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Avoiding trade-offs in the Singapore Together movement

I want to discuss two broad points raised by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in his speech and dialogue at the Reach-CNA “Building Our Future Singapore Together” event on Saturday (June 15).

Noting that Singapore has “become more diverse in terms of our needs”, Mr Heng referred to “trade-offs” at least four times in his speech on Saturday.

Noting that Singapore has “become more diverse in terms of our needs”, Mr Heng referred to “trade-offs” at least four times in his speech on Saturday.

In his most significant speech since becoming deputy prime minister a month ago, Mr Heng Swee Keat outlined on Saturday (June 15) how he and the fourth-generation (4G) leadership would engage Singaporeans and lead the country.

Here, I want to discuss two broad points raised by Mr Heng in his speech and dialogue at the Reach-CNA “Building Our Future Singapore Together” event.

First, Mr Heng described how the new government-people engagement will go beyond consultation to be action-oriented, creating an “expanded democracy of deeds, with citizens taking action to make a difference”.

The Government will partner Singaporeans not only to generate ideas, but — more importantly — to implement these ideas in policies. He called this approach the Singapore Together movement.

The significance of Mr Heng’s vision lies in his laying out the 4G leadership’s “political compact” with Singaporeans.

As Mr Heng put it: “We need to shift from a government that focuses primarily on working for you, to a government that works with you. Working with you, for you."

This will raise expectations that the 4G leadership will make that subtle but distinctive shift in governance approach towards a more participatory democracy. How citizen action will be implemented in this vision will be closely watched.

The second point that struck me was in his comments on the key constants in successive generations of leaders. Winning and retaining the trust of Singaporeans is “the essence of government”, he said.

This entails, among other things, explaining the trade-offs and challenges Singapore faces. Telling people the truth “remained the essence of political leadership — even on difficult matters like population or tax or HDB leases”.

Noting that Singapore has “become more diverse in terms of our needs”, Mr Heng referred to “trade-offs” at least four times in his speech.

He observed that the needs of seniors, the fastest growing segment of the population, are very different from those of the young. Some segments of our society will also need more support.

Thus, to support these differing needs, “new policy trade-offs, including how best to allocate our resources” will have to be considered. Otherwise, “society can fracture along the lines of class and backgrounds, as has happened in other advanced economies”.

I would argue that the language of “trade-offs” must be handled carefully. Trade-offs can straightjacket policy thinking and implementation because its starting premise is of two desirable but incompatible interests of which one must prevail.

In public policy discourse, trade-offs are often portrayed as expedient, inevitable and necessary given finite resources. In the course of independent Singapore’s development, trade-offs were common.

For instance, the imperative of economic survival meant that economic goals took priority. Land acquisitions by the state were common and buildings with rich historical and social value were demolished — all in the name of modernity and progress.

National security concerns meant that individual rights and civil liberties had to concede to national interests and the larger good.

But must always it be so?

At the dialogue, young Singaporeans enthusiastically raised their concerns on biodiversity, climate change threat, and sustainability.

Hence, if we treat economic growth and environmental sustainability as being important to our societal well-being, trade-offs will, in fact, be poor policy choices. We cannot redistribute our stock of well-being between artificial compartments of the economy and society.

In our next stage of nation-building, we ought to avoid this false dichotomy of the economy and the environment as two separate spheres having competing or even conflicting interests.

Other supposed binaries include work-life balance, economic growth and social equality and justice, and security and liberty.

The harsh reality is that if we look for trade-offs, we will definitely find them.

Where cost-benefit analysis dominates, economic value will often triumph over societal values. Between individual and community interests, the latter will prevail in our communitarian system.

Furthermore, such an approach will result in developments that Mr Heng specifically cautioned against:  The reduction of our common space, the failure to develop trust between communities and between people and the Government, and our not appreciating the perspectives and concerns of others.

However, resisting the search for trade-offs and adopting an even-handed treatment of competing interests and needs can open new pathways to creative solutions enhancing our systemic resilience, adaptive innovation and capability, and societal responsiveness.

It is therefore critical that we learn the art of not making trade-offs. This requires aligning the important interests and needs of society in a holistic and even-handed manner.  

This does not take away the necessity of making policy choices since resources are finite. Trade-offs, however, are a last resort measure.

Singapore is a living example of how we have transformed the physical environment in the perpetual endeavour to overcome the constraints and vulnerabilities imposed by nature and by geopolitics. This has defined us as a young sovereign nation state.

We harvest Newater out of wastewater to reduce our dependence on imported water.

We off-shored our landfill to free up land in our little red dot, creating an emergent environment with rich, vibrant biodiversity in the landfill at Pulau Semakau. We now exploit the underground granite caverns for a variety of storage uses to overcome the limits to building upwards.

These inspiring examples demonstrate the vision and power of not indulging in trade-offs or being constrained by binary options.

We crafted virtues out of vulnerabilities. The hard truth is that limitations will persist as an immutable fact of our existence, but our experience demonstrates that they need not be our destiny.

An even-handed approach recognises not only that the total pool of economic and social value can be grown and that shared value can be created out of apparently competing and conflicting objectives.

In not seeking trade-offs, public policies and choices for a society, increasingly marked by intense diversity, will have to be guided by the twin considerations of shared purpose and shared values.

Our shared purpose tells us our destination as a nation-state but our shared values determine and discipline how we get to our destination with our values and identity intact.

Without shared values, we will lean heavily towards the economistic, if not materialistic, tendency of placing a price tag on all things.

At this stage of our nation-building, we are better placed than our forefathers to address the diverse needs of our society.

Alas, knowing the price, but not the value, of all things important to us will render us devoid of a national soul. This cannot build Singaporeans’ shared future together.



Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University and a former Nominated Member of Parliament.

Related topics

Heng Swee Keat 4G leadership government policy

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