Singapore Government Press Release
Media Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
SPEECH BY PRIME MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG DURING THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE ON THE PRESIDENT�S ADDRESS ON FRIDAY, 5TH APRIL 2002
Mr Speaker, Sir,
I welcome the new MPs to this House. I feel a deep sense of responsibility towards them, because I had a hand in getting them here. Some, like Khaw Boon Wan and Vivian Balakrishnan, I had personally persuaded to leave the security and comfort of their job to take on this onerous task of governing Singapore.
The new MPs have crossed a major milestone in their lives. An 'MPship' is not a career move or a feather in the cap. It is a commitment to serve the people and the country. This you can do well, only if you feel for the people and the country, and are prepared to think beyond yourself, your family and your friends.
The demands on your time and energy will be great, and the expectations of your performance high, both in Parliament and in the constituency. And you will probably receive more criticisms than bouquets. It is not a job for the thin-skinned.
You should seek to make a difference to Singapore. You can do this by looking after your constituents, helping them when they needn help, and forging social cohesion. In Parliament, speak thoughtfully and honestly, after you have reflected on the issues and done some research and analysis. Do not just offer feedback, useful though it is. Or echo criticisms without thought. Offer also suggestions for improving the lives of Singaporeans, and help to solve both big and small problems.
Expression of Views by Party MPs
Tan Soo Khoon argued for the Whip to be lifted for all backbenchers, and for the Ministers to be allowed to speak freely.
I do not really need to explain the meaning of the Whip and the Cabinet system of collective leadership to the former Speaker. But as there are many new MPs here, let me take some time to do so.
Lifting of Whip
The party Whip is an appointment that can be found in many political parties represented in legislatures all over the world, particularly in countries that follow a Westminster or British style of Parliamentary democracy, like Singapore.
The duties of the party Whip vary from party to party, but they primarily involve maintaining the party�s voting strength, by ensuring that members attend important Parliamentary debates and support their party when a division is called. Simply put, the party Whip builds and maintains party discipline.
It is in the interest of the people for political parties to be disciplined. In Parliamentary elections, the parties come first. Candidates stand for election under a party logo, unless they are independent candidates. The people want to be assured that the MPs they have voted for remain faithful to the party platform they were elected on. A party whose members are unable to maintain reasonable consensus on its policy positions will find it difficult to inspire confidence in, and get the support of, the voters.
Furthermore, lifting the Whip for most motions, as Soo Khoon suggests, implies that we should completely let go of party discipline. This goes against the grain of party-based Parliamentary democracy. We will be lifting the Whip on the motion on Nominated Members of Parliament. Already, we can see some MPs marshalling others for their cause. Do we want to see this for every issue?
But how much leeway is given to MPs, and how to do it, are the prerogatives of the individual political party. Different political parties have different comfort levels when it comes to party discipline. Some are less tolerant of public dissent amongst their members, others more so. But none will agree to do away with party discipline completely.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of experimentation, we are willing to provide more opportunities for the Whip to be lifted. Apart from lifting the Whip for matters of conscience and selected issues, PAP MPs may request, on a case-by-case basis, for the Whip to be lifted.
At the same time, we are introducing other measures to enhance Parliamentary debates. For example, a more flexible timeframe will be adopted to allow sufficient time for MPs� views and inputs to be debated in Parliament, considered by the relevant Ministries, and incorporated into the draft legislation. Also, to help MPs prepare better for Parliamentary debates, we will give them more research resources and staff support.
Our MPs today assume that the unity and cohesion of the PAP will stay forever, when they ask for the Whip to be lifted. They are too sanguine about the future. No one can tell what the state of the Party will be like in the future, or how some MPs will behave once they think that the Ministers are beholden to them because they can vote against the Ministers freely.
Collective Ministerial Responsibility
Soo Khoon also suggested that we should let Ministers state their individual views freely before the final decision is taken.
This is being done. Ministers are expected to contribute to the debate on a subject before a decision is taken on the matter. Their inputs are given in Cabinet, before the matter comes to Parliament.
We do not let Ministers speak discordantly outside Cabinet because of the principle of collective ministerial responsibility. This principle is another cornerstone of Westminster-style Parliamentary democracy. It is, in fact, enshrined in Article 24(2) of our Constitution. There are two reasons for this principle.
First, collective ministerial responsibility enhances the accountability of the Government.
In our Parliamentary democracy, whichever party has a majority in the Parliament will form the Government. But the Government, led by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers, is not at liberty to do whatever it wishes. It is accountable to Parliament.
The principle of collective responsibility means that there is an agreement between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues that they will stand together as a team when accounting for their actions before Parliament.
Discussions within Cabinet are therefore secret. Once a decision on an issue or a policy has been reached, Cabinet Ministers will take the same public position. It cannot be otherwise. Imagine for a moment that the principle of collective responsibility did not exist. If a problem occurs, it is only too tempting for a Cabinet Minister to claim, "I did not really agree with this policy, so I cannot be held responsible." This principle of collective responsibility is therefore to ensure that all Cabinet Ministers are held accountable to Parliament for the actions of the Government.
Secondly, collective ministerial responsibility enhances inter-ministry co-ordination.
Most of the important problems we face as a nation are complex and cut across the portfolios of individual Ministers and Ministries. The Government�s policies and initiatives must be evaluated in the light of their effects upon various aspects of our society. They must be carefully co-ordinated to avoid unnecessary duplication or, worse, mutual contradiction. It, therefore, makes good sense for Cabinet Ministers, and indeed, the entire Government, to share the same broad policy positions.
So, if the views of Cabinet Ministers sound alike at times, we should be comforted that they are united. We should, in fact, worry if they begin to sound very different from each other on the same subject, for this would suggest a divided Cabinet.
Severe Challenges Ahead
Mr Speaker, Sir, in the last few days, MPs and the new MOSs have dwelt on many serious challenges that Singapore would have to confront in the coming years.
Listening to them, I am not sure that they realise the full gravity and enormity of these challenges. The challenges they face will certainly be much tougher than those I faced when I became an MP in 1976. The issues today are more complex, and also more threatening. They will put our young MPs and Ministers severely to the test.
In the eighties through the early nineties, we had the benefit of a benign regional environment. ASEAN was cohesive. Its economies were booming. There was political and social stability in our neighbourhood. Indonesia was growing, and under Suharto, well-disposed towards us. The global economy also expanded rapidly.
Yes, there were several crises - Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1979, and the downturn in the global economy that contributed to our 1985 recession. But on the whole, the external environment was favourable. This allowed us to concentrate on economic development. We attracted MNCs to invest here. We upgraded the economy from labour-intensive industries to higher value-added activities. Later, we built an external wing to our economy. We rode on the region's rapid growth.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis brought that happy state of affairs to an end. The crisis did not pull down only the economy of the regional countries. It changed the political environment of some countries. Even today, four years later, the political situation in our largest neighbour, Indonesia, has not fully settled into a new state of equilibrium.
So, in addition to having to restructure our economy, we now have to deal with a more volatile and less accommodating political environment in the region.
Even more serious is the security problem we now face - the threat from terrorism and Islamic militancy in the region. September 11 and the Jemaah Islamiyah arrests exposed this grave and immediate threat to Singapore. Singapore was very nearly blown up. Four tonnes of ammonium nitrate, 1.2 tonnes of TNT, and fuses for the explosives, had already been acquired. The terrorists were looking for 17 more tonnes of ammonium nitrate and seven trucks. Can you imagine seven truck bombs going off at seven different places in Singapore at the same time? Can you imagine the devastation and the aftermath?
MPs, understandably, have concentrated on bread-and-butter issues because these are what your constituents are concerned with. But you will also have to inform them of the larger picture against which the bread-and butter issues will have to be solved. So let me now elaborate on some of the more intractable larger-picture problems which we will be faced with.
Wang Kai Yuen commented that the Government tended to understate good news and overstate bleak scenarios. It is in the nature of this Government to plan on the worst-case scenario. Then, if things do not turn out as bad as we had provided for, we can all sigh with relief. But if they do turn real bad, then we would have been prepared with possible responses. This characteristic of the Government has enabled Singapore to survive many crises.
Halimah Yacob said that Malay-Muslims in Singapore had turned to religion to counter the threat that their culture and values might be eroded in the face of the global cultural onslaught. She added that becoming more religious did not mean that Malay Singaporeans were choosing to disengage from society.
I understand her position. But if this was the only reason for Malay-Muslims in Singapore to turn to religion, and Halimah is right about Muslims not disengaging from the other communities, then I would not worry about the trend. There is really nothing wrong with Singaporeans wanting to be more religious, so long as they regard their religion as something personal between themselves and their God, and they interact freely with people of other races and religions.
The increased religiosity of our Muslims is part of the global Islamic wave that emanated from the Middle East after the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
I met the Prime Minister of Mauritius last month when he stopped over in Singapore on his way to Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. He told me that the Muslims in his country had become more conservative, and that many Muslim women had taken to wearing headscarves. He lamented that they were not mixing as freely with the non-Muslims as they did in the seventies. 52% of the population of Mauritius are Hindus, and 17% Muslims.
At the same Commonwealth meeting, the Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone told me that the same thing was happening to his country's Muslims. They have also become more conservative. 60% of Sierra Leone's population are Muslims.
There are, however, other Muslim societies which have not gone down the path of conservatism. I met a Moroccan Minister on Wednesday. He was surprised that so many Muslim women in Malaysia and Singapore wore the �tudung�. He told me that the women in his country did not wear the religious headscarf. He invited me to visit his country to see how Moroccan Muslims practise their faith. He added that Tunisia, another Muslim country, is even more liberal, but, no, not Algeria.
If Singaporeans who are more religious remain engaged with mainstream secular society, there is no problem. But if they opt out, this could fracture our social cohesion.
What I am even more concerned about, however, is religious activism and extremism.
Take Ibrahim Maidin, the local Jemaah Islamiyah leader. He taught Halimah's children religious studies. He wrote to her when he heard that she was standing for election. He urged her, that as a Muslim, she should not do so. He argued that as an MP in a secular political party, she might be associated with laws and policies which were not in accordance with the Syariah.
It spoke well of Halimah that she did not listen to him. Otherwise, she would not be here today, and would not be able to contribute to her community as well as to Singapore. This would have been a loss to both Muslim and non-Muslim Singaporeans.
Another Malay leader told me a similar story of extremism. An ustaz had advised his students not to mix with non-Muslims as they were non-believers. When one of the students told her parents of this, they pulled her out of the class immediately. But what about the other students remaining in the class? Should it not be the ustaz who should be pulled out of the class instead? At the very least, he should be advised to refrain from such teachings. Such extremism is a cause for concern.
Extremism comes at the expense of inter-racial and inter-religious interaction. It excludes rather than includes. It results in a withdrawal of the practitioner into his own communal cocoon, and in a rejection of others who do not share his beliefs. When that happens, the other communities will not only keep their distance, but will also press for greater space of their own. This can break up our social cohesion.
Extremism is even more dangerous when the practitioners campaign and compel others to follow their view.
Zainul Abidin Rasheed should be supported when he asked moderate Muslims to stand up against extremists. Moderate Muslims should not allow extremists to set the agenda for them.
It is not only us who are concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism. Earlier this year, leaders of the two largest Muslim organisations in Indonesia met in Jakarta to discuss the problems facing the country. After the meeting, the Nahdlatul Ulama chairman, Hasyim Muzadi, told a press conference that the image of Islam had been politicised by certain groups for their vested interests. He stressed that such radicalism was not the Islamic way of thinking. His counterpart in Muhammadiyah, Syafii Maarif, said that if the authorities were afraid to take stern measures against the radicals, that would pave the way for the birth of another Taliban nation.
In Malaysia too, moderate Muslims - "the silent majority" - are being urged to speak up, to balance extremist views on Islam. The Executive Director of Sisters-in-Islam recently called on middle-class Malaysian Muslims, especially those who had so far been quiet, to voice out their moderate views instead of allowing the radicals and extremists to dominate.
My worry is that some extremist groups will exploit the growing Islamic consciousness in Singapore and in the region, to advance their religious or political objectives through radical means.
The Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia is a radical group. It envisages the creation of a Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara, a pan-regional Islamic state, comprising Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Philippines.
The Indonesian-led Jemaah Islamiyah group has added another country, Thailand, to Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia's pan-regional Islamic state. It has talked about forming an Islamic state comprising southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Philippines.
Ibrahim Maidin, the Singapore leader ofJemaah Islamiyah, went one step further. He told an ISD officer that that he was convinced that sooner or later, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Mindanao in the Philippines, would come under Syariah law and become a Daulah Islamiyah, or Islamic state. He continued that when that happened, Singapore would inevitably also become Islamic.
Other militant groups in the region have objectives which are more national in nature, but they are no less worrisome. Malaysia's Al-Ma'unah wants to set up an Islamic state in Malaysia. Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders Front want an Islamic state in Indonesia. Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front want to form an independent Muslim state in the Muslim enclave of Mindanao in southern Philippines, while Barisan Revolusi Nasional and Gerakan Mujahiddin Islam Pattani want to do so in southern Thailand.
Although these militant groups have objectives that are domestically driven, some of them already have operational links with one another as well as with Al-Qaeda. For example, both Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia and the Indonesian Mujahidin Council subscribe to the goal of uniting the global Islamic community, which is what Al-Qaeda advocates.
These are not bogeyman tales to frighten children. Nor have we exaggerated the extent of the problem. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the militant groups in our region have extensive and well-developed networks.
The Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah is part of a much larger regional terrorist network spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah members have identified Abu Bakar Baasyir and Abu Jibril as among those responsible for the establishment and operation of the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah. Abu Jibril has been implicated in crimes committed by the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia, while Abu Bakar Baasyir and another Indonesian Mujahidin Council leader, Hambali, are said to be behind the movement to establish an Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Philippines.
Six of the 13 Jemaah Islamiyah members being held in Singapore had links with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while the two who were arrested and then released had visited Moro Islamic Liberation Front camps in the past.
Jemaah Islamiyah may also have Thai connections. In January this year, a Singaporean Jemaah Islamiyah fugitive, Mas Selamat Kastari, and four others were believed to have fled to Thailand. Kastari was suspected to be planning to hijack an aircraft from Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand, and crash it into Changi Airport.
So you see, it is not just Al-Qaeda we are concerned with. It is militant Islam in our region. The Al-Qaeda terrorists are primarily against the Americans. The radical groups in our region have a regional agenda.
Relations with Malaysia
Several MPs have spoken on our relations with Malaysia. Yeo Guat Kwang said that one union leader could not understand why the Malaysians were so angry with Singapore.
In recent months, hardly a week went by without the Malaysian media playing up one bilateral issue or another: water, �tudung�, land reclamation, and even Vivian's playful remark about "wild animals". Now it is Ravindran's turn to fall victim.
I asked some young Singaporeans what they thought of all these criticisms against Singapore. They said that they were immune to them.
But unfortunately, when the Malaysian media carries factually incorrect or one-sided reports, or inflammatory comments, they stoke the flames of the Malaysian people. They sour relations at the people level. Guat Kwang said that his union leader friend was worried about travelling to Malaysia. I know of others who had cancelled their plans to spend the recent school holidays in Malaysia.
Take land reclamation as an example of flame-stoking. There have been so many allegations on so many fronts, and also many inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the media reports.
I do not wish to delve into detail on this issue, as Mah Bow Tan has already done so.
But I do wish to point out that our reclamation policy is not new or secret. Singapore is a small country. We reclaim land because we need land and for no other reason. We have been doing so since the 1960s. In 1991, a set of comprehensive land-use plans, including those pertaining to long-term reclamation, was approved by the Government and put on public record. This was the Concept Plan of 1991, which was recently reviewed, updated and re-issued as Concept Plan 2001. This is a publicly available document.
We do take Malaysia's concerns seriously. This is why DPM Lee Hsien Loong told the Malaysian leaders during his visit to KL, that if Malaysia had concerns about our reclamation works, it could put them down in a note and Singapore would study them.
Water is another complicated issue between our two countries. In fact, it has been a constant source of tension since our independence.
The picture that has been recently painted in the Malaysian media is one of a selfish Singapore profiteering from our purchase of raw water from Johor. As in the reclamation issue, this picture is skewed to arouse feelings.
Let me give you an example. We have been accused by a Malaysian newspaper of raking in huge profits of RM600 million annually, by selling the water we get from Johor at 3 sen per thousand gallons, to ships which call at Singapore.
Water sold to ships calling at our ports do attract high tariffs, but this is only because we do not want to encourage this kind of demand. We sell only a small quantity of water to ships � about 1.0mgd. This is less than 1% of Singapore�s total water demand. The revenue Singapore gets from this sale is nowhere near the figure of RM600 million cited. Last year, Singapore�s gross revenue from our sale of water to ships totalled about RM40 million.
The key unhappiness, however, is in the current price of 3 sen that we are paying Johor for raw water.
As part of the deal on the bilateral package, we had offered to increase this 3 sen for raw water that was agreed between Singapore and Malaysia in the 1961 and 1962 Water Agreements. In addition, we had been prepared to vary the Points of Agreement (POA) on Malayan Railway Land, and offer Malaysia additional plots of land for joint development.
All these concessions that Singapore had offered under the bilateral package must be taken into account when considering the price Singapore is willing to pay for water under a new agreement.
But for Singapore, this issue goes beyond money. The 1961 and 1962 Water Agreements are international treaties, legally binding on Singapore and Malaysia. They are guaranteed by both governments in the 1965 Separation Agreement and cannot be varied except as provided for within the Agreements, or by mutual consent. But we were prepared to consider an increase in the price of existing water within the bilateral package and as a gesture of our goodwill to help conclude a deal.
I bring up this point because at the height of the furore over water, certain comments by the Malaysian media troubled us. They seemed to suggest that Malaysia should unilaterally amend the terms of the existing Water Agreements, if resolution could not be reached on a new price for existing water. For example, a New Straits Times editorial of 30 January commented:
"By (Singapore) suggesting that these (water) agreements continue to apply by default because the Johor state government failed to re-negotiate the price structure after 25 years in 1986 and 1987, it is simply playing hard to get."
The same editorial suggested that the issue of water be viewed as a business transaction - agree to a price, seal the deal, or part with no hard feelings and look elsewhere for water. In other words, if Singapore does not agree to Malaysia's price for water, we would have to look elsewhere for water because Malaysia would stop its supply to us.
But it is not so simple. Both sides can walk away from the negotiations on a new agreement on water if we cannot reach agreement. However, both sides have to honour the existing 1961 and 1962 Water Agreements. As I mentioned earlier, these two agreements were confirmed and guaranteed by both governments in the 1965 Separation Agreement, also known as the Independence of Singapore Agreement. Any breach of the Water Agreements would also call into question the Separation Agreement, and undermine our very existence. This is totally unacceptable.
I think it is high time we explore a different approach to water supply from Malaysia. I do not want our relations with Malaysia to be always strained by this issue. It is not healthy for our two countries to be always locked in dispute. It is unwise to allow this one issue to sour bilateral relations at all levels and on all fronts. It prevents us from co-operating in strategic areas of mutual benefit. The long-term interests of our two countries might be better served if we can remove this constant thorn in bilateral relations.
The sensitivity of this water issue goes back to the Separation. On 9 August 1965, the very day of our independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman told the British High Commissioner in Malaya:
"If Singapore's foreign policy is prejudicial to Malaysia's interests, we could always bring pressure to bear on them by threatening to turn off the water in Johor."
Time has not changed this perception that water is to be used as leverage against Singapore. In an article entitled "Water as a Factor in International Relations" published in the November 2000 issue of Strategi, a journal of the Malaysia Armed Forces College, a Lt-Col Azmy Yahya wrote:
"Malaysia should take full advantage of water as a strategic weapon to counter Singapore's military advantage over Malaysia."
Noting that "without water, Singapore may not survive", Azmy said that apart from the ability to disrupt the water supply to Singapore, Malaysia also had the capability to pollute the supply with either chemical or biological weapons. He argued that Malaysia had the right to defend itself through all means.
Fortunately, though, there are others with a more realisitic sense of the situation. Lt-Gen Zaini Mohd Said, the former Malaysian Army Field Commander, wrote a commentary in Mingguan Malaysia just two months ago when media criticisms against us on water were at their zenith. He pointed out that water was a security issue that could lead to armed conflict. He reminded Malaysians that the Singapore military was stronger and more sophisticated. And although Malaysia had its own means of responding, Zaini concluded that both sides would be losers if it came to armed conflict.
It is not healthy to always have Damocles� sword hanging over our heads. It breeds mistrust and suspicion, and does not make for a productive relationship. It may be better for bilateral relations if we start to move a little away from our reliance on Malaysia for water.
This is doable if we have to do it. We have already called a tender for a 30mgd desalination plant. We have been operating a plant to produce NEWater (reclaimed water) using membrane technology for two years now. And we intend to build more such NEWater plants. The cost of these alternative sources of water is not all that prohibitive either.
We want to have good, stable relations with Malaysia for the long term and for mutual benefit. We shall play our part to achieve this.
Malaysia has written to us with their latest proposal on the bilateral package. We shall send them our reply some time next week.
But I do not want to leave Singaporeans with the impression that if we remove this issue of water from bilateral relations, or if we wrap up the bilateral package, then there will be no more disputes between Singapore and Malaysia forever. There will always be the occasional squabble, especially between two geographically close neighbours. Even more so given our shared and broken history, and the different ways in which our two societies are organised.
Singaporeans must therefore view the inevitable ups and downs in our relationship with Malaysia with a certain calm and balance. We should not be complacent when things go well. Neither should we get excited when things turn sour. We need patience, stamina and a long-term view. We will stand firm on fundamentals, but must be broad-minded enough to accommodate Malaysia�s interests where our own national interests are not diminished.
We must not give up on the prospect of achieving a win-win relationship with Malaysia. We can and we must co-operate with each other.
Our two economies are strongly inter-dependent. Malaysia was Singapore�s top trading partner last year. We were Malaysia�s second largest export destination and third largest import source. Singapore was also Malaysia�s fourth largest foreign investor in terms of total value of approved projects.
So, co-operation would bring us greater benefit, certainly more than being at each other�s throat.
This is not to say that there would be no competition between us. Rivalry between our two countries will always be strong. In some instances, we will be fighting for the same piece of cake.
But generally, I believe that the economic pie is growing and is big enough for the two of us. Neither country would do well without the other. It is a symbiotic relationship which we have not fully exploited.
The late President Yusof Ishak told the inaugural session of our Parliament on 8 December 1965:
"Our survival as a people, distinct and separate from our neighbours in Southeast Asia, depends upon our patience and resolution in dealing with physically bigger and hence difficult neighbours, and upon our perseverance in seeking long-term solutions of finding a new balance of forces in this part of the world."
This is still good advice.
Indranee Thurai Rajah said that the Government needed to look into the problem of housing for singles.
I would say that the more pressing challenge that we have to look into is the rising number of singles. Since we first highlighted the problem some years back, it has become more acute.
The singlehood rate for resident males aged 40-44 years rose from 11.6 per hundred in 1995, to 15.0 per hundred in 2001. The singlehood rate for resident females in the same age group increased from 12.5 per hundred, to 14.0 per hundred. For males, most of the singles were those with secondary and below education, whereas graduate females continued to be the biggest "single" group across all age groups.
This inability or unwillingness on the part of Singaporeans to get hitched, is seriously contributing to our falling fertility problem.
So two years ago, the Government put in place a package of marriage and procreation measures. We introduced the Baby Bonus, Third Child Maternity Leave, more and better childcare centres, family-friendly work practices, easier home ownership, public education and more opportunities for singles to socialise.
But more than nine months after we started giving out the Baby Bonus in April last year, I have not received any bonus myself! I do not mean a Baby Bonus. I mean that the response to the package of measures has not been encouraging, and the fertility rates have continued to fall. I hope that this was because the economy took a downturn just as the measures were being introduced. I am told that couples are likely to delay or even abandon plans for children in times of economic uncertainty. We saw that phenomenon in the previous two recessions in 1986 and 1998.
So, maybe, the response will be better as the economy improves.
But I am not too hopeful. It will pick up somewhat, but the reason for declining marriages and births is more fundamental. We are experiencing a change in attitude towards marriage and family among the young. Surveys continue to show that our young place financial and career goals ahead of family formation.
The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) for 2001 hit a historic low of 1.42 children per woman, way below the replacement rate of 2.1. The number of resident births in 2001 was about 40,000, a decline of 12.5% over 2000.
This decline in our marriage and procreation rates is clearly a national problem. The implications are grave. We cannot let nature take its course, even though low fertility is common among developed countries. We need to act, as the implications of a continued sub-replacement TFR are severe for a small country like ours. We might not survive as a nation because of it.
The Government is committed to creating a total social environment conducive to marriage and family formation. The Working Committee on Marriage and Procreation will be considering new measures.
However, there is only so much that the Government can do. Ultimately, marrying and having children are personal decisions. It is up to Singaporeans to take advantage of the support provided by the Government.
I am heartened by the fact that numerous studies over the years show that most among our young desire to get married and have children. The majority say that the ideal number of children is three.
But the figures show that many are only having two or less. Our focus should, therefore, be on them. Besides the Government, parents, friends, relatives, colleagues, employers, and community and religious organisations can and must do more to bring about the total social environment conducive to marriage and having children.
Going back to Indranee's request to look into the housing needs of singles, yes, singles are integral members of a family. The needs of young couples, however, are comparatively more immediate and necessary as they need new flats to start their family. Singles will be helped in their housing, but the priority will be for couples and family.
And to the pragmatic Singaporeans who have postponed their marriage plans, I advise them to act fast. The timing is good now to get a choice flat to start a family.
The Government has tried many ways and means to make it easier for couples to have a family.
Any MP who comes up with an ingenious and better solution to help our singles get married and our TFR increased, will get a bonus from me. Not the Baby Bonus, but a real bonus.
I have listened to and read carefully the speeches of the MPs. I have instructed the Ministers to follow up on their concerns and ideas. I myself have addressed this House on three critical challenges for Singapore. These are challenges for which there is no obvious solution. I wanted to inject a sense of reality into this week's debate. The world is a complex place, and often, there are no black or white answers. This then requires a hard choice to be made among a range of solutions, most of which are neither painless nor cost-free. This is where leadership comes in.
Kai Yuen is right. The people want the Government to lead. They want the Government to listen to feedback and to consult them too. But at the end of the day, they want a strong Government that will find solutions to their problems and give them hope for the future.
However, several other MPs, including Soo Khoon, feel that Singaporeans are cynical and sceptical about the Government.
I do not agree. Cynicism and scepticism arise when the Government does not do what it says. But this is a Government that does exactly what it says. We have a reputation for being legalistic, clinical and precise, meaning also that we take very seriously our every word and commitment. We invest a great deal of effort into policy announcements, to make sure that they are correct, because we will abide by our every undertaking. Singaporeans know that when we state a policy, we will carry it through.
When we consult the people for their feedback, we take their views seriously. It is practically not possible, of course, to acknowledge individually every contribution. Nor is it possible to accept every suggestion. But that does not mean that we are merely going through the motions. The views that are expressed influence our thinking and attitude, even if some do not get translated into specific actions.
Politicians in Singapore have high standing with the people, unlike politicians in many other countries. We do not shoot off our mouths, making wild promises and baseless accusations. Every line we take is a carefully considered and deliberated policy. For this reason, we do not like to refer to ourselves as "politicians". The word "politicians" has acquired a negative connotation in many countries. We prefer the term "political leaders".
Yes, a handful of Singaporeans are cynical and sceptical. But we should not generalise the attitudes of these few Singaporeans, to the rest of the 3 million Singaporeans! Indeed, if the large majority of Singaporeans were cynical and sceptical of the Government, they would not have returned the PAP to power again and again in 10 General Elections after 1959.
Also, in the last General Election, in the contested seats, they gave us 75 per cent of the vote. Why? Because they knew that Singapore faced several severe challenges � the economic recession, the terrorist threat and a less than benign regional environment. And the voters believed in our leadership.
We must not disappoint them. We must lead. Look for new solutions to old problems. Anticipate future problems and head them off. Explain issues in simple, clear terms to the people and mobilise them.
Running a government is like conducting an orchestra. Every PAP MP is a member of this orchestra. Each MP has his own musical instrument. And there are many different instruments, like the piano, violin, flute, oboe, cello, bass, and drum, each providing a different sound.
But they must produce beautiful music together. If we perform well, at the end of each electoral term, the voters will ask for an encore. If not, the orchestra will not be invited back to perform.
Does this mean that the MPs must make similar speeches since we are members of the same Party? No. Each speech is like a different instrument with its different sound and effect. But taken together, the speeches must sound like a grand orchestral performance.
If you do not understand this, and you sing Jail House Rock with your electric guitar when others are playing Beethoven, you are out of order. The Whip must be used on you.
This does not mean that you cannot gyrate to the music of Elvis Presley, but do it at an appropriate occasion, like at the end of Budget Debate party.
This orchestra analogy has relevance also to Singapore Inc. In this case, the entire nation is the orchestra. The Government is the conductor, and the people are the musicians.
As the musicians, Singaporeans can play any instrument they like. They should feel free to speak up and offer their views and suggestions, even if they are contrary to Government policy. But do remember, whatever you do or say, at the end of the day, we must perform well enough as a team to deliver economic growth, social harmony, quality of life, and security for ourselves and our children.
There will be many challenges for which there is no final solution where we can declare, "case closed". There are many problems which will remain with us for many years to come. And new challenges and problems will arise. We will simply have to persevere, constantly try creative and new approaches, and manage them to the best of our ability.
I am confident that we can get on top of these difficult challenges. We have recruited good people into the Government. Ng Eng Hen, Boon Wan and the new crop of MPs give me hope, that there are more able and committed Singaporeans out there who are willing to leave the comfort of the public gallery and the operating theatre, to serve the nation. We just have to find them, and give them the reasons to step forward, whether it is to advance the Singapore Cause or to achieve their Singapore Dream.
This � persuading Singaporeans that they should step forward to serve the nation - is itself a major challenge. As Boon Wan put it, the dream of younger Singaporeans nowadays is the Global Dream. They are well-educated, well-read, and well-travelled. They are mobile. They can fit as well into New York, as they can in Singapore. They will be pulled by where the opportunities beckon. What can we do to keep their hearts here, so that even if they leave to pursue their Global Dream, they will return one day to Singapore?
If we can achieve these two goals � secure a constant flow of good people into the Government, and anchor Singaporeans firmly to Singapore � then, Singapore will endure and prosper.