Saturday 6 September 2014

Ask the Prime Minister 2014: PM Lee Hsien Loong tackles questions on growth, worries for the future

Over 700 questions were collected from the public for a special forum with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He reflected on Singapore's future and spoke candidly on fatherhood, as well as his ambitions and heroes growing up.
Channel NewsAsia, 4 Sep 2014

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says achieving two to three per cent growth annually over the next decade would be "not bad" for Singapore. Mr Lee gave this assessment when asked what type of growth and how much Singapore needs going forward, in an hour-long "Ask the Prime Minister" live forum simulcast on MediaCorp's Channel 5 and Channel NewsAsia on Thursday evening (Sep 4).

"We want good growth - growth which creates good jobs; growth which makes the most of the skills of our people; growth which many Singaporeans can benefit from," he said. He noted that Singapore's economic growth used to exceed 10 per cent in its early years, but this gradually slowed down to around 6 per cent a year over the last decade.

"Looking forward, if I can make two to three per cent (growth) a year, over the next 10 years, I think that's not bad. I think we have to get used to it. It means things are not going to click and change overnight, but it means that gradually, steadily, we can make things better, year by year," said Mr Lee.


The Prime Minister said his Government is working on pushing the retirement and re-employment age for Singaporeans. "We are working towards helping people to work longer, because we are all living longer and we would like people to work as long as they're healthy. And, well, because I think that's the best way not just to upkeep yourself, but to be active and fit, and connected with your friends."

He said even though the re-employment age has been pushed to 65, it would take a few years for it to be raised further. "It will take a while for us to be ready to change the law, and push it out by law, because I think we need to need to give a bit of time for companies to get used to the arrangements and to see how they work out."

In the meantime, the Government is setting the tone for companies to keep workers employed, as long as they are "fit and well and productive" beyond 65, he said. "My radiographer in SGH - he's 78 years old and he's still going strong," Mr Lee related.


On the topic of education and opportunities, Prime Minister Lee said parents are now more open-minded when it comes to having their children take different academic routes, and that many good students are competing for places in institutions like the School of the Arts and the Singapore Sports School.

But he said balance is needed as well. "Parents also have a point when they say: 'Do think about what you will do after you graduate', because you have to think long-term. It is sensible to worry where your next meal is going to come from. So, I think we have to have a balance. If we all go and smell roses, who is going to feed us?"


Asked how the Government intends to deal with emerging social tensions, Mr Lee said it would have several roles. "First, we must hold the ring, so that you play within the rules of the game. Secondly, you must make sure that there is moderation and restraint, because if you go beyond a certain limit, I think in a multiracial, multi-religious society, you are going to have serious tensions and strains and problems.

"Thirdly, you must set the culture in order to moderate strains not just along the traditional fault lines - race and religion but also new fault lines that can come. They can be on values, culture wars." He raised the example of the Pink Dot movement, and said there is "very strong difference in views" between gay activists and those who position themselves as "pro-family" in Singapore.


As Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence next year, Mr Lee was asked about his worries for the next 50 years for Singapore. He replied with one of his oft-used analogies: "We are a small country. We used to say we are a sampan, now maybe we are a boat with a motor, self-propelled. The seas are unpredictable. We didn't expect to come this far.

"In the next 50 years, we hope to go as far. Things can go wrong, and we must be be prepared for that. You must have that steel in you," he said.

Mr Lee added that there must be a new narrative for Singapore, where Singaporeans must have a sense of pride in what they have achieved, but also have the humility to know that the country is ultimately, small."This is a place where Singaporeans can fulfil their human spirit, a place which is open, where we are open to new ideas and yet we have a sense of where we came from, and we haven't forgotten how we came here."


During a call-in segment of the forum, Mr Lee was asked for parenting tips from a father-to-be. "As the child grows up, you have to be his friend, his guide, his role model. Spend time with them, engage them," Mr Lee advised him. "It's a very trying time for your wife when the baby is born, so support her."

He also let on that he was very hands-on as a father. "I did change diapers, and in those days we used safety pins, so you have to be very careful!"


In a lighter moment of the forum, Prime Minister Lee was asked by a primary school student what superhero he would like to be if he had a choice.

"When I was growing up, we had newspaper cartoons and comics. We didn't have that many TV shows even. My heroes would be Superman and Tarzan. I used to watch Batman too, but I didn't like him so much. I thought Superman was more fun."

As for what he wanted to be when growing up - he revealed that he wanted to be an airplane pilot.

Mandai area set for major redevelopment
By Joy Fang, TODAY, 5 Sep 2014

The Mandai area, home to the Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari and the River Safari, is set for major redevelopment, with plans for an all-encompassing wildlife attraction with educational, recreational and “green” elements.

The new attraction, which could be ready around 2020, would be similar to the likes of Gardens By The Bay, where beyond viewing wildlife, one could also take walks in public areas, enjoy the waterfront and watch the sunset on Upper Seletar Reservoir.

This was revealed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the ‘live’ television programme Ask the Prime Minister last night, where he also said that Jurong Bird Park could relocate to Mandai. The Government has been seeking the advice of nature groups on how to refine its plans for Mandai, he added.

Asked whether the plans are an extension of the zoo, Mr Lee said what the Government has in mind is “something bigger and better”, which will enhance the nature reserves and not infringe onto the reserves.

Mr Lee had shared the plans for Mandai in response to a question from the programme host on what large-scale projects Singapore can look forward to in future.

The Government, Mr Lee said, is considering using the available space outside of the nature reserves, such as an unused old orchid plantation and old fruit orchard for its plans.

“If you can extend the zoo to those parts, I think it’ll be very interesting,” he said. “For example, the Bird Park is all by itself down in Jurong. Why not move it to where the zoo is?”

Asked if the waterfall at the Jurong Bird Park — a signature of the park — would be moved as well, Mr Lee said: “I think we have something in mind which is even more spectacular than the waterfall.”

TODAY understands that besides the relocation of the 43-year-old Jurong Bird Park to the area, a museum may be housed there as well, together with a research facility and a hotel employing green technology in areas such as how it cools its facilities and housekeeping.

In recent weeks, talks have been rife that big plans were afoot for the Mandai area.

A member of a nature group whom TODAY spoke to said that as recently as last month, a potential developer was quietly holding talks with environmental groups, and was considering getting a consultant to look into the feasibility of their plans. But it is all at an exploratory stage. “I don’t know if they have made up their mind”, he said.

When TODAY contacted the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) on plans for Mandai earlier this week, Mr Poh Chi Chuan, its Director of Cultural Precincts and Tourism Concept Development, said the STB is studying various options for Mandai and would share more information when ready.

“The Mandai area, with its existing wildlife attractions (Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and River Safari) has the potential to be developed into a precinct of nature-themed attractions for education and recreation,” he said. He added that any development of the site “will also have to be sustainable and sensitive to its natural environment”. TODAY understands that an environment impact assessment will be carried out before any plans are finalised.

The three existing attractions as well as Jurong Bird Park are managed by Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

Talks to develop the Mandai area first surfaced some time in 2007, prompting Nature Society (Singapore) to publish a report in November that year highlighting their concerns.

The report said the STB was exploring an eco-tourism project south of the Mandai Road area and on both sides of Mandai Lake Road. Two parcels of land were involved — a patch of about 15ha bounded by Mandai Road, Mandai Lake Road and the boundary of the Western Catchment Reserve; and another patch of about 18ha between Mandai Track 15 and the Western Catchment Reserve up to the military firing range.

The society also listed concerns such as how the area is already in a “fragmented and degraded state”, and that the project would degrade the area as a forest ecosystem or habitat, creating instead a parkland landscape which would result in the loss of variety of habitat niches.

Areas involved in the latest plans have not been finalised.

When contacted last night , Dr Ho Hua Chew, vice-chair of the conservation committee in Nature Society (Singapore), said they are concerned about the planned development and hope that a comprehensive environmental impact assessment can be done, covering noise pollution, hydrology and more.

He said the area is rich in biodiversity and the wildlife there — such as the leopard cat, pangolin, the mouse deer — could be put in danger.

Seeking private degree? Do your homework
Ensure it has rigorous standards and jobs available, says PM Lee
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2104

SINGAPOREANS planning to go to private educational institutions received some advice from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: Do your homework and ensure the degree you choose is rigorous in standard, valuable and "where you can, which has jobs available".

Otherwise, there is a risk of not being able to find a job relevant to the qualifications, he indicated at a live MediaCorp television forum last night when responding to a question on the increase in degree holders caught in such a dilemma.

The paper chase has come under scrutiny recently amid worries that Singaporeans are chasing degrees that may not give them the skills that are in demand.

This, however, is not the case at Singapore's four universities: National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Mr Lee said: "We make sure the standards are there and that we are training people in right courses, more or less in the right numbers."

But for those studying for private degrees, he cautioned: "You have to do your own homework and make sure that you study for a degree which is rigorous, which is valuable, and where you can, which has jobs available."

Official statistics show that around one-third of those who got their degrees in Singapore last year had obtained them from private educational institutions.

Mr Lee reiterated that not every degree will guarantee a job.

What counts is a person's skills, knowledge and productivity. "If you have that and your degree has helped you to have that, then I think it will be okay."

For most jobs, performance ought to matter more than a degree, he said. "Whether you are a graduate or not should not be so critical as to whether you are performing or not," he told an unemployed man who was a civil servant and felt there was a glass ceiling based on his qualifications.

He noted the Government's plans to merge the graduate and non-graduate schemes to give civil servants a chance to progress on the same career track.

But the move has prompted some concerns, he said, recalling a dialogue with unionists last week. "One of them said, if you put me with the degree holders, they talk better, they write better, so what about me?"

Mr Lee also said the Government's recent move to redefine success beyond paper qualifications is starting to take effect.

"Parents are more open-minded," he said, pointing to competition to get into schools such as Lasalle College of the Arts and Singapore Sports School.

But at the same time, these parents are justified in asking their children to think about what they want to do after they graduate.

"It is sensible to worry where your next meal is going to come from," he said.

"If we all go and smell roses, who is going to feed us?"


Yes, absolutely. Why not? We have women doing well in many careers... They are engineers, bankers, lawyers, they are technicians. You have CEOs, we have MPs, we have ministers. Why shouldn't we have a PM? I hope you will be one.

- His response to primary schoolgirl Stacey Seah, who asked if Singapore would have a female PM


You need to be a bit of a showman, you need to be a bit of a doctor, you need to be a bit of a psychologist so you can get people to go along with you and understand how people think. You also have to be a hard-headed person who knows, well, these are the things we need to do, let's do them in the best way we can.

- On leaders Singapore would need in the future


I said I shouldn't still be the PM when I am 70 years old. I think that is still my objective. We have a team of young ministers. I think they are all good and promising, and I am sure in time, from among them, a leader will emerge. And we hope that in the next election, I will bring in more people, and we will reinforce the team.

- On his previously held position on handing over


When I was eight years old, I once wrote an essay in school, and I said I hope one day I will be an aeroplane pilot... And every time I go onto an aeroplane, I take a peek in the cockpit and wonder what it would be like.

- On what he wanted to be when he was a child

'Important to bridge differences' as Singapore turns more diverse
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2104

BRIDGING differences between people who may not see eye to eye is important as Singapore becomes more diverse, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He cautioned against society becoming polarised over new fault lines like differing values, and advocated moderation and restraint.

"We have to set a tone where everybody converges to a middle, and not have politics where I represent this group, you represent that group, and let me get what I can and you will fight for what you can, which I think will be very bad for Singapore," he said last night on a live television forum titled Ask the Prime Minister.

As society becomes more diverse, people are expressing themselves more passionately and assertively, trying to push society the way they prefer, he noted.

In this situation, the Government has several roles to play, he said in response to researcher Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, who asked about dealing with emerging tensions while keeping Singapore inclusive and ensuring diverse interests are represented.

First, the Government must hold the reins so people play within the rules. There must be moderation and restraint because "if you go beyond a certain limit... in a multiracial, multi-religious society, you are going to have very serious tensions and strains".

Next, the Government must be able to set a culture in order to moderate strains not just along traditional fault lines like race and religion, but also new ones that can centre on values and culture.

He cited tensions arising from the "very strong difference in views between those who are gay activists and those who are anti the gay lifestyle in Singapore".

"Both sides are pushing. You have the Pink Dot movement. You have other people who describe themselves as pro-family," he said, referring to the pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender mass picnic in June, and the Wear White campaign by religious groups in response to it.

"It is not the only one, and I am sure it is not the last one. There will be these incidents coming up from time to time, and each time I think different groups will get engaged," he said.

But these and other incidents that arise have to also be seen in perspective, he said.

"We are never going to be a single-valued, single-cultured Singapore. We are diverse. That is one of our strengths, provided we can have the diversity moderated and not pull us apart," he said.

On whether Singapore and the Government were ready and could cope, he said: "You have to be... Social media is changing the way we communicate, the way issues come up, the way we can have emotions engaged. And we have to cope with it, whether we like it or not."

Retirement age could be lifted but time needed: PM
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2104

RAISING the retirement as well as the re-employment age is on the cards, "but that may take a few years yet", said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Over a dozen people, several of whom were near retirement, were keen for the Government to lift the age as soon as possible so that they could continue working.

But he told them that companies need time to get used to the re-employment arrangements, which came into effect in 2012. He was speaking at a live MediaCorp forum called "Ask the Prime Minister" last night.

Singapore's retirement age is 62, after which employers have to offer re-employment to eligible workers up to age 65.

But with people living longer, the Government is working to help them stay employed longer. In May, the Government said it was looking at raising the re- employment age to 67.

Last night, Mr Lee said: "It would take a while for us to be ready to change the law and push it up by law because I think we need to give a bit of time for companies to get used to the arrangements and to see how they work out."

Companies are encouraged to keep their workers beyond 65 on a voluntary basis, and the Government does this often, Mr Lee said.

He also noted the long lead time Australia gave itself to raise its retirement age to 70 - the world's highest - by 2035.

"They haven't done it today or tomorrow. The 70 takes many years to phase in... but they start moving now and gradually they will get there," he said. "We must take that similar approach."

As Singaporeans look for chances to work longer, many are anxious as well about the adequacy of retirement savings.

A Twitter user asked if plans to offer Central Provident Fund (CPF) members the option of a lump sum withdrawal after they retire at age 65 would help them or burden the next generation.

"Well, it may be both," said Mr Lee.

It is reasonable to give retirees the flexibility to tap their CPF funds. "But there is a risk that if you do this too liberally, and when he grows old and doesn't have any CPF, somebody would have to support him," he said.

He added that the Government could look into letting people put more into their CPF accounts.

"You want to let people take it out to be flexible; you really should also be prepared to have people put a little more in" if they want to, he said, citing an idea by MP Foo Mee Har last month.

On the rising cost of living, he acknowledged that things had become more expensive over the years, but noted that incomes had also gone up faster than prices.

The strain on wallets could come from new expectations and lifestyles, such as owning air-conditioners and smartphones for instance.

PAP casting net wide for candidates
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2104

THE People's Action Party (PAP) is casting its net wide for potential MPs to field in the next general election, and that includes looking at those who are polytechnic and ITE graduates.

But what matters more is that they are good people, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night during a live television forum.

Amid the Government's recent move to get people to look beyond a university degree as the sole route to a good career and success, Mr Lee was asked whether there might be even more non-degree PAP candidates in the future.

"We are casting our net very wide, and we invite a lot of people to tea," he said. "We will try very hard to look for them. And whenever we find a good man or a good woman, we will field him," he added.

He said several PAP MPs, such as Joo Chiat MP and Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa, had risen via the polytechnic route.

But he added: "We didn't choose them because they were poly graduates, or despite them being poly graduates. We just chose them, and they happened to be. And I think that is the way it should be."

When contacted, Mr Zainudin, 51, who graduated from the French-Singapore Institute, a predecessor of Nanyang Polytechnic, said: "You can have as many paper qualifications as you want, but if you can't connect with the people and make a difference to their lives, a degree may not be the right measure." He later obtained a Master of Science in engineering.

Ask the Prime Minister
PM’s first radio call-in: Retirement issues top listener concerns

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