Summer has only just begun, and I was expecting to pack up all my school things and stay far, far away from campus for a good long while. But there I was on a Monday evening, sitting in an auditorium packed with whispering students (mostly in uniform – definitely more pro-active than I was back in junior college), laptop at the ready to take notes.
The Ongoing Conversation – the event that compelled me to make my return to the hallowed halls of the SMU Admin Building – was conceived to be the first of several in-depth discussions, initiating thoughtful conversation between key political figures and the bright young talent of the new generation. For this first talk, they had invited Minister for Law and Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam, to talk to us about what lay in store for our future.
Mr Shanmugam answers a question during the question-and-answer session.
A change is inevitable, but we’ve got to stay strong
Going through a barrage of facts in quick succession, Mr Shanmugam skillfully painted a picture of what we could expect of Singapore’s future development. Unfortunately, it did not look pretty.
An aging population and declining birth rate were only the tip of the iceberg – the increasingly intense competition in the region, as well as the advent of automation (that could well replace man-power in the near future), were other things that Mr Shanmugam flagged out as key challenges that we would need to overcome.
With all this bad news, it was no surprise that Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan, who was the moderator that evening, kicked off the question-and-answer session by asking if all the challenges ahead meant that Singapore’s glory days were now past.
Not really, said Mr Shanmugam.
In every stage of Singapore’s development, the picture has been “always bleak” – what pushed our nation forward, he noted, was our people’s ability to push past those challenges and persevere. Although the added social challenges of an aging population and declining birth rate did add an additional dimension to the problems faced by a small country settled in a conflicted region, this did not mean that continued success was impossible.
One day, Singapore could well become the “New York of ASEAN”, a highly competitive, highly desirable metropolitan hub – however, in order to get there, Mr Shanmugam noted that we must stay relevant in the regional economy. The rise of automation, he said, may not necessarily be a threat – in fact, it could work to our advantage. Singapore has always faced the problem of a small workforce – by bringing on board machines, our man-power could be freed up for higher-level tasks.
In any case, Mr Shanmugam pointed out astutely that technology is always changing, and it is not feasible to predict now what the future will be like. Instead, what we can do to equip ourselves for the future is to become adaptable – this is a precious skill that must be nurtured from our formative years.
An SMU student poses a question to Mr Shanmugam.
A change in the political process, and the constitutional debate
Aside from the future of Singapore, some of the more well-read students in Singapore took the chance to ask Mr Shanmugam about change coming in the much more immediate future – namely the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency (EP) and Non-Constituency Minister of Parliament (NCMP) schemes. These two were recent hot topics, and were debated in the Supreme Court by the newly-formed Constitutional Commission just last week.
Students worried about the proposed granting of greater voting powers to the NCMPs, as they felt it would detract from the aim of the voting system – to select MPs with the “mandate of the people” to enter government. If the voters know that they can get Opposition politicians into Parliament even if they vote for the PAP, wouldn’t this serve as a disincentive for them to vote for the Opposition in the first place?
Mr Shanmugam responded that one must not view the NCMP scheme as one that compromises the ability of the voter to make an independent choice. He will always be able to vote – PAP or Opposition – and having the NCMP scheme does not detract from this. In fact, he noted that it was a little like having your cake and eating it too – not only could you get a PAP politician in Parliament, but you could also get an Opposition member in as an NCMP.
On the topic of the EP scheme, students asked Mr Shanmugam about his views on the proposed effort to ensure the election of a minority President. Acknowledging that this was a thorny issue with no right answer, Mr Shanmugam nevertheless shared his frank view that as the unifying figure of the country, there should be some minority representation in the office of the President. After all, if minorities went consistently unrepresented in the role of President – a symbolic figure of Singaporean unity – it could carry some unsavoury implications of the weight of their stake in this country. In the interest of social harmony, therefore, such measures seem necessary.
A change is coming, from the new generation
All in all, the entire event lasted a whopping 2.5 hours, including 90 minutes of rapid-fire questioning from students from all walks of life. As a quiet observer who did not step up to the microphone, I must express my pleasant surprise and genuine admiration for the students – many of whom were still in junior college – who posed thoughtful questions to Mr Shanmugam.
Since Mr Shanmugam astutely pointed out that it is up to our generation to shape what we want our future to be, it is certainly gratifying to see so many young people taking an interest in the political scene and in the future of this country.
Though some questions had to go unanswered (in the interest of time), there is no doubt that each participant in today’s session will go home with the answers to some questions, and the discovery of more questions that must be answered another day.
After all, this is but part of a conversation that never ends.