Speech by MOS Alvin Tan at the debate on the motion of thanks to the President

Speech by MOS Alvin Tan at the debate on the motion of thanks to the President

Mr. Speaker Sir. 

1. I rise in support of the motion to thank our President for her address.
2. Last week, I was sworn in as a Member of Parliament at the Old Parliament House. Standing in those chambers taking my Oath of Allegiance, a sense of history overwhelmed me. I could not help but wonder how our founding leaders, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Mr. S Rajaratnam, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, must have felt in those chambers, the fate of Singapore in their hands, facing a bleak and uncertain future. They must have been in their late 30s, 40s, around my generation. How did they feel inheriting a newly independent country, facing a crisis of survival? What went through their minds as they wrestled with the exigencies of their times? Were jobs the priority? Defence? The environment? Social cohesion? Race and religion? Where did they start? How did they start?

3. We stand here today as one house, in these new chambers as our nation faces the proverbial crisis of our generation. And we are again faced with the questions that confronted our forefathers: Where do we find jobs? How do we build a cohesive Singapore? How do we protect our environment? Our founding leaders found opportunities, and hope in crisis. By finding new ways of doing business, making tough decisions about race and religion, and building a clean and green city. They developed our industries, forged a new society, and built a modern Singapore, handing it over to us in excellent order. That Singapore is now in our hands.  

4. And what we do in this crisis matters. This crisis is not a temporary deviation from our previous path, but one that will permanently change our lives as we know it. As President Halimah Yacob said last week, “there is no going back to the status quo ante”. And COVID-19 has indeed re-shuffled the deck. Mr Speaker, we are living through what has been termed as the Great Reset. While this poses many unprecedented challenges, it also provides us with an opportunity to do things differently - to re-imagine and re-build on the strong foundation of our forefathers. I will touch on three such opportunities - the opportunity to protect; the opportunity to create; and the opportunity to include. 

The Opportunity to Protect 

5. To begin with, ‘The Opportunity to Protect’, COVID-19 forced the whole world to a pause. Unintentionally, this pause gave us the chance to take a step back, examine and be deliberate as we move forward.  One of the first, and possibly the only direct, positive outcome of COVID-19 is the impact on the environment. The sound of planes was audibly replaced by the sounds of birds - nature was recovering as humanity stayed home. And now as we slowly try to un-pause, we have the opportunity to better balance the sounds we’d like to hear, to better protect and steward the environment for our children as we rebuild our economy.  

6. Now we have an opportunity to do this, as Eli Sim of Palm View Primary School wrote in a published National Day Essay. He wrote that he hopes that Singaporeans will “learn to protect the precious forests, beaches and reservoir parks. I hope everyone in Singapore will do his or her part to turn Singapore from a little red dot to a big green dot in future, and be a role model for other countries”.  Indeed, as Eli said, Singapore must be a big green dot in a rapidly warming world. Global warming has led to higher temperatures and rising sea-levels. We’ve seen the effects of those in the past, right in my constituency, where our low-lying Pek Kio and Cambridge Road neighbourhood experienced floods. An old flood gauge still sits at the corner of Carlisle and Cambridge Road, reminding us of our vulnerabilities. One of my first priorities as MP of Moulmein-Cairnhill was also to do with the environment, I am sure many in this house have also been dealing with it - dengue. We have dengue clusters across the country and  even in my constituency, and we have set up a community dengue taskforce to deal with it decisively. 

7. Locally, we’ve also set up Our Green Pek Kio, which is a popular ground-up initiative to drive awareness and action on climate change. It is a popular initiative, with our residents, very young residents, devoting their energy to transform our community and neighbourhoods. Specific projects include Climate Change Conversations which speak on the impact of climate change and the relationship between climate change and our fragile environment. We have the Bring Your Own Container Initiative, which helps residents reduce plastic waste. These are all ground-up initiatives that we encourage. But these are small steps which are slowly but certainly changing attitudes and practices on the ground, and we should do more of these.

8. Mr Speaker, environmental concerns can indeed be balanced against economic growth. This pandemic has given us the chance to restructure our economy towards sustainable and green solutions, while remaining economically competitive. As the Minister for Sustainability and the Environment mentioned last week, 55,000 new jobs will be created in the sustainability sector over the next decade in areas such as high-tech agriculture and aquaculture. This reflects the Government’s commitment to foster a greener economy, and we must press on with these efforts. Protecting our environment is not just protecting our lives, but also securing our livelihoods. 

The Opportunity to Create

9. This brings me to the second opportunity, which is ‘The Opportunity to Create’. The Great Reset has accelerated the process of digitalisation faster than we expected. It has displaced jobs. Many of our industries like aviation, tourism and construction have been significantly hit. It has affected how we consume and how and where we work. At this juncture are opportunities we can create, find and must seize. We must be nimble and use it to our advantage - for our country and our people.

10. First, our country. We must continue to strengthen Singapore’s position regionally and globally. An oasis in a COVID-19 world. Safe, stable, incorruptible, and open to the world. These are traits that my former colleagues and I in the private sector, even pre-COVID-19, look for when deciding to situate billions of dollars of investments. And make no mistake, when we draw up our strategic investment plans, Singapore is but one of many countries we considered. If we and others decided to choose another investment destination, these jobs would have been situated elsewhere, and Singaporeans would be certainly be poorer for it. So we must continue to enhance this reputation, as investors look for a place that they trust, unleash their ideas, talent and capital. The result is innovation, investments and opportunities for Singaporeans. Of course, as my colleagues have said, we must ensure that Singaporeans are treated fairly. Investments and opportunities can choose us, or choose others. I’d much rather they choose us. 

11. And they will be choosing a steady ship that is sea worthy in a storm. The honourable Mr Leon Perera referred to our economy as a Titanic in his speech yesterday. I would  like to suggest that this is a mis-characterisation. Our  economy has been going  on for 55 years. Not always smooth, but always delivering opportunities for Singapore and Singaporeans. We have encountered many major problems and crisis – separation with the British withdrawal, the oil crisis, the recession in 1985, SARS, the Asian financial crisis and the global financial crisis. We have  never encountered a problem we did not bounce back from stronger. This is the mettle of our country and of our people. Why? Because we do not assume that we are invulnerable. We are always worried in fact about our vulnerability, almost to a point of paranoia. Planning for contingencies, adapting, learning. 

12. We have been driving transformation and re-engineering our economy as we keep going. The Industry Transformation Maps are the latest version of a long line of efforts to ensure that we keep Singapore at the best possible condition, not just for now but also for the future. During calmer waters there were voices in this chamber telling us not to worry, that we can risk our stability and our reserves.   Well, we have seen clearly why we have safeguarded our reserves. We have now deployed them in this crisis to help our people to reinvent themselves and to create opportunities for us to keep on going into the future. Mr Speaker, I would like to suggest that we are not a quite the Titanic. I would like to suggest that we are the Starship Enterprise, always exploring new frontiers and making friends with people from many different places. As my colleague, Dr Tan See Leng had mentioned a couple of days ago, we will live long and prosper. 

13. Mr Speaker, preparing Singapore well for global competition also means preparing our firms well to seize global opportunities. Given the rapid global digitalisation, Singapore benefited from its early investment in digital transformation. We had a head start in the race and while we were preparing for a marathon, COVID-19 has forced us to sprint. Coming from the private sector, I look forward to working closely with industry partners as we step up our digitalisation efforts, supporting businesses, including our family run small and medium enterprises.

14. Second, our people. LinkedIn data shows that the most in-demand jobs globally are in sales, healthcare, software engineering and project management. Three out of these four jobs are also highest in demand for remote employment. This means that as Mr Sharael Taha mentioned earlier, they can be performed anywhere in the world regardless of the employer’s location. Remote jobs are a double edged sword. On one hand, it means that anyone living outside of Singapore can get a job based in Singapore. On the other hand, it also means Singaporeans can apply for a job overseas while continuing to live at home, here in Singapore. Jobs are now increasingly not confined by geographical borders. We must prepare our people to compete on the global platform and take on these emerging jobs. 

15. This is easier said than done. Advising a mid-career administrator to take on a software engineering role is tough and difficult. Upskilling through SkillsFuture can help, but once you’ve acquired the skill, how do you then make that shift? And this is a question that I’ve heard many times from the ground from job seekers, and I am sure many in this House have also heard from your residents as well. When I was at my previous company, my team and I partnered with the Institute of Technical Education to help all our ITE students showcase their skills on their digital resumes, so that machine learning algorithms can help notify them of potential job matches in Singapore and also outside of Singapore. I look forward to working with our SkillsFuture and MyCareersFuture teams to better prepare and also promote our people, so that they can better compete for jobs in Singapore and beyond.

16. For younger Singaporeans, the SGUnited Traineeships programme is enhancing their competitiveness too, helping them get valuable on-the-job training. I remember taking on an unpaid internship when I was younger, and the experience and networks I gained stood me in good stead for the future jobs I would apply and ultimately take on. 

17. We must continue to support Singaporeans - young and old - transform themselves out of the crisis. The choice is clear: we either reinvent ourselves to meet the demands of the future, or be relegated to the footnotes of the past. 

Opportunity to Include

18. This brings me to my third opportunity, that is ‘The Opportunity to Include’. To be more accepting of people with different backgrounds and journeys. I will speak on including Singaporeans of different abilities, and emphasise two aspects. The first is something close to my heart, and it is related to the ability to succeed and the stigma of failure. 

19. Mr Speaker, when Madam President spoke about including people who have traversed different paths, it reminded me of my own journey. I reflected on how far we have come, and how much further we still have to go. I had to repeat a year in junior college, and even so, did not do well enough for my ‘A’ Level examinations to qualify for any local universities. I remember feeling dejected, uncertain about my future, and dealing with the societal stigma. Even later in my career, I faced other rejections. But along my journey, some took a chance on me not based on my grades, but on my ability, on my reputation and on my values, work ethic, volunteer experience. I will always be thankful for these chances. 

20. But Mr Speaker, we cannot just rely on these second chances. We need to level the playing field with policies and norms that systematically empower people and give them the chance they need to prove themselves. To this end, the Government has rolled out measures in recent years to mitigate the lottery of birth. 

21. And yet, far too often we hear concerns that our system penalises people too heavily for the setbacks of their past; where grades from your ‘O’ Levels or ‘A’ Levels disproportionately dictate your career path; where we congratulate people for defying the odds, without questioning why the odds were there in the first place. I remember years ago, applying for a few mid-career jobs in government, and having to input my PSLE, ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level grades, and the recruiters not valuing my experience in the Singapore Armed Forces, or volunteer work. Conversely, the private sector firms I interviewed with did not require those grades, and they valued my experience in the SAF and volunteer work, among others, in their hiring decisions. It was an easy choice for me to choose which sector to join.   

22. In my time interviewing and hiring people for our companies, I looked beyond traditional barometers of success like grades and schools, to skills, micro-credentials which is what Ms Mariam Jaafar mentioned yesterday, the Google credentials, work or volunteer experience, and most importantly, one’s professional reputation. The needle is indeed beginning to shift and we are now seeing some exceptions to the old narratives of success. In her address, Madam President spoke about the work that schools and Institutes of Higher Learning, the Public Service Commission, employers and even political parties are doing in this regard. 

23. This is good progress, but we must make these exceptions the norm. Failure will have consequences, but we must not and should not bind people to their past failures, denying them the chance to learn from them and shape their future differently. Embracing failure and giving second chances will help strengthen our social mobility. At the same time, it will encourage people to be bold enough to try new things and potentially fail or innovate. Most importantly, it will make us a more inclusive society. 

24. Mr Speaker, the second aspect of inclusion, is for us to better include those who are differently abled - physically and mentally. Globally, COVID-19 has caused untold mental and emotional stress, and revealed underlying biases and stigma to those suffering silently. Singapore is no exception. Mental ailments affect us regardless of age, background and where we live in the world. We all know someone who struggles with mental ailments. I have friends and immediate family members struggling with stigma brought about by schizophrenia, depression and other silent mental ailments. In my constituency, we have had a number of suicides since COVID-19 started, and I just visited the family of one of the seniors I knew who sadly took his own life. 

25. When I worked on cyber safety in the tech sector, I also saw first-hand the impact of social media abuse on socio-emotional and mental health all over the world. I remember dealing with live suicide cases around the world and working furiously with my team and our partners to intervene. Closer to home, I remember one of my residents refusing to call the National Care Hotline because she felt that it was shameful to do so. We need inclusive policies and norms to ensure that people feel safe and unashamed to use mental health resources. When we fall down, we suffer a physical injury. What about mental injury? How do we heal? If we can accept seeking help for our body, there is no reason why we cannot accept the same for our mind. This a point that my colleagues Mr Don Wee and Mr Fahmi Aliman had mentioned in their own speeches. 

26. Mr Speaker Sir, while we need to do more to be inclusive of those struggling with mental ailments, we also have the opportunity to do more to include those who are differently abled physically. I have a friend, her name is Hui Xin, she was born visually impaired, but has adeptly used technology to her advantage. She texts me using text to speech recognition software, and is now working in the communications team in the technology department of a multinational company. She adapted, using technology to augment her ability, and benefitted from having an inclusive employer who treasured her for her abilities. 


27. Mr Speaker sir, as a young boy I read JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The main character, Frodo Baggins said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time". Gandalf, the wise wizard responded, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

28. Mr Speaker, we cannot choose the moments in time which define us; but we can choose how we define the moments of our time. 55 years ago, our pioneers found themselves in their moment of crisis, thrust into an independent nation which was never expected to survive. Heroic as they may have been, they too, must have been worried, and it’s okay to be worried. 

29. Courage, Mr Speaker, the quality which our pioneers exemplified, is not the absence of fear, but the will to overcome it. In our moment of crisis, we must meet this moment by overcoming our worries and seizing opportunities to build a better future, not clinging on to the shadows of a distant past; by working together in spite of our differences. Just as our forefathers did. Years from now, in this very House, our children and future generations will judge us by how we have met this moment. We hope they will judge us kindly, but that is for the future. For today, as long as we do our best, as long as we stick together and stay nimble and courageous with Singaporeans at the heart of all we do, I believe we will have met this moment. 

30. Mr Speaker Sir, I support the motion. 

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