SINGAPORE, June 28 — In his first major speech laying out his vision for Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong — identified in April as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s successor — revealed today his “deepest belief” and hope for the country’s future, but stressed that he “cannot make it happen by myself”.

“I hope to see a society and system that benefits many, not a few; that rewards a wide variety of talents, not a conventional or narrow few; that values and celebrates all individuals for who they are and what they can achieve; and provides all with opportunities to do better throughout their lives,” he said in a speech before a dialogue organised by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) where he unveiled a year-long public consultation process dubbed Forward Singapore.

At the end of the dialogue, Wong, who is also Finance Minister, also spoke about the ways that his leadership would be different from Singapore’s previous leaders, noting that each had to “adapt to the circumstances and needs of society of their time”. Wong said his own leadership style will also cater to the nation’s different challenges and needs.

“With Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the founding generation of leaders, they led Singapore through revolutionary times. So of course they had to adopt a certain style of leadership that was necessary for that time,” he said. “Since then, Singapore has evolved. It’s a different society.” He said the leadership style had also evolved under former prime minister Goh Chok Tong and the incumbent PM Lee Hsien Loong.

Wong said his priority is not only to lead but to serve and help Singaporeans succeed in “our next phase of development”.

“And that’s why we are embarking on this forward Singapore exercise because we want Singapore always to be a country for all citizens, not just for a few,” he added.

Wong also noted how things are not going to get easier for the 4G leaders. “As people grow up in an environment of stability and affluence, it gets harder to change. We become more accustomed to the status quo... This is true for all of us,” he said. “Which is why the Chinese say, ‘Wealth does not exceed three generations’. In fact, there are variants of this saying across all cultures.” Like climbing a mountain, “the higher up you go, the air gets thinner, and it gets harder and harder”, he added.

Still, he stressed that he “will do everything I can to make sure that Singapore remains the exception”. “I can’t guarantee forever, but certainly in my lifetime,” he said. Earlier in his speech, Wong said that it was timely to refresh Singapore’s “social compact” as the nation navigates a crossroads in charting its future direction.

He said a social compact refers to a shared understanding of how everyone in society relates to one another, and encompasses questions such as the obligations of the Government, employers and community to one another as well as to society.

To this end, Wong set out his thoughts on how this social compact might evolve in four areas.

Firstly, on Singapore’s economic system.

While he said Singapore “must remain” open to global investments and talents, he acknowledged that the workings of the free market can lead to excessive competition and rising inequalities.

“That’s why we have always tempered extreme market outcomes and resisted a winner-takes-all economic regime,” said Wong.

This includes staying open to some degree of competition with foreign talents, but at the same time investing heavily in skills retraining of Singaporean talents and ensuring that they do not get discriminated against while hiring.

Secondly, Wong also said that meritocracy is still the best way to organise society, but it comes with downsides, with a risk of privilege being entrenched across generations.

“We can’t abandon meritocracy, but I believe we can improve it and make ours a more open and compassionate meritocracy,” he said.

This can be done by investing more in preschool education, especially for those from less well-off families, so that “circumstances of their birth do not determine their future in life”.

At the same time, Singapore needs to continue to broaden its conception of merit beyond academic credentials and recognise talents in diverse fields.

To achieve this, the Government will work closely with employers and unions to ensure employees are hired and promoted based on skills and performance and not just credentials.

Thirdly, Singapore must also look into its system of social support in the face of more job market volatility and challenges such as ageing population.

“The Government will study how we can do more to help our workers tide over difficult times, and how we can provide better care for our growing number of seniors,” he said.

However, this would require more resources and this is why Singapore collectively needs to determine how much more the Government should spend, and how much the society is prepared to pay to fund this spending.

“For it is only when we all chip in that we can better support one another, especially the most vulnerable among us, to weather the storms that may come our way,” he said.

Finally, on solidarity, Wong said Singapore must examine how it can unite its people and steward resources equitably across generations.

He emphasised that certain fundamentals such as the principle of multi-racialism “should not, cannot, can never change”.

“Our diversity is a source of strength, but it also requires constant adjustments to make sure we get the balance right: to progressively expand our common space, while allowing each community as much room as possible to go about its way of life.” He said that at the same time, Singapore must ensure that its social compact must provide not just for the current generation, but those beyond as well.

“So even as we tackle the challenges of today, we must consider the needs of tomorrow – the social compact we forge must be one that is fair and equitable across generations,” he said.

In charting the way forward to realise the vision of a Singapore that offers opportunities “to all, no matter who they are or what their background is”, the 4G leadership is undertaking Forward Singapore to gather the public’s view.

“We will engage in good faith; consider all ideas; and work alongside our people to achieve our shared aspirations,” he said.

But he said that the journey will not be easy, as it will require Singapore to reflect on both its aspirations and anxieties.

“And to see things not just from our own lens, but also from the lens of those with different backgrounds, needs, and priorities from us,” he added.

“So let us strive for: a fairer and more equal, a more just and inclusive, and a more generous, big-hearted and greener Singapore - for many generations to come.” — TODAY