Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Parliament: Debate on the President’s Address, Empowering our Future through Parliament (Pritam Singh) – 29 Jan 2015

Thank you Mdm Speaker.

Much of the attention surrounding the President’s speech at the opening of parliament concerned the upcoming changes to the political system. The President’s speech intimated that an inclusive Singapore is a clear objective of the government, and I will speak on one aspect of our political system that I believe can play very significant role to improve both politics and policies in Singapore – and that is through Parliament and the institutions it offers.

Parliamentary Select Committees

Madam Speaker, Woodrow Wilson was quoted to have said “it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”

To this end, Select Committees that meet regularly when Parliament is not in session are a fundamental pillar of many parliamentary democracies. Erksine May on Parliamentary Procedure, the signature reference book used by parliaments in the Commonwealth including Singapore, notes that Select Committees (I quote) “have become over recent years the principal mechanism by which the House discharges its responsibility for the scrutiny of government policy and actions.” It goes on to say that, “Select Committee members have been able to acquire significant levels of expertise in the specific areas for which their committee is responsible. This, together with the resources available to them, has reinforced the authority of their reports” (unquote).

Mdm Speaker, Select Committees are also an important means by which MPs build a public record and communicate with other MPs, civil servants, activists and the general public. It is my view that the processes afforded to Select Committees are helpful because the testimony of witnesses who could be private sector individuals, civil servants or implementing agents on the ground. This would lead to greater information sharing and the acquisition of greater knowledge on specific policies by all Singaporeans, not just parliamentarians. In addition, an appreciation of trade-offs in a more complex Singapore and a more complex international environment beyond SG51, would in my estimation, significantly mature our political discourse, level up knowledge, and serve to unify our people. It would also encourage Singaporeans not just to look into an issue more deeply, but to understand why what may be a solution to some, has to be balanced with other demands – all of which must confront the question of financing, a question a small country with no natural resources cannot avoid.

The depth of knowledge of policies and their trade-offs enabled by Select Committee hearings and reports can also be a strong insurance against the dangers of retail politics, and political aspirants who irresponsibly make promises in hope of winning votes. Fast forward to the next fifty years, any conversation with Singaporeans cannot only be about seeking feedback from the people before policy crafting and implementation. Instead, it has to involve Singaporeans along every step of the way, including during execution so mid-course corrections, reviews and assessments can be made.

Select Committees in the UK and in Hong Kong

In September last year, as members of this House were busy at the hustings, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills received evidence on the UK government’s Productivity Plan. This plan sought to address the main causes of low productivity in the UK. The select committee sought to determine whether the Government’s policies were likely to achieve their desired results. Ordinary citizens were able to submit their evidence to the committee through the UK’s parliamentary website. There was also the prospect of giving oral evidence at hearings that are open to members of the public and companies. As an example, some of the companies that gave evidence at the Productivity Inquiry included Rolls Royce and Virgin Atlantic, hence providing a lot of scope for a deeper understanding of the problems of the day surrounding productivity from a wide canvas of citizenry.

Even Hong Kong’s Legislative Council carries out significant policy work behind the scenes. The Hong Kong Legislative Council hosts 18 different panels to deliberate on issues relating to specific policy areas and also give views on major legislative or financial proposals before their formal introduction into the Council or Finance Committee. These panels also examine important issues of wide public concern as referred by the Council or as raised by the panels themselves. These include the development of elderly care services, retirement schemes, studies into free kindergarten education, animal welfare and cruelty to animals and even hawker policy.

Select Committees: Subject Matter and Scope

In practice Mdm Speaker, our parliament does not need to mirror the UK system, Hong Kong system or any other system in its entirety, nor do we need to establish an excessive amount of Select Committees for the sake of it. However, there are a number of issues that would clearly keep the Government and the opposition occupied in the years to come. In view of the longer experience and size of the UK, they host an extensive A-Z of Select Committees. Our parliament on the other hand, can establish Select Committees for the key issues of the day as determined by Parliament. What could be some of these issues?

First, there is the prospect of a Singapore where the number of elderly Singaporeans is expected to double in the next decade. It will have an attendant impact not just on our healthcare system but on families too with more children having to take more time off to look after their parents to see to it that they age well and gracefully. An Active Aging Select Committee would be helpful in this regard to understand what gaps need to be plugged, in addition to where deficiencies continue to exist in the system, the reasons for their existence and how they can be overcome.

Secondly, there is the difficult Population policy issue, for which the Government has announced a mid-course review around 2020. A population Select Committee could potentially start hearings on this issue early allowing Singaporeans to understand the decisions taken thus far, and outline what other policies need to dovetail closely with our population strategies. It could also flesh out the different perspectives of Singaporeans with regard to trade-offs between the dwindling of the Singapore core and the economic strategies required for Singapore to not just survive, but thrive in the next lap.

A SkillsFuture Select Committee of Parliament

Mdm Speaker, this House can endeavour to establish just one Select Committee in the immediate term as a pilot Select Committee, and that is a SkillsFuture Select Committee. In his speech, the President’s clearly emphasised the importance of SkillsFuture to the economy, how important it is for SkillsFuture to be a success and how it must become a national movement. There are many dimensions of SkillsFuture – P-Max, career guidance, Sectoral Manpower Plans, Earn and Learn, Credits, Individual Learning Portfolios amongst others, across the age spectrum.

Then, there is the issue of productivity. As I noted in my Budget Speech last year, the National Productivity Council also comes under the purview of the SkillsFuture. For many advanced economies, including Singapore, improving productivity is a serious matter. Even in Singapore, we have not achieved the productivity aims set by the Economic Strategies Committee Report of 2010 of 2-3% each year, and our numbers continue to look weak.

As productivity and the acquisition of new skills are closely linked, a SkillsFuture Select Committee of Parliament comprising MPs from all parties would be in a good position to pursue, and consider improvements and innovations to the Government’s strategies. This would ensure that SkillsFuture works well on the ground and how it can do more, and to account for the taxpayer dollar that is eventually expended on it. The presence of Select Committee members from all parties would not just be symbolic. In fact, it would be in step not just with the wishes of many voters, but would mirror the inclusive Singapore we all desire. More importantly, it would operationalize what the President meant when he said, (and I quote) “individual aspirations may differ, but we have to work together to create a common future.” (unquote)

Conclusion: Select Committees – Better Politics, Better Policies

In conclusion Mdm Speaker, the tremendous scope of Parliament and specifically, Select Committees to make our politics more accountable and better accessible to all Singaporeans should not be underestimated. This proposal to establish a SkillsFuture Select Committee can be read in two ways – the cynical view is that Select Committees could be used to secure information not in the public domain on Government processes and decision-making and to embarrass the Government. But there is another long-term perspective that ought to be considered. And that is – the in-depth granularity offered by Select Committees on vital issues affecting Singaporeans would contribute significantly to creating a culture of mastery and excellence, and for Singaporeans to take a deep interest in policies and to understand trade-offs surrounding policymaking. This theme of excellence and mastery, not just competence was covered in the Finance Minister’s Budget speech of 2014 – and that is exactly what SkillsFuture is about.

Parliament is a privileged position to reconfigure the relationship between the public and Government as we march towards SG100. A more public role for Parliament, and more time spent in it by MPs, offers greater scope to better our political system so that it governs effectively in the interests of all.

Madam Speaker, I support the motion.

Written by singapore 2025

31/01/2016 at 2:40 am

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