by Tony Velasquez, ABS-CBN News
Posted at 06/13/2015 12:09 AM | Updated as of 06/13/2015 2:37 PM
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is interviewed by ASEAN journalists.
SINGAPORE – He strode into the Yusof Room of the Istana, his lanky frame towering over everyone.
A warm smile lit up his face as he greeted ASEAN journalists who had been invited for a week-long tour of Singapore at the beginning of June.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) had agreed to meet with us for an hour, to answer wide-ranging questions from reporters and editors who came from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The interview with PM Lee was the highlight of a tour the Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information organized, in time for the city-state’s Golden Jubilee.
The 7th ASEAN Visiting Journalists Programme was an opportunity for Singapore to present how far it had evolved in half a century of independence, a story that gets no less impressive with every retelling.
The spectacular tale of the Lion City’s rise from a poor fledgling nation in 1965, to the sophisticated prosperous Asian powerhouse that it is today, takes on a poignant tone, with the death in March this year of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY).
Much of what Singapore has become, from the harmonious relations among its Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities, its highly disciplined and highly educated workforce, its enviably efficient city planning, its iconic architecture, and a government largely perceived to be incorruptible, is a legacy that the late Lee, the current PM’s father, will forever be credited with.
With an innate political acumen, a profound sense of nationalism, and a vision he fulfilled to inspire an entire generation of Singaporeans, LKY forged ahead to build a nation that can proudly look back at 50 years of independence, and excitedly look forward to even more progress in the next 50 years.
LKY’s role in Singapore’s success story will be retold many times over, in the days leading to the celebration of its 50th founding anniversary on National Day, August 9, a milestone that has been dubbed as “SG50”.
PM Lee said everything his father had worked to achieve for Singapore, is the foundation that its current leaders are building on for the future.
“In a way, Mr. Lee has been preparing Singapore for the day when it carries on without him, for a very long time,” he said during the interview by ASEAN journalists. “And now he has left, it is a very sad thing that on the 50th anniversary, he is not able to be with us to celebrate the success which he had such a big part in creating. But I think he has prepared well, and Singapore is well set to move ahead and take our country further steps forward. Of course, we would have liked to continue to have his wisdom, his advice, the confidence that he has been with us all along.”
As the Philippines commemorates its 117th year of independence, it’s difficult to resist the inevitable comparison of the country’s rambunctious, or even ramshackle state of affairs, with the orderly march to progress by its tiny 50-year-old ASEAN neighbor to the east.
While the Philippines continues to be bedevilled by graft and corruption, Singapore has strived to ensure that these ills never took root in its society.
“In our experience,” PM Lee explained, “we have gone for zero tolerance approach. Right from the beginning and right from the top to the bottom. And I think that is the only way you can tackle the problem. Because if we decide a little bit is okay, too much is no good, it is very difficult to work. And it has to start from the top down, because if the boss is corrupt, then he must have secretaries, he must have officers, they must know and they must conclude that if the boss can do this, we can also do this.”
PM Lee emphasized that strict enforcement of the law, and stiff penalties for corrupt officials, have ingrained a strong anti-corruption attitude in Singapore. “If you have transgressed and it is proven, then you have to pay the price, and the penalties are severe. And we have done that. People have seen that we have done that. So they take it seriously,” the PM added.
He acknowledged the vital role played by Singapore’s anti-corruption agency. “We call it CPIB. Everybody knows the initials, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. It comes directly under my office and reports directly to me. And if the CPIB invites you to drink coffee, well, you are quite worried,” the PM said with a knowing grin. “I think that’s a good state of affairs.”
Another deterrent to corruption in Singapore is the meritocracy which its founding father, LKY, had nurtured in the three decades and more that he guided the country. “(We have) a society which values ability, which values contributions and which encourages people to do their best,” PM Lee pointed out. This mindset is cultivated in a world-class educational system, which was explained to the visiting ASEAN journalists in a separate interview at the Ministry of Education (MOE).
Education Minister Heng See Keat
Even as the Philippines struggles to reform its basic educational system with the implementation of the K-12 programme, Singapore is embarking on a major initiative that the MOE has dubbed as “Skills Future”. The education minister, Heng See Keat, explained the concept to the participants of the ASEAN Visiting Journalists Programme, in a thorough briefing.
“Some skills today may not be relevant in the future,” said Minister Heng.
He said the aim of Skills Future is to equip students in higher educational institutions with 21st century skills: critical thinking and communication. A handout from the MOE described it this way: “Skills Future is a national movement that provides Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop to their fullest throughout life, regardless of their starting points. Through this movement, the skills, passion and contributions of every individual will drive Singapore’s next phase of development towards an advanced economy and inclusive society.”
“We must provide many bridges and ladders so that students can make progress, and make an impact on the world,” Min. Heng said.
The Education Minister explained the big emphasis now in Singapore’s 4 universities and 5 polytechnics is “work place learning”, or “Earn and Learn”.
The application of this concept was demonstrated to the ASEAN journalists during a visit to the College Central campus of Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education (ITE), one of three campuses spread out across the island state. Officials at the 23-year old post-secondary education institution said ITE had changed how technical vocational education was previously perceived in the country as the path for dropouts.
The ASEAN journalists were toured around the campus, where students undergo 2-year career-oriented technical education and training programmes that are almost fully subsidized by the Singaporean government. The training programmes span a variety of disciplines, from creative design and interactive media, to aerospace technology. While the students undergo training, they’re hired as interns by major companies to work on various projects, thereby earning as they’re learning.
While the ASEAN journalists marveled at the scope and sophistication of the facilities offered by the ITE’s College Central, Education Minister Heng emphasized that all these were secondary to the skills of the teachers themselves.
“No education system is better than the quality of its teachers,” said Minister Heng. “There’s a lot of respect for teachers in Singapore society,” he added, noting that remuneration conditions and career advancement for educators in the country were “quite good”.
No visitor to Singapore cannot help but admire the well-maintained and efficient bus and subway system, the well-paved road network, and the well-balanced layout of the city-state. As the ITE managers explained , the people trained in the country’s technical vocational programmes play a significant role in keeping Singapore running in an orderly and systematic manner.
But it’s also due mainly to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), an attached agency of the Ministry of National Development.
Staffed by 1,000 personnel, the URA oversees urban design, land use planning, and development control over Singapore’s 718 square kilometer land area. And it’s here where the Philippines could do well to borrow a page from Singapore’s development handbook.
Working with what the agency calls Concept Plans that cover 10-year periods, the URA began clearing slums and putting up adequate public housing in the 19-sixties and seventies. In the decades that followed, the URA focused on providing Singaporeans with a a variety of housing types, such as private landed housing, private condominiums, high rise public housing, and alternative waterfront housing.
Public transport is also being continuously developed, to reduce the need for private vehicles and more roads.
At the same time, the URA is already developing a National Cycling Plan that it calls iCycle Singapore. This is aimed at creating a safe and integrated network of cycling routes that can eventually reduce the need for cars within communities. The National Cycling Plan calls for the length of cycling routes in Singapore to increase to over 700 kilometers by the year 2030, a nearly threefold increase from the present 230 kilometers.
The URA is tasked with ensuring that government land can be developed for financial and business services, and for manufacturing, all of which are deemed by Singapore as its key engines for economic growth.
ABS-CBN News’ Tony Velasquez at the Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information.
In a briefing for the visiting ASEAN journalists, URA Executive Planner Magdalene Wong said the agency is now preparing a concept plan that envisions land use in Singapore beyond the year 2030. The plan includes the creative use of water bodies and reclamation of coastal waters, except in areas where biodiversity has to be protected.
The reclaimed land will hold more commercial hubs and new industrial clusters outside the island state’s central area, in turn creating jobs closer to peoples’ homes. To make these new land developments accessible, 800 buses will be added to the public transport system, while the rail network will be doubled to 360 kilometers.
The concept plan is not all about creating a concrete jungle in Singapore. It still places emphasis on preserving Singapore as a Garden City. The URA’s concept plan is designed to connect all of the nation’s parks, with the goal of putting 90 percent of households within 400 meters of a park by the year 2030.
But while the URA planners are driven to think of the future, they’re also tasked to preserve much of Singapore’s historical buildings. So-called heritage structures are “gazetted” or marked for preservation, rendering them protected from demolition.
It’s a policy that could have saved priceless historical sites in the Philippines from being torn down in the name of “progress”.
Speaking to ASEAN journalists, Education Minister Heng, who also chairs the Steering Committee for the SG50 celebrations, said while Singapore plans for the next 50 years, the nation’s Golden Jubilee is an occasion for them to “look back at the journey from our pioneers, see what lessons we’ve learned, and use this as inspiration for the world.”
“Over 50 years, we’ve built a sense of identity,” Minister Heng added. “It’s time to reflect on what it took to build a nation, and to face future challenges.”