Takeaways from the 45th St Gallen Symposium
“I believe in the notion of a trampoline.”
This was what then-DPM and Finance Minister Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, when asked by BBC HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur if he thinks Singapore believes in a safety net via a welfare state. The 45-minute interview was done live at the 45th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in 2015, themed “Proudly Small”. It explored Singapore’s journey after independence and the reasons for our economic success.
DPM Tharman’s answers had generated multiple conversations: both mainstream media and social media discussed how well he had conveyed Singapore’s way of doing things, despite the interviewer’s adversarial questioning. Excerpts of the interview were widely shared, particularly the trampoline bit. Here are some key highlights from the interview:
𝟭. 𝗢𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗺𝗼𝘀𝘁 𝗶𝗺𝗽𝗼𝗿𝘁𝗮𝗻𝘁 𝗳𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗼𝗿 𝗶𝗻 𝗦𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗲’𝘀 𝘀𝘂𝗰𝗰𝗲𝘀𝘀
(BBC) So if one looks at an overview over the past 50 years, if you can define one thing that has been of paramount importance behind Singapore’s rise, what would it be? “An attitude of mind. We converted permanent disadvantage into continuing advantage. What disadvantage did we have? We were not a nation that was meant to be. A diverse group of people coming out of colonial migration patterns, very different origins, very different belief systems and religions. We were small, no domestic market, decolonisation had happened suddenly and the British withdrew their military forces quickly, and impacted a very large part of the economy. We were surrounded by much larger neighbours to our south, about 50 times the size of Singapore, and at the very outset, objected to the very formation of Singapore and Malaysia. We had every disadvantage you could think of for a nation. We did not expect to survive, we were not expected to survive. But that, (founding Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneer team of leaders, was converted to advantage, because it forces you to realise that all you have is yourself. 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗹𝗱 𝗼𝘄𝗲𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗻𝗼𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗴. 𝗔𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗱𝘀𝗲𝘁, 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗼𝗳 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝗳 𝗮𝘀 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗮𝗱𝘃𝗮𝗻𝘁𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘀𝗶𝘇𝗲 𝗼𝗿 𝗵𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗼𝗿𝘆 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘆𝗼𝘂’𝘃𝗲 𝗴𝗼𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝗰𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗶𝘁 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝘃𝗲𝘀, 𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗻𝘀 𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝗯𝗲 𝗮 𝗽𝗵𝗲𝗻𝗼𝗺𝗲𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗮𝗱𝘃𝗮𝗻𝘁𝗮𝗴𝗲.”
𝟮. 𝗢𝗻 𝘄𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗳𝗿𝗲𝗲𝗱𝗼𝗺 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝗻𝘀 𝗶𝗻 𝗦𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗲
(BBC) It’s a democracy of sorts. You don’t have a genuinely free, truly liberated press … when journals that are respected and have a role to play, like The Far Eastern Economic Review, are hounded by your government for years and years.
“No, the rules are very clear and simple. Singapore is an extremely open society, by virtue of the number of foreign publications that are circulated — well over 5,000. Singaporeans are, probably more than any other society, broadband-penetrated, and the English-educated have access to a whole world of information on the Internet.
We are unconventional in requiring in our laws that we have the right to reply when foreign publications publish something that we feel is false or misleading. And when publications refuse to publish a reply, we impose restrictions on them that affect their advertising revenues. Unconventional, and you might not agree with it, but the larger point is this: 𝗪𝗲 𝗮𝗹𝗹 𝗻𝗲𝗲𝗱 𝘀𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗵𝘂𝗺𝗶𝗹𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘄𝗮𝘆𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗯𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝗮𝗱𝘃𝗮𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗮 𝗹𝗶𝗯𝗲𝗿𝗮𝗹 𝗼𝗿𝗱𝗲𝗿. We all need some humility as to how we achieve that, not just for today, but for tomorrow. How do you sustain it? The most thoughtful observers in the West are of the view that you need some buffers, some margins of safety, and you need some compromises on some liberties in order to achieve others.
And the freest possible media is not the only liberty we aspire to. I do think it’s a good idea, by the way, it appeals to my ideals, but it is not the only liberty you aspire to. You do aspire to a liberty of being able to walk the streets freely, particularly if you’re a woman or a child, at any time of the night; you aspire to the liberty of living in a city that is not defined by its most disorderly elements; you aspire to the liberty of having the opportunity for an education and a job, regardless of your race or social background; and you aspire to a liberty of practising your religion without fear of bigotry or discrimination. 𝗧𝗵𝗼𝘀𝗲 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆 𝗶𝗺𝗽𝗼𝗿𝘁𝗮𝗻𝘁 𝗹𝗶𝗯𝗲𝗿𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀 𝗶𝗻 𝗺𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝘀𝗼𝗰𝗶𝗲𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀, 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝘆 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗹𝗮𝗰𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝗻 𝗺𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝘀𝗼𝗰𝗶𝗲𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀.”
𝟯. 𝗢𝗻 𝗵𝗼𝘄 𝗦𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗲 𝗵𝗲𝗹𝗽𝘀 𝗦𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗻𝘀
(BBC) What about this idea of a safety net? Does Singapore believe in the notion of a safety net for those who fall between the cracks of a successful economy?
“I believe in the notion of a trampoline.”
(BBC) So people are just bouncing up and down in Singapore?
“𝗡𝗼, 𝗶𝘁 𝗯𝗼𝗶𝗹𝘀 𝗱𝗼𝘄𝗻 𝘁𝗼 𝘄𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗽𝗼𝗹𝗶𝗰𝗶𝗲𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂’𝗿𝗲 𝘁𝗮𝗹𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗮𝗯𝗼𝘂𝘁. If you provide help for someone who is willing to study hard; if you provide help for someone who is willing to take up a job and work at it, and make life not so easy if you stay out of work; if you provide help for someone who wants to own a home — and we are very generous in our grants for home ownership, which is why we have 90 per cent home ownership and, among the low-income population, more than 80 per cent own their homes — 𝗶𝘁 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗻𝘀𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺𝘀 𝗰𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲.
It’s not just about transactions, it’s not just about the size of grants, 𝗶𝘁’𝘀 𝗮𝗯𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗸𝗲𝗲𝗽𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗮𝗹𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝗮 𝗰𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝘄𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗜 𝗳𝗲𝗲𝗹 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗜 𝗼𝘄𝗻 𝗺𝘆 𝗵𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗜 𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗻 𝗺𝘆 𝗼𝘄𝗻 𝘀𝘂𝗰𝗰𝗲𝘀𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵 𝗺𝘆 𝗷𝗼𝗯. 𝗜 𝗳𝗲𝗲𝗹 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗜’𝗺 𝗿𝗮𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗺𝘆 𝗳𝗮𝗺𝗶𝗹𝘆. 𝗔𝗻𝗱 𝗸𝗲𝗲𝗽𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗰𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝗴𝗼𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝘀 𝘄𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗸𝗲𝗲𝗽𝘀 𝗮 𝘀𝗼𝗰𝗶𝗲𝘁𝘆 𝘃𝗶𝗯𝗿𝗮𝗻𝘁.”
Singapore continues to navigate an increasingly turbulent world, with the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict, US-China tension, gloomy economic prospects and a rapidly ageing population. The challenges seem daunting but our nation has overcome setbacks time and again by moving forward in a uniquely Singaporean way, to keep bouncing back from adversity.
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🎥 : Watch the 45th St Gallen Symposium interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpwPciW74b8