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S’pore culture allows young entrepreneurs to fail with no shame, then succeed: PM Lee

SINGAPORE — Topics ranging from climate change and the future of education to entrepreneurship were aired during a dialogue between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and students from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) on Wednesday (Sept 4).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at a dialogue with some 500 students at Singapore University of Social Sciences on Wednesday (Sept 4).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at a dialogue with some 500 students at Singapore University of Social Sciences on Wednesday (Sept 4).

SINGAPORE — Topics ranging from climate change and the future of education to entrepreneurship were aired during a dialogue between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and students from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) on Wednesday (Sept 4).

Held at the university, with some 500 students attending, the one-hour dialogue was based on three themes — the role and relevance of a university degree, the future of work and employment as well as the future of Singapore.

Delivering his opening remarks, Mr Lee touched on the issues he raised at his National Day Rally (NDR) speech, which included lowering the university fees for general degree programmes at the Singapore Institute of Technology and SUSS.

The Government has not revised fees and bursaries for part-time university students, Mr Lee said. However, he said that the Government will review them and, if necessary, make adjustments.

Saying that the Government has been tracking feedback on the NDR, he said that there was a clear difference between the reactions of younger and older Singaporeans.

For instance, the issue of climate change resonated more with the young.

On the other hand, older Singaporeans are more focused on the move to increase the retirement and re-employment ages as well as Central Provident Fund contribution rates.

Mr Lee took more than 20 questions. They included whether there is value in getting a degree from local universities since employers are increasingly less fixated on qualifications, how educational institutions can prepare students for the changing workforce and whether they should focus more on nurturing soft skills.

Subjects aired at the dialogue with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong included climate change, the future of education and entrepreneurship. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Here are some excerpts from the dialogue:

Question: A student, who set up a startup business, asked whether Singapore’s society and culture is “forgiving enough” to allow Singaporeans to fail. He also asked what universities can do to help students develop a greater sense of grit and dare to take the plunge.

Mr Lee: Quite a number are taking the plunge. You have done so. It is not easy to do a startup. You have to get everything together, you have to do everything yourself and, at the end, you may have the best idea in the world, it may turn out not to fly. And then you just have to say ‘sorry, it didn’t work, I will try again’.

I think that kind of startup and possibly unsuccessful startup, I don’t think there’s any stigma, any shame attached to it, even in Singapore. First, there shouldn’t be, secondly as a matter of fact, I don’t think there is. Because people do these things, (if) it doesn’t work, ‘Okay, I abandon that idea, I try another one’. Because it’s very unlikely that your first good idea is going to be good enough to work. And I think young people have that attitude.

If you look at the People’s Action Party, when I look for candidates and I see on his curriculum vitae that he has started a company and the company’s no longer there or the company is struggling, I don’t hold it against him. I ask him, ‘What is this? Why did you do this?’ and if he shows that he has the commitment and he did believe in it, it can’t be helped that it didn’t work. I would take him. I do not expect to see somebody sail in and say ‘I started 10 companies and all of them became unicorns’. Life is not like that.

Question: One student asked Mr Lee about his biggest worry with regard to the future of Singapore’s educational system and what can be done to address it.

Mr Lee: The biggest challenge we have is to make our education fit for purpose for continuing education. Because for pre-employment education, going to schools, polytechnics, universities, Institutes of Technical Education, before you go to work, I think we know what to do. And you will have to bring it up to date and change the course and improve the teaching and so on. We can do that.

But to make a system which will be effective for continuing education – adults, Generation X and (those who are) even older than Generation X. If Generation X say, ‘can’t remember so many things, better do open book exams’, imagine people in their fifties, sixties, or people who are in their seventies who want to come back for a refresher, who want to come back to learn something, how do we run an education system which can meet their needs and suit their style of learning?

It is not easy at all. It is not just a matter of money or running the courses or having the courses, I must have people with the experience and I must have a whole support system for them. So that when they come in, the employers understand and they can focus on their jobs as well as their studies and keep the balance. And the employers will make adjustments because all employers will have to go through this at some stage in their lives. And that is a very big challenge. We will do it, we have got SkillsFuture Singapore but we’re still early in the journey.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chats while attending the dialogue with students at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Question: Is it futile for Singapore to spend so much money addressing the effects of climate change, asked another student, who pointed out that amid the rise in right-wing governments, some countries deny the existence of such problems.

Mr Lee: If other countries don’t do their part and reduce CO2 emissions and slow down the global warming and slow down the rising sea level, it endangers all countries – themselves as well as the world as well as Singapore. We can’t force other countries to do what we think we would like them to do.

All we can do is our share, and because we’re doing our share, we can stand up, we have the moral standing to say, ‘I’m doing my part, please do your part’. But if they still don’t do their part, what do I do? I have to protect myself and therefore I must prepare for rising sea level and I must spend if need be S$100 billion over 100 years. If need be, more than that. In order to make sure that if the sea level rises, Singapore does not become a smaller island which, otherwise, is very much on the cards. And we can afford the money and we will make our plans carefully. We make sure the money is well spent. But we have to protect ourselves.

It’s not just right-wing governments, even left-wing governments in other countries, basically it’s countries where there’s population pressure, where they find it difficult to look into the long term and they want here and now. ‘I need land to plant new crops. I need money, so I’m mining coal and selling to other countries. I have oil. I’m not very good at doing anything else very much and therefore I’m taking the oil out of the ground and I’m going to sell the oil to people who would burn it and put CO2 into the atmosphere’.

And I don’t think those are pressures which governments can easily ignore. Because if you ignore them, somebody else will turn up and say, ‘Take that. Why don’t you do that?’ And the government which wants to be green is kicked out and somebody else comes in and he spoils the planet. So, all we can do is to say ‘let’s work at this together’. There is the Paris Accord, it’s the first step. It’s not enough but anyway it’s a step in the right direction. Other steps will have to be taken later on but this is the first step and everybody has signed up, so, if we don’t do our part, we are not a good global citizen. And whether you’re a big or small (country), if you don’t do your part, you are not a good global citizen. And we hope that has some impact. The world is an imperfect place and that’s the way difficult problems can be solved, or at least tackled with partial solutions.

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Lee Hsien Loong SUSS education economy dialogue

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