SINGAPORE'S SENIOR MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG: "A DISTINCTIVE CITY, A HARMONIOUS HOME"
Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong shared his view regarding Singapore’s future in maintaining its position as one of the best cities in which to live and work. We publish here an excerpt of his speech delivered during the REDAS’ 50th anniversary dinner held last November.
How far we have come
When we attained self-government in 1959, Singapore was a poor country. Most Singaporeans lived in over-crowded and unsanitary conditions. In Chinatown, many coolies and stevedores could not even afford to rent cubicles. They could only rent bunks to sleep in. By the early 1980s, Singapore had already achieved much. Old crumbling houses had made way for towering apartment blocks. Our GDP per capita had gone up ten-fold but Singapore was still a developing country, playing in the second division, to use a football analogy.
A City of Excellence
However, we aspired to play in the first division. So before the 1984 General Elections, the second generation leaders envisioned Singapore to be “A City of Excellence and a Society of Distinction”. We sought a standard of living equal to that of the Swiss in 1984, by 1999. Our achievements surpassed our expectations. In fact, by 1994, our GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms had already exceeded that of the Swiss in 1984. Today, we are ranked fourth in the world in GDP per capita in PPP terms, having overtaken the US, Switzerland and Japan. We are behind Qatar, Luxembourg and Norway. As you know, Qatar and Norway have abundant oil and gas to be shared by populations smaller than ours. Luxembourg, with one tenth of our population, has no oil but is situated in the heart of the EU.
In 1984, we envisioned a future of comfort and convenience, with entertainment and educational programmes streamed to the homes. Today, almost all households have been wired up to receive broadband internet and cable TV. 80 % of households own computers. We have 6 million mobile phone subscriptions, one million more than our population.
We have also made good progress in the non-material aspects of life – entertainment, arts, culture, sports, volunteerism and philanthropy. In a Forbes article in January this year on the World’s Culture Capitals, 10 locations were singled out for special mention. Singapore was the only city in Asia. To quote Forbes, “while many perceive Singapore as a sterile business centre, its cultural presence in the East is now undeniable”. Nobody labels us a cultural desert anymore. On the contrary, according to the Monocle Magazine, “Singapore’s landscape is blossoming, with talented local architects making their mark alongside international stars such as Toyo Ito, Moshe Safdie and Kohn Pedersen Fox; and the arts scene has seen a flowering of museums, performing arts venues and galleries”. We have a vibrant night life. In fact, some may say that it is a little too vibrant. But I think it is alright. So does Mercer, a leading global HR consultancy. In its latest Quality of Living Report, it rated Singapore the most liveable city in Asia.
The Next 25 Years
Our present context is very different from that in 1984. Today, our people are far more educated and global in outlook. Asia is on the rise. We are witnessing the emergence of new cities across the world and especially in Asia – cities which compete for talent, ideas and capital. Therefore, being one of best cities in Asia alone cannot sustain our prosperity. To continue the football analogy, First Division or even the Premier League is no longer good enough – we now need to play in the World up. With globalisation, we should benchmark ourselves against the best in the world and aim to be one of the most liveable cities globally. More than at any time in the last 50 years, the future of Singapore depends critically on the quality of our people, i. . creative, innovative and productive entrepreneurs, professionals and workers – Singaporeans, Permanent Residents and foreigners. If Singapore cannot differentiate itself as an outstanding city, we cannot sustain our high quality of life.
Singapore’s competitive advantages in attracting talent and investments – such as our connectivity, our pro-business policies and low tax rates, and our clean and green family-friendly environment – are fast being eroded as other cities start to acquire similar attributes. Singapore must, therefore, project a new identity, one that captivates the eyes, moves the heart, stirs the soul and inspires the mind. To stand out amongst cities and countries, Singapore must go beyond being clean, green and safe. It must be a vibrant place which boldly embraces talents and ideas. And most importantly, it must hold special meaning as Home for its citizens, both here and abroad.
To put it in a nutshell, my vision is for Singapore to be “A Distinctive City, A armonious Home”.
A Distinctive City
Singapore can be distinctive in offering both the Liveability of a Garden City and the Conveniences of a Compact City. As a small island state with close to 5m people, Singapore is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. With a critical mass of intellectual and creative energy, we can offer residents a wide choice in lifestyle offerings and conveniences to suit every individual’s needs. Yet, a compact city need not be an urban concrete jungle lacking soul and access to nature, greenery and recreational spaces. More than just an aesthetically-pleasing city with striking architecture, we can transform Singapore into a delightful city of gardens and water, with green and blue spaces integrated within the places where we live, work and play.
Second, Singapore can be distinctive in its ability to marry environmental sustainability with economic vibrancy. Singapore can be a city big on economic ideas but small on environmental footprint. We can build a vibrant economy which is environmentally clean and resource-efficient. We can be a hub, originating and exporting future technologies that can make high density living even more eco-friendly. We will make public transport our transport of choice. 80 % or more of our buildings should be certified Green Mark. Singapore should be a city bustling with activity day and night, but yet contain rich urban biodiversity within our green areas and our coastlines.
A Harmonious Home
What about “A Harmonious Home”? Ours is a cosmopolitan society. It will become even more diverse with each passing year. On any given day, some one hundred thousand tourists are in Singapore. More than half a million foreigners live and work here. Living harmoniously within a small and densely populated city state requires everyone to reach out to one another and to go the extra mile – locals must accommodate the different habits, beliefs and practices of foreigners, and foreigners working and living here must respect local ways and habits and make an effort to integrate. Then, Singapore will be an oasis of harmony with a rich diversity of people, culture and ideas. But let me add a caveat here. Those who come to drink from the oasis must add to our ability to replenish the water, and not just consume and deplete the stock. By this I mean that we must manage the inflow of talent and new immigrants to ensure that Singaporeans do not lose out and in fact benefit from their presence. Only then, can we create a harmonious, cosmopolitan society.
For businesses, we must be able to offer two things. First, we will keep our rentals competitive compared to key financial hubs like Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, and New York. Second, our city must be able to offer not just Grade A offices in the Central Business District but also cheaper office solutions at the fringe of the city centre. This will give companies greater flexibility and cater to their different business needs.