Governance of a City-State / Inequality and Social Mobility / Managing Diversities / Managing the Challenges of an Ageing Society
Dialogue with Prime Minister Lawrence Wong

On 2 July 2024, Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong embarked on his first youth-centric dialogue since his inauguration as Prime Minister. Jointly organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Varsity Voices (VV) and the Singapore Management University (SMU), the event was attended by close to 900 students from various Institutes of Higher Learning, with many asking questions during the Q&A session.

Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s Opening Address

In his opening address, PM Wong reflected on how life has changed in the past 30 years, highlighting the major technological, economic and social transformations that have occurred since the early 1990s. He highlighted the improvements in Singapore’s living environment, economy and cultural vibrancy, despite having faced challenges like the Asian financial crisis, SARS and the global financial crisis.

Looking at the next 20 to 30 years, he discussed the challenges that Singapore will face amid a fragmented and competitive global landscape, marked by issues like increased political tensions, climate change and rapid technological advancements, including with the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He stressed the importance of adaptability and resilience, which were qualities that have allowed Singapore to thrive within the past 60 years.

PM Wong outlined three key strategies to take Singapore forward in the new phase.

1. Refreshing the social compact

The country is taking steps to refresh the social compact and strengthen our sense of solidarity and unity. He highlighted that the government will do more to provide assurances for Singaporeans across every stage of life in areas like housing, healthcare and education. The government looks to create stronger safety nets to help Singaporeans bounce back and not feel like they have to fend for themselves in this uncertain world. At the same time, he encourages Singaporeans to take responsibility for themselves and their families — namely through the Healthier SG movement, skills upgrading and uplifting the wages of lower-income workers.

2. Providing more opportunities for all Singaporeans to chart their paths

PM Wong commented that in the past, success was defined as pursuing a few key professions like becoming a doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher or engineer. However, he hoped that amid a new diversified economy, individuals could pursue diverse aspirations and career paths and create their definitions of success. He encouraged the youth to embrace the attitude of learning and excelling in their endeavours throughout their lives by focusing on their strengths.

3. Doing our part to contribute to a better society

He continued to share his hopes that Singapore does not become a society where everyone is for themselves, where the fittest survive and the weak suffer. Instead, he highlighted that Singaporeans want an inclusive society, where everyone belongs and where the benefits are shared by all and not just held by a few.  Everyone plays a role in improving the community, hence the need for platforms for collaboration between citizens, community groups and the government on key issues.

PM Wong concluded by emphasising the importance of unity and self-reliance for Singapore’s future, encouraging the audience to be bold, think creatively and work together to ensure a brighter future for the nation.

Question-and-Answer Session

The Question-and-Answer Session was moderated by Professor Lily Kong, President of the Singapore Management University, who asked PM Wong about the concept of the refreshed Singapore Dream and what skills the young should develop to position themselves for the future. He highlighted that the youth should not focus on industry silos but rather equip themselves with skills to take advantage of megatrends like technology and AI, sustainability and the rise of Asia.

During the lively Q&A session, scores of students were seen lining up behind the microphone stands to wait for a chance to ask their questions. The audience engaged in a wide variety of topics ranging from economic to social, political and personal issues.

PM Wong tackled questions regarding the economy, covering topics such as talent attraction, equality, the importance of providing opportunities for Singaporeans to improve, concerns for lower-wage workers, and non-traditional work and entrepreneurs.
When responding to a question on AI and making sure that most of our people are not left behind, PM Wong highlighted that the strategies involved developing local talent with the aptitude for AI and complementing them with international professionals to create a top-tier AI team.
“I think all of you already use ChatGPT… I am sure you do it for your homework too,” said PM Wong. Comparing ChatGPT and AI with a calculator, PM Wong said that AI tools should be made more accessible and incorporated into education at all levels, while providing safeguards against risks such as deepfakes and impersonation scams.

Social issues discussed included issues of social inequality, social mobility, mental wellness and issues pertaining to retirement. PM Wong shared his views on these topics, highlighting the need for inclusive policies that support both economic growth and social cohesion.

On mental health, he mentioned that Singapore is taking the issue very seriously and has put together a taskforce to tackle this issue. He commented that the government is looking into how they can invest in more mental health capabilities at both clinical and community levels. “It is like when you fall sick or when you feel unwell, the first thing you do is not to go to a specialist… maybe you go to a GP and the GP will treat you,” said PM Wong. Individuals will be able to seek help either within the community or counselling in schools.

Responding to a question on MPs being allowed to have full-time jobs and the potential of conflicts of interest, PM Wong explained that “it is a pragmatic arrangement”, as ministers are MPs with a full-time job of governing as well. For backbencher MPs, PM Wong said that they may have private sector commitments,  but they are fully expected to discharge their duties well. If they fail to do so, there are consequences either from the party or voters. Potential conflicts of interest are managed through a declaration process which will ensure a clean political system free from money politics and vested interests. “We will always be vigilant in making sure our system remains clean,” said PM Wong.

PM Wong concluded the session on a personal note while addressing the issue of constant comparison in competitive environments. He reflected on his journey within the civil service and how some of his peers were on the fast track and promoted faster than him, while those who joined the finance sector were earning more than him.

“(I)t is normal to compare and because of those pressures, I did think of leaving the civil service at one stage,” said PM Wong. His mentors encouraged him to focus on his work and think about its impact, and he eventually stayed on for 15 years before joining politics.

“I did not feel the need after that to compare with others because once you centre and focus on what you think is meaningful and fulfilling, I think the comparisons become less important,” said PM Wong.

He said that Singapore can encourage and promote a more egalitarian culture where people are treated as equals. By finding meaning in one’s pursuits, individuals will hopefully be able to reduce the need for constant comparison. PM Wong acknowledged that the pressures of competition will always exist, but with the right attitudes and mindsets to continuously excel and grow, Singapore can hope to create a society where everyone thrives in their own ways.


Click here to watch the video of the dialogue.

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