Party Convention 2013: Speech by Khartini Khalid

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I can still recall my first meeting with my History professor whom I met while studying in America a few years ago. She is Lebanese-American and had lived through the Lebanese civil war when she was younger. Although she now lives in America, she still keeps in touch with the troubles that continue to plague Lebanon. When I told her that I was from Singapore, she grabbed my arm excitedly and said "Khartini, I have been to Singapore. It is beautiful. It is so peaceful. It is wonderful. It is......paradise."

I looked at her, rather stunned and I said "Thank you Professor, I am glad you like my country. But paradise? Really? Do you know what some of my fellow countrymen are saying about Singapore on the internet? Even when someone else praises us, there are so many negative comments that follow. They obviously do not think they live in paradise."

She looked at me again and said "My dear, nowhere is perfect. They do not know paradise because they have not been through war….and through hell. Or if they had been, it was too long ago. People forget. For now, you are lucky. I hope it lasts for your country, because in history, peace and prosperity often don't last forever!"

That conversation remains vivid in my mind today, even the way she said it. Of course, we are not perfect and indeed no paradise. But really, which country is? We often hear talk about Scandinavian countries being exemplary models for Singapore. We want to look at what Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden have done in terms of their social policies so that we can tweak ours to serve our people better. When I went to Oslo (Norway) and Stockholm (Sweden) for a short holiday recently, I thought wow, Stockholm, especially seems like Paradise. It was so beautiful and safe, there is a very long history, people are environmentally conscious, most speak English, society seems liberal and inclusive, and in Autumn, the weather was just…perfect. So I thought maybe THIS is closer to paradise. But when my bill for my meals came, and I had to pay $35 for a baked potato and a drink at a sidewalk cafe; and $7 for a train ticket for two stops, I thought….OK….maybe this is a very expensive Paradise. I told a salesgirl that I think Stockholm is perfect, except that it is expensive. She said "come back in winter, stay for two months, mostly in the cold and darkness…and tell me again if you still think it is perfect". The Scandinavian countries may on the outset seem closer to perfection, and in some ways, indeed they are - and there is plenty that we can learn from them. But we must remember that unlike us, they are blessed with natural resources. Also, it is not like they are without problems. Sweden for example has rising youth unemployment and problems on immigrant integration.

So, I believe there is no perfect place in this world. Singapore has been fortunate so far to enjoy more than 40 years of peace and progress. Will we continue to do so? And for how long more? My professor had ended her message with a sobering point. That in history, not many countries continue to enjoy long periods of growth and peace. The PAP government has done many things right in taking us from third world to first in only a few decades. We did not get here by chance but through choice and hard work.

One of the things that the PAP has done right and must continue to do is in the provision of a system that is fair and just, and one that uses education as a means to social mobility. This may sound like a cliché, but truly, that is why many lower and middle income families - including my family - have made a leap in just one generation, where you have parents in blue collar jobs and children who are PMETs.

A shining example to show that social inclusion here is not narrow and allows people with different abilities and backgrounds to succeed in life, is the transformation of the ITE. As a child, I went to a primary school which was opposite a VITB - the predecessor of the ITE. I remember how old their school building was, and how the students were sitting behind some dusty old machines wearing big goggles, doing soldering or other technical work, with songs like La Bamba blaring from a radio. My teacher used to say that if we don't study hard, that is where we will end up - across the street, behind those tables, wearing those goggles - and we will have nowhere to go after that except to jobs that will require us to do the same thing every day. While I don't think that was necessarily a good way to motivate children - by scaring us - it certainly made many of us study harder as the conditions in the VITB, which we could see every day really did not look very desirable.

The VITB is a far, far cry from the ITEs we have today. I recently participated in a mentoring programme by the US Embassy with students from ITE College Central. The ITE has a new swanky campus. The students, of different ethnic groups and mostly from low and middle income families, conducted themselves with confidence and they had big dreams - to work in banks, become media professionals, engineers and pilots. They dare to dream because the education they receive can give them a pathway to pursue those dreams. Their skills are relevant to the economy and will help integrate them into society - both economically if they choose to work, and academically if they study some more.

The system of meritocracy is important as it enables us to strive and do well for ourselves and our family. In some countries, you may not be given a fair chance if you don't have the right connections or if you are not from the favoured ethnic group. But it is not meritocracy alone that gets you to where you are in society. It is a confluence of factors. In some parts of Europe where countries are now facing severe economic troubles, qualifications will not get you very far as tens of thousands of people apply for a limited number of jobs. In Singapore, the creation of a vibrant economy and the provision of good quality education means that our citizens can integrate and contribute to the progress of the nation.

Comrades, while we continue to uphold our meritocratic system, we must not allow ourselves to get carried away and measure a person's worth only by his ability, intelligence or wealth. If we have the best schools, our system can produce the best teachers, the best doctors, the best lawyers and provide paths for them to excel. But we would be in a sad state if our teachers only want to nurture the brightest students, if our doctors only treat wealthy patients well, if our lawyers only look at how much money they can get from their next client, and if our politicians only look at what needs to be done for the sake of votes. Outcomes are important but surely they are not the only things that matter. We all need to have a collective sense of doing what is best for society. We must want to look out for one another and help fellow Singaporeans improve their lives especially those who struggle to excel or make ends meet.

Many of us know that Singaporeans are quite famous for being complainers. One of my friends taught me this line in Hokkien, he said that when Singaporeans face problems they like to "kao peh kau bu" which means "cry father, cry mother". I would add that we do not only "cry father, cry mother" but we "cry government" because a lot of times when things go wrong, people point fingers at the government and say "please, fix the problem". While such an over-reliant attitude is not healthy for our society, I would say it is in a way a "good problem" because it shows that ultimately Singaporeans still have the faith that the PAP government can solve problems and solve them well. In places where there is a total breakdown of trust, people do not even bother trying to get the government to settle issues as they know it will not happen.

The PAP government has come a long way and the road ahead is a challenging one. It must continue to be responsive to citizens' needs, and be responsible and reliable. It must balance immediate concerns with long term needs for the sake of Singapore's survival. It must be inclusive and supportive of the different aspirations of our people. I have faith that it will continue to do well with our support.

Let's give the party our support in charting its new way forward. Thank you.

This speech was delivered by Ms Khartini Khalid at Party Convention 2013 on December 8, 2013, at Kallang Theatre.

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