We will engage in a national conversation: Heng

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the National Day Rally. (Screengrab)

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said government will engage all Singaporeans in a national conversation about how to take the country forward by "putting Singaporeans at the heart of our concerns".

In his 10-minute speech, Heng touched on the details of "Our Singapore" -- an initiative that PM Lee Hsien Loong had tasked him to do in his National Day Message a fortnight ago.

He highlighted three goals that the national conversation will seek to achieve: reaffirm what is good and still relevant, see what has changed and recalibrate accordingly and, refresh and innovate by charting new directions.

"It will be an opportunity for Singaporeans to come together, and ask: What matters most? Where do we want to go as a country, as a people?"

Drawing the example of Singapore's education, Heng cited that although the "focus on grades and achievements maintain standards, it comes at the expense of a holistic education, a happier childhood and quality time with parents".

"Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others. We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism. We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism," he said.

Heng also called for Singaporeans to take part in the national conversation as it will be as "inclusive as possible".

Meanwhile, Senior Minister of State for Education, and for Information, Communications and the Arts Lawrence Wong talked about achieving "happiness" by creating opportunities, enhancing the quality of life and building strong communities.

Wong said that it is important to build strong communities for happiness as "happiness is more important than what we earned or how educated we are". However, he noted that it was "unfortunate" how Singaporeans are feeling less connected socially.

On creating opportunities, he said the government will expand university places for Singaporeans. In this area, government will work with educational institutions to launch new degree programmes.

Wong also touched on what will be the priority of the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). He said that the ministry, which will be created effective beginning of November, will work closely with communities to strengthen traditional arts and support ground initiatives.

"Society is changing rapidly. We have to work hard to promote traditional values," he said, adding that these values include loyalty and a sense of gratitude.

Similarly, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob echoed Wong in stressing the importance of education, especially for the Malay/Muslim community.

"Many Malays have achieved success with good jobs and incomes... our community is educated, talented and capable like others," she said.

However, the community can excel further with a system of meritocracy and focused efforts, she said. Drawing the example of well-known fashion designer Ashley Isham, who is currently based in London, Halimah said that this proves that the Malay community can compete internationally.

"We have to continue dreaming big and give people hope and build an even more inclusive and remarkable society. We have to ensure that a widening income gap does not make it harder for able but poor people to do well," she said.

"We are a modern and progressive community, but we have not fulfilled our true potential," she added.

Echoing PM Lee's National Day Message where he called for an "inclusive society with a heart", Halimah stressed that the government and community must prepare to help low income families to avoid social segregation and instability.

"We are putting in more resources to strengthen our social services sector. But the government cannot walk alone in doing this," she said. "Everyone has to play a part... None of us can be a mere spectator, we are all co-creators of our common future."