Roundtable: New Challenges, New Horizons

In this edition of the Ethos Roundtable, participants of the 11th Leaders in Governance Programme reflect on the challenges of an increasingly diverse citizenry and how a younger generation of public officers must avoid complacency while sustaining trust in government.


Date Posted

29 Apr 2019


Digital Issue 4, 29 Apr 2019


Her Excellency Ms Serey Chea, Director General, National Bank of Cambodia

Dr Zamani Saul, Provincial Chairperson of the African National Congress, South Africa

His Excellency Mr Alaa Youssef, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Egypt

On the Challenges of a More Diverse Citizenry

SAUL: We are moving into a borderless and skills-based world, characterised by high levels of mobility. In the 21st century, there is no modern homogeneous society—societies are all becoming more diverse. Yet, at the heart of all societies are the downtrodden, poor and neglected, who strive and fight for survival in a very complex economy. Whatever you do with the outer circles of society, the question will always remain: what about the core? They are always missing in economic discourse.

I think as a country, Singapore has managed to lay a solid foundation. The attitude which has evolved over the years is that diversity is viewed as a source of strength, not as a source of weakness. And social cohesion, particularly in diverse communities like Singapore, is social capital. You are the melting pot of Asia and you can rely on that diversity to help you to build the country.

Social cohesion, particularly in diverse communities like Singapore, is social capital.

CHEA: Diversity, if not well managed, can create very divisive societies. And diversity comes in many forms: It could be an ageing population, gender, race or religion. When there is discontentment and people are not happy, you tend to have very extreme ideas. And today’s technology allows the spread of these ideas rapidly, which can be very difficult to manage.

For me, it is about managing expectations and the spread of ideologies. How do you differentiate fake news from real news and real ideas without restricting the freedom of expression? That’s one issue that is emerging.

Take the issue of an ageing society: I think there can be no single quick solution. It will be a generational process. In the short term, you could adopt immigration, but that may have unanticipated effects over time. It could add to the workforce and the economy, but it may also cause social tension. Another solution would be to encourage an enabling workplace where women can thrive both at work and as a mother. Often, women have to choose between career and family as it’s very difficult to balance the two. So part of the answer could be flexible hours, it could be government providing a good childcare system, affordable education and healthcare.

Diversity, if it’s not well managed, can create very divisive society.

YOUSSEF:One thing I think worth studying and applying back home is the idea of Community Service Centres. We visited one centre and saw how the aged are treated, and how the youth are integrated. These centres are a good way to help strengthen social cohesion.

On Public Trust in Government

SAUL: The issue of public trust is very important. I think globally, liberal democracy is losing traction. People have actually lost faith in politics, particularly in more developed countries, which are showing lower participation in democratic elections.

And that loss of faith is due to trust between communities and governments. Here in Singapore, it seems to be the opposite. What we have observed in Singapore is the concept of co-creating trust. This involves taking citizens and communities on board to influence the policy formulation process: not to placate them but to ensure that they are part and parcel of the decision-making process.

CHEA: What I have seen in Singapore is good and effective communication. As with family, you need to communicate so that there’s no misunderstanding. The fact that a government is able to communicate clearly—what it’s going to do, what are the risks and challenges and to be honest about it—makes the government more approachable. It also creates trust between the people and the government. This is a very important element because if you don’t have trust, whatever you do can be perceived as wrong.

I’m fascinated by the level of passion that Singapore’s civil servants give to the work that they are doing and the pride that they have about it. Most of the civil servants I have encountered in Singapore have this quality. Besides being smart—which I think is a quality that is easier to find than passion—they have this heart to serve people.

YOUSSEF:What I have seen during my stay in Singapore were hard work, discipline, determination, rule of law and continuous engagement with the people to create public trust. These are five elements that I consider essential for any country to move ahead and to reach its objectives.

On Challenges for the Younger Generation

CHEA: I think managing expectations will be quite a big challenge. There is a trend of distrust that is happening all over the world, from the US to the EU. But Singapore has been able to maintain this trust between the government and the public. Relatively speaking, you’re probably on top. But the challenge is to sustain this.

From my interactions with the younger generation of Singaporeans, they appear to expect everything to be going well, we have to be the best and so on. The government will need to manage to sustain that level comfort the young generation are expecting.

This generation of civil servants and the next generation could be rather different as well: in terms of their aspirations, and the way they interact with the public.

SAUL: There are totally new challenges today. A young person who’s 20 years old now is different from a young person who was 20 years old in 1970. So if you look at the younger generation in Singapore, as elsewhere, one of the dangers that they should not slide into is ‘ancestor worship’. What Mr Lee Kuan Yew did was to lay a foundation: a thinking and critical generation able to consider where to take Singapore to. The new generation must craft and define their own future and vision.

Your biggest danger is to keep saying, “Oh, we are number one at this, number one at that”, because you might have reached the peak but from the peak, the likelihood is that it’s downhill from there. From our engagements, we have not gotten a sense, particularly from the younger generation of Singaporeans, of how they’d take the country beyond the peak. And I was expecting them to anticipate: “This is where we are as a country; this is where this country should go to.”

The younger generation in Singapore must craft and define their own future and vision.

YOUSSEF:In terms of future prospects, I would tell my Singaporean friends to look beyond the traditional centres of the global economy and to increase their presence in growing regions such as the Middle East and Africa. To improve engagement, you need to be present first, by creating new embassies, visiting the region and building relations with different stakeholders, either from the government or the public sector, or even at the level of youth. This is very important.

If we are talking about the new generation, we have to get them interested in engaging with new regions. So send youth delegations to these countries. Let them experience interacting with people from these regions.

Standing on top of that foundation is just a vantage point to open your horizons.

SAUL: The younger generation of Singaporeans have got a more solid foundation compared with any other young generation in the world today. But standing on top of that foundation should just serve as a vantage point: it’s not that you’ve arrived. It is a vantage point from which to open up your horizons.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor-in-chief Alvin Pang in September 2018 with a group of participants in the 11th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP). Organised annually by the Civil Service College, the LGP draws from Singapore’s development experience to offer practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the seven-day programme, participants interact with thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values..

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