By: Michelle Zhu (15A01B), Daphne Tang (16S03M), Ian Cheng (16S03M), Ching Ann Hui (15S03A), Tan Yi Chern (15S03N), Kate Tan (15S03U)

Having juggled a successful law career at Drew & Napier along with her duties  as  Member  of  Parliament  (MP) for Tanjong Pagar GRC and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Ms Indranee Rajah (RI,  1981)  is  perhaps  one  of  the  most eminent of the Rafflesian alumni involved in the governance of Singapore today.

 

Now Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, her career has been nothing short of illustrious, making partner at Drew & Napier within five years and Senior Counsel by 2003. In 2001, she joined politics and was elected as a member of Tanjong  Pagar  GRC,  eventually  switching  over  to  full  time politics in 2012 at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s request.

 

A debater while she was in RI Pre-U, she fondly remembers her time in the school and credits debating as being ‘great training for a career in law and politics’. In addition, she also hailed from the school netball team, which helped her stay physically fit, and may explain how she still manages to fit gym trainings into her already overscheduled days. Ms Indranee shares with the Rafflesian Times some of her insights on the political scene in Singapore and key challenges faced with the changing political and social climate here as we celebrate our nation’s golden jubilee.

 

INDRANEE

L O O K I N G   T O   T H E   F U T U R E

When asked about the key challenges facing Singapore in the next 50 years, she identifies three areas – the demographic challenge of an ageing population, social cohesion in view of the increasing diversity in our society, and maintaining economic growth for everyone in the face of global competition.

 

Social  cohesion  has  been  a  perennial  issue  for  Singaporeans, but one that has been amplified recently because of globalisation.  With  the  myriad  of  people  from  different backgrounds and cultures that call Singapore home today, the government  has  in  recent  years  solicited  views  from Singaporeans about their ideal Singapore through Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and various more informal online platforms. For Ms Indranee, ‘OSC saw Singaporeans from all walks of life share their aspirations and visions for the future – there were many common aspirations, but many also heard contrasting views of fellow Singaporeans for the first time.’

 

She shares that the traditional community conversations have  been  overtaken  by  the  pace  of  life  and  social  media technologies, meaning that many Singaporeans were not aware of the differing views of fellow Singaporeans. She adds, ‘It is through engaging our people that we learn more about their concerns  and  needs,  which  in  turn  helps  us  to  refine  and formulate policy that is citizen-centric and genuinely benefits our  people  and  our  nation.’  Despite  how  the  government increasingly and actively tries to understand the concerns on the  ground,  Ms  Indranee  is  careful  to  point  out  that  ‘any national policy must also be made with national interests in mind’, and that ‘this must be balanced with considerations that Singaporeans might not be aware of – for instance, security issues where decisions may have to be made based on sensitive information which cannot be made public.’

 

This pragmatic approach to policymaking in Singapore has not changed over the years, but the numerous challenges that the  government  faces  have  evolved  and  in  some  ways multiplied. The vocal and often vociferous online criticisms of Singapore’s  stance  towards  foreigners  may  not  be  entirely justified, but it does reveal a grain of truth – shifting social demographics have made it much more challenging to cater to everyone’s needs in Singapore.

 

 

R I   A S   A   B E A C O N   O F   H O P E ?

At  first  glance,  the  three  key  challenges  that  Ms  Indranee outlines  seem  disparate.  In  reality,  it  becomes  ever  more difficult than ever to strike a balance between growth, demographics, and maintaining social cohesion in Singapore.

 

‘The question is how do we – year after year – continue to ensure that we can have good jobs for Singaporeans and that there is economic growth, so that everyone can benefit?’ says Ms Indranee. Her mention of everyone benefitting points to the complexity of Singapore’s situation. With a Gini coefficient of 0.464 in 2014 (before accounting for Government transfers and  taxes,  0.412  after),  the  gap  between  the  haves  and  the have-nots continues to widen amidst rising local affluence.

 

PM  Lee’s  comment  on  the  ‘natural  aristocracy’   in Singapore angered many, but what is more dangerous to our social cohesion is the possibility of an artificial aristocracy – one  that  does  not  promote  people  on  merit  but  simply  by default of their privileged positions.

 

More  recently,  the  fracas  that  Minister  for  Social  and Family  Development,  Mr  Tan  Chuan-Jin’s  Facebook  post about karung gunis caused recently is testament to an unease about rising inequality in our society. While we laud Mr Tan’s attempt to speak to people on the ground, the fact remains, unfortunately, that inequality is higher than ever in Singapore, with growing numbers of a small elite entrenched from the previous successes of our meritocratic system.

 

Last year, Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan described  RI  as  ‘less  of  a  beacon  of  hope  for  meritocratic Singapore’.  This  comment  stems  from  the  admittedly  true observation that RI does not reflect the social and economic composition of Singapore as it did in his student days.

 

Yet  Ms  Indranee  points  out  that  ‘each  successive generation of Singaporeans has become more affluent… and consequently  it  must  therefore  mean  that  there  are  fewer students  from  less  privileged  backgrounds  in  absolute numbers compared to the past’. While this is arguably true, it has  to  contend  with  the  general  social  perception  that  top schools  are  increasingly  closed  to  those  from  lower  socio-economic classes.

 

While Ms Indranee agreed that ‘schools such as RI that educate some of our best and brightest in society have a special place in our education system’, she emphasies that this makes it even more important that these schools ‘resolutely guard against elitism’. She elucidates further that ‘RI must be careful to  ensure  that  the  way  the  school  is  run  and  the  way  RI students conduct themselves does not make it become closed to high-calibre students from less privileged backgrounds.’, and that  ‘it  must  continue  to  be  a  shining  beacon  of  hope  for Singapore’s meritocratic ideals, reflecting progress with equity and inclusiveness.’ Nevertheless, RI alone can only do so much.

 

Ironically, while education is often seen as the great leveller, Singapore’s tuition industry is worth more than S$1 billion a year.  Tuition  providers  often  tout  success  stories  of  their clients entering brand schools, attempting to attract students from the tender age of 10 or earlier. It is difficult to continue to believe  that  ‘the  hallmark  of  our  education  system  is  in providing equal opportunities for all’, if one sees an improvement in another’s examination results upon the inception of a tuition programme. This has turned tuition classes into a zero-sum game, where those privileged enough to enroll into tuition will  always  be  seen  as  gaining  an  academic  edge  in  school.

 

To this end, the government has put into place a ‘comprehensive  suite’  of  programmes such  as  supplementary  and remedial lessons in school, in addition to the Collaborative Tuition Programme offered by CDAC, MENDAKI, and SINDA – but the gap remains. It does seem as though a meritocratic education  system  can  only  do  so  much  to  alleviate  the inequality separating the entrenched elite from the person on the street.

Ms Indranee engaging polytechnic and ITE students about ASPIRE (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review). Ms Indranee had chaired the ASPIRE Committee in 2014.
Ms Indranee engaging polytechnic and ITE students about ASPIRE (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review). Ms Indranee had chaired the ASPIRE Committee in 2014.

 

Perhaps  then,  SkillsFuture,  which  came  about  from ASPIRE (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review), can close  the  gaps,  and  play  a  part  in  changing  Singaporeans’ mindset about success. And this, Ms Indranee feels, is crucial – how we see success needs to be changed, and the best way to do this, is through education – not just by the typical focus on academic success but instead by ensuring that students get real depth and acquire mastery of skills, along with portable skills like communication, leadership and resilience, so as to prime them for the future.

 

 

O N   P O L I T I C S   I N   S I N G A P O R E

 

Ms Indranee seems particularly attuned to the intricacies and potential impact of policies. For her, policies affect a wide range of people and span many concerns, timeframes and levels of

governance. People’s ‘diverse needs and wants’ constantly have to be reviewed in relation to each other. It is not a straightforward process, as Ms Indranee shares:

 

  ‘Take  housing  for  example.  Home  buyers  would  want property prices to be low, so they can afford [homes] without too much financial strain.

On the other hand, if you already own a property, you want the prices to be high as this is your asset,  and  you  want  a  high  price  if  you  sell  it.

So  if  you implement policies that send housing prices down, you could devalue the homeowners’ assets overnight. If you have policies that send prices up, the homeowners will be happy, but young couples  or  new  home  buyers  will  be  very  unhappy…

The challenge is how to get the balance right on a whole range of issues at constituency and ministry level.’

 

In her understanding of things, politics and policy-making in Singapore are all about balance. In a constituency, there is a whole range of people with diverse needs and wants – let alone  across  the  country.  As  the  leadership  in  Singapore changes, she points to the importance of the next generation of leaders upholding the hallmarks of our political leadership – leaders who are ‘honest, trustworthy, capable, care for Singaporeans and can address immediate issues and yet think and plan long term’.

 

 

In recent years, as the feminist movement in Singapore gains traction, many have pointed to the relative dearth of women in high political positions. As one of the small number of women who have achieved in political office, we ask Ms Indranee about whether women must sacrifice more to be successful in politics.  She admits that ‘For the married women, Especially those with children, there is the additional challenge of balancing family time and constituency work.’ She says there is definitely a place for women in Singapore politics.

 

 

T H E   R O A D   A H E A D

 

Meritocracy, pragmatism and a good dose of honesty form the foundation of Singapore’s political system, and the validity of this system in turn hinges upon the soundness of Singapore’s education system; whether it can ensure that students—some of whom may go on to be the nation’s leaders—will be gifted with sound moral values. Although the principles that have formed the bedrock of Singapore society have not changed significantly  over  the  past  50  years,  Ms  Indranee  pointed out  that  the  challenges  borne  by  Singapore’s  political system are fast evolving. It is critical, then, that the government makes  corresponding  adjustments  to  achieve  the  balance that it seeks.

 

   

Natural Aristocracy:

1  Term used by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to John Adams on Governance – ‘I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men.  The grounds of this are virtue and talent. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.’

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s61.html

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