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Singapore's 'tight' rule-abiding culture key to tackling Covid-19, but holds back innovation: Sylvia Lim

SINGAPORE — The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that while Singapore’s “tight”, rule-abiding culture has allowed the nation to fare well in managing the health crisis, it also highlighted that it does not do as well as “looser” cultures with innovation.

Workers' Party Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim (pictured) said there is a need to ensure that Singapore fostered an innovative culture while adhering to norms and rules.
Workers' Party Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim (pictured) said there is a need to ensure that Singapore fostered an innovative culture while adhering to norms and rules.
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  • WP chair Sylvia Lim said Singapore's "tight" rules-abiding culture allowed it to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic well
  • However, it did not fare so well when it came to innovation and creativity, a global index showed
  • Ms Lim said in Parliament that introspection is needed to examine how Singapore can nurture creativity and risk-taking
  • Fellow WP MP Faisal Manap raised concerns that Malay children are forgetting their mother tongue, and said work must be done to tackle this

SINGAPORE — The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that while Singapore’s “tight”, rule-abiding culture has allowed the nation to fare well in managing the health crisis, it also highlighted that it does not do as well as “looser” cultures with innovation.

Singapore would do well by striking a balance between “tightness and looseness”. This was a point made by Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim of Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) on Tuesday (March 1).

The speech by Ms Lim, WP's chairman, on the second day of the Budget debate, along with those made by three of her fellow party MPs, covered a range of issues such as preserving jobs and the Malay community.

On Monday, WP flagged its opposition to the Budget due to plans to increase the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and offered its own alternatives to raise revenue. Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry, countered the party’s suggestions on Tuesday.

In her speech on Tuesday, Ms Lim referenced a 2021 study published in the Lancet medical journal, which stated that countries such as China and Singapore were classified as having “tight cultures”, in that the respective societies tend to be highly respectful of rules and norms.

Do we need to do more to nurture creativity and risk-taking? Are there other inhibitors in Singapore’s ecosystem that need to be addressed? These need constant review.
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim

In contrast, the author of the study, American cultural psychologist Professor Michele Gelfand, said that countries such as Britain, Israel and the United States tend to defy rules and norms, and are consequently classified as “loose”.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that loose countries had more difficulties enforcing Covid-19-related regulations, and this in turn was associated with more coronavirus deaths and serious illnesses compared to tight countries.

However, Mr Fareed Zakaria, a leading commentator from international news agency CNN, noted that the study revealed something else, Ms Lim said.

He observed that some of the loosest countries, which fared poorly in imposing Covid-related regulations, were the most innovative and dynamic at developing, procuring and distributing the vaccine.

Ms Lim continued: “He concluded that these loose countries benefited from the creativity, risk-taking and rule-breaking that was endemic in their people. Today, it is clear how these solutions have benefited humanity across the globe.”

In Singapore, significant breakthroughs have been made, such as the development by Duke-NUS Medical School of a Covid-19 neutralising antibody test kit — the first of its kind to receive approval from the American Food and Drug Administration.

Still, Ms Lim said that it has yet to receive approval from the Health Sciences Authority here for public use.

“Speaker, a lack of locally manufactured solutions is not just a matter of national pride. We have experienced first-hand how, in a global pandemic, needing to procure supplies from abroad subjects us to market forces and has resulted in supply shortages,” she added.

She then said that Singapore should strive to move up the value chain to be owners of such intellectual property.

“This raises the more general question: What is the state of Singapore’s capacity to innovate?”

Although Singapore ranks within the top 10 on the Global Innovation Index 2021, it is mainly due to its institutions, and market and business sophistication, the WP MP said.

However, in other areas measured by the index, such as creative, knowledge and technology outputs — broadly defined as how well a country is able to invent and innovate — Singapore did not fare so well and this required some introspection to see where the country is lagging, she added.

“Do we need to do more to nurture creativity and risk-taking? Are there other inhibitors in Singapore’s ecosystem that need to be addressed? These need constant review.” 


On another subject of debate, WP MP Dennis Tan of Hougang said that the party recognises the necessity of decarbonisation, but Singapore must mull over how it makes its green transition.

“We now have a bolder carbon tax trajectory and improved our net-zero climate ambition. Therefore, we need to think carefully about how to bring about this change and not leave anyone behind.” 

Mr Tan noted that not only has Singapore already made movements towards a greener transition within the petrochemical industry by halving its crude processing capacity and reducing fuel exports, but there is also demand by university students to seek sustainable alternatives to linkages with the fossil fuel industry.

“While it is true that we do need to make the transition, what does that mean for the petrochemical industry in Singapore in its current form?” Mr Tan asked of the strategic pillar of the country's industrial sector.

He then cautioned that in building the economy of tomorrow, Singapore should not “cut the oxygen prematurely” at a time when the nation’s green ambitions have only just begun.

For instance, there is still a need for some petrochemicals in the modern green economy, because some petrochemicals can be found in modern solar panels, modern wind turbines, and batteries.

Moreover, he added that in preparing for the green transition, he hopes that Singaporean workers, young and old, will be able to be optimally employed and there will be no need to rely or import significant foreign manpower.


In his speech, WP MP Gerald Giam of Aljunied GRC spoke about building national resilience to prepare for current and future challenges, and spoke in detail about “seven pillars of resilience”: Families, environment, infrastructure, companies, workforce, society and the Government.

Among the key points Mr Giam raised were concerns about the impending increases in the Basic Retirement Sum for members of the Central Provident (CPF), which is part of the country's social security system to get people to save for old age. The sum is set to go up by 3.5 per cent a year for the next five cohorts of members turning 55 from 2023 to 2027.

In figures provided by the Ministry of Finance (MOF), Mr Giam said that 20 per cent of CPF members turning 55 in 2027 will not be able to withdraw more than a token amount from their accounts. The Basic Retirement Sum in 2027 they need to have in their accounts will be S$114,100.

He added that at present, some 435,000 Singaporeans aged between 55 and 70 are unable to meet the prevailing Basic Retirement Sum of S$96,000.

“Many of them struggle with their living expenses and are not able to use their CPF for housing payments. I hope the MOF will give careful consideration to the needs of CPF members with lower balances before raising the (sum).” 

Mr Giam also spoke about the need to “take into account the local context” when imposing any policy changes.

Using potential plastic bag charges at a supermarket as an example, he said that most shoppers use them to bag their trash before throwing it down a rubbish chute.

If Singaporeans do not have enough plastic bags, they may end up buying them, or worse, throwing their rubbish directly down the chutes.

“Therefore, any policy interventions should strive to encourage intrinsic attitudes towards conservation, not lead to people trying to work around punitive measures,” Mr Giam added.

“Instead of a per-bag charge, has (the National Environment Agency) considered requiring large supermarkets to offer a discount as an incentive for not using plastic bags?”


Turning the party’s attention to the Malay community, Mr Faisal Manap of Aljunied GRC said he was concerned that not enough emphasis has been placed on teaching Malay children their mother tongue.

While he acknowledged the importance and needs of mastering English and the bilingual policy implemented by the Government, he was seeing that "more and more of our Malay children are more comfortable speaking English" than their mother tongue.

As it is, there is a “clear sign” that the number of Malay students who score an “A star” to a "C" grade for their mother tongue during their Primary School Leaving Examination has gone down, a trend that Mr Faisal said started in 2001.

Referring to Singapore’s population index from 2020, he also said that there are 38,668 Malay children aged zero to four who are in the “critical stage in their growth". 

And although the teaching of the language at home is important, with both parents “working hard” to earn a living, these children are mainly placed in childcare centres before going into kindergarten.

Yet, based on a recent parliamentary reply from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, there are only 350 nurseries that teach Malay, even though there are 1,800 preschools islandwide

This means that only 19 per cent of preschools teach Malay, a figure that Mr Faisal said is “very far from enough”.

“The Malay community cannot allow the decline to continue. This is a clear early sign that an important step must be taken to address this problem (before it gets) worse,” he added, before asking how the authorities intend to address this challenge.



Another opposition party member who spoke on Tuesday was Ms Hazel Poa, a Non-Constituency MP from Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

She said that there are many measures announced in this year's Budget statement that her party welcomes, but PSP objected to raising the GST because it is a bad time to do so due to inflationary pressure, and Singapore does not need the revenue now.

“That the Government is giving out rebates in excess of the expected additional GST to be collected over the next few years underlines the fact that we currently do not need the additional revenue now.” 

And if there is indeed a need to raise GST to fund additional healthcare and other social spending in the future, it might be better to consider other ways to raise revenue by reviewing corporate and personal income tax rates, she added.

“We are happy to note that the personal income tax rate for the highest tax brackets will be raised. But we believe there is room for more."

The corporate tax rate here is 17 per cent, but there are tax incentives that lower the effective tax rate of many companies, Ms Poa said.

“Even if we were to raise our corporate tax rate to 20 per cent, it would still be low, compared to the region.”


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report described Mr Gerald Giam as a member of Sengkang GRC. This is incorrect. He is from Aljunied GRC. We are sorry for the error.

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Related topics

Budget 2022 WP Covid-19 creativity carbon tax Malay GST PSP cpf

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