Opening Address by Minister Lawrence Wong at the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum
Jul 12, 2019
A very warm welcome once again to the 10th World Cities Summit Mayors Forum.
Once again, I would like to thank Mayor Federico and the city of Medellίn, for their lovely reception last night, the warm hospitality and excellent arrangements.
High Trust City
The theme of this year’s forum is “Building a High Trust City”. I think it is a theme that is particularly relevant for our times. Around the world, people are facing greater anxieties as they have to grapple with the impact of globalisation and technological advances.
If you look at international surveys, trust in major institutions – be it in the Government, in business, in media, or even in NGOs – trust is declining. These are common challenges that all of us face.
Through this Forum, we hope we can learn and benefit from one another’s experiences as well as best practices.
What does it take to build a high trust city? I do not claim to have the answers, but let me offer some perspectives so that it can set the stage for our subsequent discussion.
Justice and the rule of law
First, at the basic level, justice is key in upholding public trust. This means that everyone must be treated equally and subject to the same laws. If the well-connected are able to get access to special favours outside of the law, then trust will be eroded. If justice tilts toward the rich and the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable, then trust will be completely undermined.
City authorities and government officials must be able to administer justice impartially, without fear or favour. This is fundamental – without the rule of law, there is no accountability, no security, and no basis upon which to build trust.
Second, there must be a sense of fairness in society, where people feel that everyone can share in the fruits of progress, and it is not just for a privileged few.
We need good governance and good policies to achieve this. One way is through the provision of basic public services that are affordable and accessible by everyone. These services would include sanitation, water, education, public transport, healthcare and the list goes on.
In Singapore we have also treated housing as a basic public service. That is why more than 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing today.
As our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to say, housing is important because it is about a sense of equity, where every family has a home that they own, and everyone owns a part of the city. They have a stake in the nation.
Another area is in the provision of opportunities for people to progress and excel. Traditionally, governments have looked at investments in education to achieve this. But increasingly, we recognise that investments in basic education, particularly in the schooling years, are not enough, especially in a world of rapid economic changes.
Even in Singapore, we are now investing more in education, but not just in education through the schooling years but in two different areas. One, in preschool education, we are starting very early for childcare going on to kindergarten and preschool in order to give every child a good start in life. Secondly, also in continuing education – beyond university and tertiary education – because skills are changing so rapidly in the workplace. Whatever you learn today will be obsolete in a few years’ time, so we are providing adults with skills training – especially for older and vulnerable workers – so that they can remain relevant in the workplace.
Even with these investments, we will not be able to equalise outcomes completely. But at the very least, we try our best to give every child a good start in life and give every worker the best possible chance to excel and fulfil his or her potential.
Thirdly, the importance of partnerships in building trust together. When we talked earlier about the issue of providing affordable and reliable public services, it raises the question of what is the right balance between the private and public sectors. And of course, the age-old question is, should we nationalise or should we privatise?
In thinking about this, we all recognise that sentiments shift over time. In the 80s’, the fashion was all about privatisation. Today, the mood has shifted more towards public provision. But in many ways, this debate about nationalisation versus privatisation is not a very healthy one.
It presents somewhat of a false dichotomy. If you think harder about this, very few public services today are done entirely by public servants anyway. Even in Singapore when we talk about public housing, it is managed by the government but the bulk of the work are done by private architects, private engineers and private contractors.
In reality, we are dealing with hybrid models; hybrid partnership models – public and private elements in all public services. We need to think harder about how to combine both elements effectively, in more effective partnerships, where we can maximise the benefits of private enterprise and innovation, and at the same time, regulate effectively to protect public interest.
For example, with big data and smart cities, regulation increasingly is not about the usual areas of price controls or quality. We also now need to think about rules on data, on data privacy, and how it is being governed and used. So regulations have to stay on top of the game, and get updated in order for us to continue to have effective public and private partnerships.
Fourth, when we talk about trust, I think we cannot run away from the issue of leadership.
Many of us here are elected officials. So we are very mindful that the mandate to lead comes from our people. We are not here to lord over our people, but to serve them. So this is really about servant leadership, and I’m sure there are many examples of good servant leadership in this room. I will cite two from our two laureate cities of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.
Mayor Federico next to me, is truly a mayor of the people. If you had walked with us in Commune 13 just now, you would have seen many examples of how close he is with the people, and as he himself puts it – he leads with the people, and for the people.
Mayor Park, from Seoul, is also a people’s mayor. He has the track record of being the longest serving Mayor of Seoul, and having citizen engagement is second nature to him. Citizen engagement has now become integral to the decision making and planning processes in Seoul, through his leadership. So we hope to hear from you, examples of leadership that can help build trust in our cities.
Of course, in exercising leadership, there are also sometimes difficult decisions to make – especially if you think beyond just one term of government, and if you think beyond the campaign. It is easy to make promises; it is not so easy to deliver them. But we all know that broken promises are one way in which trust gets eroded.
For example, it is always tempting to give more subsidies. It is always tempting to make things free in order to keep services affordable. But will this be sustainable in the longer term? Will this mean a bigger burden for future generations?
Or take the issue of tackling climate change – any strategy to tackle climate change will have to include cuts in fossil fuel subsidies, or some form of carbon tax, which could raise the cost of electricity for people. It may not be popular in the short term, but in the long term, it is surely the responsible thing to do, and that is something that will help tackle the issue of climate change.
Thinking about leadership issues requires us to think deeply about what is not only popular and politically positive, but also what is responsible and the right thing to do for the longer term. Not everything can be achieved within one term of government, but consistent action that delivers results over a period of time can build credibility and trust in society over the longer term.
Trust among people
Finally, I have spoken a lot about examples of trust between Government and the people. But there is also trust between people themselves, and that is about building social capital and social trust. That is also not something that can be done overnight – it requires long term effort.
Countries with longer histories and a stronger sense of shared experience will probably find it easier to build social capital. But societies like Singapore, where we have shorter histories and more diverse, multi-racial, multi-cultural populations, will have a more challenging time. But all of us will have to think hard about what are the ways in which we can build social capital and social trust amongst our people.
The design of the urban environment can be useful in this respect. For example, in Singapore, our public housing estates are designed with lots of green and open spaces, so that everyone can have access to them. We have community amenities designed within close proximity of homes, so that people can access them conveniently, and people from different backgrounds can come together, and interact with one another.
In all our public housing estates, we try very hard to avoid segregation by race or income. So neighbours from different backgrounds, regardless of race or income, live together side by side, their children play together in the same playgrounds, and go to the same schools together. Through that interaction, it builds stronger community bonds, and it can help to build trust.
In summary, to achieve a high trust city, I think we need several ingredients. We need to build a fair and just society, we need effective partnerships, and we need good leadership.
I have provided some ideas on how we can go about thinking about building a high trust city. I certainly look forward to your suggestions and your comments and inputs, and the sharing from the different cities.
On that note, I wish everyone here a fruitful and productive forum. Thank you.