Brothers & Sisters
It has been two years since the last General Election. We have had a full agenda, and all of you, in the party and in the union have kept busy. The MPs and activists in our 89 branches have been diligently working with residents listening to their concerns, attending to their needs, improving their lives and also sharing with Singaporeans what the PAP Government is doing, for popular as well as difficult ones.
For example, how we are increasing early childhood places, building new hospitals and healthcare facilities. But also, why water tariffs have to go up and why we are making changes to the Elected Presidency. The Young PAP, the Women’s Wing, PAP SG, and the PAP Policy Forum have also been active in their own areas.
I am happy that today we are recognising 359 comrades for long and outstanding service. Many of you have served for decades – two, for 50 years! Thank you all for your commitment and service to the party.
I listened to the speeches by the three comrades and one brother. Comrade Eu-Lin spoke about jobs and the economy, an issue that is on top of Singaporeans’ minds; Comrade Asyifah spoke about maintaining Singapore’s place in the world; Comrade Jagathishwaran spoke about maintaining our social compact with our citizens; and Brother David spoke about the symbiotic relationship between the PAP and the NTUC.
All four of these are issues are critical to Singapore’s survival, stability and success. I am glad that the younger generation is acutely aware of them, and in fact, I will also talk about these topics too, and give you my take on them.
Progress in First Half
Let me start with foreign relations, which have to do with our place in the world, and recap what we have been doing in these last two years.
Our relations with the big powers, with America and China, are in good order. I have just visited both of them in recent months.
In September, I had a good visit to China. They invited me even though it was just before their 19th Party Congress, and I was happy to accept.
I had good meetings with their senior leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Both sides value the relationship, and I discussed with the Chinese leaders, new areas of cooperation.
Last month, I visited the US, and met President Donald Trump and his key officials just before his trip to Asia. I shared with them my perspectives, including how Asian countries wanted the US to stay engaged in the region. I touched base with Senators and Congressmen, and with US policy thinkers, because we have a wide network in America, many friends at many levels. And I am there, we are a small country they are a big one. And I am there to keep Singapore a blip on their radar screen, so they notice us.
It is not always easy to be good friends with both the US and China at the same time. But as a small nation, we have to make friends with as many countries as we can. So we have to work hard to tend our relationships with both the US and China, while upholding Singapore’s own interests and I think, we have not done too badly.
Nearer home, relations with our immediate neighbours are also good. I hosted a retreat with President Jokowi in September, and next month, I am hosting a retreat with Prime Minister Najib Razak.
We are doing a lot with both Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore is the largest foreign investor in both countries, and also produces the largest number of tourist to both countries, and we have several major projects with them. With Indonesia. the Kendal Industrial Park which is at Semarang, and we are also developing modular LNG power plants, electricity plants for the Indonesian regions, because they are a big country and they need electricity in many different places, and with the small LNG plant, you can deliver the electricity and send the natural gas there.
With Malaysia, we are building the High Speed Rail to KL, and the Rapid Transit Link to JB which we will sign the agreement for the RTL next month. But our relations with Malaysia and Indonesia will always be complex, and issues will crop up from time to time.
Take Pedra Branca for example. It is an old subject. We thought the issue was settled permanently long ago. Because in 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), awarded the Pedra Branca to Singapore. But almost a decade later, the Malaysians have gone to the ICJ again, and they are asking the Court to reinterpret and to revise the judgment, reopening the subject. I am not sure what Malaysia’s motive is, but their General Election is coming, and maybe that has something to do with it.
And in Indonesia, although our relations are good, politicians have been talking about taking back their airspace from Singapore. Actually this is not about Indonesia’s airspace, but the Flight Information Region (FIR), which is for managing air traffic. Singapore manages an FIR around Changi Airport and it includes some areas in the Indonesian airspace, and Indonesia wants to take back that FIR. But who controls the FIR is a technical matter of making the best arrangements for air safety. But unfortunately, it has been politicised and made into an issue of sovereignty and national pride. And when sovereignty and national pride are engaged, that unfortunately makes the problem much harder to solve.
There will always be ups and downs in our relations with other neighbours, and other countries, big and small. Our interests will not always coincide with theirs. But our fundamental approach must not change. Singapore should take a long term view, and work towards good relations that benefit both sides. When relations are going well, we should not take them for granted. More importantly, when relations are down, we must not get flustered or cower.
Secondly, while we are friends with many countries, we must not and we must never, inadvertently fall under foreign control, or influence. No foreign country should ever influence our domestic debate and politics, or divide and weaken us, either openly or covertly. It happens, you read about what happened in Australia, they are worried about foreign influence. You read about the American elections last year, where they are accusing the Russians, of trying to influence the elections, through Facebook, through Twitter, quietly and secretly. Can it happen to us? Yes it can. But we must prevent it from happening.
Singaporeans have to understand our core interests. So that when we are put to the test, we will stay united and back the Government. Then, we can stand our ground and defend Singapore’s interests as one single cohesive country.
On the domestic front, we have also covered a lot of ground. One major task this year was amending the Constitution to make changes to the elected Presidency. But apart from that, we have been working on other major policies as well.
Our economy is looking up. The world economy is doing well, and we are benefitting from that. Our unemployment remains low, and wages have gone up. Most significantly, productivity has picked up. So this year, growth is good.
We initially expected 1.5% growth this year, then we revised it up to 2-3%. Now it looks like we may exceed 3% growth! Although growth is up, our job is not done.
The current upswing is cyclical. To sustain economic growth, we have to press on with plans to restructure and upgrade the economy. Our workers must acquire the right skills and capabilities, they must know how to upgrade themselves, and be confident about their future and livelihood. Our companies also must adapt, upgrade, and compete in the global marketplace.
We set up the Committee for the Future Economy (CFE) last year. Now that has done its work and we have the Future Economy Council to implement the recommendations, and they are doing so progressively. It is a major task, and we have comrades Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung and all the other younger ministers are all closely involved.
We have three major strategies to take care of our workers: skills upgrading, job matching, and job creation, and the Government has reorganised ourselves, realigned our organisations and our agencies, so that we can focus on each one of them.
First, for skills upgrading to help Singaporeans upgrade and pick up the skills needed for the new jobs of the future, we have created SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG). Secondly, to match our people to quality jobs, we have Workforce Singapore (WSG). Thirdly, to support our companies to grow and compete overseas, and to create jobs, we are merging IE Singapore and SPRING to form Enterprise Singapore (ESG). So we have each policy, one organisation, focus to get our work done. So we upskill our workers, we match them with jobs. We upgrade our companies, they create new jobs.
Restructuring the economy will take effort, and we can be sure, that it will not be a totally smooth journey. But we have done it before and we can do it again. The Government will support and help workers and companies. As long as we stick together, and make the effort, we will get it done.
Another priority is to improve our infrastructure, and especially the public transport system. You heard the Party Chairman this morning. It is not usual that Party Chairman starts off telling you about the trains this morning, but I think this morning, it was very helpful that he did so.
We are improving the network. We have added 1,500 more buses and 200 new trains, and this has reduced crowding substantially in the last few years. We are also working hard to improve the train reliability. We have made progress, but there have been setbacks.
Last month, there was a tunnel flooding in Bishan, and recently a few days ago, we had the train collision in Joo Koon. Singaporeans are frustrated and worried, and understandably so. These incidents should not have happened. But they have, and we must learn the right lessons from them, get to the root of the problems, and put things right.
Improving train reliability is a very complicated problem. The technical issues like re-signalling are already complex. But we also need to strengthen the organisations to deliver consistent high performance, to reinforce the engineering and the maintenance teams, maintain morale and raise standards, and these are people issues and they are delicate, they are crucial and they take time to sort out.
I know Comrade Khaw Boon Wan and his team in MOT and LTA are extremely disappointed with the recent incidents. They have been working very hard, tackling the issues one by one. The train operators – SMRT and SBST, and their workers on the ground, are disappointed too, because they have worked day and night to improve maintenance and reliability.
Actually, their efforts are showing results. If you are look at the data, if you look at the numbers, if you calculate the breakdowns, we are seeing fewer delays and breakdowns than before. But to the public, it does not feel like that, and I can understand why the public does not feel like that.
One reason is because when we have a major disruption like the Bishan flooding or the Joo Koon collision, the incident looms very large in the public consciousness, it hurts public confidence a lot. Some commuters are affected, some other trains are running and the people riding the other trains were not directly affected but they also feel the psychological impact.
The second reason, is that, we are in the middle of upgrading the old signalling system on the North-South line. The new system is still being tested and debugged, and that causes their own set of delays. People see the debugging delays because of the new signalling being sorted out; they think that something is wrong with the train system. Actually, those problems that have got to do with signalling are the problems that are being ironed out. And we are almost done with the North-South line re-signalling, so residents in the North, those living in Nee Soon or Ang Mo Kio or Toa Payoh, they should see the benefits soon. But having done the NS line, we will then have to do the East-West line re-signalling. And that will inevitably cause some disruptions because we have learnt lessons from the North-South line, but there will be adjustments and debuggings and I hope the commuters on the East-West line will bear with us.
Once the signalling upgrade is fully completed, hopefully within a year’s time, these delays should go away. And commuters should see the fruits of all our efforts to improve our train reliability.
The Transport Minister has one of the toughest jobs in Cabinet, certainly one of the hottest seats in the Cabinet. So I want Boon Wan and his team to know that they have our full support and confidence. We know it is not easy, we know it takes time, we know they are working hard. There will be hurdles along the way, we will sort them out. The best thing we can now do, is to give our transport team the time and space to work these problems out and deliver a first class transport system for Singapore.
Actually if I may be bold and say so, we have a first class transport system in Singapore. But we want to be even better. Why do I say we have a first class transport system? Because we can compare our system with other countries and cities in the world. I was just reading an article which had a long table of the different cities and the reliability of the transport system. It went from New York, where 65% of the trains are on time. All the way through other countries in the developed countries and the developing world, and the top cities in the world for reliability of their trains are four —Hong Kong, Taipei, Los Angeles, and Singapore. 99 plus per cent on time. So, we are not the best, Hong Kong is best, Taipei is better, we will get better, but we must see our problems in perspective, and we must encourage our team, work at it, get there we are with you.
Looking forward to the Second Half
So we are reaching the middle of this term of government. Next year, after the Budget, we will prorogue Parliament, that means Parliament will take a break. We will open again in a month’s time and the President will open Parliament, deliver the President’s Address and set out the agenda for the second half of our term.
On the economic front, our strategies and work plans are in place. We have SkillsFuture SG, Workforce SG, and we will have Enterprise SG. We have the 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). Industry by industry, we will work at them, bring them up to date, improve them, update them, grow them.
And we will help workers make the extra effort to upskill or to move on to new growing industries and better jobs. We will support businesses, especially SMEs, to change the way they operate, to grow new markets, to use technology and manpower more efficiently.
We will need unions and employers to work hand in hand with the Government. Restructuring is already in progress, and we will press on with it. This is a long term effort which will continue beyond this term.
On infrastructure, we will to continue to improve train reliability, and to expand the public transport network. Recently, we fully opened the Downtown MRT Line, and many commuters living in the northwest and east are happy with it. But the DTL was planned 15 years ago.
More MRT lines are in the works, like the Thomson-East Coast Line, and later on, the Cross Island Line and the Jurong Region Line. These will take time to plan, to finance and to build, but when they are done, we will have a more connected and resilient train network.
Besides trains, we will also make other major infrastructure investments. We are building the High Speed Rail to Kuala Lumpur, the Terminus will be here in Jurong. Around the HSR Terminus, we will build the New Jurong Lake District. It will become the second CBD, a gateway to Singapore.
We are developing other regional centres too. Woodlands – will have an RTS link to Johor; Punggol – will have a new SIT campus and creative cluster of creative industries. Our air and sea ports – we are building new capacities, doubling the capacity to keep Singapore connected to the world, Terminal 5 at Changi, a mega port at Tuas
When PSA goes to Tuas, it will free up the Tanjong Pagar container terminal and later the Pasir Panjang Terminal and that will open up the Greater Southern Waterfront for longer term development, and that will be a whole new area, three times the size of Marina Bay. All these will transform our city, enhance our competitiveness, and create more opportunities and jobs for Singaporeans.
At the same time, we will strengthen our social resilience. We are enhancing support for young families, to give every child a good start and to encourage young couples to have more children. At the National Day Rally this year, I talked about investing more in early childhood development.
We are adding 40,000 more new childcare places in the next five years. We are building more childcare centres, including 50 MOE Kindergartens; we are doubling our annual spending on childcare to $1.7 billion.
For old folks, we will also help Singaporeans live and age well, and manage their healthcare costs. The population is ageing rapidly. If we look at our population who are over 65, every year the proportion goes up. This year, 1 in every 7 Singaporeans is 65 years old and above. Two years ago, it was 1 in 9, last year it was 1 in 8 this its 1 in 7, and I joined them. Next year, the proportion will go up further. By 2030, in less than 15 years’ time, it will be 1 in 4!
Therefore, demand for healthcare services is rising sharply. We are restructuring our healthcare system, building more acute hospitals and community hospitals, and we are also building more polyclinics, nursing homes and day care centres, to provide the right type of care for our elderly.
We are improving MediShield coverage with MediShield Life, and we are now working on ElderShield for long term care. We are enhancing programmes and facilities to enable old people to stay healthy and active, and to be able to contribute to society, to the community. These measures will keep healthcare affordable to citizens, but definitely healthcare spending by the state will go up, has already gone up.
Investing in our Future
These investments are for our economy, for our infrastructure, and the spending on social services and safety nets, these are all necessary and worthwhile. They are a vote of confidence in Singapore’s future.
Just as our forefathers saved and invested to build what this generation are enjoying today, so must this generation, we must plant trees. In order that our sons and daughters and their sons and daughters will be able to enjoy the shade.
But investments and social spending are costly, and we have to make sure that we can afford them. Government spending has been going up, and as we look ahead it will rise further. So we have to stretch our dollars, and make every dollar count.
For this current term of government, we have enough revenue. But our spending needs will grow. So Heng Swee Keat was right when he said that raising taxes is not a matter of whether, but a matter of when. Well before the time comes, we have to plan ahead, explain to Singaporeans what the money is needed for, and how the money we earn and we spend, will benefit everyone young and old.
It will not be easy do all these things, upgrade the economy, create good jobs, build world class infrastructure, prepare for the ageing society, and fund our ambitious plans. To implement these policies, we must get our politics right.
The people must support the PAP. Most of all, they must trust the PAP. They must know that the PAP cares about them, and is working to improve their lives. This does not mean the Government should only do popular things. From time to time, we also have to make hard choices and take difficult decisions, and when we do so, we must be upfront with Singaporeans.
Explain to them why we need to do it and get their support for what we need to do. And even if people may not like a specific policy, we must convince them that we are doing it with good intentions, and for good reasons.
We are fortunate to have inherited a legacy of strong trust between the people and the PAP. The party built this trust painstakingly over more than 60 years, through the efforts of party leaders, MPs, activists, party members. We did so by working with Singaporeans and delivering results, but also working through difficult policies, whether it was resettlement to build Jurong, whether it was National Service to build the SAF, whether it was GST to fund our programmes.
The PAP has always been honest with Singaporeans.
We don’t just tell you what you want to hear. We level with you. And because we have been frank and honest, you know that the PAP means what it says, and delivers on what it promises. The PAP earned the people’s trust the hard way, and we must never take it for granted, or fritter it away.
In Western democracies today, in many countries this trust has essentially broken down. Mainstream political parties, Tories and Labour in the UK, the Republicans and Democrats in the US, are no longer seen to represent the common man’s interests. The elites have been disconnected from the population.
In the US, Donald Trump won the Presidential Election with the overwhelming support of white working class Americans, people who did not go to college. Their lives were not improving, they saw other groups moving ahead of them, they felt a sense of hopelessness, and they lost faith in the country’s leaders, in the elites. The Democrats were traditionally the party of the working class, but they had lost touch with this political base.
These white working class Americans voted for Trump not because he was a traditional Republican, or because they thought he had better solutions to the country’s problems. But because they wanted him to break up the system which was not working for them, so they voted for Trump. It is not working, I do not care, break it up. When people feel that the current system is no longer working for them, they will look for radical alternatives. And in America the loss of faith was not in just one leader or another leader, one party or another party but the whole system of politics and government.
We must never let this happen in Singapore. The PAP must always pursue policies that benefit the broad majority of Singaporeans. We must always hold the ground, stay close to Singaporeans, and maintain their trust and confidence. Voters must always know that the PAP is their party, the PAP will work with you and look after your interests.
In the coming years, this trust between the PAP and the people will be tested, but it will be more important than ever. Like other countries, Singapore too will be affected by social and economic disruptions. But unlike other countries, in dealing with these challenges, we must hold together and not pull apart.
We need good policies to help Singaporeans cope with these changes. We also need the good politics. MPs who represent different segments of society, MPs whom Singaporeans will identify with and support. Activists who do community and grassroots work day in and day out, in every branch and in every constituency.
Key people throughout our society – in the private sector, in the public service, in the social space, who care about Singapore, understand what makes this place work, and will work with the PAP Government to make Singapore succeed.
People must know the PAP not as a remote and impersonal government “chenghu”, but as a team – their team, as a human, personal presence – your caring MP, your friendly branch secretary, people whom you know, people who have shown that they can get things done for you, people who have helped you through difficulties and improved your lives.
In this effort, every Party member has a role to play. You are wearing white, you are carrying the party badge. You may be in mufti, but you are still wearing white and carrying the party badge. If you push your weight around, behave arrogantly, or take advantage of your position, you bring disrepute to yourself and do harm to the party. But if you uphold the party’s ideals and serve residents conscientiously and selflessly, you will strengthen the trust between the party and the people, consolidate the party’s support base, and help to keep Singapore successful.
Working with the Labour Movement
One very important part of the PAP’s support base is of course the Labour Movement. The PAP has always had a close, symbiotic relationship with the unions. In fact, the Party’s very beginnings were with the unions.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew first made his name in the postmen’s strike in 1953, when he represented the postal workers’ union as its lawyer and spokesman, and won them a famous victory against the colonial government. When Mr Lee launched the PAP the following year in 1954, many of its founding members were unionists – Devan Nair, Othman Wok, Samad Ismail, Fong Swee Suan, Lee Gek Seng – just to name a few. Some were communists, covertly but they were unionists and made common cause and joined the PAP. And the unionists carried the PAP into power. The unionists stood for election on the PAP ticket, and that continues even to this day.
After we separated from Malaysia, and had to build our economy, the need for the PAP government and the unions to work together became even more pressing. We managed to change and abandon the previous confrontational approach of strikes and conflict. We established the tripartism model of win-win cooperation among employers, unions and the Government. We made harmonious labour relations a lasting competitive advantage of Singapore. An advantage, which attracted investments and created jobs for our people.
Over the decades, the PAP and the Labour Movement have stood together through many difficult times, we went through recessions big and small, we went through SARS, we went through the Asian Financial Crisis, not being enough, we went through the Global Financial Crisis, we still stood together. And because we stayed together, the country thrived, and people’s lives improved. Whenever Singapore faced a problem, the unions, NTUC have always stepped up.
Whether it is to tighten belts in a recession, or to step in and to prevent milk powder profiteering. Even in tackling the MRT problems, when we are making a major push to improve rail reliability, we depend heavily on the National Transport Workers Union (NTWU), because we need NTWU’s help, union leaders, to maintain workers’ morale, to maintain discipline in the workforce.
For its part, the PAP has always made policies with the workers’ interests at heart, so it is a relationship which goes in both directions. And this symbiotic relationship is now even more crucial. Because workers will need support to cope with economic disruption. Some industries will see job losses even if we create new jobs and opportunities. Workers will need all the help that the unions can give them. Unions will need to work with the PAP government, so that we can develop effective policies to help workers, to enable Singaporeans to weather the changes, to do the new jobs better.
The older union leaders who have worked closely with the PAP government understood the relationship well, and strengthened the relationship.
Many of you would have known Brother Cyrille Tan, a veteran unionist, who passed away last week. I knew Cyrille well too, because for many years he was General Secretary of UWEEI (United Workers of Electronic & Electrical Industries), and I was its advisor at UWEEI. I often discussed labour issues with him because he had a good sense of what the workers needed.
At the same time, he understood the broader national interest, and he could convey that effectively to his members. The NTUC must nurture the same understanding and relationship with new generations of union leaders. So I am very happy to see the unions represented in force at our Party Convention this year. If the future union leadership can produce more people like Cyrille Tan, then we will be in good shape.
We must also nurture this symbiotic relationship at the national level. And that is why when the NTUC Central Committee requested me to send them Chan Chun Sing to be their Secretary General, I was happy to agree. I told them – only on loan.
This is why also I have asked the younger ministers to work more closely with the Labour Movement. At the NTUC Ordinary Delegates Conference a few days ago, NTUC announced that each of the younger 4th Generation ministers will each take on a specific partnership with the Labour Movement. Our younger MPs will be involved as well.
This will also be a key testing ground for us to identify and develop our future leaders, and to maintain the close partnership between the party and the unions for succeeding generations.
The PAP has been successful because our policies improve the lives of all Singaporeans. We deliver on our promises, but good policy depends on good politics. We have to stay close to voters, maintain the trust of the people, and keep our base strong. Maintain the symbiotic relationship with the NTUC. We have a deep trust with the people. We must continue to deepen this trust, and never break it.
Party members must stay humble and be connected to the ground, so that we are always close to the concerns of Singaporeans, and we earn the right to speak for them and they feel that we are their spokesperson, their champions. Voters will judge us not only by what we have done in the past, but also by what we are continuing to do for them, and what they believe we can do to improve their lives in the future.
So let us convince them not with our words, but our actions, this is the People’s Action Party. Let us show them that our future is bright, because the PAP is “with you, for you, for Singapore”.