His Excellency Wang Yongqing, Secretary-General, Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the CPC Central Committee, People’s Republic of China
His Excellency Chen Xunqiu, Secretary-General, Central Committee Office for Comprehensive Social Management General Office, People’s Republic of China
Good morning. Let me first take this opportunity to thank Mr Wang Yongqing, Mr Chen Xunqiu and our Chinese friends for the wonderful reception here at the Second Singapore-China Social Governance Forum in Beijing.
In his opening speech, Deputy Prime Minister Teodescribed the similarities in the challenges faced by our countries in social governance. He highlighted the three enablers – the Rule of Law, policies, and community platforms – which Singapore holds as key to good social governance. Let me discuss how we apply these enablers in Singapore’s context.
Singapore is not a homogenous society. We began our journey as a country of largely immigrants. Various ethnic groups hailing from different parts of Asia and Europe came to Singapore to pursue better opportunities. Many stayed on and eventually settled in Singapore.
But when groups with varied backgrounds come together in a common space, differences in opinion will arise. If not properly managed, these differences can lead to social tensions and even escalate to episodes of violence. Indeed, we have experienced such episodes in the past.
So, for us, maintaining harmony in our society is not just an ideal objective to achieve. It is the fundamental basis for social stability, cohesion and security in Singapore. This has compelled us to constantly make deliberate efforts to maintain this harmony since our independence.
Today, we enjoy relative peace in a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious country. While our resident population is principally Chinese, forming about 74% of the resident population, we have substantial Malay and Indian minorities comprising about 13% and 9% of the resident population.
But our society is becoming more diverse, influenced by new inflows of people, values and perspectives. Internally, our population and economic structures are changing too. These can disrupt the current social fabric, and have the potential to create new social fault lines.
Some commentators have characterised Singapore’s approach as 法, 理, 情in order of priority while the Chinese way as 情, 理, 法 in order of priority. I think this may be overly simplistic in characterisation. Actually, the more appropriate interpretation is to find the suitable balance between the 3 concepts for each country’s respective circumstances. Let me share with you how we try to achieve the balance for Singapore’s society.
Singapore’s Approach to Social Governance
First and foremost. In Singapore, 理is central to the way we make policies and design our institutions. We believe that policies and institutions should be designed rationally and pragmatically to suit our context. This means that much of our social infrastructure – be it policies or institutions – are deliberately created to promote harmony, foster interaction and enhance mutual understanding between different groups.
Take for example the area of public housing. The Ethnic Integration Policy ensures a good mix of the various races in our public housing estates. This prevents racial enclaves, and promotes a culture where the different races learn to live together and build a sense of community across racial boundaries. One most tangible effect of this policy can be seen at the void decks, which are shared by people of different races and religion. It is not uncommon for a void deck space to be used to host a Malay wedding in the morning, and then a Chinese funeral in the evening. Both in the same day.
In terms of education, we invest heavily in training opportunities as key pathways for social mobility for all Singaporeans. We make sure that children from different races, language and religion go to national schools, where they interact with children from all other backgrounds. Schools emphasise a common education experience and teach a common language, English, while it is also compulsory for students to learn Mother Tongue to keep in touch with their heritage. This forms the foundation for young Singaporeans’ future interaction with people from all walks of life and different social economic backgrounds.
In the area of social policies, we ensure that the fruits of our economic success are shared with all Singaporeans. We design our overall taxation system to be progressive by having those who earn more, share more with those who have less. Our subsidies and transfers are targeted at the lower- to middle-income groups, while not discouraging them from work.
One example is the Goods and Services Tax (or GST) vouchers which Government provides annually to lower- and middle-income households. These vouchers indirectly help to offset the expenses incurred from buying necessities. On the other hand, people who can afford to consume luxury items will get less, if any, GST rebates. In this way, we ensure that the overall tax system remains progressive and redistributive. For our most vulnerable groups, we also offer them with financial assistance to tide them through tough times, and help them meet their daily expenses.
Another example is Workfare. Financial grants top up the salaries of the low- to middle-income workers, so long as they make best effort to find employment. More help is given to those with lower income and those who are elderly. We avoid universal subsidies that do not distinguish between those who need it most and those who do not. Likewise for housing, education and the top up to our Central Provident Fund, where we target to do more for those with less.
Our institutions, as well, promote interaction and forge bonds between different groups. A case in point: our defence institutions. All male Singaporeans, regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status, are required to serve National Service, or military training, upon reaching 18. For many Singaporeans, this is a rite of passage in life. Many who have served tell me how National Service broadened their interaction with different strata in society, and how the experience moulded them into better people.
This pragmatic approach to designing policies and institutions, 理, is then complemented by two concepts of 情 and 法. First, 情, or the “heartware”. Where the policies and institutions can set broad boundaries for social behaviour, the space within these boundaries have to be negotiated with society. Targeted social mechanisms – through platforms and processes – encourage different groups to constantly dialogue and exercise benevolence towards each other.
Our social platforms broadly perform two functions. First, they create avenues where Singaporeans can articulate their needs and aspirations. From 2012 to 2013, we conducted a massive public consultation exercise called Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). OSC involved over 47,000 Singaporeans participating in over 660 dialogue sessions island-wide. Through OSC, Singaporeans from all walks of life co-created a vision for a Singapore they wanted to see in the future, and dialogued on the values that our society should uphold. These discussions in turn provided an insight for Government to formulate policy adapted to society’s needs.
In fact, we recently announced a Pioneer Generation Package (建国一代配套), which in part came about from the OSC findings. The package helps the first generation of Singaporeans with their healthcare costs for life. It recognises their hard work and dedication in making Singapore what it is today. It is also a reflection of our common social values: the young looking after the old; and being a compassionate and inclusive society.
Second, our platforms seek to encourage different groups to proactively have open conversations, to foster relations and resolve misunderstandings as early as possible. At a national level, the National Steering Committee (NSC) on Race and Religious Harmony allows the apex leaders from the major ethnic and faith groups in Singapore to dialogue and build trust across their respective communities. At the local level, the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) help to build familiarity and strengthen relationships across ethnic, religious and community groups.
My colleague, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth, Ms Yeoh Chee Yan will elaborate more on our efforts to maintain racial and religious harmony in her presentation on “A Systematic Approach to Meeting Society’s Needs and Aspirations”.
Beyond platforms, we also emphasise the process whereby Government works with the People and Private sectors. Only by consciously nurturing partnerships with different groups, can different interests be brought together, common ground established and joint solutions created.
This is apparent in our labour movement. In Singapore, Government has committed to tripartism to forge constructive win-win partnerships with employees and employers. During the 2008 global financial crisis, the partnerships played a vital role in keeping industrial relations peaceful and facilitated important market adjustments. This allowed Singapore to buck global trends and continue to experience overall employment growth despite the financial crisis. From that episode, Singapore managed to retain human capital which then gave us the competitive advantage to respond quickly to the unexpected economic rebound in 2010.
In the social sector, Government actively works with, facilitates and supports our Non-Governmental Organisations through key institutions like the National Council of Social Service and the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. Together, we create the opportunities for better-off Singaporeans to commit time, monies and expertise to help the needy. As a process, this instils a sense of civic consciousness amongst community, and encourages our society to be compassionate and caring towards each other.
My colleague, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Social and Family Development, Mr Chan Heng Kee, will elaborate more on this point in his presentation on “An Inclusive Approach to Social Governance”.
Last, “heartware” (情) is complemented by the Rule of Law (法). This safeguards the legal boundaries of acceptable behaviour for both social and individual action, and for the Government.
The Rule of Law is not the only ingredient to good social governance, but it is a very necessary one. For Singapore, it is the cornerstone to realising our basic values, that is, equality regardless of race, language, religion or status.
Therefore, maintaining racial and religious harmony is a foremost consideration when we craft our laws. One key lever is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which provides boundaries and processes for religious harmony. We will not tolerate contemptuous or inflammatory remarks made by any member of the public, which incite ill-will along racial-religious lines. In addition, the President Council on Minority Rights scrutinises all Bills passed by Parliament to ensure they are not biased towards or against any racial or religious community.
Beyond race and religion, we also rely on the Rule of Law to protect our independence and sovereignty of our country. Singapore upholds a strict “no interference” policy towards foreign elements in our domestic politics. In line with this, we passed the Political Donations Act which prevents foreign groups from potentially influencing domestic politics.
But while the Rule of Law backs us with the legal framework to enforce our social harmony, we only employ it as a last resort. We must use it judiciously and temper its use according to the circumstances at hand. In fact, the Rule of Law – used as a deterrent – can be equally effective as an actual tool. We will only invoke its powers in severe circumstances, as we believe it is better to resolve issues within our existing social infrastructure and mechanisms.
In conclusion, social harmony should and must never be taken for granted. To ensure good social governance, Singapore strikes a balance between three key concepts. First, rational governance (理) which is a fundamental piece to guide the design of pragmatic policies and institutions. Second, benevolent governance (情) which negotiates the “heartware” of society. Andthird, lawful governance (法) which puts in place a legal framework to enshrine our fundamental values as a nation. Thus the mind 理 is bolstered by both a heart which is 情and a firm hand – rarely used but present when needed – which is 法.
This approach of calibrating between理, 情 and法 has worked well for us. But we must remain vigilant, and stay flexible to adjust our governance to meet the challenges brought about by new social fault-lines.
With that, I look forward to a fruitful exchange of ideas, and for the Forum to be a useful platform for us to understand each other’s perspectives and generate new ideas.
Download Singapore's Approach to Social Governance (Diagram)