This is an excerpt of a speech I made in Parliament on 5 March 2008. It explains how my values and attitudes have been shaped by my mother’s history. I must confess that it shapes my approach to policy.
First, a personal story – about 80 years ago, in fact, exactly 80 years ago, a young man on a business trip to China fell ill and passed away. That young man was my grandfather, my mum’s father. When he passed away 80 years ago, he left behind a young widow. This young widow had two children and was on the verge of delivering her third child, my mum. You can imagine the deep grief, sorrow, fear, helplessness and despair of a young widow, losing a young husband and about to deliver her third child.
And because this was 80 years ago, there was no MCYS. We only started 60 years ago. And all those schemes which we debate and quibble about were not present.
My grandfather and his two brothers ran a motorcar and, I suppose, bicycle spare parts shop in Dhoby Ghaut. Because my grandmother was a young widow, she was not going to inherit a share of the business. But, nevertheless, his two brothers continued to run the business, committed to giving an allowance and helping my grandmother bring up the children. They were not penniless, they were not roofless, but life was tough and money was tight.
My mum had a tough life. She talked about malnutrition. She talked about losing all her front teeth. She talked about getting TB (tuberculosis) as a teenager. She talked about being so skinny that when she married my father, she told my dad, “I’m probably infertile.” Of course, she was wrong. She went on to have five of us.
But this experience of childhood left an indelible imprint on my mum. For the rest of her life, she could never spend money on herself. She could never really even enjoy taking luxuries. She could definitely not accept wastage. She worked hard. She became a teacher, and I can tell you in those days, MOE was not as enlightened as it is now. I do not think she enjoyed the final few years of teaching, but she slogged through it anyway because it was a means for living. The family was middle class but we were not rich.
My uncle went on to become a doctor. He became a GP in Albert Street. Those of you who were treated by him or lived in that area will know that, I think in the first 10–15 years as a GP, he never took a single day off.
So what does all this mean and why am I sharing this? I am sharing this with Members so that they will get some idea of what my inner most feelings, values and attitudes are to poverty, to family, to social safety nets, and also to give them a better understanding of what I bring when I contemplate policies and plans in this area.
What have I learnt? First, life can be tough, life can be unfair, and life is unpredictable. And bad things can happen to good decent people, and good decent people, regardless of whether it is their fault or not, at some point in time in their lives, they will need help, deserve help, and need hope.
The second thing I have learnt from this family story is that one needs family support. Do not talk about MCYS first. The first thought is: who in your family is going to be there, to be with you at times of crisis, at times when everything looks bleak and dark? My grandmother had her two brothers-in-law, and my family has to be eternally grateful to them for supporting my grandmother.
The third lesson, a value imbibed from my mother, is that it is all about discipline and hard work. No matter how wealthy or successful we think we are, if we lose that ability for discipline and hard work, we will fail. Life for me has been, in comparison, very much easier and much blessed. But, at least, for me, I think my mum has successfully transmitted those values.
My current angst, when I talk about young people, is whether our children or our grandchildren, born in the midst of plenty, spend more time thinking about how to spend their inheritance. And sometimes even in this House, we hear debate that we are a rich country, we can spend more even if it means being wasteful. Instead of coming back to the basics that, yes, we do need safety nets, but we have to start with the family, and we have got to be self-reliant, disciplined and hardworking. Because we must remember that, at the end of the day, even when we talk about MCYS, money is important. Anyone who has been poor, directly or indirectly, will tell you money is very, very important. But money is also not enough. All the wealth in the world will not buy you happiness and success, nor will it eliminate all the social problems which we face. Those of us who do regular meet-the-people sessions, we see people coming with problems. Let me ask Members: do you really think their most fundamental problem is the lack of money? Is it a poverty of material wealth? Or is it usually a poverty of relationships? I think those of us who have been in this and lived long enough will agree that the real and bigger problem is the poverty of relationships.
So we all need families and we do need a compassionate society. And if we look around us, and we look at a child, we will know that the greatest predictor for failure is a dysfunctional family, if his parents are not there, if his parents do not care or do not know how to care, or his parents are physically in prison or because of addiction, gambling or whatever, and not there to provide that ballast and the emotional stability for the child.
But we also know that it is not just about families, because we all want a more compassionate, caring, a “softer” society. However, Singapore will fail, if our society degenerates into nothing more than a collection of successful individuals just achieving success and earning money for themselves and looking for pleasure and satisfaction for themselves. If we have no shared values, no shared ideals and no dreams, the Singapore experiment will fail, even if we have money and even if we have reserves.
One point I want to come back to in today’s debate is I want Members to remember Mr Sam Tan’s brilliant speech last week. I was not here because I was overseas with the President, but I read his speech three times. He talked about how it is not a dilemma between the young and the old. It is not even a dilemma between the rich and the poor, but between head and heart. He said that the head knows we cannot be overly generous; the head knows that we sometimes have to be cruel to be kind. And yet the heart wants the poor to be rich and the weak to be strong. And he said that it is better that now we are preparing for all these problems before they become insoluble problems; the time to do it is now.
I believe in getting all the different actors on the social stage to do what they are best at. I believe in a small, efficient, rational, even calculating Government, because that is what governments can and should do best. I believe in a social service sector, a voluntary welfare sector led by many champions, people like Ms Denise Phua, no matter how much I disagree with her on points, I will always respect people like her because they do what they believe in, and they care passionately about it.
When we say we want a more generous, compassionate, caring society, the lazy way out is to say, “We want the Government to be generous, compassionate and caring, and the Government can express that generosity, caring and compassionate by simply spending a lot of money.” Raise taxes, spend a lot of money and pretend that we have achieved a generous society that helps people who are most vulnerable.
Our model is a small, efficient Government, with low taxes, so that people like Dr Loo Choon Yong can still continue cheerfully paying his taxes, because they are actually very low than if he were to live anywhere else in the world. But more than paying low taxes, we want him and people like him to donate money, time and attention to social causes which they care about. So I was very happy when I saw his name and Mr Sim Wong Hoo’s name mentioned in the Forbes list of philanthropists.
What I am trying to spell to Members is a system in which individuals work hard, individuals look after their families, community organisations care and express the best parts of our heart, while the Government acts in the background carefully, rationally, logically and sensibly to make sure that the overall system functions. That is the context behind which I view every single policy, every single plan that my Ministry puts up.