Conversation with Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling
Conversations | Zhou Xizhuang Michael, Editor-in-Chief
Q: We have learnt that you were in the publications team of NUS Students’ Political Association (NUSPA) during your time at NUS as an Economics student. Could you share with us why you chose to join NUSPA?
I studied Political Science, Economics and Statistics in my first year at NUS. I wanted to get a better understanding of public policy in Singapore. In particular, I wanted to understand Singapore’s economic development, our economic policies and how that helped create a better life for Singaporeans. I thought that building on what I studied in school, some “hands-on” experience, be it through volunteering or conversing with policy-makers, I would be able to gain additional perspectives. Q: Do you think student discourse and political engagement are important? Has the form and purpose of student discourse changed fundamentally from your days at NUS? Nowadays young people are even more engaged and active. I have come across many youths who have decided to champion a variety of social causes. Social media also allows them to organize themselves and participate in active discourse. I think student discourse and political engagement are very important.
But beyond discourse, I would encourage youth to also try their hand at experimenting with solutions. That is also when the rubber hits the road. You can see how policies are translated on the ground, how residents and citizens respond to them and you can try coming up with creative solutions. Q: What motivated you to volunteer at grassroots events? What is your biggest takeaway from these volunteering experiences? It was when I am working on a NUSPA publication, coincidentally, its first edition, a hard copy one – we only had that in that era – and I had approached Mr Lim Swee Say (then Acting Minister for the Environment) for an interview. I was just thinking this morning how interesting it is that 20 years later, I will be doing an interview with a student journalist from NUSPA as you launch your online newsletter!
During the interview, Mr Lim was very friendly and humorous. And he invited me to volunteer at his branch at Buona Vista. So that was how I started volunteering with the grassroots at Buona Vista. But in essence, what motivated me to volunteer at the grassroots organizations was that I wanted to get a “first-hand feel” of policies at work.
Personally, my biggest takeaway was to see how different families had made different choices, and over time, some may have made some bad decisions and need external help and assistance to get them back on track.
Our government has various policies and also community partners to help citizens in need. However, everyone’s experience is different. Citizens could come from very different backgrounds, have different issues affecting them at different stages of their lives or are impacted by having many dependents to support. Owing to these unique circumstances, we may need to identify how policies can help them and if they do not, what else we can do. Q: In your opinion, what should the role of Singaporean youths be in our society? I think when young people become active at the community level, we become more understanding of the different levers available to help our citizens. One essential strength that our youths possess is that they are literate and resourceful. They can utilise social media platforms, google for information, understand government correspondences and engage government agencies. Not every citizen on the street can do that. Some elderly citizens may not normally actually travel very far from where they stay or do not have as ready access to information as our youths do. They may need help, and this is where our youths can step up and contribute by acting as the bridge for them and government organisations.
This was something I learnt during my volunteering days at the meet the people sessions where I also helped with drafting letters for residents. For example, you can have residents coming to you with a letter that they do not understand and seeking your help to explain it to them. In these cases, any regular young person can play a part and help out. It may seem to be simple and straightforward, but it actually can go a long way towards relieving stress and helping some of our residents.
Singaporean youths today are also very well-travelled. Youths travel to more places, see a lot more and compare their experiences and perspectives. Now we have more and more Singapore conversations involving our youths. At the end of the day, what Singapore can become depends really on what our young people want Singapore to become. Thus, I would encourage youths to be part of these national conversations, to share with us what you see and what you aspire to be.
Similarly, we do hope that when youths interact with the Government and the older generation, they can also understand that sometimes there is also a need to reconcile what they wish to achieve with existing factors and resources. We hope that our young people can work with us to create the conditions that will best allow us to help them achieve their aspirations.
"Society as a whole has to decide what are the trade-offs they are willing to make. There are no right or wrong answers. But we have to be honest that there are trade-offs." - Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling
Q: Based on your experience and understanding, what are some of the key challenges facing the nation and policy-makers in the coming decade. First, aspirations and wants – no longer needs – of Singaporeans have become more diverse. In the past, as the nation was in its early developmental stages, what was top of most young Singaporeans minds was financial stability and financial independence. Many wanted to get a professional job so that they could quickly become financially independent. It was not a model prescribed by the government. But it was a very mainstream aspiration. As a result, we could all work towards a rather universal dream.
But as society became more affluent, people develop different passions and some may become less focused on financial stability. There is no longer a standard dream per se. Some parents may still believe in the traditional model, but not all young people may now subscribe to it.
The challenge, therefore, is for policy-makers to understand what our young people want, to work with them to see how we can help them achieve their diverse and evolving aspirations. But society as a whole also needs to understand that with diverse aspirations, there can be conflict.
For example, there may still be young people who feel that it is important for them to become financially independent quickly. They may want the economy and society to be structured that way – to pursue economic development and fast growth. But there could also be another group of Singaporeans who believe that there are other areas that are important - the environment for instance.
Resources continue to remain scarce for Singapore today. For example, if you want to use this piece of land for a particular purpose, you cannot use it for another purpose at the same time. Here, a dilemma presents itself: If different people have different views on how we utilise this piece of land, then policy-makers are stuck in the middle and we have to make decisions. Given these inherent conflicts, it is essential for us to balance different aspirations. Q: As you mentioned earlier, young Singaporeans are travelling more and well aware of things happening around them. As such, their experiences are fast becoming more diverse and global. However, some youths may engage in selective comparison with experiences abroad. In your opinion, what are some of the tools and processes that youths could adopt so that they may be able to internalise and process the information they receive before making a decision? When you look at a case study, it is quite easy to look only at some parts of it and make comparisons. You can end up comparing apples with oranges. For people to truly understand the things that they see, it is critical that they go and experience it for themselves and understand it as a full package. I think it is important to be open-minded about things, be open-minded about receiving information and engaging with experiences. If you go out there with a preconceived notion of what things should be then, we can all be guilty of selective perception.
It is also important that we be honest and see trade-offs. I had talked about different and diverse aspirations. Other countries also have made trade-offs. If they give more welfare handouts, they would have charged higher taxes to allow them to give out higher welfare benefits. And higher taxes mean that you are taking things away from your citizens and not all will be happy about it. So, more often than not there are trade-offs. Society as a whole has to decide what are the trade-offs they are willing to make. There are no right or wrong answers. But we have to be honest that there are trade-offs.
About the interviewee: Ms Sun Xueling is currently Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs & Ministry of National Development. She also serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency (GRC).