this – that among all the societies we see, Singapore is probably the best place to be born, even if you don’t come from a privileged background, because we have every reason to believe that we can succeed.
But that is not to be taken for granted. All countries, as they mature, ossify. They form groups, and after a while, there will be groups that ask themselves: “Why should I continue to support this system if I cannot get ahead in this system?”
Those are our ongoing challenges.
One simple vision
So what’s my vision? I have only one simple vision for my entire life’s work, be it in the SAF, MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development), NTUC (National Trades Union Congress), or now, MTI.
I have one very simple vision, and that is for Singapore to defy the odds of history, to survive and thrive as a small city state without a natural hinterland. To survive and thrive where we may not have a common ancestry, race, language and religion. That we can define our identity based on a forward-looking set of values of multiculturalism, meritocracy, incorruptibility. That we will define a future where the future is in our hands, and we are not beholden to others nor held ransom by others. That when others ask us to jump, we don’t have to only ask: “How high?”; we can ask: “Why?”
Still here despite the brickbats
Is it easy? No. I don’t think so. My wife asked me: “Why do you continue to be where you are? Every day, you are getting all the brickbats, your family is getting the brickbats, your children are getting the brickbats.”
Why are we still here? I can tell you that we are still here, I am still here, because I want my children and my grandchildren, and many more generations to come, to be able to call themselves Singaporean. To have the means to call themselves Singaporeans, and the gumption to be called Singaporean – the will. Today, we may just be Singaporeans, but one day, there will be a Singapore tribe.
That’s why, for the bicentennial, I liked it so much when Indranee (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah) proposed the tagline: From Singapore to Singaporeans.
There’s a double meaning to it.
From Singapore, a geographical location, to Singaporeans, a people. A people united by a set of values, although we may not have a common ancestry, race and religion.
But “Singapore to Singaporeans” is also about our stewardship, to leave behind something better for the next generation, just as the previous generation has left us with what we have today. That every generation of Singaporeans will not fear, because they will start from a higher platform, to scale a high peak. That every generation will lend our shoulders to the next, to stand taller and see farther.
And if we can continue to do that, I’m not worried about SG100. I would say that even beyond SG100, we will continue to shine.
A simple vision to defy the odds of history
So what’s my vision for Singapore? Defy the odds of history. Show the world how a small city state without natural resources, without a common ancestry, can come together, value-add to the world, contribute to the world and bring forth people with a common set of values and vision, and are not just looking at the past.
That is our life’s work. Ask Swee Keat (Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat). I think he will give the same answer. That’s what unites us in this endeavour – to make sure that there will be a Singapore that all our children and future generations can be proud of.