Can a new PM fix Singapore’s kindness problem?

SINGAPORE welcomed a new era on May 15: A changing of the guard which saw the city-state inaugurate only its fourth prime minister (PM) since gaining independence from Malaysia in 1965. The South-East Asian nation is a great success story, and deserves all the accolades it receives. 

But this moment is also an opportunity for new leader Lawrence Wong to build a more compassionate society in one of the world’s most competitive cities. Whether he embraces that challenge with the sincerity and enthusiasm that his predecessors exhibited in lifting Singapore from third world to first will determine how well the tiny island state survives in the coming decades. 

KM Wong knows firsthand the challenges of living in one of the costliest cities on the planet. The 72-year-old starts his day at dawn, heading into the Zion Road hawker centre in central Singapore to wipe down tables and clear the plates of the food court’s early morning commuter crowds. Six days a week, 7am to 3pm, he dons his light-green uniform along with the other “uncles” and “aunties” as they are known. Almost every cleaner at this centre is above the age of 60, he told me. Many should have retired, but that’s a luxury not everyone can afford. 

Wong has some retirement money saved up in his Central Provident Fund, the pot every employed Singaporean can count on at the end of their working life. It’s only a small sum though, and he said the extra money he earns at the hawker centre gives him room to breathe. “Plus coming here keeps me busy, and I have something to do to pass my time. It makes life less lonely.” 

Another 72-year-old is in the news last week — outgoing PM Lee Hsien Loong, who stepped down after two decades at the helm. Under his watch Singapore’s GDP per capita more than trebled to nearly US$92,000 (RM437,920), now one of the world’s highest. The government had invested more in education, and tried to address inequality. 

Despite these laudable achievements, Singapore has become more expensive to live in, although inflation has started to moderate this year. There’s also a constant race to outdo your neighbour, and for too many Singaporeans, the weight of trying to upgrade to the five Cs of material success — cash, condo, credit card, country club membership and car — has become a corrosive way of life. 

Lawrence Wong is unlike his predecessors. He didn’t attend the Singapore equivalent of the Etons and Harrows that most ministers hail from, and instead graduated from what is considered a non-elite school. Described as an “everyman”, Wong has already talked about the importance of creating a more compassionate society, and this chimes well with what many citizens want. 

As far back as 2013, surveys have shown that Singaporeans crave a change, asking for a less competitive, more holistic education system — one that is more inclusive, where students learn with others of different abilities and backgrounds. Many are also concerned about the cost of living, immigration, work-life balance and the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. 

Some improvements are already on the cards, and being discussed by the new premier and his team, under the framework of a “compassionate meritocracy”. The 2023 Action Plan for Successful Ageing even recommends replacements for the five Cs with the three Cs of care, connectedness and contribution. 

But more than this alphabet soup, Wong should actively seek out alternative views, particularly from the Opposition, who have a different approach to governing than the People’s Action Party, that has ruled since independence. It would be worth listening to Workers Party MP Jamus Lim, who outlined the challenges facing the city-state in a speech last year about poverty. 

“If we can all agree that a good life includes opportunities to education and decent healthcare,” Lim said, “employment with work-life balance, and a sense of inclusion when one participates in social, cultural and religious activities, then why do we not extend these to the most economically vulnerable in our mid? Life is not just about making it day to day, but about thriving. All humans — poor or not — have aspirations.” 

This new version of the Singapore Dream should not be out of reach for people living in Asia’s richest city. Wong has his work cut out. — Bloomberg 

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition