ST Nov 4, 2006The old 5 C's was a very neat description of Singaporeans' aspirations. The new 5 C's ... I dunno. They sound like an attempt by a semi-desperate ST writer to organise a very broad-ranging discussion into a coherent article. These new 5 C's are a bunch of wiffy-waffly abstract nouns and they aren't going to find any permanent place in the collective Singapore lingo.
Singapore Dreaming: The other 5Cs
Cash, credit card, car, condo, country club. Cliched. Li Xueying, Goh Chin Lian and Keith Lin speak to MPs and observers about the President's Address at the opening of Parliament this week and conclude that it contains the new Five Cs that should matter to concerned Singaporeans.
Taking off from the President's Address, Insight ventures a new take on the Five Cs that ought to matter just as much in the coming years.
FIRST, Singapore needs to survive. How to ensure that it never drops out in a perennial race, not just against other economies, but also can triumph over the vagaries of globalisation?
In his address, Mr Nathan enumerated some factors: a stable political climate, a strong tripartite partnership, the need to embrace talent, both local and foreign, and an outstanding public service.
Beyond these, there is also the need to look ahead and see what can be done to invest in the future: to transform the education system, invest in research and development (R&D), wire up Singapore and so on.
What is key, says Hong Kah GRC MP Alvin Yeo, is the education system.
'Beyond the accumulation of knowledge, we need to encourage and enhance our students' abilities to challenge, question and innovate,' he says.
For instance, the technologies that will be relevant when they start work might not even have been invented yet, he adds.
'As such, it is vital that our people be able to adapt to whatever is relevant in their day, and innovate to find solutions to problems that did not exist when they were in school.'
The re-education of middle-aged Singaporeans is another issue that needs to be examined, says Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa.
As for whether the promise of R&D will bear fruit and benefit the ordinary Singaporean, Mr Yeo says: 'Daunting though it may seem for a small country like Singapore to try to be an R&D hub, I feel we really have no choice.
'What we can do is to try and spot niches and growth areas to focus on, and thereby not spread our R&D personnel and dollars too thin.'
But ultimately, says economist Song Seng Wun, it is not about whether enough is being done to keep Singapore competitive.
'That's not the issue. Rather, in the fluid landscape that we're in today, what we should aim to have is the ability to change our policies quickly should circumstances require.'
For now, the Government is doing quite well in seizing opportunities, driven by a 'very strong kiasu/kiasi factor' or a scared to lose/scared to die attitude, says Mr Song.
He cites as example the decision to build integrated resorts. 'From no casino, to two, and now perhaps more. And that reflects the reality of the new world, that nothing is really cast in stone.'
All these must be done, and done now, says Mr Liang, especially now that Singapore is going through an upturn.
He echoes the point made by Mr Nathan, who said: 'When conditions are favourable, as they are now, we must grow as fast as we can. Then, even when conditions are tough, we can weather the storm and help those in need.'
This will mean certain trade-offs.
To get the fastest growth possible, the Government will have to embrace globalisation and foster an environment conducive to global investors, such as lower taxes and an open economy able to absorb talent from anywhere.
Such an approach may well lead further to a growing income disparity, says Mr Song.
'As much as the burgeoning economy creates many more opportunities and people become wealthier, those in the lower-income bracket will not see the same kind of opportunities.'
THEY turn up at the Meet-the-People sessions with a stack of unpaid utilities, medical and conservancy bills. They have outstanding payments for housing loans. They have school-going children. They are jobless.
And after being helped, they return again with their problems.
While the number of such cases has not grown much, and has even fallen in some constituencies, say MPs, steps should be taken now in anticipation that the social divide will widen.
Sociologist Tan Ern Ser notes that the Gini coefficient - a measure of income inequality - has grown from 0.49 to 0.52 in the past five years.
The key, say MPs and political watchers, is in striking the balance between helping the needy and having them take responsibility for themselves.
It would not do for Singapore to implement European countries' welfare schemes which erode people's motivation to work and have to be financed with high tax rates.
MP Cedric Foo believes education is the better answer, a conclusion he came to after encounters with needy constituents in his West Coast GRC.
In between listening to the parents' woes and doling out lollipops to the children, he observes the youngsters. 'I can tell they are very bright, but clearly they are disadvantaged by their background.'
That prompted his Citizens Consultative Committee to start a learning club a year ago. About 40 primary school children learn English and mathematics for a nominal fee - or none if they are poor.
Mr Foo hopes to expand the club to cover non-academic subjects like leadership at the Outward Bound School or even ice-skating.
'If we don't invest in these children, it's a problem waiting to happen 10 to 20 years down the road.'
Mr Seng Han Thong, an assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, has his eye on helping older workers. The Yio Chu Kang MP meets residents who are sole breadwinners and have lost their jobs. Worse still, they have little or no savings.
The Government may need to consider more grants like the ComCare Fund to help such people who do not have the right skills for the jobs available to tide over difficult times, he says.
'The challenge is how to help fellow Singaporeans who are going through the low points of their life, to be able to stand on their own and start a new life again.'
Mr Seng believes the help should be comprehensive - from giving temporary financial aid to meet immediate needs, to training for a job.
He recalls meeting a jobless man in his mid-50s some months ago. Mr Seng suggested he try to be a cabby. But the man had to overcome several hurdles: He could not apply for a vocational licence to drive a taxi because of outstanding payments for his Medisave account; he had problems passing his taxi examinations; he had his electricity at home cut because he had no job.
And when he was ready to drive a taxi, he needed to open a Giro account, but had no money to open one.
The MP found help for him through various channels, from the grassroots' welfare fund to the Taxi Academy, which worked with a taxi company to help him.
'We did it because we assessed that he had the will to move on.'
Another group that will need attention is the elderly, as the number of Singaporeans aged 65 years and above is set to double in 15 years.
Mr Phua Kok Tee, the chief executive officer of the Singapore Action Group of Elders, thinks it is important to recognise that while some elderly people may need help, others can care for themselves and should be encouraged to be active and to work.
This requires the authorities to make the environment accessible, from the HDB flat, to the ground floor, to the bus stop and the shopping mall. It means public transport operators should introduce wheelchair-friendly buses more quickly.
It also means employers need to understand that the elderly can still contribute with their skills and experience if given the chance. 'I would like to see many of our elderly take care of themselves and be independent,' he says.
THE Government may be able to help the lower-income and older Singaporeans. But a society without compassion among individuals is an unhealthy and un`stable one, say commentators.
In his Address, Mr Nathan spoke of many helping hands and reminded better-off Singaporeans of their responsibility to help their less successful fellow citizens.
How? Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Sam Tan, the executive director of the Chinese Development Assistance Council, thinks the Government can lend a hand to encourage more helping hands.
This could be through measures such as granting voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) the required status to collect tax-exempt donations, or continuing double tax deductions for charitable donations.
Ms Jennifer Yee, executive director of welfare group Lions Befrienders, believes the many helping hands approach also requires voluntary welfare groups to cooperate rather than compete for funds and volunteers.
'VWOs have to adopt the common mindset that it is our beneficiaries who should be uppermost in our minds.'
Singaporeans themselves are getting involved. A National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre survey found that 15.5 per cent of residents here took part in at least one volunteer activity in the past year. It was 15.2 per cent in 2004.
Ms Yee holds the view that volunteers need incentives. 'You need to give them something tangible... like something they can learn and put on their CVs or that can enlarge their social contacts.'
MacPherson MP Matthias Yao sees it differently. 'We discovered there is no need for incentives. When they are needed, we are asking for more than what the person is willing to commit. If we ask for something within what they are able, they can be quite charitable.'
Rather than ask for huge, long-term commitments, the way to go is to start small, he says.
WITH a new generation coming to the fore, Singapore will require a 'new social and political compact', said Mr Nathan.
The better-educated and Internet-savvy post-65 generation will 'need avenues to try out their ideas and fulfil their ambitions'. The most successful ones must learn to identify with their fellow citizens, and lend a hand to those in need.
'We must also deepen the sense of mission in this new generation, and provide them more opportunities to take responsibility for our country and build our future together,' he said.
What exactly is this new compact? And how is it different from the compact formed from the past?
Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Jeanne Conceicao says: 'The post-65ers need to work on being more responsible. But what about the Government and other groups? How do they figure in the 'new social and political compact'?
'To many of the post-65ers, greater responsibilities come with greater rights and demands... Is the Government prepared to loosen its controls regardless?'
MP Alvin Yeo agrees that younger Singaporeans will be looking for other things beyond bread-and-butter issues.
'Additionally, they are concerned with the more intangible aspects of society, like freedom of expression, a more vibrant cultural and entertainment scene and availability of choices, including of government!'
Adds Hong Kah GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad: 'The P65 generation will certainly bring changes in the thinking, perspectives, priorities and even values in our community. I think we will see a gradual shift in the way the community expects the country to be run, how the Government engages it, how caring we become as a society and how we cope with the dynamic economy.'
Forging this new compact will be a two-way process, adds Mr Yeo.
'What the Government needs to do is to engage the younger generation on the issues that are important to them, while seeking to retain the benefits of existing institutions and policies which remain relevant today. In the process, both will change.'
Even as expectations of what each side must do change, one basic aspect of the compact will not change: There must be trust.
AS PRESIDENT Nathan noted, Singapore is at another turning point. It has to decide how to move forward as a society, in what direction and at what pace, and how to manage any dislocations that result.
The 11th Parliament with its 84 MPs will play a major role in shaping those choices. As Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Swee Say tells Insight: 'The fast pace of globalisation will only get faster. It is bound to lead to very unequal outcomes across economies and societies...
'We must take more care of each other and prepare ourselves for greater global shocks. We must get it right the next five years so that the future Singapore can continue to be one of the most peaceful, stable and cohesive societies in the world.'