Media Division, Ministry of Information and The Arts,
36th Storey, PSA Building, 460 Alexandra Road, Singapore 119963.
PRIME MINISTER’S NATIONAL DAY RALLY SPEECH, 1999
FIRST-WORLD ECONOMY, WORLD-CLASS HOME
A. SETTING FRESH GOALS
When I spoke to you last year, the sky was overcast and
the outlook bleak. Asia was then in the middle of its worst financial crisis.
Fortunately for us, the weather has turned out better than we had feared.
The financial storm has subsided. Nonetheless, this crisis has been a major
test for Singapore.
We have distinguished ourselves both by the soundness
of our economy, and by the way we have risen to the challenge. We analysed
and tackled our problems objectively and rationally. We took effective
immediate actions, while not neglecting long-term strategies. Employers,
unions and the people supported tough measures in a crisis. Together, we
quietly showed that Singapore is qualitatively different.
The experience has strengthened us, and enhanced our competitiveness.
Now with the crisis behind us, we should thoroughly reassess our new environment,
and set fresh goals for ourselves.
a. Impact of Regional Crisis
The regional crisis has changed the outlook for the region.
It will be a long time before the region regains the giddy growth and excitement
before the crisis. Investors will be more careful and funds will be less
Also, eradicating what the Indonesians call KKN – corruption,
collusion, and nepotism – will prove very difficult. These and other structural
weaknesses contributed to the crisis. If they are not got rid of, the economies
will remain vulnerable to future crises.
b. Globalisation and the Internet
A powerful force is sweeping across the world: globalisation,
because of technology and the Internet.
Technology has broken down national boundaries. The Internet
has turned the world into one global shopping mall.
Many Singaporeans now buy through the Internet instead
of from the shops in Orchard Road or neighbourhood shopping centres. It
is not just books and CDs. I know of a sports car enthusiast who buys spare
parts for his Porsche through the Internet. He saves 20 to 30 percent of
With trade liberalization, MNCs now look at the world
as one single market, not separate markets divided by national borders.
They do not supply the whole world from one single location, nor do they
produce in each country just for that market. They split their operations
into different pieces, and then locate each piece in a different country,
wherever it is cheapest and most efficient to do that particular operation.
Increasingly, MNCs are buying components from suppliers
and subcontractors, instead of making everything themselves. This gives
them maximum flexibility, and they can cut costs to the bone.
One Singapore manufacturer who supplies components to
MNCs described to the Ministry of Trade and Industry vividly how fierce
the competition is. He has operations both in Singapore and China. When
MNCs need components, they fax suppliers all around the world to invite
them to bid for the job. Then suppliers from Mexico, China, Malaysia, and
Singapore all submit bids. The job goes to the one who can supply at the
lowest cost. The difference in quotes between a Chinese and a Singapore
supplier may be just 1 or 2 percent, but that is enough to win or lose
a job. For the next job, they all bid again.
This new business environment means that cost competitiveness
is more important than ever. So is flexibility. If we allow our costs to
drift up, or restrictive practices to creep into our labour market, we
will quickly lose business and jobs.
C. NEW TARGET
a. Not enough to be best in region
With this regional and global backdrop, it is no longer
good enough just to be the best in the region. We have to look beyond the
region, and strive to become one of the best economies in the world.
Our neighbours are breathing down our necks in many areas
we are good at. They want to surpass or bypass us. Malaysia is building
another port at Tanjong Pelepas, just across the Second Link in Johor,
to compete with PSA.
Hong Kong and Malaysia have similar ambitions as Singapore,
to be the IT hub for the region. Hong Kong has announced plans for a cyberport.
Malaysia is building a Multimedia Super Corridor.
Our neighbours’ cost structures are lower than ours. They
have more land and people. Their skills will improve. As they open up their
economies, foreign investors will bring in technology, management and skills.
They will become more efficient and competitive. We must work hard and
smart to stay ahead of the competition.
b. Build a First-World Economy and a World-Class Home
We have to transform ourselves – from a regional economy
to a first-world economy. Our education and training systems must be first
class. We must build a world-class home for ourselves, where Singaporeans
want to stay, and talent from around the world want to come.
We must make Singapore an oasis of talent. Many cities
are vying to be the key global node in the region - Hong Kong, Shanghai,
Sydney, Taipei, Singapore. Who wins depends on who attracts the most talent,
and forms a critical mass that draws in still more entrepreneurs, bankers,
artists, writers, professionals.
Our traditional catchment for talent is the region around
us. But this has shrunk. Western countries have opened their doors wide
to Asian talent. They now take in people who would in the past have come
to Singapore. So we must find new ways to expand our catchment, by recruiting
directly from all over the world.
D. BUILDING A FIRST-WORLD ECONOMY
A first-world economy means adopting world-class standards,
whatever we do and wherever we operate. Our businesses, whether manufacturing
or services, have to benchmark themselves against the best standards and
practices worldwide. Unless our products and services are comparable to
the best, we will be out of the running, and will not be a first-world
a. Building Singapore Companies
The first strategy is to build world-class Singapore companies.
We have already made the Singapore brand world famous in several areas.
Singapore Airlines, PSA and Changi Airport are widely acknowledged as among
the world’s best airlines, seaports and airports.
Singapore companies have ventured into the region. Going
regional was the right decision, even though some of our investments had
been hit by the economic crisis. We took the risks and have learnt valuable
lessons. We now have significant investments in China, Vietnam, Thailand,
Myanmar, and Cambodia, besides Indonesia and Malaysia. We have expanded
our economic reach beyond Singapore, into many parts of Asia.
We should now go global by forming strategic alliances
or mergers with other major players. Indeed we often have no choice – where
the industries are consolidating worldwide, we either become major players,
or we are nothing.
PSA is doing that. Recently, a port authority in Portugal
approached PSA to form a joint venture company to develop a new container
terminal. It selected PSA without calling an international tender. That
speaks volumes for PSA’s quality and efficiency. PSA will be operating
and managing the new terminal for an initial period of 30 years.
PSA has become an international player since 1996. It
has already invested in 8 port projects in 5 countries: two ports each
in China, India and Italy, and one each in Yemen and Brunei. PSA has expanded
Singapore’s economic space by going global.
Other major Singapore companies are also taking active
steps to go global. DBS Bank aims to be a leading bank in the Asia Pacific
region. Compared to other Asian banks, DBS is already one of the best.
But it is not yet a world-class bank in terms of its range and quality
of products and services, its depth of management and returns to shareholders.
The competition is not just from Asian banks but from banks like Citibank
and HSBC. They are much bigger than DBS and among the world’s best. They
also have ambitions in the region. So DBS must upgrade itself to match
their standards. This will not be easy. But unless DBS succeeds, it may
even lose ground in Singapore.
The key prerequisite for success is first-class management.
Though DBS had a core of outstanding officers, it did not have them in
sufficient numbers to realise its ambitions. The bank also had few with
extensive experience in other banking centres or in international banks.
So DBS started by hiring a new CEO: John Olds, an American. He in turn
has attracted other able bankers to join the DBS team.
DBS has acquired stakes in banks in Thailand, the Philippines,
Hong Kong and Indonesia. It still has a very long way to go. But I am confident
that DBS will become one of the best managed banks of the region, if it
continues to recruit and retain the quality of senior staff, and gets them
to mesh in as a team.
We hope local banks will follow the DBS example. We will
give them full support.
b. Innovation and Entrepreneurship
The second strategy for building a first-world economy
is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. We need to create our own
products to sell in global markets, not just buy and sell what others have
produced. Creative Technology has set the example. Its best selling multimedia
product, the Sound Blaster, has more than 50 million users worldwide.
We need more success stories like Creative. We must foster
an entrepreneurial culture in Singapore. We have to create a "Silicon Valley"
state of mind in Singapore – creative and willing to take risks, setting
up start-up companies and getting venture capital. We must accept the inevitable
failures, and rejoice with the winners who collect a pot of gold.
i. Singapore Start-ups in Silicon Valley
When I visited Silicon Valley in May this year, I was
encouraged to find a number of Singapore companies already there. Some
are contract manufacturers which service IT giants there. Others are IT
start-up companies, including spin-offs from the Kent Ridge Digital Labs
One promising Singaporean start-up is called the Third
Voice. It was founded by three National Computer Board scholars. When working
in KRDL, they came up with the idea of giving websurfers a way to post
their comments on websites – an electronic version of the sticky yellow
post-it notes. They then decided to commercialize their idea. With KRDL's
blessing and financial support from a venture capitalist, they set up the
Third Voice in Silicon Valley. Fortune magazine recently featured 12 start-ups
that could do well in the coming year. The Third Voice was one of the 12,
and was the one featured on the cover.
But making it big time is far from a certainty. In Silicon
Valley, only one in twenty start-ups succeeds in getting funding. And of
those who do get funded, perhaps one in ten or twenty will do very well.
So we must generate many more promising start-ups, in order to end up with
a few successes.
ii. Technopreneurship 21
It is good to have Singaporeans working in Silicon Valley.
But we also want start-ups to locate operations in Singapore, and contribute
directly to the Singapore economy. We want to promote entrepreneurship
in high growth technology industries like IT, communications and media
and life sciences. We hope to create a vibrant environment for such companies
to start and grow. This is the aim of our Technopreneurship 21 programme.
Under Technopreneurship 21, we have set up a venture capital
fund with US$1 billion for start-ups in Singapore. We will fund not only
Singaporean entrepreneurs, but also foreigners who come to launch start-ups
in Singapore. Otherwise we would have far too few entrepreneurs and start-ups.
iii. Non-high tech small companies can too
You do not always have to be big to go global, or high-tech
to show entrepreneurship. Small companies can do it too, even in non-high
When I visited Korea in June this year, my business delegation
included a 30-year old young man who exports ornamental fish. He sources
exotic ornamental fish from South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, breeds
them in Singapore and sells them in the world market.
Very few of us are aware that we have a 30% market share
of the world market for ornamental fish. Our breeders are SMEs. Last year,
they exported some 600 varieties of fish, worth $72 million, to 68 countries.
One of their top exports is the dragon fish or arowana. It is very popular
among the Japanese and Chinese because their scales resemble shiny gold
Fish breeding is also a knowledge-based industry. You
must know how to pack and condition the fish so that they can survive the
air journey and arrive in good shape. The water temperature and acidity
level have to be right. You have to stop feeding the fish 1-2 days before
the shipment. Otherwise, they will produce waste during the trip and other
fish may fall sick.
c. Attracting MNCs
Important as it is to build outstanding Singapore companies,
and promote entrepreneurship and start-ups, we must never forget that MNCs
will always be an important component of our first-world economy. We can
never have enough local start-ups and world-class companies.
Out of the 500 Fortune Global 500 companies, almost half
(229) either have operations in Singapore, or site an operational HQ here.
They include General Motors, Mitsubishi, Exxon, General Electric, Royal
Dutch Shell and Citigroup. These are among the biggest companies in the
world. No Singapore company is on the Fortune Global 500 list, not even
Singapore Airlines or Singapore Telecom.
Singapore Telecom is our largest company in terms of market
capitalisation. It is worth S$41 billion (US$24 billion). But SingTel ranks
only 20th in size among telecoms companies worldwide. Creative Technology’s
market capitalisation is US$0.9 billion. In comparison, Microsoft has a
market capitalisation of more than US$400 billion, or 400 times bigger.
So we must be realistic.
It is not just a matter of size. These major MNCs have
organisational strength, technology, access to global markets, and a worldwide
network. In time, a few of our companies should make it to the Fortune
Global 500. But even then we cannot afford to give up the exports, jobs,
and linkage that the MNCs bring us. EDB must continue to work hard attracting
MNCs, and the Government must create an environment where MNCs can prosper
i. Pursuing Consistent, Rational Policies
One important consideration for MNCs is whether the Government
pursues consistent, rational policies. A country may offer them low wages
and free land, but if government policies are erratic, investors will be
In this respect, Singapore has done well. Our performance
during the financial crisis has helped. Last year, a European banker called
on the MAS Chairman. He told Lee Hsien Loong that his bank had decided
to concentrate its global treasury operations in three centres. One was
in London and Paris covering Europe. The second was in New York covering
the US. And the third would be in Singapore covering the whole of Asia.
The banker gave three reasons for his decision. Firstly,
Singaporeans speak English. Secondly, MAS’ measures to liberalise the financial
sector. And thirdly, the most significant reason: Singapore’s good track
record in reacting to unexpected events. He said that the international
community closely watched how countries reacted to unexpected events. He
expressed confidence in Singapore.
So whether we realise it or not, investors and analysts
track our policies and reactions closely. We are always on show. We have
been seen to be a good place for them to invest and do business. As the
crisis recedes, we must continue to do so.
ii. Maintaining Cost Competitiveness
One important signal that we must send is that although
our economy is recovering, we are pressing on with our cost reduction measures.
The government rebates on taxes, rentals and levies will continue as committed.
We should also continue exercising wage restraint.
If the economy continues to pick up strongly, companies
will run short of workers, the labour market will tighten, and we are bound
to face wage pressures. In that situation it is better to begin restoring
employer CPF contributions earlier to moderate these pressures, and continue
to exercise restraint on wages. The alternative is to leave the CPF rate
low, and allow wages to rise sharply. This is worse, because after wages
have gone up, it will be more difficult for us to restore the CPF rate
on top of that.
This is why the Government is considering starting to
restore part of the CPF rate next year, instead of 2001 as originally intended.
However, we have to study this very carefully.
Firstly, we must make sure that employers and workers
accept that wage and CPF adjustments must be taken as a package, so that
an earlier CPF restoration translates into lower wage settlements. Otherwise,
we will add to the cost burden of employers, before they are ready for
Secondly, we must be mindful that some industries are
under severe cost pressures, such as the disk drive and PC manufacturers.
They have told us that had we not cut CPF and other costs last year, they
would have retrenched many more workers by now.
Such industries still need time to adjust. We too need
time to retrain and reskill their workers, in case they are retrenched
and must find new jobs. Already Western Digital has announced restructuring
plans. Western Digital is retrenching 2,500 workers. Such rationalisation
may be unavoidable. But we should not inadvertently push companies into
cutting back their operations here even more quickly.
The Government will take all this into account when it
decides later this year whether to start restoring the employer CPF rate
next year, and if so, by how much.
The underlying strategy to build a first-world economy
is to create a first-rate education system. Our students must know how
to use existing knowledge, but that is not enough. They must also learn
how to create new knowledge. That is why I have put a strong team of Ministers
in the Ministry of Education (MOE).
i. A Robust and Academically Successful Education System
We already have a very good education system. It helps
every pupil to develop to his potential, and equip him with the knowledge
and skills he needs for life. Singaporeans, especially parents, often complain
about their children’s difficulties in school. But internationally we compare
very well with other countries.
When Teo Chee Hean first went to MOE, he and his team
decided to visit other countries to look at their education systems. They
found these countries doing things very similar to ourselves – reviewing
curricula, re-looking university admission systems, introducing IT into
schools, re-emphasising holistic development.
They also found admiration and respect for the Singapore
education system. For example, their counterparts in California asked them
for our Mathematics syllabus and textbooks for reference. They wanted to
learn how such a small country could achieve such good performance in Mathematics
While we can be proud of these achievements, we cannot
rest on our laurels. There is much to do to improve the education of our
ii. Supporting and Empowering Principals and Teachers
One key MOE policy is to give more autonomy to schools
and school clusters. We must support and empower principals and teachers.
We must give them the authority to make their own decisions, and the resources
to try out new ideas and bring out the best in their students.
This is working. We have unleashed the collective energies
and enthusiasm of our teachers and students. The schools and educational
institutions are buzzing with activity. They are coming up with new and
better ways to teach Science, Mathematics, English, and the Mother Tongue
Languages. One primary school has installed a solar power system to power
its garden lights, and teach its pupils Science in a fun and practical
way. A secondary school has transformed its Science workshop into a corporate
enterprise, where students had to design useful products with the limited
iii. Enrichment Programmes
We are providing not just a good basic education, but
also enrichment programmes. Every school has an annual Edusave grant, which
the principal can spend at his discretion. So the schools are hiring specialist
instructors to coach students in dance, music, and life-skills. These activities
are not in the exam syllabus, but they help schools to turn out more rounded
It is not just the top schools which have enrichment programmes.
Neighbourhood schools are doing remarkable things too. For example, when
Teo Chee Hean attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of
Loyang Secondary School in his constituency in Pasir Ris, they put up a
Dick Lee musical! The musical may not be quite Broadway standards, but
the effort and enthusiasm of the students, the teachers, and the theatre
community who helped them, was outstanding.
In music too, many schools are doing well. The top 5 secondary
school bands at the Singapore Youth Festival this year were one Independent
School (RGS), one autonomous school (Tanjong Katong Girls’), one SAP school
(River Valley High), one aided school (St Andrew’s Secondary) and one neighbourhood
school (Yuhua Secondary). It just happened like that – there were no quotas.
Having won the band competition here, the Yuhua Secondary
School band will be representing Singapore in the Symphonic Band International
Competition, in Thailand.
So although our children study hard in school, they are
no bookworms. I only wish schools had had such programmes and facilities
when I was a student. Then at least I might have learnt to play the drum,
or if that was too difficult for me, the cymbals. Now I play nothing.
iv. Information Technology
Our IT Masterplan for our schools and junior colleges
is progressing well. The response has been overwhelming. Initially, some
schools and teachers were sceptical and fearful of IT, and quite willing
to let others be the guinea pigs. Now, the schools not yet on IT are asking
anxiously when their turn will be. They do not want to lose out.
Teachers and pupils in IT-enabled schools are discovering
whole new worlds of learning. They are using IT to teach Mother Tongue
Languages, including Chinese and Tamil, which do not use the Roman alphabet.
They are applying IT far beyond the usual places, including Chinese brush
Pupils of Radin Mas Primary School collaborated with pupils
from Hawaii to create a virtual zoo. Luckily for Mandai Zoo, the virtual
zoo cannot replace the real animals. And in fact the pupils still need
to make field trips there to collect information and ideas.
One of the most IT-savvy schools is Kranji Secondary School,
a young, neighbourhood school which started in 1995. Every student has
an Internet account. The school delivers assignments and reading materials
to students via the Internet, encourages parents to keep in touch through
e-mail, and has just launched its e-commerce web-site. It received the
National IT Award for Excellence in IT Training.
v. Foreign Students in Schools
While our students interact with students from other countries
and expand their horizons using IT, there is nothing like face-to-face
interaction. Education is a human enterprise. Top schools like RI and RGS
are distinguished not only by good teaching, but also by the quality of
their students. If we can have more outstanding students, they will partner,
challenge and motivate other students to excel. So we should attract bright
foreign students to study in Singapore. It will help us to build more good
Top students from overseas do know about the excellent
schools in Singapore and want to come here. Currently, 1,800 foreign students
study in our schools. They add to the intellectual vibrancy of our schools,
and enrich the educational experience of Singaporean students.
Chinese High School has many students from China. When
I opened the school’s enhanced campus in March this year, the Principal
introduced one boy to me. When this student first came from China, his
English was perhaps a Primary Two standard. But within two years, he was
scoring distinctions in English in Secondary 4.
I spoke to him in English. I asked him how he managed
to do this. He said that he spent a lot of time reading, listening and
practising English. I then asked him how much time he spent on mathematics.
"Hardly", he said. Mathematics was easy for him. So was Chinese.
Then I asked him what he intended to do after finishing
his ‘A’ levels. He said, "Try and get a scholarship to study in the United
States." An alarm bell rang in my head. He may not return to Singapore.
I then asked a Singapore student what his plan was. He
too wanted to get a scholarship to study in the United States. So we have
a problem. Not only may we not get the bright Chinese boy back, we may
even lose our own bright Singaporeans.
Looking across the road at the new Nanyang Girls' High
School, an idea struck me. I suggested to the Principal to hold joint activities
between his boys and Nanyang Girls’. If his boys have girl friends in Singapore,
that may pull them back to Singapore! But what if the girls too go overseas?
b. Technical Education – Best in Class
One important part of our education system which we are
very proud of is our technical education sector – comprising the four polytechnics
offering Diploma courses and the Institute of Technical Education offering
certificate courses in engineering, technology and business areas.
Early this year, MOE invited a small team of distinguished
educators from Germany, the UK and the US to take a look at these institutions.
The visitors, including university heads, were highly impressed by the
"can-dream, can-do" attitude of our polytechnics and ITEs.
These institutions are truly "best in class". Collectively
the polytechnics and ITEs admit two-thirds of the cohort. They will be
the source of many technopreneurs, technologists and managers. Sim Wong
Hoo, of Creative Technology, is an outstanding example. He graduated from
Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1975. There are many others.
We also want to make NUS and NTU first-rate universities.
NUS and NTU have already achieved high standards. They
do not lack facilities and resources. Their constraint to doing better
Top universities in the US like Harvard and MIT recruit
from the top 0.25 percent of a cohort of nearly 4 million, taking just
over 1,000 students each per year. Only the brightest students have a chance.
Furthermore, they recruit not just from the state they are in, or even
the whole of the US. They draw outstanding students from the world over.
So they attract top-rate professors, which in turn makes more top students
want to enter these universities.
Harvard and MIT can do this because they are private,
not state universities. They do not have to look after all the students
from the state of Massachusetts. They also have the advantage of long histories,
and huge endowment funds from alumni and well-wishers. There are other
state universities, which take the many other good students who do not
make it to the elite institutions.
NUS and NTU are state universities. They have a responsibility
to take in all Singaporeans who qualify. They admit about 20% of every
population cohort, thus catering to a wide range of talent and ability.
Together they take in 8,000 students.
To upgrade themselves, NUS and NTU must systematically
enrol bright students from the region. Though they can never match the
academic excellence of Harvard and MIT, they can emulate Harvard and MIT,
and try and attract top students from Asia.
Not every bright Asian student can afford to go to Britain
or the US. Singapore is cheaper and closer to home. We do not expect all
these students to stay on in Singapore. Many will go back and contribute
to their home countries. Over time, they will form a regional network of
old school ties, people who are well disposed to Singapore and whom we
can do business with.
Last year, foreign students made up 16% of the total undergraduate
intake in NUS and NTU. The two universities will increase their intake
of foreign students to 20%. This increase in foreign students will not
be at the expense of Singaporeans. We will always provide enough university
places for local students who meet the admission standards.
d. An Education Hub
We have also set out to attract top foreign universities
to set up branches in Singapore. Our goal is to make Singapore an education
hub, like Boston. Boston has many good universities besides Harvard and
MIT. It has become a centre of excellence for higher education, attracting
students and talent from far and wide.
INSEAD, the European institute of business administration
based in France, and the University of Chicago Business School, are setting
up branch campuses in Singapore. Another top US business school, Wharton,
is collaborating with the new Singapore Management University to set up
the Wharton-SMU Research Centre.
For engineering, MIT will conduct postgraduate courses
in Singapore jointly with NUS and NTU. The Georgia Institute of Technology
has linked up with NUS to set up the Logistics Institute – Asia to undertake
research, industry consulting, education and training.
The medical school in Johns Hopkins University is setting up Johns Hopkins Singapore, a postgraduate medical research and education centre at NUS.
All these institutions will help us prepare Singapore
for the knowledge-based economy.
e. Speaking Good English
i. Communicating with the World
If we want to be an education hub, attracting good students
from the region, then we must provide a good English-speaking environment,
i.e. one where people speak standard English, not Singlish. Our schools
must teach standard English, and our children must learn and speak standard
Most of our pupils still come from non-English speaking
homes. For them, English is really a second language, to be learnt almost
like a foreign language, and not their mother tongue. For them to master
just one version of English is already quite a challenge. If they get into
the habit of speaking Singlish, then later they will either have to unlearn
these habits, or learn proper English on top of Singlish. Many pupils will
find this too difficult. They may end up unable to speak any language properly,
which would be a tragedy.
Gurmit Singh can speak many languages. But Phua Chu Kang
speaks only Singlish. If our children learn Singlish from Phua Chu Kang,
they will not become as talented as Gurmit Singh.
We learn English in order to communicate with the world.
The fact that we use English gives us a big advantage over our competitors.
Parents send children to English language schools rather than Chinese,
Malay, or Tamil schools, because they hope the children will get jobs and
opportunities when they grow up. But to become an engineer, a technician,
an accountant or a nurse, you must have standard English, not Singlish.
We don’t have to speak English with British, American,
or Australian accents. Most of us speak with a Singaporean accent. We are
so used to hearing it that we probably don’t notice it. But we should speak
a form of English that is understood by the British, Americans, Australians,
and people around the world.
Nicholas Lee, who plays Ronnie Tan in Under One Roof,
wrote a letter in the Straits Times [1 Jun] which hit the nail on the head.
He had been criticised because Ronnie Tan did not speak Singlish. His reply
was that the programme Under One Roof was shown overseas as well as in
Singapore. Programme series are very expensive to make. If they are only
shown in Singapore, they will surely lose money. If the characters spoke
Singlish, viewers overseas would not understand it.
Nicholas Lee cited one local production, "Forever Fever",
which could not be released in the US market because American audiences
would not understand the Singapore English. So now they are considering
removing the Singlish, and dubbing "Forever Fever" in English that Americans
can understand. His conclusion was: "We should all be aware that the only
way forward is to look outward, and if the future of Singapore entertainment
lies in ‘Beng culture’, then I am afraid it is a very bleak culture."
What Nicholas Lee said about sitcoms applies to many other
activities. Whether we are publishing a newspaper, writing a company report,
or composing a song, does it make more sense to do so for a 3 million audience,
or for the hundreds of millions who speak English around the world? We
cannot be a first-world economy or go global with Singlish.
ii. Pidgin English
Singapore is not unique in having a local flavour to the
English it uses. Local types of English often sprout up in places where
non-English speakers come into contact with English speakers, or where
people speaking different tongues use simple English as a common language
to communicate with each other. These languages are called pidgin English,
or Creole. Eventually pidgin develops into a new language, which uses many
English words, but mixed with non-English words, and using different grammar.
Different kinds of pidgin English or Creole is spoken
in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in the South Pacific. For example, in
Jamaica they say: "Him go a school every day last year; now sometime him
go, sometime him no go" [Jamaican Creole]. In Samoa when a person is very
ill, he says "Mi siksik" [Samoan Plantation Pidgin English].
These examples are not to make fun of anyone. This is
simply the way people speak in these countries. The examples have a serious
lesson for us: if we carry on using Singlish, the logical final outcome
is that we too will develop our own type of pidgin English, spoken only
by 3 million Singaporeans, which the rest of the world will find quaint
but incomprehensible. We are already half-way there. Do we want to go all
the way? We would be better off sticking to Chinese, Malay or Tamil; then
at least some other people in the world can understand us.
I know that many of us do not speak English perfectly.
We studied in Chinese, Malay or Tamil schools, or came from non-English
speaking homes even though we went to English schools. We cannot help it,
and it is nothing to be ashamed of. But we should nurture the next generation
to have higher standards of English than ourselves. We can help them by
discouraging the use of Singlish, or at least not encouraging it.
iii. Upgrading English in Schools
Schools already organise many programmes and activities
to encourage the use of proper English. They have Speak English Campaigns,
they fine pupils caught speaking Singlish, and they run speech and drama
programmes to promote good English.
MOE has been working hard to upgrade standards of English
in schools. First, it is revising the English Language syllabuses, to make
them more rigorous and to strengthen the teaching of grammar.
Second, MOE will conduct a 60-hour course for 8,000 teachers
who teach English Language in primary and secondary schools, to strengthen
and update their skills. The course will lead to the award of the Singapore-Cambridge
Certificate in the Teaching of English Grammar.
Third, MOE is working with the Regional Language Centre
to produce a handbook on common errors in English usage in Singapore.
MOE gave me some examples of improper written English found in schools:
"He is very sporting." to mean "He is very active in sports."
"I became boring." when the writer meant "I became bored."
"He turned into a new leaf." instead of "He turned over
a new leaf."
As for spoken English, how about this: "Quick, quick.
Late already. You eat yourself, we eat ourself".
iv. Phua Chu Kang
One of the problems MOE has getting students to speak
standard English is that the students often hear Singlish being spoken
around them, including on TV. So they learn wrong ways of speaking.
Teachers complain that their students are picking up catchphrases
like: "Don’t pray, pray." and using them even in the classroom. The students
may think that it is acceptable and even fashionable to speak like Phua
Chu Kang. He is on national TV and a likeable, ordinary person. The only
character who tries to speak proper English is Phua Chu Kang’s sister-in-law
Margaret, and she is a snob. Nobody wants to be a snob. So in trying to
imitate life, Phua Chu Kang has made the teaching of proper English more
I asked TCS why Phua Chu Kang’s English is so poor. They
told me that Phua Chu Kang started off speaking quite good English, but
as time passed he forgot what he learnt in school, and his English went
from bad to worse.
I therefore asked TCS to try persuading Phua Chu Kang
to attend NTUC’s BEST classes, to improve his English. TCS replied that
they have spoken to Phua Chu Kang, and he has agreed to enrol himself for
the next BEST programme, starting in a month’s time. If Phua Chu Kang can
improve himself, surely so can the rest of us.
F. WORLD-CLASS HOME
Education is important for making a living. But earning
money is not the sole objective of life or education. A community of any
quality should have a whole range of skills and interests. Its members
should take part and excel in sports. They should paint, write, perform,
visit art galleries and enjoy world-class concerts. Only then will they
form a vibrant, rounded, interesting community.
a. The Soft Environment
Singapore should be a fun place to live. People laugh
at us for promoting fun so seriously. But having fun is important. If Singapore
is a dull, boring place, not only will talent not want to come here, but
even Singaporeans will begin to feel restless.
Luckily our efforts to create a wholesome, lively soft
environment are succeeding. Places like Boat Quay and Clarke Quay bustle
with life, especially on Friday evenings. Orchard Road at night is full
of young people, who seem to be there just to enjoy the crowd. When we
finish developing the banks of the Singapore River, we will have a beautiful
promenade where Singaporeans and visitors can relax and enjoy themselves.
The National Parks Board has done a wonderful job keeping
Singapore green and beautiful. We have a Garden City Action Committee which
meets every month to plan, implement and track projects to beautify Singapore.
Senior Minister and I read the minutes of the Committee meetings. We must
be the only leaders in the world who monitor the work of a gardening committee!
Time magazine, better known for criticizing Singapore
for being a sterile, authoritarian, nanny state that bans chewing gum and
canes Michael Fay, now swoons over Singapore being "funky" (19 Jul). London's
Financial Times in a July supplement coos over "cool Singapore".
I am amused that they are surprised over the change. Had
they read Vision 1999 which we outlined long ago, they would have discovered
that we had every intention of making Singapore a fun place.
Beyond fun and providing more and better facilities, we
should aim for excellence in sports. Our sportsmen and women have done
well in the recently-concluded SEA Games in Brunei. But let us not be satisfied
with just SEA Games victories. Let us set our sights higher, and aim to
do well in the world arena as well. A first-world economy should produce
a few world-class sportsmen.
People of my generation will remember Wong Peng Soon,
Ong Poh Lim, Ismail Marjan and other great Singaporean badminton players
of the 1950s. Wong Peng Soon is a legend in badminton circles. He played
competitive badminton from 1937 to 1955. He won the All-England singles
title 4 times and was in the Malayan team which won the Thomas Cup in 1949,
1952 and 1955.
We should try to produce another Wong Peng Soon. I have
set the target for Singapore to qualify for the Thomas Cup final in 2012.
Sailing is another sport Singapore can excel in. Height
and size are not important factors in sailing. Intelligence and quickness
of thinking are. Siew Shaw Her, who won an Asian Games gold medal, told
me that in a sailing race, the competitor has to make over 1,000 decisions.
The wind shifts constantly. The current flows at different speeds in different
parts of the sea. The sailor has to watch the waves while keeping an eye
on the other competitors. A competitor can literally steal the wind from
Singapore has never won an Olympic gold medal. We have
a chance in sailing. I have told our sailors to bring back one by 2008.
If Hong Kong could do it in the 1996 Olympics, surely so can Singapore.
Whether in sailing, badminton or football, we can only
do well if we systematically identify and groom the promising players from
young. Foreign talent helps. Our table-tennis team won six golds in the
Brunei SEA Games because it had imported talent from China.
c. Arts and Culture
We have not devoted much resources and attention to developing
arts and culture until recently. We had other more urgent priorities, like
upgrading our economy and building up the SAF. But in recent years, the
arts scene has taken off, especially after we formed MITA under George
Yeo in 1990. There are now many groups staging plays and musicals, putting
up exhibitions and concerts.
Lee Yock Suan tells me that MITA is developing a vision
for Singapore to be a renaissance city. Artistic creativity is an important
element of a knowledge-based economy. He will get more funds to promote
I asked MITA for a list of Singaporeans who have made
their mark in the arts. MITA could produce just over 30 names, many of
whom are based overseas. Violinist Siow Lee Chin, who performed at this
year’s National Day Parade, is in the US. Glen Goei of M Butterfly fame
is in the UK. Dick Lee, the "Mad Chinaman", works out of Hong Kong.
Among those based in Singapore we have playwright Kuo
Pao Kun, painters Liu Kang and Tan Swie Hian, actor Lim Kay Siu and writer
Catherine Lim, whose novels have been translated into several languages.
Her latest book, "The Teardrop Story Woman" is a best-seller in London.
A number of Singapore works have toured internationally
in the last two years. Ong Keng Sen’s ‘Lear’ combined Japanese noh, Beijing
opera, Vietnamese dances, Sumatran martial art forms and Singaporean talent.
This powerful production was a big hit in Japan.
‘Chang and Eng’, a musical about the famous Siamese twins,
performed to full houses in Singapore. It toured Beijing in December 1997.
The producer, Ekachai Uekrongtham, is a Singapore PR of Thai origin. He
studied in NUS on an ASEAN scholarship more than 10 years ago, and stayed
on in Singapore after his graduation.
How many outstanding musicians, artists, directors, dancers
and actors can a 3-million population produce? We are not like the Israelis,
who are already naturally talented, and furthermore draw on a large pool
of talented Jews from all over the world, to be artists, musicians and
writers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, 600,000 Russian Jews emigrated
to Israel. Every Russian immigrant coming off the plane in Tel Aviv carried
some musical instrument – either a violin or cello, or perhaps a french
horn. Occasionally you would see somebody carrying nothing. He was probably
G. AN OASIS OF TALENT
So in the arts, as in everything else, it is talent that
counts. We can be neither a first-world economy nor a world-class home
without talent. We have to supplement our talent from abroad.
One of Hong Kong’s advantages over Singapore is that it
has more talent. Not only is its population double ours, but it draws on
a huge reservoir of talent in China.
Hong Kong has long been a magnet for ambitious, energetic,
adventurous young people from across the border. Some come legally, while
others sneak in. They become valuable assets to Hong Kong. Hong Kong will
be tough to beat. It continues to draw talent from China.
a. We Need More Top Talent
Foreign talent will not take away jobs from Singaporeans.
They will create more jobs and prosperity for all of us. Our neighbours
want to catch up with us in manufacturing. They will try to protect their
services sectors, and prevent Singapore firms from serving their domestic
markets. But if we have top quality talent, and operate with high efficiency,
either on our own or with top international services companies, it will
not be so easy to block us.
How many of our own can we produce? About 40,000 babies
a year are born in Singapore. Of these, perhaps 40 to 50 grow up to show
exceptional promise, judging from the numbers recruited into the Administrative
Service, and into the SAF and SPF on overseas scholarships, plus those
who did not join the government.
Our economy is growing. Many more than 40 challenging
jobs need to be filled each year with top talent, both in the government
and the private sector. If we can get the right people to fill them, then
the whole organisation will flourish, and maybe become a world-class player.
But if we fill key posts with people who are not up to the job, the whole
organisation will suffer, and perform far below what it is capable of.
Not all our talent is deployed where they can make the
best contribution. Too many still want to become doctors and lawyers. We
need good doctors and lawyers, but we need people more in many other areas.
We must deploy our talent properly, where they are most
needed. Schools should counsel pupils before they enter university, so
that they know where the opportunities are, and choose courses which help
them pursue challenging and rewarding careers in Singapore.
Furthermore some of our brightest go abroad to study or
work, especially to the US. They feel the powerful pull of the booming
US economy. Some stay on, employed by high-tech firms before they even
graduate. Others are offered generous scholarships and research funds by
outstanding universities, to continue their post-graduate studies.
This growing problem is the downside of globalisation:
able Singaporeans speak English, have talents and skills, and are totally
mobile. Inevitably some will go abroad. But enough must come back, both
because Singapore offers them opportunities, challenges and rewards, and
because they feel an obligation to their own country. Otherwise we will
be depleted and become a second-class country.
b. Never Stop Attracting Talent.
This is why we must continue to attract talent, whatever
the state of the economy, and even when our unemployment numbers go up.
Investors take careful note of our attitude towards foreign
talent. In March this year, when the issue was raised in Parliament, we
had a spirited debate. The International Herald Tribune reported it in
a front page story [30 Mar]. It said that Singapore had always had a policy
of welcoming foreigners, since the time of Stamford Raffles, until today,
when rising unemployment prompted more Singaporeans to demand protection
against foreign competition. It reported that Dr Tan Cheng Bock had raised
the matter, and reflected what it called "a view that has found significant
support among Singaporeans". It also quoted what Lee Hsien Loong, George
Yeo and I had said in response, defending the Government’s position. So
IHT readers knew that the Singapore Government had not shifted its position.
Tan Cheng Bock has clarified with me that he had been
misunderstood. He said that he was not against the import of foreign talent.
He was only against our harping on it, especially during a recession, as
this would cause us political problems.
Analysts give us high marks for our policy on talent,
because it is the right policy for us to grow. PERC, a Hong Kong-based
consultancy, recently issued a report [Asian Intelligence, 14 Jul] on how
we are liberalising our services sector – banking, legal services, telecoms.
It noted that we are opening up, like other Asian countries. But unlike
them we are doing it as a result of a conscious decision, and not because
the IMF is forcing us to do it.
PERC commented that apart from Hong Kong, Singapore has the most open economy in the region when it comes to participation of foreigners in the services sector. It reported that DBS and OCBC now have foreign CEOs, and that we have appointed foreigners to top management positions in GLCs like Singapore Airlines, NOL and Pidemco Land.
Attracting foreign talent may not be the popular thing
to do, but it is the best way to protect the interests of Singaporeans.
H. WILL SINGAPORE ENDURE?
a. Samuel Huntington’s question
Our plans to build a first-world economy and a world-class
home are ambitious. Whether we can realise them depends on a more fundamental
question: Can Singapore endure beyond the first generation?
In 1996, in an article discussing the merits of democracy, American scholar Samuel Huntington wrote:
What must we do to prove Huntington wrong?
b. Stay United – Tripartism
The first requirement is to keep ourselves united and
cohesive. We need to maintain the strong tripartite relationship among
the Government, employers and workers. This will allow us to act decisively
and rationally in the interest of all Singaporeans, and not waste energies
quarrelling among ourselves.
The Government could not have implemented the cost cutting
package last year, especially the CPF cut, without close co-operation and
understanding from workers and union leaders.
Many foreign leaders envied our ability to cut wages with
seeming ease. They have asked me how we managed it. In their own countries,
there would have been demonstrations, street protests and riots. It would
have been political suicide.
Lim Boon Heng, Lim Swee Say and other union leaders needed
little persuasion that our wages had become uncompetitive. They understood
the problem. They did an excellent job in explaining to workers that it
was better to save jobs than to hang on to higher wages.
Why did union leaders and workers believe Lim Boon Heng,
Lim Swee Say, and the Ministers? Partly because of logic, but more because
of trust. The Government has led them through many previous crises. They
are convinced that the Government is on their side, and will not let them
down. Therefore the unions play constructive roles as partners in development,
working together with employers and the Government to improve the lives
of their members.
Foreign employers new to Singapore take a while to understand
that our unions are different from unions elsewhere. But sometimes something
happens which drives home the point quickly.
NMP Cyrille Tan, who is General Secretary of United Workers
of Electronic & Electrical Industries, told this story of one US company,
which has operations in Singapore and other Asian countries. The company
had a union problem in another Asian country. It sent an executive there
to try to sort it out. The workers not only refused to negotiate, but they
turned violent and threatened his life! He fled. After that, the executive
came to Singapore and met Cyrille Tan. Cyrille Tan became his best friend.
c. Bonding Cosmopolitans and Heartlanders
We also need to maintain cohesion between cosmopolitans
and heartlanders. As Singapore becomes more international, two broad categories
of people will emerge. One group I call the "cosmopolitans", because their
outlook is international. They speak English but are bilingual. They have
skills that command good incomes – banking, IT, engineering, science and
technology. They produce goods and services for the global market. Many
cosmopolitans use Singapore as a base to operate in the region. They can
work and be comfortable anywhere in the world.
The other group, the heartlanders, make their living within
the country. Their orientation and interests are local rather than international.
Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish.
They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production
workers and contractors. Phua Chu Kang is a typical heartlander. Another
one is Tan Ah Teck. If they emigrate to America, they will probably settle
in a Chinatown, open a Chinese restaurant and call it an "eating house".
Both heartlanders and cosmopolitans are important to Singapore’s
well being. Heartlanders play a major role in maintaining our core values
and our social stability. They are the core of our society. Without them,
there will be no safe and stable Singapore, no Singapore system, no Singapore
Cosmopolitans, on the other hand, are indispensable in
generating wealth for Singapore. They extend our economic reach. The world
is their market. Without them, Singapore cannot run as an efficient, high
The challenge for us is to get the heartlanders to understand
what the cosmopolitans contribute to Singapore’s and their own well being,
and to get the cosmopolitans to feel an obligation and sense of duty to
the heartlanders. If cosmopolitans and heartlanders cease to identify with
each other, our society will fall apart.
d. Political Leadership
Secondly, to prove Huntington wrong, we must continue
to have high standards of government. We can only do this if we continue
to produce capable, committed leaders, people who can govern the country
well and win the support of Singaporeans.
The PAP has never left self-renewal and succession planning
to chance. We already have the core of a third generation leadership. From
my observation of the interaction among the Ministers, it seems clear to
me that there is a leader among them. By the time I take a step back, Lee
Hsien Loong will be over 50 years old – mellowed and experienced. Other
younger Ministers will be pushing 50.
So finding more leaders in their 30’s and early 40’s to
field in the next general election in 2002 is now already an urgent task.
There is not much time to get them in, to gain experience to lead as Ministers.
We must continue to find able, dedicated men and women to come forward
and lead the country. This is the only way for Singapore to get the quality
of leadership that it has become used to, and that it deserves.
e. Building up Institutions – the Elected Presidency
Thirdly, we must institutionalise our system of government,
so that it becomes less dependent on personalities – on having the ideal
person to occupy a post. The persons will always matter. It is impossible
to design a system which will run properly even if incompetent or dishonest
people are in charge. But we can build the institutions, so that it is
easier for honourable, reasonably competent people to make them work.
In the early stages, when the institutions are still new,
we must take special care to find the right candidates for the job, who
will test out and develop the institutions before they are firmly anchored.
One such important institution is the elected Presidency.
In less than two weeks, Singapore will swear in a new
President. I am confident that Mr S R Nathan, our incoming President, will
build on what President Ong has done.
The President has two distinct roles. The first is ceremonial.
As Head of State, the President is a symbol of unity amongst Singaporeans
of all races, religions, social strata and political persuasions.
The second role of the President is custodial. Here, he
has blocking or veto powers in two main areas: safeguarding past financial
reserves and ensuring key appointments are made on merit.
The Government has an interest to ensure that whoever
becomes President has the competence, strength of character and balanced
judgment to perform his custodial functions. He should also have the personality
and bearing to fulfil his ceremonial role as Head of State.
When Cabinet decided in April to look for a new President,
I asked Ministers to suggest names of people they considered suitable.
After several discussions, Cabinet came up with a short list of eligible
names. However, not everyone short-listed was available.
Of the available potential candidates, the Ministers unanimously
chose Mr S R Nathan. They did so on merit. He was on the short list of
many Ministers, not just Senior Minister’s. Being a member of a minority
community was a point in his favour, as the previous two Presidents were
Chinese. But race was not the prime consideration in our choice. Mr S R
Nathan’s overall qualities were. I look forward to a sound working relationship
Finally, to endure beyond the first generation, Singapore
needs the commitment of its citizens. It is not enough to have good jobs,
a safe environment, exciting entertainment, or delicious food. We must
feel passionately for Singapore.
Singaporeans have to be convinced that there is something
special and precious in our way of life, in what we have built against
the odds. We must want to defend it, build upon it, and pass it on to our
children. And indeed we have achieved something remarkable, that others
admire and sometimes envy.
Commitment is especially needed from those Singaporeans
who have done well. They must feel an obligation to contribute something
back to society, to help give others the same opportunities that they themselves
benefited from. Only then can we become a close-knit civic society with
volunteer groups, community leaders, grassroots leaders, MPs and Ministers,
motivated by a sense of duty and responsibility to their fellow citizens.
Otherwise we will just be so many individual Singaporeans, no more than
loose sand in a bucket.
So the answer to Samuel Huntington’s question lies not in any argument we may produce now, but in what we will do as a nation over the next few decades. I believe that Singaporeans are proud of our country, especially Singaporeans who have travelled overseas and know what the world is really like. I am confident that we will stand up for Singapore, not just in the song, but in real life. So let us work together, to make Singapore a First-World Economy and a World-Class Home, for ourselves and for our families. This way, the Singapore heart will beat on and we will flourish in the new millennium.
. . . . .