Among the usual topics on affordability of flats, education, national development plans and population, two topics stood out this year: our standing in the world and leadership. In fact, one could even claim that Singapore’s success was due to three factors: exceptional leadership, concentrated talent and sheer determination.
Singapore has an interesting relationship with its neighbours. From time to time our neighbours would utter comments that hint at where we stand in the eyes of certain select groups in other countries. In fact, I would often remember Habibie deriding Singapore as a “little red dot”. At that age I knew nothing of what he meant, but Social Studies lessons led me to understand that Singapore was not necessarily perceived as positive among select groups. Mahathir takes delight in deriding Singapore from time to time as well. That leaves Singapore in this unique position where we need our neighbours, our neighbours need us, yet there are undercurrents in regional relations. In fact, one should perceive Singapore’s existence as part-miracle, part-exceptional hard work by the MFA to ensure that Singapore does not get pushed around in a region where race and religion affect day-to-day dealings, such as the bumiputera policy.
It is also an amazing wonder from the diplomatic standpoint on our friendship with every major power in the world, until relationships among them sour. Interestingly, this has given Singapore interesting international advantages. Singapore has been the middleman in many tricky negotiations, ranging from the US-North Korea nuclear issue3 to climate change4. An average person who knows little about Singapore reading about this will ask, why Singapore? That links to exceptional, trustworthy leaders who can contribute to the global scene. As Kishore Mahbubani wrote in his book “Can Singapore Survive?”, he states that Singapore’s leaders are value-added on the negotiation table by not only offering mutually beneficial suggestions, but also valuable insight on other countries. The fact that other countries listen to us means that the insight has to be quite useful.
Another topic focused on the rally was on choosing the leaders of the next generation. One reason in my opinion why Singapore has been successful is that its leaders chose to focus on long-term planning (Google “Singapore long-term planning”) with the confidence that the people will be able to take short-term sacrifices in return for the knowledge that Singapore will be a better place in the future. This promise can only hold true with trust, which is the question to be answered in the upcoming elections.
In short: does the electorate trust the next generation of leaders put forth by the various political parties?
The concept of “leadership renewal” in politics is rather abnormal. Simply put, if a party has to fight elections every half a decade, why think about planning for thirty years in the future, where there is little guarantee of the same party reaping the benefits of its own plan? Lui Tuck Yew’s resignation from politics resulted in lots of discussion over how his plans will only be fully realized in the coming decades.
As a current university student, “leadership renewal” is vital for me; it decides how Singapore’s growth trajectory will be like in the coming decades. It determines whether Singapore’s fundamental values of meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty will remain intact. Will the next leaders continue to think like our forefathers? How dedicated will they be at solving problems Singapore may have?
The challenges Singapore will face over the next fifty years are different from its first fifty. We have a top seaport, airport, education system, healthcare system, public housing system and talent-spotting system. This was only possible by tweaking the best systems the world had to offer and fitting it into Singapore. Maintaining a leading position, however, requires innovation and bravery to pull these solutions off. Often, it requires change and restructuring to maintain a lead, even if it may be politically unpalatable. For instance, the aspiration of Singaporeans for degrees necessarily means an appropriate restructuring of the economy to open up degree-level jobs. However, that will mean certain industries requiring low-skilled labour will be forced to implement extensive technology or risk being irrelevant as low-skilled labour dries up. Identifying the problem (like what I did) is easy; solving is much more difficult (or else I’d be in office).
Any astute listener to the rally would have heard of the election call: this election is indeed about choosing the fourth-generation leaders that will steer Singapore for the next twenty years. So far I think there have been great fourth-generation leaders that have stepped up, thus giving me some confidence in answering the question of whether there will be a Singapore 50 years from now. Of course there will be. Even better!