Averting a mid-life crisis

Averting a mid-life crisis

In two years’ time, Singapore will be 50 years old. We have progressed far as a country but we seem to be trapped in a mid-life crisis. I say this because, according to some surveys, Singaporeans are amongst the world’s wealthiest but are also the most pessimistic.



In two years’ time, Singapore will be 50 years old. We have progressed far as a country but we seem to be trapped in a mid-life crisis. I say this because, according to some surveys, Singaporeans are amongst the world’s wealthiest but are also the most pessimistic. We are now at an inflexion point of our development as a society. I dare say that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet are having a tougher time governing Singapore than Mr Lee Kuan Yew and I had. And it is not going to get easier.This is because today’s external environment is more complex, competitive and uncertain than in the past. Our region will be affected by how United States-China relations develop. The growing prominence of major emerging economies, tension in North-east Asia and whether the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) can integrate and stay relevant are only some of the major external challenges that will affect us. On the economic front, before, we could make a good living as an entrepot port and by manufacturing low-valued goods like shoes, tyres and TV sets. Now, we have to compete harder against the whole world for jobs, investments and markets.

But our domestic challenges are even greater. They include: Rising costs of living; slower economic growth; ageing population; not having enough babies; a shrinking Singaporean population from 2030; continued high reliance on foreign workers and new immigrants; a more diverse and less cohesive population; and a better educated younger generation with higher expectations of life.

How should we as a Government and people respond to these challenges and avert a mid-life crisis?

Simply put, we need to write a new and inspiring chapter of the Singapore Story. Some policies and programmes that had served us well in the past need updating, or maybe even an overhaul, to ensure that they continue to serve their intended purposes. A new social compact between the people and the government will also have to be forged. Otherwise, I fear that Singapore will begin to go downhill.


The Government has already begun reviewing and improving policies on issues that cause the most anxiety to Singaporeans. I shall single out a few key areas.

First, jobs. This is most crucial for Singaporeans. The Government is trying to ensure that growth is inclusive, and the workplace progressive; this means ensuring that Singaporeans have access to good jobs. To help low-wage workers, the Government has widened the coverage of Workfare this year. As we restructure our economy to be less reliant on foreign workers and to ensure sustainable growth, the Government has promised to find ways to help affected workers, including PMETs, as well as the SMEs. In particular, we have to continue trying to raise the wages of the lower income workers.

Second, it is good that the Government has pledged to make HDB flats affordable. I consider this as a very big commitment of the Government. It will go a long way to help young Singaporeans plan for the future and start a family.

The third area is in the affordability of health care. The Government is trying to lessen our anxiety over medical costs as we grow old. Medical costs are indeed a burden, not just for the old but for their children as well. Many Singaporeans dread the prospect of being stricken by serious, chronic illnesses, even if they lead healthy lifestyles.

While the future old will have more Medisave and insurance to help pay for their medical needs, the current old — the pioneer generation that built the country — are less able to cope. I am glad that the Ministry of Health is conducting a comprehensive review of the healthcare financing and delivery framework.

These are all reflected in the themes that arose from the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) process. I am sure that PM will provide an update and lay out plans for these and other areas next week, during his National Day Rally. I hope that Singaporeans will deliberate on the changes to be implemented, and support the Government’s agenda to chart a new and exciting course for the country.


For me, the Government is like an architect designing and building a common house for all Singaporeans. But a house is only a physical structure and, as we all know, a house is not a home. Singaporeans look to the Government to build this home, when in fact the Government cannot build it alone.

The reason is simple. A home is about relationships, love, warmth, care and security between the occupants. We as individuals will have to build this home along with the Government.

Politics is more pluralistic in Singapore today. People want more freedom to choose their lifestyles, and to have a say on policies and influence decisions in their favour. This is not wrong and we see this in every family too. The question is: How do we align our common interests while having different opinions; how do we express our differences without impairing the progress of home-building; how do we stay united as a family in the same home while retaining our individualism?

Both the Government and citizens have to play their part. It is good that the Government is changing its approach in governance. To solve problems in a practical, ruthlessly efficient bureaucratic way is not enough anymore. The Government must also win the hearts of the people. It has to look at problems from the people’s perspective, and help them in a fair and realistic way, even while it keeps an eye on the big picture and continues to govern in the collective interest.

Citizens are entitled and, indeed, encouraged to give their views and suggest improvements where the Government can do better. But we must not pile unrealistic demands on the Government. It is not in the country’s long-term interests if the Government does not have the time and political space to plan and think strategically and long term for Singapore.

Singapore had managed to do well in the first few decades of our independence primarily because of our ability to think ahead, and put in place long-term policies that benefitted the country, even when it meant some short-term pain. We must not lose this edge, especially at a time when the world around us is changing rapidly. We will all be worse off if the Government of the day is chased from pillar to post, forced to apply band-aid solutions to complex problems or to flip-flop policies to stave off populist pressures.


I also hope that Singaporeans will become more resilient and self-reliant, even as the Government does more to share their burdens. As a people, we need to develop these traits to meet unexpected challenges or shocks.

Recently, our Marine Parade Town Council officials told me that one woman insisted that they go to her house to kill two cockroaches. She claimed that the cockroaches came from the rubbish chute and it was therefore the town council’s responsibility to deal with them! This is hardly the resilience we are advocating.

When I was in my early 20s, I was struck by the phrase “rugged society” which then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sought to build. We must not lose the drive, self-reliance and ruggedness of our parents and first-generation leaders. Given our more complex environment, we must recapture that ruggedness and positive, can-do attitude.

This is fundamental. As a country, no one owes us the right to exist and to prosper. We should ask ourselves: What services and products can we produce that other countries, with more educated and hungrier workers cannot? Increasingly, our workers will be competing against robots and software that can do the jobs humans used to do, and much better, faster and cheaper.

The Government can provide a conducive environment to educate our young, train our workers, and help prepare Singaporeans for the rough world outside. But it cannot guarantee success or ensure a comfortable, sheltered life for individuals. For individuals to succeed, they must help themselves, making full use of the conducive environment which the Government has created.

The world will leave behind those who become complacent. If we as individuals do not face reality squarely and make the effort to do better ourselves, we risk becoming like the proverbial frog in water being boiled, slowly “cooked” by an increasingly competitive environment.

To build our common home together, we need to reinforce our trust in each other and focus on challenges to our collective interests.

The Government is doing its best to meet the hopes and aspirations of Singaporeans, while addressing their fears and anxieties. But Singaporeans must also support the Government in areas that will ensure Singapore’s long-term success, even if it involves certain sacrifices sometimes.

As a country, we must not get stuck in a mid-life crisis. Instead, we should seek to recapture that ruggedness, can-do spirit and sense of purpose which united our society. We must dare make fundamental changes to deal with the new global and domestic challenges. When we do that and when the hearts of government, community and individuals beat as one, we can move mountains.


Goh Chok Tong is Emeritus Senior Minister of Singapore. This is excerpted from a speech delivered at the Marine Parade National Day Dinner last night.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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