Setting course for a more equal society

In sketching the vistas of possibilities within the political economy of the "new way forward", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reaffirmed the Government's alignment with Singaporeans' broad concerns expressed during the just-concluded national conversation.

The private and people sectors together cannot fulfil social expectations, so people want the state to continue to be the prime provider of affordable and quality housing, education and health care; and for it to intervene more to foster a fair and just society.

It would be natural to zoom in on specific goodies in PM Lee's National Day Rally speech, but one should also not gloss over key points underscored in the important preamble.

The promised "strategic shifts" in policies do not fundamentally alter the nature and interaction of the three pillars of the nation - individual, community and state.

While the community and Government are required to do more, this is not to create a culture of dependence.

Ultimately, it is still up to the individual to make the most of an affordable HDB flat (by making it a socially connected home), accessible health-care services (by not losing sight of self-care), good education and job training (by seizing opportunities made available).

Yet there are individuals who clearly need a helping hand as society surges forward, and the balance must be tilted more in favour of them.

The eventual realisation of projects like a southern Waterfront City, Changi Airport's Terminal 5 and a new town in Paya Lebar will further add to the dazzling array of choices open to Singaporeans.

But how will such progress be seen if sections of society are unacceptably left behind, even after 50 years of nation building?

In the "new phase" ahead, social equity will become an important yardstick by which to measure government policies and their outcomes. But this will be a tricky process because measurement of equity itself can be highly subjective.

As PM Lee noted, it will take some time for the broad outlines of public policy changes on housing, health care, education, and the creation of opportunities to be fleshed out and calibrated to desired social settings.

Rightly, he has called for public consultations on key aspects of the changes as the Government feels its way forward.

One would be missing the woods for the trees if conversations going forward focus only on the nitty gritty of plans which are still a work in progress. Also important are a broader acceptance of the direction set, and better collaboration among stakeholders in negotiating the path ahead.

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