The Singapore Summit is an important pre-F1 event held every year since 2012, bringing together big-time business and thought-leaders from all over the world.

It features numerous luminaries addressing key geopolitical and socioeconomic issues of the day, and every year, a prominent Singaporean minister takes the helm at its Friday evening opening dialogue.

And on the evening of Friday, Sep. 14, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung was that minister.

With an estimated 400 people in attendance this time round, consisting largely of international business and intellectual leaders, Ong’s speech took a surprising turn for the local.

Surprising, because his predecessors, also key ministers, focused on global geopolitical and socioeconomic trends.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, for instance, who spoke last year, focused on the growth of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, while in 2016, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam touched on the importance of seeing the positives in globalisation, despite a then-pessimistic outlook on the world’s economies.

Even in 2015, Lim Hng Kiang spoke about China’s growth potential and the importance of regional economic integration in Asia.

It sounded almost like Ong felt the need to remind the Singaporeans present — although certainly also the international business leaders gathered — of the government’s key priorities for Singapore at the moment.

He whittled them down to these four:

  • Building infrastructure
  • Changing the model of economic growth
  • Tackling the challenges posed by an aging population, and
  • Evolving the education system

1) Building infrastructure

Ong highlighted the ongoing construction of Terminal 5 at Changi Airport in the East, and the upcoming Tuas megaport in the West as evidence of our aim to double our airport and seaport capacities.

Additionally, he spoke about three more business districts being developed outside of the Central Business District (CBD) — the Woodlands Regional Centre, the Punggol Digital District and the Jurong Lake District.

Ong also spoke at length about the hot topic of housing, as well as the fact that the oldest flats are ageing too. Emphasising that “housing is a core compact between the people and the Government”, Ong reiterated the government’s previous assurances that flats will be upgraded every 30 years, while those that reach 70 years old will be offered VERS.

2) Changing the model of economic growth

Ong noted that thus far, the model of foreign direct investment has been a major driver in Singapore’s economic growth, with the Economic Development Board (EDB) specifically being established to serve this purpose by attracting MNCs.

However, Ong acknowledged that while “[this] FDI model remains important… it is no longer sufficient.”

As a result of a maturing economy, with our land and manpower resources reaching their limits, and the regions of Southeast Asia, China and India having become booming markets, Ong said it is necessary to make the shift to an approach that focuses more heavily on research and development (R&D), and the development of new services and products.

The key to this, Ong adds, is investing heavily in R&D and making Singapore an attractive environment for various research-based facilities.

Ong noted that thus far, companies that already established an R&D facility here include:

  • Google
  • Grab
  • Alibaba
  • Paypal
  • Siemens
  • Dyson
  • Hewlett-Packard (HP)

3) Tackling the challenges posed by an aging population

On the issue of our aging population, Ong noted the oft-cited statistic of 65-and-up-year-old Singaporeans going up from one in seven now to one in four by 2030.

This also means a doubling of Singaporeans aged 65 and above from 450,000 presently to 900,000.

Moreover, our total fertility rate now stands at 1.16 while even Japan’s is at 1.4. (To this, he said: “1.4, not too bad. We would love 1.4.”)

The solution, Ong said, is to raise the retirement age and introduce national legislation on re-employment, to help older Singaporeans work longer should they wish to do so, alongside housing measures like the Silver Housing Bonus and the lease buyback scheme.

Certainly, Ong adds, this of course means a greater need for a more robust healthcare infrastructure given the anxieties of the elderly. Unsurprisingly, health currently forms the third highest area of Government expenditure after defence and education, and the education minister predicted it will overtake his ministry’s budget “in the coming years”.

He also mentioned the impending GST hike from 7 to 9 per cent, attributed, interestingly enough, to our aging population.

4) Evolving the education system

Turning to his own jurisdiction, Ong remarked with a grin,

“Every problem in the world is because of education, that’s one thing I learned.”

Ong said the increasing rate and frequency of technological progress and “industry disruptions” meant that learning was now a lifelong process, one that has to be cultivated.

This means a greater demand for skills, leading to another gem from him:

“You can google knowledge [but] it’s hard to google skills.”

And here’s where the plug comes: Ong added that the existence of SkillsFuture now means “cradle to grave, learning comes under Ministry of Education”.

He also stressed the need for students to be aided from young “to progressively discover their strength, grow their interests, and guide them on possible career directions”, with even “tertiary institutions… having assumed a new mandate for lifelong learning” too.

Essentially, all of these means a move “away from didactic teaching in lecture halls and…a lot more [experiences]…with community immersion, project work, internships and cross-cultural exposures”.

Ong acknowledged that even then, despite the fact that there were tertiary institutions such as NUS were admitting students “based on their passions and talents, and not just their academic grades”, much work still remains to be done in terms of moving away “from rigorous academic teaching and assessments, towards applied learning, cultivating creativity and critical thinking”.

Long-term solutions vs. short-term delusions

Ong accordingly wrapped up his speech with a nod towards rising populism around the world:

“All around the world, politics and governance are becoming more short term and populist. It is hard to explain this trend. Perhaps social media is breeding angst and impatience. Perhaps online falsehoods are dividing societies. Perhaps big data is changing politics, from an art of a long-term search for a better life, to an auction for short-term euphoria.”

This, he concluded, is why the government has to plan long-term in its domestic policies to guard against these trends.

Top photo by Jeanette Tan