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    Jan 26, 2016

    Ong: Not wise to just go by the book

    THERE can be more room for the Government to exercise judgment and discretion because the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules, Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

    Mr Ong, in his maiden speech in Parliament, talked about three aspects of governance which may have to evolve because of changing domestic and external circumstances.

    One aspect that has to evolve, he said, is the need for "wiser minds" - or judgment and discretion - when making decisions.

    The society now tends to excessively view issues in numerical terms - whether it is scores or rankings - noted Mr Ong, who is MP for Sembawang GRC.

    "We allocate school places by PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) T-scores and aggregate scores, and award tenders by (the) lowest bid if we are buying - or highest bid if we are selling," he said.

    The Government used to operate "law by law" or by the book, he noted. While certainty of rules and consistency in application were critical in the early days of nation building, domestic as well as external circumstances are different now.

    In fact, there has been a greater exercise in judgment in some cases, Mr Ong noted.

    Social assistance schemes are means-tested with criteria, but on the ground, many qualitative assessments and judgments take place, he pointed out. "Who is to say a person earning $2,500 but supporting two handicapped parents is less deserving of help than someone living alone earning $1,500?"

    Similar, in many public tenders now, price is no longer the only consideration.

    But he stressed that exercising human judgment does not mean "we simply use our gut, or to bend rules willy-nilly".

    Good judgment is exercised through training, years of experience and assumption of responsibility, he said.

    "This is far more difficult - but far superior - than simply sticking to rules and numbers."

    In his speech, Mr Ong also talked about two other aspects of governance which may have to evolve: the need to have "faster legs" - how Singapore makes a living; and stronger hearts - strengthening Singapore's national identity.

    On the economic front, China's economic transition will have a major impact even though the United States, Europe and Japan continue to be major players with important investments in Singapore.

    A major change is how the Chinese economy will move up the value-added ladder.

    Singapore must look at China as a consumer base it can tap into, and Singaporeans must be able to seek fortunes overseas.

    India and Africa's continued rise will also have global impact, he noted.

    On building Singapore's national identity, he said it is critical that Singaporeans continue to make great effort in living together, side by side, to understand and appreciate each other and build larger common spaces.

    Singapore should take pride in and preserve its heritage but also modernise them, he said, citing the National Gallery and the Botanic Gardens as examples.

    Noting that nation building is "evolutionary", he said: "Sometimes what we need are not billion-dollar schemes but new survival traits to adapt to a more complex and competitive world."