Saturday, 19 May 2012

Leaders who pander

May 19, 2012
By David Brooks

THE people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn't be ruined by their own frailties.

The American founders did this by decentralising power. They built checks and balances to frustrate and detain the popular will. They also dispersed power to encourage active citizenship, hoping that as people became more involved in local government, they would develop a sense of restraint and responsibility.

In Europe, by contrast, authority was centralised. Power was held by small coteries of administrators and statesmen, many of whom had attended the same elite academies where they were supposed to learn the art and responsibilities of stewardship.

Under the parliamentary system, voters didn't even get to elect their leaders directly. They voted for parties, and party elders selected the ones who would actually form the government, often through secret means.

Although the forms were different, the democracies in Europe and the US were based on a similar carefully balanced view of human nature: People are naturally selfish and need watching. But democratic self-government is possible because we're smart enough to design structures to police that selfishness.

James Madison put it well: 'As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.'

But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mindset of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.

Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs. Like any normal set of human beings, they command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.

The consequences of this shift are now obvious. In Europe and America, governments have made promises they can't afford to fulfil. At the same time, the decision-making machinery is breaking down. US and European capitals still have the structures inherited from the past but without the self-restraining ethos that made them function.

The US decentralised system of checks and balances has transmogrified into a fragmented system that scatters responsibility. Congress is capable of passing laws that give people benefits with borrowed money, but it gridlocks when it tries to impose self- restraint.

The Obama campaign issues its famous 'Julia' ad, which perfectly embodies the vision of government as a national Sugar Daddy, delivering free money and goodies up and down the life cycle. The Citizens United case gives well-financed interests tremendous power to preserve or acquire tax breaks and regulatory deals. US senior citizens receive health benefits that cost many times more than the contributions they put into the system.

In Europe, workers want great lifestyles without long work hours. They want dynamic capitalism but also personal security. European welfare states go broke trying to deliver these impossibilities. The European ruling classes once had their power checked through daily contact with the tumble of national politics.

But now those ruling classes have built a technocratic apparatus, the European Union, operating far above popular scrutiny. Decisions that reshape the destinies of families and nations are being made at some mysterious, transnational level. Few Europeans can tell who is making decisions or who is to blame if they go wrong, so, of course, they feel powerless and distrustful.

Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. It became madness to restrain your own desires because surely your rivals over yonder would not be restraining theirs.

This is one of the reasons why Europe and the US are facing debt crises and political dysfunction at the same time. People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is nonexistent and they take self-government for granted.

Neither the US nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionise our impulses.


Monday, 14 May 2012

The best place in the world to be creative


Why would an international best-selling writer on creativity live here? Because while New York may call itself 'the capital of the world', Singapore is the world

by Fredrik Haren

May 14, 2012

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked: "As an author of creativity books, how on earth can you live in Singapore?"

And when I reply, "Because I think it is the best place in the world to live for a creative person", most people think I am kidding and everyone asks me to explain.

But no, I am not kidding. And yes, let me explain.

I moved to Beijing from my native Sweden in 2005 because I wanted to be in Asia when Asian countries truly started to embrace creativity.

The defining moment for me was when Hu Jintao gave a speech to the Chinese people in which he said that "China should be an innovative country 15 years from now".

Since I write books on business creativity, I just had to move to Asia and see this shift happen.

After two years in Beijing, I learnt two things: Firstly, I wanted to leave Beijing, which is a fascinating city, but has too much traffic, too much pollution and too little water for a Swede brought up in the Stockholm archipelago; and secondly, I wanted to remain in Asia.

So I went on a grand journey. While doing research for my book The Developing World, I constantly travelled over a period of more than 10 months.

I went to 20 developing countries and when I came to each new city that I thought had potential to become my new home, I made sure my schedule allowed me to stay a few extra days to get a feel of life there.

I spent two weeks each in Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Istanbul and Singapore.

Then I made a list of positives and negatives about each city. Obviously, Singapore won in the end.


Why? Well, for many reasons.

Such as quality of life - I now drink as much fresh mango juices in Singapore as I did beers in Beijing, weather (no, I do not mind the heat; I love it), security (I love countries where there is a good chance you will get your iPhone back if you left it behind in a restaurant) and convenience (like the fact that Changi Airport has extensive connections to the world, since my work involves a lot of travelling to different countries on a frequent basis).

Those are the usual reasons that attract most people to Singapore.

But the main reason I live in Singapore is because this city-state, to me, is the one place on earth where it is the easiest to have a globally-creative mindset.

Some people say Singapore is "Asia for beginners". I do not agree. I think Singapore is "globalisation for beginners", or rather, "globalisation for early adopters".

With a diverse mix of races, religions and nationalities, Singapore not only represents the cross-section of the world, it is also a time capsule of what the world will look like in the future.

And I love that.

New York may call itself 'the capital of the world' but Singapore is the world. Unlike New York, which is a global city in the United States, Singapore is a global city - a global city-state. Singapore is a city in the world, not a city in a country in the world.

And this makes it easier to have a global outlook here since nationalistic barriers do not block the view as much.

[Interesting perspective of a City in the World, as opposed to a City in a Country in the World. At the same time, it would seem to present a vulnerability of Singapore to the World, as it meshes directly with the world, with no intermediating "country" or hinterland to act as a shock absorber. The world impacts us directly.]


A positive side-effect of this is that Singapore is one of the least racist countries in the world.

Now, that does not mean that there is no racism in Singapore, but I have worked in more than 40 countries, and I have never experienced less racism than I do in Singapore.

That is important to me. Not only because we are a mixed-race family - I am from Sweden, my wife from the Philippines and my son a happy mix of Stockholm, Manila and Singapore.

As an European, I am ashamed and disappointed when European leaders recently proclaim that "the multi-cultural society does not work". I just wish they would come to Singapore.

To live in a place that is celebrating "Western New Year" and "Chinese New Year" is not only twice as fun, it also gives you the feeling that there is more than one way of doing things.

On a recent New Year's Eve party, we realised our group consisted of 10 people with 10 different passports.

A friend told me how they had had an after-work beer at his company and 14 people - from 14 different countries - showed up.

At our wedding, we had 40 guests from eight countries, comprising at least four religions and four races, and, at the time, no one was counting.

It all just felt as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The point, of course, is that it is not the most natural thing in the world. Unfortunately, in most places in the world, it would be rare, strange and exotic to have such a natural mix of backgrounds.

For people living in Singapore, it is so natural you do not grasp how unnaturally natural it is, and how valuable.


Now, do not get me wrong. I am not saying that knowledge of your own culture and background is not important. It is.

It is often said that a person without roots is fickle, doesn't know how to connect to who he is and can be easily manipulated, because there are no basic values keeping him grounded. Roots are important.

But if one is going to use a metaphor (in this case, of likening a human being to a tree), one has to use the whole metaphor. Because it is equally true that a tree without branches also perishes.

A tree that does not spread its branches out in all directions to gather as much sunlight and energy as possible might have deep and strong roots, but it will eventually still wither and die.

In other words, to be rootless is dangerous, but so is being branchless.

And if your own culture is the roots, the cultures of the rest of the world is the energy that your branches need to reach out to, so that you can get new ideas and ways of doing things by learning from others, be inspired to try new foods, acquire new habits and try new customs.

It will make you curious of other ways of doing things, be inspired by different ideas and energised by alternate points of views. And that is what creates creativity.

And nowhere in the world is it easier to let your branches spread out than in Singapore.

Want some exposure to American influence? Watch American Idol the day after it airs in the US.

What about a dose of Indian culture? Join in the Deepavali celebrations together with thousands of Indians in Little India.

Want to practice your Chinese language? Go and order frog in Geylang.


The Icelandic Vikings, who lived a thousand years ago, had a word for people who never left their farms on Iceland and never ventured outside. The word was heimskur. It means moron.

As they saw it, a person who did not open up to the world to find new ideas from other cultures was a moron. I think the Vikings would have loved Singapore. I sure know that I do. It is the one place with the fewest heimskurs that I have found .

Too many people limit their potential, their creativity - and in the end - their lives, because they are not embracing the whole human spectrum of creativity.

They are not taking full advantage of the potential of the world, because they are not living in the world. They are stuck in their own corner, looking inwards, seeing whatever that is different as "foreign".

And I think that answers the question of why I am living in Singapore - because Singapore makes me more human by making me more a part of the world, a part of humanity. And by being part of the world, I have a bigger chance to be inspired and have new ideas.

Ideas that will benefit us all.

Fredrik Haren, an author and speaker on business creativity, has lived in Asia since 2005, and has been in Singapore since 2008. His work The Idea Book has been included in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. This article appears in the Singapore International Foundation's book aimed at bridging communities, Singapore Insights from the Inside.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Why a US columnist is rooting for Singapore

May 12, 2012

Can Singapore's one-party governance system adapt to the stresses of globalisation and rising electoral pressures?

By Matt Miller

SINGAPOREANS couldn't believe their ears.

'I'm sorry,' said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong just days before the elections a year ago this week that dealt the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) its worst setback in the five decades since the island city-state became independent.

'If we didn't get it right, I'm sorry,' Mr Lee said. 'But we will try better the next time.'

The unprecedented public apology may well have saved the PAP from a debacle. But the 'new normal' ushered in by that vote (as well as a later vote for the more symbolic presidency, in which the PAP's choice won by just a few thousand votes) has upended politics in Singapore.

While the PAP lost just six of 87 seats in its unicameral Parliament, the party won only 60 per cent of the vote and some key ministers were sent packing.

One year on, it's clear that public discontent has opened a new chapter in Singapore's development that deserves the world's attention.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Mind the baby gap

May 7, 2012

By Steven Philip Kramer

FOR most of human history, high birth rates and high mortality rates have tended to balance each other out.

That began to change in the 19th century, when better sanitation and nutrition extended life spans. The world's population surged from about one billion in 1800 to seven billion today.

Although overpopulation plagues much of the developing world, many developed societies now suffer from the opposite problem: Birth rates have become so low that each generation is smaller than the previous one.

Much of southern and eastern Europe, as well as Austria, Germany, Russia and the developed nations of South-east Asia, have alarmingly low fertility rates, with women having, on average, fewer than 1.5 children each.

For example, the total fertility rate (TFR) is 1.6 in Russia, 1.4 in Poland and 1.2 in South Korea. In the United States, it is 2.05, which is about the replacement level.

At the same time as women are having fewer children in developed countries, life expectancies there have reached record highs. As a result, the dependency ratio - the ratio of the working population to the non-working population - has become increasingly unfavourable, and it is projected to get even worse.

In many countries, the age distribution will someday resemble that of an inverted pyramid, with a bulge of the elderly perched precariously on a narrow base of the young.

With fewer working-age people to tax, governments will have to choose from among several unpleasant options: cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, or hiking taxes. To make matters worse, economic growth will get harder to achieve as workers age and their ranks dwindle; ageing societies will have a tough time succeeding in an era of rapid technological change, which requires flexible employees.

Low birth rates threaten not only the viability of the developed world's welfare states but also developed countries' very survival. In many parts of Europe and Asia, depopulation is a real possibility.

Countries there are at risk of falling into what demographers call 'the low fertility trap', a vicious circle whereby fewer and fewer women have fewer and fewer children, leading to an accelerating spiral of depopulation.

In some countries, such as Austria and Germany, it may already be too late: Surveys show that women there desire an average of only 1.7 children, well below the level needed to keep these countries' populations from shrinking, and they actually have an average of about 1.3 children.

A subculture of childlessness has already developed in these countries; many people choose to have no children at all.

Low birth rates are also changing the world's population balance, with poorer countries dwarfing richer ones.

The population of Pakistan, to name just one developing country, rose from around 50 million in 1960 to about 190 million today, whereas the French population grew from about 45 million to 65 million in the same period.

It is not hard to imagine a future in which advanced countries resemble small islands in a Third World sea. At some point, the population gap between the rich and the poor could grow so large that some developed countries will have to accept massive inflows of immigrants to meet their economies' labour needs. But that much immigration would likely prove politically unpalatable.

Population decline poses a grave danger to the developed world. Yet there is nothing inevitable about it.

History shows that governments can raise birth rates close to replacement levels - if only they adopt the right pronatalist policies. This means making available high-quality and affordable child care, offering families financial support and supporting mothers who pursue careers.

Making motherhood work

IF DEVELOPED countries with low birth rates want to raise them, they should look at what has worked for others in the past. Countries that have not addressed gender inequality or provided adequate social services, such as Italy and Japan, have failed to nudge up their birth rates.

But other countries, such as France and Sweden, have crafted thoughtful, comprehensive and consistent policy responses that have largely reversed their declining birth rates over the long run.

France was the first country to experience a declining birth rate in the 19th century. Small landowners there chose to have fewer children so as to avoid dividing their farms among too many of them, and people in the middle class wanted to encourage social mobility by investing their resources in just a few children.

As the country's population growth slowed, the French became concerned about the national security implications.

France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 transformed the country's low birth rate into a political issue, since its arch-enemy, Germany, was experiencing rapid population expansion.

The French and German populations were about equal in 1871; by 1914, the German figure was about 50 per cent larger. Yet because it espoused limited government, then-France did not take meaningful steps towards a pronatalist policy until the very eve of World War II.

In 1939, Paris passed the Code de la Famille which provided financial support to parents.

After World War II, French leaders blamed the country's defeat in 1940 on its stagnating demographic, economic and social development. If France was to regain the status to which President Charles de Gaulle and other leaders aspired, it needed a new dynamism: more social justice, a stronger economy and faster population growth.

So France tried to plan itself out of industrial underdevelopment and demographic decay and it did so through, above all, a generous programme of financial support for families with children.

Birth rates there rose to well over the replacement level.

These postwar policies were aimed at strengthening the 'traditional' family. But by the late 1960s, that model was falling out of favour. The baby boom was ending. Women were joining the workforce in increasing numbers, and French economic development required their participation. Instead of viewing women's careers as a threat to birth rates, pronatalists began to advocate reconciling work and family.

That approach had worked in Sweden, another country that suffered from extremely low birth rates in the 1930s.

When the Swedish Social Democrats came to power at the height of the Great Depression, one of their economic strategists was Mr Gunnar Myrdal, who in 1934 wrote a best-selling book with his wife, Alva, on the population crisis.

The Myrdals argued that if Sweden was to boost its low birth rate, women had to be able to raise children and have careers, a revolutionary idea at the time.

Because children were a crucial investment for society but an economic burden for individual families, the argument ran, the government needed to redistribute wealth from households with few or no children to those with many.

It had to eliminate the obstacles - such as the sheer cost of raising children - that prevented ordinary people from following their wishes to marry and procreate. Unlike conservative pronatalists, the Myrdals supported the right to contraception. It was good that families should want children, but they should have only the children they wanted.

Today, France and Sweden both devote approximately 4 per cent of their gross domestic products to supporting families.

The Swedish model provides new parents with over one year of paid leave based on their salaries, which can be divided between the father and the mother.

Most Swedes send their children to the renowned public preschool system. Women have the right to return to their jobs after maternity leave on a full-time or part-time basis.

The French system, for its part, offers mothers more financial incentives and focuses less on early child care. But France does provide an outstanding free preschool (ecole maternelle), which most children attend after age three and which is run by the Ministry of Education.

Both the French and the Swedish systems eliminate much of the financial burden on parents and, above all, the stress of struggling to balance work and family. As a result, both countries enjoy healthy birth rates: near replacement level in France and slightly below replacement level in Sweden.

Gone babies gone

UNLIKE France and Sweden, other countries trying to promote childbirth have adopted ineffective policies, have instituted no policies at all, or have succumbed to cultural impediments.

In Italy, the problem was a sluggish state that did not even try to challenge norms about childbearing. The Italian birth rate fell below the replacement level in the 1970s, but only in the 1990s did Rome recognise the extent of the problem, when the underdeveloped welfare state was already stretched to capacity. So the country essentially did nothing.

Many other factors have kept Italy from adopting effective policies. The powerful Catholic Church, which supports the traditional model of stay-at-home motherhood, looks askance at increasing social services that enable women to reconcile work and family.

Young people, who have a hard time finding jobs and rental housing, tend to live with their parents into their 30s, and so they put off starting families.

The legacy of fascist Italy's heavy-handed pronatalist policies - Benito Mussolini even instituted a tax on celibate men in 1926 - has created a taboo against state involvement in family affairs (or at least an excuse for inaction). Italy's broken bureaucracies, stalemated political system and chronic financial problems have all got in the way too.

The results are ominous. By last year, Italy's TFR had dropped to 1.42. As the demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci predicted in 2001, 'the current fertility rate implies the halving of the Italian population every 40 years. Thirty years from now, women over 80 would be more numerous than girls under puberty, and those over 70 would exceed those below 30'.

Like Italy, Japan faces a population implosion, with its TFR at 1.21. The Japanese are ageing at an alarming rate.

Demographers predict that by 2014, 25 per cent of the population will be older than 65, and by 2050, that proportion will have jumped to nearly 38 per cent. Since 2005, when the country counted 128 million inhabitants, Japan's absolute population has been declining; by 2050, it could fall to about 100 million.

And unlike in Italy, there is almost no immigration to speak of.

The Japanese government has pursued policies aimed at increasing the birth rate, but these have been too half-hearted. Employers are part of the problem, forcing women to choose between family and career. Women who have children are often unable to return to professional-level jobs, and businesses resist reducing long working hours.

Although there are many laws on the books that purport to remedy this situation - for example, the 1994 Angel Plan, the 1995 Child Care and Family Care Leave Act and the 1999 New Angel Plan - they often go unenforced. And so more women marry later (or never) and the married ones are having fewer children.

Demographics and destiny

IN ITALY and Japan, politicians evince a kind of pervasive fatalism about their population declines. Part of the reason is that these are still wealthy societies and the effects of their falling birth rates have yet to be really felt.

By its very nature, population decline is incremental, so there never really is a population crisis.

And without a crisis, politicians relegate the issue to the back burner.

Policymakers in these countries also fail to act because they hold misguided views about population. Some still fear overpopulation or argue that lower population numbers will help preserve the environment. (That they would admittedly do, but environmental degradation is a lesser threat than depopulation.)

Others insist that the government cannot and should not intervene in a domain regarded as private. Still others incorrectly assume that the problem will take care of itself; many of the countries affected by falling birth rates, such as Spain, enjoyed high birth rates until recently (in some cases, they had instituted programmes to reduce fertility) and do not recognise that their birth rates will probably not rebound from their current low levels without help.

But demographics are not self-regulating, and successful population policies require governments to make long-term investments in encouraging childbirth.

This means a great deal of financial support, even in times of austerity; when it comes to population policies, there is no such thing as short-term success. In order to bear fruit, the policies must be consistent and predictable, so they have to be based on broad national consensus.

Gender equality is also an important ingredient, as are carefully managed immigration and the acceptance of non-traditional family structures, such as unmarried cohabitation. After all, the countries most committed to the traditional family, such as Germany, Italy and Japan, have the lowest birth rates.

Countries with high birth rates, in contrast, usually also have large numbers of children born out of wedlock.

These babies are born not primarily to teenagers but largely to women in their late 20s and 30s, many of whom are in committed relationships.

Governments trying to institute pro-natalist policies will face an uphill battle. In the past, such policies were closely related to the rise of the welfare state, which came into being at a time of sustained economic growth in the developed world.

But the welfare state in the West has been embattled for a long time, threatened by neoliberal economic thinking, the rise of cheap foreign labour, growing inequality and the recent global economic crisis. Meanwhile, young people are having a harder time finding steady, well-paying jobs. They are likely to postpone beginning families, or never have any children.

Public policy can narrow the gap between the number of children women say they want and the number they actually have. But the right kind of programmes, such as those in France and Sweden, are expensive, and they may clash with vested interests and anger supporters of the traditional family - which is why many developed societies have done nothing or have employed useless half-measures.

Countries that fail to take low birth rates seriously do so at their own peril.

Time matters. If they wait too long and get caught in the low fertility trap, they could find themselves in an uncharted era of depopulation that will be eerily different from anything before.

And escaping that scenario will be difficult, if not impossible.

The writer is professor of grand strategy at the United States' National Defence University's Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Monday, 7 May 2012

One Year On... Two views

[One year on... an assessment.]

GE 2011: One year later
Yahoo News,
7 May 2012

By P N Balji

The quick backstory of what Singaporeans have seen since the results of the 7 May 2011 general elections shows a People's Action Party government correcting policy mistakes that got voters so worked up that they brought the ruling party's share of vote to a historic low of  60.1 per cent and threw out two ministers and a senior minister of state from a group representation constituency (GRC).

Some unpopular ministers left the Cabinet, and hot-button issues like transport, immigration and housing are now being tackled with some urgency and eagerness.The phrase  "inclusive growth" keeps cropping up in politicians' speeches and interviews.

The S'pore takeaway for Uncle Sam

May 5, 2012

By Matt Miller

IF YOU'VE spent much time enduring the hassles, filth and indignities of Los Angeles International Airport, Dulles International Airport in Washington and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Singapore's Changi Airport is a revelation. As former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew decreed, you get from the gate to a taxi in 15 minutes. The men's room is sleek and immaculate, and even asks you to rate your experience (and thus the attendant) via a handy touchscreen ranking as you leave.

As close readers of this column will have noticed, I've been a gushing fan of Singapore's public policy achievements since I began looking at them a few years back. Singapore spends 4 per cent of gross domestic product on health care versus America's 17 per cent, yet it delivers equal or better health outcomes. It's at the top of global school rankings because (unlike us) it routinely recruits exemplary students into the teaching profession. Yes, I know, Singapore still denies press and assembly freedoms we take for granted, and has awful anti-gay laws on the books (which I'm told go unenforced). But a few days spent talking with officials, business people, students and government critics in the city-state that now boasts one of the world's highest per capita incomes have deepened my admiration for Singapore's accomplishments.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Staying open has served S'pore well

May 4, 2012

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about Europe's troubled economies in his May Day Rally address on Tuesday, and stressed the need for Singapore to remain open to talent
IN EUROPE, many countries are in trouble. Why? Because welfarism has failed. The idea that the government will provide everything has not worked. Workers have too little incentive to make the effort. Their jobs are protected - which means it's very hard to discipline the workers, very hard to let the workers go when conditions change, very hard to drop the workers when they are not putting in the effort.

So the employers think: 'It's so hard to let the workers go, I'd better be very careful before I take the workers on.'

So the employers are reluctant to hire, fewer jobs are created. The population is ageing. Their pensions are paid by the state. It's a very heavy burden on the state, becoming unaffordable.

You take just one example: In Italy, the amount which the Italian government spends on pensions in one year is almost equal in percentage of gross domestic product to the amount the Singapore Government spends in the Budget every year for everything: education, health care, defence, housing, transport. Add them all up together, it's 58 per cent of GDP, same as what is spent on pensions in Italy.

You can't afford this. The countries have too much debt, investors no longer are willing to lend them their money and so they are in crisis. The stagnation is going to last, unemployment is well above 10 per cent - for young people, much worse. In Spain, 24 per cent unemployment - one-quarter of their adults are not working, and among the youth, 52 per cent are not working - more than half.

So you can imagine somebody who has no work leaving school and for 10 years, you have no work; by the time he's 30, how does he start finding a job, looking for a job, learning how to be in a job and starting his working career?

So it's a crisis. People are very upset, upset with the world, upset with the government. So many governments have fallen. All along southern Europe, they've changed governments: Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece - all gone; Holland, recently, coalition collapsed; Romania - as I was writing this speech, I had to add it to the list because the government fell down. France, last weekend, first round of elections, (President) Nicolas Sarkozy is trailing. Second round, this weekend, he may lose. So the continent is in crisis.

In America, the situation is not so bad but there are many concerns over social safety nets too. Health care, which we worry about, they also worry about: It's extremely expensive, expensive to the individual who buys state insurance, expensive to the state that must stay on the federal budget for Medicaid, Medicare. Their social security system, which is pensions, is also bankrupt, but they can't reform it - politically it's impossible - so the budget is in chronic deficit and they have no money left to invest in education and infrastructure, in growth, in their people.

If you look at the emerging economies - China, India, Vietnam - they are still growing and creating jobs, but they are not without their own worries and headaches. In China, there's worry about income inequality, especially between the coastal cities, which are prosperous, and inland areas, which are not doing so well. They are worried about economic restructuring because they know they have to do better every year, but they can't keep on doing better without changing the way the economy works. They are also worried about the ageing population and the shrinking workforce, because there's not enough babies, and they worry they may grow old before they grow rich.

The moral is, every country has its own problems. Many of these problems are similar to ours. It's inevitable because of globalisation, because of technological progress affecting us all over the world.

We are not in an ideal position, certainly not perfect, but I think we should see our progress and our problems in perspective. On balance, I think we are in good shape to tackle the problems, but we must get our strategies right.

The first strategy is to keep Singapore open and embrace the world; be open in our mindset, be an outward-looking confident society, willing to change, welcoming competition, willing to consider new ideas and explore new opportunities. That's how we've become a successful and cosmopolitan city. That's how we've competed against bigger countries and held our own. That's how we can stay abreast with the changes, improve our lives and secure a bright future for our children here in Singapore.

So when it comes to trade, we're prepared to do business with anybody - Trans-Pacific Partnership with America, Australia and so on, we've joined in. FTA (free trade agreement) with the European Union, with all their problems, we still want to do business with them. Let's see how we can get a win-win relationship going. We open ourselves to the world, to business.

We also welcome talent, an attitude which has served us well. The Hong Kong TV channel TVB spoke about our policies here and admired us for it. Many people come to Singapore to live, work or play. They are impressed by Singapore, they go back home, they promote Singapore as a place with opportunities to prosper. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was here recently. He lived and worked in Singapore in the mid-1990s for Merrill Lynch. His son was born here and he remembers Singapore fondly, especially East Coast Park and the chilli crabs and pepper crabs, which he still goes back for every time he's here. Now he's PM of New Zealand, pursuing more cooperation with Singapore, which will benefit us, in food imports and for the education opportunities in New Zealand.

An open attitude served us well, and we need not just small numbers of top talent, but a wide range of foreign professionals and skilled workers. This remains a hot issue for Singaporeans because they worry about overcrowding, competition for themselves and their children, about different social norms, language and so on.

I posted an article on my Facebook page about Germany facing this problem of foreign talent. They don't have enough workers, their economy is prospering, they need engineers, they need IT people, they are importing some from southern Europe, where there are no jobs.

In the long term, this is going to be a great help to Germany to strengthen their industries and build them up as an economic power. But it's going to weaken the countries who lose these talent. And the Spanish are worried that one day they will end up doing nothing except tourism and agriculture. But the Germans also face problems because the foreigners come in with their different language and culture, and they can't fit in with the Germans.

The Germans say 'Herr' to one another, Mr so-and-so, very formal in their engagements. The southern Europeans are very informal in their engagements. So there's that clash.

I posted this to trigger some thought among Singaporeans that, hey, we're not alone in our problems. It attracted hundreds of comments, many heartfelt and thoughtful ones from readers. People are clearly seized with the issue, trying to see how we are different from Germany, what problems we're facing in Singapore.

So it's an issue, but it's a strategic issue for Singapore which is important for us to get right.