Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Singapore Perspectives 2013

PM Lee throws light on what led to infrastructure strain
We didn't have 20/20 foresight - next time, we will try to do better, he says
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday gave the most comprehensive account to date of the circumstances that ultimately led to the strains on infrastructure in recent years.

He focused on the ups and downs of the global economy and how the Government reacted to it, starting with the downturns triggered by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States more than a decade ago.

PM Lee was responding to a question from Mr Leon Perera, chief executive of Spire Research and Consulting, at the annual Singapore Perspectives conference of the Institute of Policy Studies.

Mr Perera had asked if Singapore might benefit from having a public hearing or commission look into the lack of coordination between those managing public infrastructure and population size.

"You don't need a commission or an inquiry to find out how it happened, I can tell you how it happened. It happened because we didn't have 20/20 foresight," responded Mr Lee, to laughter from the audience.

He started with the recession of the early 2000s - which began with the terror attacks and was then prolonged by the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) - noting that population growth then was low, home prices were down and large numbers of foreign workers were going home.

The tide changed in 2005 and 2006. And that was when he decided to "try and make up for lost time".

"You want the economy to grow, you want Singapore to make progress and you don't know how long the sun is going to shine," he said. "As it turned out, the sun remained shining for longer than we expected."

The population, including foreigners, thus grew faster than expected and infrastructure lagged behind. The total population grew from 4.2 million in 2005 to 5.3 million last year.

But Mr Lee said he could not start turning away businesses during the period the economy was growing.

"Should we have said... Let's forget about the growth, we don't need the IRs (integrated resorts), we don't need these extra jobs, we just stay where we were? I think that would be very risky.

"Should we have given ourselves more buffer and said, let's build and be ready? I think in retrospect, clearly yes, we could have done more."

Mr Lee stressed continually not just how difficult it was to predict economic changes but also how sudden those changes can be.

He said that when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the Government braced itself for a deep dive. The economy dipped up to 10 per cent in one quarter and there was no talk of home prices or shortage of HDB flats.

The Government rolled out a slew of measures to try and temper the effects of the crisis.

It tracked the property market closely, but this remained flat until a sudden turnaround in mid-2009.

"Every month it was flat, flat, flat, flat, flat but in June 2009 tremendous blip... In the course of two weeks during one or two private property launches, somehow the wind changed. It's like the spring breeze touches your face. And the market was off," he said.

It was the sudden change of pace that made it difficult to react to, he said. While the economy can change overnight, infrastructure projects take years.

Still, the Government has learnt from the experience, he said.

"Next time, we will try to do better, certainly to have a bigger buffer and not to cut things so fine, but I think it's very difficult to know 10 years from now how many (homes) you will need," said Mr Lee.

"Even if you know how many persons there would be in Singapore, you can't say for sure how many houses there would be. Will they buy it or will they say, no, I'm not certain because the economy is not looking good or because the politics are uncertain and, well, I'll hold off?

"But when the market goes up it goes up with a vengeance and, well, we've paid a political price. We learn from it."

When the market goes up, it goes up with a vengeance and, well, we've paid a political price. We learn from it.
- PM Lee

What we want to avoid is thinking that more money is the solution to our problem because actually you can find the money but the solution to the problem is really more fundamental to that. Low income, a solution is to upgrade your skills so that you have more skills and you can earn better. Old age, part of the solution is people have to stay active longer, in the society longer; therefore, well and healthy longer. And many other broken families, the solution isn't just to be generous with the divorced wife left with her, stranded with her children but to try and strengthen our families so that they stay together and don't get encouraged to split apart.
- PM Lee on the Government's approach to increasing social support

The people who have done it have found that far from assuring freedom of information, it will lead to more opaqueness and avoidance of records. If you know that everything you write down is going to be made public, a lot of things are not going to be written down. And if you know that the meeting is going to be minuted, then you're going to have a pee break or coffee break before the meeting.
- PM Lee on why he does not think a freedom of information Act is a good idea

In America, it's done by Congress and if you look at the way they carve their constituencies on congressional districts out, it's explicitly carved so that you preserve the vote for specific members... I don't think there's a good solution which can depoliticise the process. I think it's better to leave it as it is... If you look at the last general election, there were a few quibbles here and there but by and large, people acknowledged that this was a fair demarcation, and likewise the one before that.
- PM Lee, when asked about setting up an independent election commission here


'Meritocracy important and Govt will mitigate downsides'
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Tmes, 29 Jan 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday affirmed the importance of meritocracy in Singapore, arguing that any downside can and would be mitigated by the Government.

Spelling out how it works, he said all would get a chance to compete fairly, and the best man would get the most difficult job and be rewarded accordingly.

But there must also be consolation prizes for the rest, he said.

"How big a consolation prize, how you define winners and losers - that is something we have to discuss," he said, adding that the definition of winners here has broadened over the years to recognise, for instance, those in arts, social service and sports.

Mr Lee acknowledged meritocracy had its weaknesses - such as a tendency to widen the income gap - but said the Government was working to mitigate these problems in two ways.

One, it was making sure the opportunity to move up remained available to all. He said: "If you make the effort, you can make the next step. You may have gone to N levels. You can work hard, you can make it to O levels, you can get to the polytechnics, you can get to university. Some people go on to do PhDs - not everybody, but the door is open."

Two, the Government would balance income distribution through wage policy.

He said: "Within Singapore, we can say... you're a school teacher, you may not be a top lawyer, but I make sure that you're also paid properly."

But society also had a role to play in changing mindsets.

In the education system, for example, he noted how difficult it was to counter the view among parents that if one's child did not get into a certain course or stream, his future was bleak.

"To persuade parents to accept that their sons or daughters can be happy in different ways, that is something which is not just what the Government says but really social attitudes and social perspectives," he said.

In an earlier session at the Singapore Perspectives Conference, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong pledged that even as Singapore continued to practise meritocracy, it would guard against two negative forms of it.

These include an excessively competitive one in which individuals sought to advance their interests at the expense of others, and one with a "closed group of winners" in which advantages are ascribed by birth.

PM Lee: Good mix needed for PAP team
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2013

RECLAIMING ground lost to the opposition will require the People's Action Party (PAP) to have a good mix of different candidates, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday as he sketched the key traits needed in his team.

Answering questions on the PAP's future at a forum, after a sobering weekend when the party lost the Punggol East by-election, he said he was looking for three types of people.

They are those who could "click with the crowd", those with the ideas to get things done and those who represent the different streams in society.

"You need people who can identify and click with the crowd. It's a visceral thing. Do I feel like you? Do I like you? Can I connect with you?" he said, in a rare nod to the importance of candidates' charisma.

Establishing this kind of rapport takes time, but "if you have the right man, I'm sure he can do it", said PM Lee at the annual Singapore Perspectives forum of the Institute of Policy Studies, attended by about 800 professionals and academics.

Citing the PAP candidate for Punggol East, Dr Koh Poh Koon, he said he had no doubt the surgeon would have been able to connect with people face to face.

"Unfortunately, he did not have enough time and so he didn't win in Punggol East," said Mr Lee.

Dr Koh lost to the Workers' Party's candidate Lee Li Lian with a score of 43.7 per cent at last Saturday's by-election. Residents have said their unfamiliarity with Dr Koh was one reason they did not vote for him.

Mr Lee stressed that he also needs people with ideas, "who can say, let's do this together, and can get people to work together to make things happen".

Finding both skills in one person may not be easy, he admitted, which is why he is more focused on making sure his team has the right combination. It should be made up as well of people who represent different profiles in society, from grassroots volunteers and professionals to social activists and unionists.

"If I have the right mix of such people, with the right motives, I can make it. It's not certain but that's the way to maximise our chances," he said.

Mr Lee was upbeat as he candidly answered a wide range of questions, about half of them focused on the country's politics and political systems.

When asked about the sharp disparity between the popular vote and seat share, Mr Lee said that unlike Britain, Singapore's political map is relatively homogeneous, which means that "every seat is a swing seat".

"If there's a swing, it's a nationwide swing and today it can be very lopsided one way, tomorrow it can be very lopsided another way," he said.

Acknowledging that it could cause instability in the long term, he said having Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated MPs helped to mitigate the problem in the short term.

He also said proportional representation may not be right for a multiracial society like Singapore's, as it would encourage race politics.

Ultimately, he said the future of Singapore's politics would not depend on just politicians, but also on how society develops. Said Mr Lee: "If a society is divided, the politics will reflect that."

'Diversity of views' in Cabinet
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Tmes, 29 Jan 2013

THERE is a healthy diversity of views in the Cabinet and the civil service, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

"Every time there is a discussion within the Cabinet about policies, you will be surprised at the wide range of options we discuss," he told speakers and participants at a conference who had suggested that the Singapore leadership was in danger of groupthink.

The former civil servant added that the same was true of the civil service. His experience was that "there was lots of space for us to raise ideas", both to the minister and to one another.

Mr Wong was responding to a participant's question at the Singapore Perspectives conference on whether disagreement occurred in the ruling party "in closed sessions".

Earlier, speaker Donald Low, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said a system trapped in ideological rigidity was less resilient.

He cited examples of how organisations "institutionalised dissent": Universities like Harvard did not hire their own PhD graduates as professors for three to five years, and the US military set up "red teams" to challenge prevailing wisdoms.

"In the long run, we are better off relying... on a diversity of ideas and competing options than on a system that is critically dependent on a similar group of people, no matter how bright they may be," he said.

Mr Wong, while disagreeing that group think was prevalent, said more discussions could be had earlier and in public to counter the view that real debate was lacking.

He added that sometimes a policy is presented at the final stage and the false impression created is that the Government is close- minded and has not considered alternatives.

Let’s agree to disagree on gay rights: PM Lee
By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 29 Jan 2013

Reiterating that Singapore society is not likely to come to a conclusion on gay rights, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signalled yesterday that the status quo will remain — and his position on Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, still stands.

Speaking at the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Lee was asked by a participant how the fact that the Republic is a secular country reconciles with “an old and archaic law that nearly discriminates against a whole (group) of people”.

In response, Mr Lee noted that in countries that do not criminalise homosexuality, “the struggles don’t end”. He cited the example of recent demonstrations in Paris by supporters and detractors of gay marriage.

“Why is that law on the books? Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it,” said Mr Lee, adding that he had explained his decision in 2007 to retain Section 377A.

Mr Lee also brought up the issue of gay rights — which has come under the spotlight again recently — in response to a question from actress Janice Koh, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament.

Ms Koh asked whether there is space for public discussions on issues that are potentially polarising.

She noted that such discussions could help build a more resilient society.

Citing the example of gay rights, Mr Lee said: “These are not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it’s really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree. I think that’s the way Singapore will be for a long time.”

He added that the “conservative roots” in society do not want to see the social landscape change.

Other matters that remain sensitive — although less so these days — are issues of race and religion, Mr Lee said: “We discuss many things openly now, which in the past we would have hesitated to do.

“How our different religions state perspectives and views, how our different races perform in school or how successful they are. But to think that you can take your hands off and just leave it, I think it’s very unwise,” he said.

In response to one of the participants who brought up how Muslim girls are not allowed to wear tudungs in mainstream schools — an issue that grabbed the headlines about a decade ago — Mr Lee said: “You may say it’s external, it’s not important but these small symbols can cause people to ... cluster separately and integrate less.”

He added that Singapore has made progress over the past decade with regards to having mutual respect in a multiracial society — as the participant put it.

Mr Lee said: “But at the same time, religion is a very important aspect of the lives of many Singaporeans — I think more so today than 30 or 40 years ago.”

Singapore's system of meritocracy can be improved: Lawrence Wong
By S. Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 28 Jan 2013

Singapore's system of meritocracy can be improved for the benefit of all, as part of the ideals of a fair and just society, said Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong

He highlighted this as an area that the country can do better in when he spoke at the Singapore Perspectives seminar on Monday morning.

The seminar also heard from opposition politician Sylvia Lim on how the Workers' Party can contribute to politics in the country. 

Governing the future together will mean casting new roles and ties between the government and citizens, as well as refreshing the values that Singaporeans cherish.

Mr Wong said while meritocracy ranks top among the values, he stressed that Singapore does not want a system where its people seek to advance individual interests at the expense of others.

Mr Wong said: "We do not want a meritocracy that results in a closed group of winners where advantages to any individual are ascribed by birth. What we want is to shape a system of meritocracy in Singapore that works for the benefit of all and is consistent with our ideals for a fair and just society.

He added that it is not going to be easy to do this and there are "no ready-made solutions".

Mr Wong, who is also the Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, also believes that evolving leadership in a new environment of active citizenry and civic participation will be more challenging.

"It is not always possible to align everyone to the same view. Leaders also have to decide, explain the basis for decisions they make and take responsibility for the outcomes," explained Mr Wong.

With a general election and two by-elections held recently in the country, the topic of politics was very much predominant at the Singapore.

Perspectives and participants at the seminar wanted to know what role opposition politicians and their parties can play in the country's political development.

More leadership needed for better governance: Lawrence Wong
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 29 Jan 2013

The ability to look beyond the short-term has been crucial to the success of many of Singapore’s policies, but it has become more difficult for leaders to take the long-term view now, said Acting Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

In addition to the Government’s policies and actions being subjected to “daily barracking”, the “daily incessant round of the 24-hour news cycle, its noise amplified by the social media, will make governance more difficult here as it has elsewhere”, said Mr Wong.

He was speaking at the Singapore Perspectives 2013 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

Mr Wong said better governance in Singapore would therefore call for more leadership so as to retain the long-term perspective and make difficult decisions that will yield long-term benefits.

This, he added, should come alongside an improved system of meritocracy, an active citizenry and a vibrant civic society, and a better understanding of the interdependencies between the state and markets.

Good governance, however, also needs a “diversity of ideas and competing options”, said IPS Senior Research Fellow Donald Low, who was also on the panel with Mr Wong.

Pointing to top academic institutions that do not immediately hire their doctoral graduates, in a move to ensure “cognitive diversity”, Mr Low disagreed with having “a system that is critically dependent on a similar group of people, no matter how bright they may be”.

Mr Low - a former high flying civil servant - suggested that the Government send bureaucrats to academic institutions to expose them to more ideas, noting that senior civil servants “don’t have enough exposure”.

He added: “In almost all my conversations with senior policy makers I am struck by how confident, almost to the point of smugness … and they betray no signs of uncertainty, of doubt. .. What comes across to me is confidence, and I think that confidence worries me sometimes.”

He called for institutions supporting diversity and dissent, and for the Government to provide citizens and researchers with more access to information. Greater diversity, he said, would “bolster trust in our system of governance and enhances Government’s credibility”.

Adding that he is “less worried” about the dangers of political polarisation, than he is of the “effects of incumbency, inertia of the status quo and the tyranny of ideas”, Mr Low urged policy experimentation and for policies to be empirically measured.

Agreeing, Mr Wong said that moving forward, governance might have to involve risks in the form of local experiments of policy options, so as to test new ideas before implementing policies nationally.

Parties need to avoid partisan politics: Sylvia Lim
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2013

WORKERS' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim said yesterday that she makes submissions on government policies away from the public eye, as she believes that political parties need to avoid partisan politics.

And the ministries have treated her feedback objectively, she added.

Ms Lim, an MP for Aljunied GRC, said that as political parties, "we need to constantly check ourselves to avoid getting too embroiled in partisan politics and miss the wood for the trees".

The wood here is the people's well-being, she added.

"We should guard against one-upmanship and ask ourselves, where lies the greater good?" she said at the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.

She also said the WP views political competition as a "safeguard" to improve people's lives.

It contests elections to provide this competition so that the Government is required to show it has performed. In Parliament, it keeps the Government accountable on matters of public interest by pressing it on such issues.

She also stressed, in response to a question about the difference between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the WP, that her party has ideological differences with the PAP in such areas as social justice, civil liberties and issues of governance like transparency and accountability.

Ms Lim acknowledged that some have criticised the WP for being too moderate. But the WP takes this position because of its beliefs, and also because it is sustainable as the party takes into account public support, she added.

"If we find we have no support for the things that we are doing, then I think it's fine for us to review and do things differently.

"But so far, I can see we do have some public support, I believe Singaporeans as a whole do appreciate the opposition politics of the sort that we offer to them."


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