Chan Chun Sing: We will have our share of ‘life and death’ struggles to keep S’pore going

Decisive leaders would only be effective if there’s a deep sense of trust between government and the people.

By Chan Cheow Pong | January 12, 2018

Minister in Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing spoke at the inaugural Oxford and Cambridge Society’s S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture on Jan. 11.

In a wide-ranging speech which is well-worth reading, he spoke about the immutable challenges Singapore faced, the need to retain fundamental survival instincts and also the importance for leaders to win the trust and confidence of people.

You can read his full speech below.


I’m very happy to grace this inaugural lecture held in honour of the late former president Mr S R Nathan who was also a dear mentor to me. Pioneers like Mr Nathan may not be with us now, but the hard work that they have put in to build this nation of ours will always be remembered.

Indeed, for an improbable country like ours, survival is not a given nor a natural right. It is a work in constant progress and it requires concerted efforts by all – people and government working together to overcome our immutable challenges. Let me elaborate.

Four Immutable challenges

Singapore as an independent and sovereign country faces four immutable challenges.

  • First, we live in a geostrategic and geopolitical environment that is complex and volatile.
  • Second, economic survival without a conventional hinterland.
  • Third, forging a sense of nationhood among people of diverse backgrounds and with diverse aspirations.
  • Fourth, bringing forth exceptional leadership teams that can win the trust of our people.

Geopolitical challenges

We live in a region with a complex history. We have seen borders evolve frequently as I’ve mentioned. Among the different groups of people, they have diverse instincts, as well as racial and religious influences. They too have interests that are intertwined yet competing.

Our geostrategic location makes us a target in the contest of influence by larger countries and external powers. Our challenge is to carefully navigate the wider forces to secure our interests. We need to create relevance for others to want to deal with us as a sovereign independent state, and not as a pawn or a vassal state.

Economic Survival

We also face the challenge to grow and thrive without a conventional hinterland. We have to circumvent attempts to circumscribe us, and we must never be held ransom by our geography or size. This is crucial so that there can always be good jobs and good opportunities for generations of Singaporeans.

A sense of nationhood

Every country that begins with an immigrant population like ours must coalesce their diverse people of “economic sojourners” into a nation united by a set of common ideals and values. Our challenge is no different. We have to continuously forge a sense of nationhood and bond our people who are from diverse social, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds. We have to be sensitive to their evolving aspirations, views and attitudes. Our social cohesion and political unity therefore cannot be taken for granted. While our openness enriches us, it also presents challenges for us.

Exceptional leadership

Last but not least, we face the immutable challenge of building leadership teams that can win the trust of our people. Larger and better endowed countries may survive on their superior physical endowments. Small countries, more than others, will always require exceptional leadership to muster its finite resources to punch above its weight. However, the commitment of our people to come forth and serve – beyond their immediate and individual interests, is not something that we can always assume will happen naturally.

Survival Instincts

To survive and thrive, we must always remember the following fundamentals:

  • Understand the geopolitical forces clearly and deeply
  • Strive to grow beyond the constraints of our geographical size and position
  • Build a cohesive and broad middle ground
  • Forge committed leadership teams that can engender deep trust and unite our people

A keen sense of geopolitical forces

We must have a keen sense of the wider and deeper geopolitical forces that impact us. This means seeing the world as it is and not what we wish it to be. We know small countries are often “price-takers” in global affairs, so we need to be sharp and clear on where our interests are, navigate the geopolitical waves and maintain our course to achieve our goals.

We also need to see beyond the immediate and obvious, by taking a long-term perspective on issues and recognising the underlying trends, rather than making quick assumptions and conclusions. For example, when people comment on US President Trump and Brexit, we should be more concerned with understanding the forces that brought about these developments. When others talk about the immediate opportunities, challenges and threats of a rising China, we should look at the longer term forces driving the country and its leadership.

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Only when we are economically successful, will the big powers continue to engage us. As such, we have to keep our economy open and well-connected. Doing so means constantly seeking opportunities to collaborate with as many friends as possible. And when they collaborate with us, it’s not about charity or sympathy for us as a small country, but because we are relevant and value-add to the relationship.

We can’t rest on our laurels and expect previous or existing projects or partnerships to grant us eternal value. At every step, we must ask ourselves if the areas of cooperation are still relevant to the parties involved. If not, we must proactively pursue new areas of interests. To generate new ideas, we must have a deep understanding of our partners’ priorities and perspectives. For instance, our Government-to-Government projects with China have evolved- focusing ondifferent areas of interests over time- from the industrial park in Suzhou, to the eco-city in Tianjin, and now to the latest, Chongqing Connectivity Initiative.

Moving forward, we can expect the contest of influence by larger and external powers to accentuate and the pressures on us to multiply. But we have to remain principled and not waver for short-term gains, if we are to be taken seriously. We need to invest even more time and effort to help our people understand the dynamics too, so that we will be able to stand united in the face of overt pressures and covert influences. What’s clear is that we cannot become parochial – only looking at our internal issues.

Transcending our Geographical Size and Location

Our survival and success have never been predicated on our physical size or location alone. By connecting with the world as our de-facto hinterland, we seek to transcend our geographical size and location.

In the past, like many others, we’ve sought to connect to the world through the three physical dimensions of air, land and sea. Freedom of navigation through the seas, and safe management of airspace have been critical to our survival and success. Going forward, we must seek to better connect to the world and go even further, through the four complementary non-physical dimensions of data, finance, talent and technology. If we can seize these “borderless” global opportunities, we will overcome the historical constraint of size being the determinant to the ambition of small states.

Further back in the past, we’ve also sought to attract people to trade “with” Singapore. Then, we attracted them to trade “through” Singapore. In the future, we would need to work towards trading “on Singapore” or more precisely, “on the Singapore platform” as well. This is the new platform economy. Our port operator PSA actually started on this concept many years back in a nascent form. Instead of relying on location and size of the port in Singapore to compete, they have now built up a network of global ports, and have truly become the world’s port of call. Today, PSA’s partners do not just trade “with” Singapore or trade “through” Singapore but, most importantly, they trade “on” the Singapore platform globally.

In these times of rapid change, we also have to press on with efforts to renew our economy and prepare for the long haul so that we can continue to provide good opportunities for the next generation. The production of goods and services are seeing significant changes with the advent of new technologies, which have also led to the presence of new business and employment models. Workers, businesses and government would need to adapt.

For businesses, this means having to innovate and explore new markets and adopt new business models. Workers will need to learn, unlearn and relearn quickly to stay relevant and seize new opportunities. This will require a greater push in our efforts to realise an extensive continuing education system where “bite-sized” modules can be pushed in a timely manner to our adult learners. The government, too, must adjust, by creating a regulatory environment that enables and supports innovation. And we have to break down many of the silos of how we would regulate our system in a conventional way. We are rolling out the 23 Industry Transformation Maps, and how well we implement this concept will be critical to how well we are able to move the needle for our workers. This will require the trade associations and chambers, the Labour Movement and the government working together to overcome these challenges. The good news is everyone, every country in the world is facing the same challenges, and if anyone can get their act together, Singapore should be at the forefront.

Building a Cohesive Broad Middle

Even as we seek to transform the economy, we must also guard against a widening gap between the “winners” – those who are able to reap benefits from the new economy, and those who are lagging behind. We need to have a broad middle ground that enables us to stay cohesive. This would require us to keep up social mobility and, at the same time, grow our common spaces.

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The focus on social mobility is key to the Singapore social compact. That so long as one is capable and committed, one’s opportunities and accomplishments in life should not be defined only by his connections or ancestry. This sets us apart from many others, and provides hope to all who wants to commit themselves to the Singapore cause. This helps us to retain and attract talented and committed people. But we understand the realities of the world and the frailties of human nature that left to themselves, will likely lead to a stratified and ossified society. Hence, we will increasingly need targeted policies, to ensure that we keep our systems open, equitable and fair.

We will need to remain conscious of the fault lines that may emerge. For instance, those arising from tensions between “old” and “new” citizens. Those taking to exclusivist ideologies, and different groups championing certain social causes in isolation without a shared broader perspective, that can divide society. We know that issues concerning race and religion remain sensitive topics, and these must always be delicately managed even as we grapple with the new fault lines.

Forging committed leadership teams that can engender deep trust and unite our people

Our survival can also be attributed to our leaders’ commitment to never shirk their responsibilities towards our current and future generations. They had the mettle to make difficult but necessary decisions when the need arises, and kept faith with the people.

When Singapore gained independence, our pioneer leaders saw the need to build a credible defence force to protect our sovereignty and secure our future. However, they could not afford to have a large standing army or depend solely on volunteers. In fact, within the Chinese community, there was a belief that “good sons do not become soldiers, just as good iron is not used to make nails” (好男不当兵,好铁不打钉). A very ingrained concept in Chinese society. Our pioneer leaders, however, stuck to their convictions and made the decisive move to introduce a conscription system.

The Central Provident Fund can be an emotive topic among Singaporeans. But reforms and continuous tweaks are needed, so that the social security system is updated and remains effective to meet the needs of our people without passing the burden to the next generation. Similarly, for healthcare. Eschewing the ideological debates, we have and must continue to be bold to develop something that works for Singapore- a system that enables access to affordable healthcare, yet inculcating individual responsibility; focusing on prevention, rather than treatment.

As for housing, some may not fully agree with the 99-year leasehold concept for their properties or when land acquisitions are required. But for a land-scarce Singapore, such regulations are necessary so that land can be redeveloped and used more efficiently for future needs.

What’s recurrent in these examples is that over all these years, we did not shy away from making difficult decisions. Instead, we did so guided by our commitment and conviction – to do what’s necessary for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans, both for today and tomorrow. And if we want to remain successful, we need leadership teams that are just as committed, decisive in their actions and yet able to keep faith with our people.

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However, decisive leaders would only be effective if there’s a deep sense of trust between government and our people. Our pioneer leaders had this when building Singapore. As our founding Prime Minister the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew pointed out, his team had the “greatest asset” – and that’s the trust and confidence of our people. Trust is a precious asset that needs to be earned and maintained by each generation of leaders.

To win this trust, each generation of leaders must first, be upfront with our people on the challenges and options. Help Singaporeans understand what’s at stake and the trade-offs involved. Let them know how they’ll be affected directly, and spend more time on the “Why” rather than the “What” or “How”. Work the ground and share as much information wherever possible. And only so, can each of us be better-informed and trust that each decision was made only after careful consideration.

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Second, our leaders must continuously find new ways to communicate and connect with different generations. We now have a more diverse population, with different expectations of the government. And in this fast-paced digital age with the presence of “social media influencers”, there is no shortage of ideas, views and, of course, criticism. At times, inaccurate and misleading information can “go viral”, possibly clouding a person’s view on an issue. The challenge then is to find ways to manage this, and get citizens to understand the matter at heart. Our leaders also have to keep channels open for people to share their views and give feedback. If we all do this well, we will harness the collective power of our thinking and actions.

Third, leaders must be accountable and responsible. This means making good on our promises. And when there are problems, we work hard to put things right immediately. People would also give their trust when they see that the government has been responsible, anticipates the future and responsive to their needs. The basic question that we have to keep answering over and over again is- has the life of each Singaporean improved? Is it better today, compared to yesterday? Will it be better tomorrow, compared to today? Some policies may take longer to bring forth results and the population might become impatient, but each generation of leaders would therefore need to be consultative yet nimble in meeting these needs while managing our finite resources responsibly. These are important so that we do not face a trust deficit, or run the risk of citizens disconnecting with or disenfranchised by the government. We have seen this happen in other countries, and we should not take for granted that it won’t happen in Singapore.

Apart from trust, each generation of leaders would have to keep the country united to tackle challenges together. Unity, however, is not a mantra that will emerge naturally. People must have a sense of a common threat, challenge, mission and vision. Some felt that our pioneers benefitted as they faced the “life and death” struggles of independence. That they were united by the common goal to make sure Singapore succeed. Would younger and successive generations of Singaporeans feel the same sense of mission and thus unity?

I believe that each generation must bond through different circumstances. This generation must similarly understand that we too have our share of “life and death” struggles to keep this country going. That we have to be cognisant of not just the immutable challenges, but also the new challenges that come with each generation.

Our challenge, our mission is to defy the odds of history – that a small country with little common past, and no conventional hinterland, can survive and thrive with a common future and a common set of values. Indeed, I would argue that a forward-looking national identity is perhaps even more powerful than a backward-looking identity to help us bond together to overcome the challenges of today.


Ladies and gentlemen, we may be relatively successful now, but we need to always be mindful of our immutable challenges. We need to constantly seek opportunities to become a more valuable partner and a more relevant partner, to secure our place in the world and ensure our economy can continue to thrive. We need to guard against the emergence of new fault lines, even as we continue to manage the old fault lines. We need to groom a new generation to carry on our vision as an evergreen nation united by ideals and values rather than race, language, religion or ancestry.

Ultimately, people and government must work together to keep Singapore successful. This must be grounded by a strong sense of trust and unity. Building trust would be a challenge for each successive generation of leaders and its people. It’ll require consistent effort to build a connection with the population to win their confidence over time.

So long as we have this trust, stay united in facing the challenges and help each other to see the world clearly, there’s no reason for us to not be able to succeed as a country. We owe it to our pioneers like Mr Nathan to ensure that the hard-seats they’ve sought and the hard-won legacy they’ve left behind, will continue to thrive. As we continue to build on this legacy, our true measure of success is not just how much we have done for this generation, but how much we enable future generations of Singaporeans to do even better than our generation. Thank you very much.

Top photo from Chan Chun Sing Facebook

About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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