Comment: Lawrence Wong is looking forward to 'SG75' in 2040. Here are some bold ideas he could use.

Ideas for the ‘Forward S’pore’ agenda Wong mentioned in his May Day Rally speech.

Abel Ang | May 21, 2022, 08:59 AM

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COMMENTARY: How will Singapore deal with technological change, automation, and job displacement in the next decade and beyond?

Our contributor Abel Ang draws inspiration from a book by U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang and suggests how PM-to-be Lawrence Wong could lead Singapore toward SG75 in 2040.

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.

Last month, Lawrence Wong, Minister of Finance, was selected as the leader of the 4G leadership team in Singapore. This sets him up to be the next Prime Minister (PM) of Singapore.

After the announcement, Wong announced in his speech at May Day Rally that he would lead an exercise with his team to develop a “Forward Singapore” agenda, “which will set out the roadmap for the next decade and beyond.”

It appears that Forward Singapore will be the first phase of his longer-term 2-decade plan for the country until 2040. Wong will be close to 70 at the time, which is the age that the current PM, Lee Hsien Loong is now.

As an interesting coincidence, U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur and best-selling author, released a book late last year with a similar title “Forward – Notes on The Future of Our Democracy.”

One can see some parallels: Yang and Wong are born of the same generation, both studied economics in the U.S. in the 90s, and are grappling with how technological change, automation, and job displacement are affecting their respective countries.

Yang’s book outlines several bold ideas to rewire the U.S. for its 21st-century problems, which could be useful as Singapore’s leaders seek to define and refine their own agenda for the coming years.

Building a movement

Yang went from being a “longer-than-long-shot” candidate to being a major contender for the job as U.S. president by building a movement of support in the U.S..

The movement he built was driven by an overarching belief that the economy needed “to serve human needs instead of capital efficiency.”

The appeal of Yang’s movement is that it gives ear to the dislocation that is happening to the “sandwich” generation in the U.S.. These are people who despite doing the right things, getting educated, working hard in salaried jobs, find themselves struggling more than their parents to gain a foothold in the middle class.

Singapore is facing many of the same economic dislocations. Wong believes that we have significant challenges ahead of us, not least because of how “rapid digitalisation and automation are disrupting our industries”, creating anxiety and strain in the population, which leads people and societies to “become more insular, polarised, and divided.”

Thanks to the Ukraine war and Covid-19 disruptions in supply chains, rising prices are wiping out the gains that have been made, in recent years, to uplift low-income families in Singapore.

While the government has taken quick action to provide extra aid to low-income families via Comcare funds and public transport vouchers, each inflation-driven setback to this group further reinforces the notion that as value has been created in the Singapore economy, workers are not sharing the gains.

Forward Singapore is an opportunity to build an inclusive movement that gives the low-income and displaced workers a place in the Singapore of the future.

In fact, Wong mentioned in his speech that he has introduced several measures in his Budget, such as uplifting lower-wage workers and supporting families toward homeownership.

Covid-19 has shown us that it is possible to galvanize the whole of Singapore society. By channelling a collective purpose and will, Singapore became a country of telecommuters overnight. Mask wearing has since become a norm, with many people continuing to don masks in public settings even though the rules have been significantly relaxed.

Wong’s role as the Co-Chairman of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce has given him the credibility and visibility to lead a movement to bring Singapore forward into a post-pandemic future.

He has galvanized Singaporeans to live with the challenges of Covid-19. And many will be confident that he can do it again with his Forward Singapore initiative.

He understandably sought to channel some of this goodwill in his May Day speech when he lauded citizens for keeping faith with the government, leading to Covid-19 deaths being capped at one of the lowest rates in the world, and allowing “employment and incomes to recover quickly to pre-Covid-19 levels.”

Wong has the visibility, credibility, and track record to build a movement. He now needs the right message.

Worker-centred Economy

When people think of Yang, they think of his proposal for Universal Basic Income (UBI) where he proposed to give every U.S. citizen over 18 a guaranteed payment of US$1,000 each month.

Whether you agree with UBI or not, Yang was able to take a fringe idea in economics and popularized it by putting workers at the centre of his economic agenda.

In his book, Yang writes: “The purpose of an economy should be to improve the way of life of its people – that is, to improve the measurable quality of life of each and every person in society.”

Is such a gentler and kinder version of the economy something that Singapore can embrace as part of the Forward Singapore economic model? Can it be a banner for how to address the bread-and-butter issues of voters who are hurting from the economic and technological dislocations, while receiving a body blow to their wallets due to rising prices?

In Wong’s May Day speech, he talked about the measures taken to invest in children, support families towards homeownership, and uplift lower-wage workers.

These are wonderful moves that seek to make sure that the Singapore economy is working for its people. Can these measures be further enhanced by coupling them together with other relevant issues that Singapore workers are grappling with, such as inequality in society, job security in middle age, mental health and stress management?

Perhaps these important areas can inspire newer performance metrics under Forward Singapore which can better capture a more worker-centred economic approach.

As our leaders do their review, it will be important to make sure that we get the key metrics right. As we know in Singapore, what gets measured, gets done. By making our performance metrics more worker-centric, our government agencies will more systematically move towards becoming more worker-oriented by design.

If Wong can build a movement for his agenda, which hopefully embraces a more worker-centric economic model, the final success factor will be in communicating new policies and decisions to the populace.

Communications and social media

U.S. Presidential candidate Yang went from a relative nobody to a major contender by outclassing his opponents in his communications and social media messaging, and by showing empathy to his base of voters.

There is a sentiment amongst the senior leaders in the private sector that while the government is working on many fronts, and is very busy, it doesn’t do as good a job communicating what it has achieved from its hard work.

To address this shortfall, we need a world-class messaging team to better communicate the progress that has been achieved by the government.

I think there is a need for a government agency for social media communications that is modelled along the lines of GovTech.

This is especially important as our populace gets more and more of its news and information from alternate media sources.

For the uninitiated, GovTech is a government agency which hires the best and brightest developers and engineers, to work on government technology projects like digitization. They frequently compete for talent against companies like Google and Shopee and win.

I suggest that we have a similar agency modelled along the same lines, where the best and brightest communications and digital marketeers are recruited to work on government communications and social media projects.

Improving social media communications is certainly a worthwhile aspiration. Many still remember how Singapore's founding PM Lee Kuan Yew was the king of radio during the Battle for Merger. Our current PM, Lee Hsien Loong, is personally very popular on Facebook.

Can Wong leverage new channels of communication to make a quantum leap in policy communication and engagement? Provocatively, can Wong be Singapore’s chief influencer on TikTok and other emerging social media?

In addition, I think that there is scope for the government to show more empathy in its communications.

The moment in Parliament, when Wong cried as he showed his gratitude for the sacrifices that healthcare workers in Singapore made during the pandemic, is a watershed moment in Singapore politics. There are few in the country that do not remember that event.

His heartfelt statement about how “words are not sufficient to express our appreciation…for so many Singaporeans going all out to fight the virus” showed empathy with healthcare workers and the larger population which endeared him to many.

In a January 2021 interview with The Straits Times, Wong admitted that as a student in university, he initially knew little about the Singapore economic miracle. He quickly learned his craft as a young quantitative economist in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where he developed models for how our economy would work.

Forward Singapore is the opportunity for him to implement his ideas on a national scale.

It is my hope that he will be able to do so by building a movement for a more worker-centric model of the Singapore economy and be able to communicate policies and decisions well, in order to bring the country with him as Singapore moves forward.

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Top image via Lawrence Wong on Facebook