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Pervasive economic disparity, intensifying political divergence, ill-effects of climate change, and increasing generational divide among people must be responded to immediately or else everyone will have difficulty dealing with all these global challenges. This was DPM Heng Swee Keat’s rallying cry when he spoke at the Singapore Summit Friday (Sept 20).

According to Mr Heng, this is why the government must plan for the long term and must make long-range relevant investments in infrastructure. The same way that it needs to be resolute in tackling the climate change issue  and must “act now, before it is too late”, he said.

All over the world, there has been a “fraying of the social compact that holds societies together”, that “unless some of the fundamental tensions across society are resolved, all will find it difficult to weather these (economic) challenges,” Mr Heng stressed.

Those who feel diminished are fighting back with great might, populist movements and disenchanted young people are on the rise citing examples such as the Brexit referendum, the Hong Kong protests and the Yellow Vest Movement in France.

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“It is therefore important for each society to renew its social compact.”

“Working for reward and be rewarded for work”

Sharing Singapore’s experience on dealing with an all-pervasive economic inequality, Mr Heng said the country has had to make sure that its economic and social policies go hand in hand, so that people can “work for reward, and be rewarded for work”.

Apart from staying open to opportunities from trade and innovation, Singapore is also committed to investing in education, noting recent efforts to boost pre-school education.

On the other end, efforts are in place to encourage lifelong learning, so that workers can continue to up-skill amid the rapidly changing global environment.

“We will make sure that no one is excluded from opportunities because of their backgrounds or circumstances,” Mr Heng said.

“As economic disruption becomes more frequent, people who suffer setbacks will require concerted efforts to get back on track. This is not easy, but if we do this right, we will be able to deliver broad-based progress for our people.”

The inter-generational divide

Providing for inter-generational equity is critical to maintaining the social compact, said Mr Heng, given the varying interests and concerns of different generations.

“When each generation pays for its own spending, it internalises the costs and benefits of the spending. Yet we must also invest in our young, and our young must in turn share the fruits of progress with our seniors,” he added.

“For our people, this means an equal commitment to ensuring that future generations have enough to also see through crises and plan for their future.” Mr Heng added.

Escalating polarisation

Another huge challenge is the increasing political polarisation seen in many parts of the world.

“Political polarisation is damaging because it pits people against one another and ultimately undermines the cohesion of a country,” adding that technology has exacerbated these divisions by enabling echo chambers, silos and fake news.

Singapore needs to address these issues by broadening the common space and bringing those with opposing views together, said Mr Heng.

He added that the country has safeguarded social cohesion by resisting political pressures to pander to narrow interests, taking instead an inclusive approach to bring together all Singaporeans.

“For instance, we have put in place measures to ensure that race and religion do not divide us. We ensure that there is a good racial mix in our housing estates to avoid segregation. We enacted laws to maintain our racial and religious harmony, and to safeguard the rights of minorities,” Mr Heng said.

He likewise cited Singapore’s tripartite system, where the Government, unions and businesses work hand in hand, fostered this cohesion and helped pulled the country through difficult times.

Mr Heng also underscored the importance of letting the younger generation have a stake in shaping the nation’s future by providing them with opportunities to work with other youths in the world and be able to build a better understanding and commitment for global cooperation.

“These sentiments are consistent with those of young people all around the world, many of whom are demanding a larger role in civic society and the political process,” Mr Heng said.

The Singapore Summit brings together business and thought leaders from Asia and around the world to discuss perspectives on various issues. It is organised by Temasek Foundation. /TISG

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