Saturday 17 January 2015

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong SG50 Interview with Singapore journalists

PM Lee: New challenges, better home as Singapore enters next 50 years

Singapore can aim to be even better, says PM
Amid change and rising expectations, nation must retain key core values
By Fiona Chan, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

SINGAPORE has come a long way in the last 50 years, but this milestone should be seen less as a final destination than a springboard to an even better future, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In an interview with Singapore media this week, he sketched new challenges facing the country in the next 50 years amid the higher expectations of an older, richer and better-educated populace.

They want "not just a job but a good job (and) assurance of a career which can progress and take them well into their 60s and 70s", he said. "People are looking for fulfilment, for satisfaction in life, (for) work-life balance. I think these are all reasonable things to want, but between what you want and what you are able to do, you have to find the right accommodation."

Looking ahead, he painted a picture of a Singapore that can be an "outstanding" home for generations to come, if the country continues to work at addressing the significant economic and social shifts that have occurred since Mr Lee entered politics 30 years ago.

These include slower wage increases in tandem with more modest economic growth, and a changing political landscape as Singaporeans negotiate for alternative voices in Government, he said.

The interview, held at the Istana over two hours on Wednesday and Thursday, was conducted in English first and then in Mandarin. It was to mark Singapore turning 50 this year and Mr Lee's first 10 years as Prime Minister.

He touched on a wide range of topics - from the highs and lows of his decade as Prime Minister to new trends such as social media, the rise of special interest groups and the terror threat. He also dropped some hints on the looming General Election (GE).

One point he made clear was that Singapore must hold on to its core values of meritocracy, openness and multiracialism, even as the Government adapts to the myriad changes in society by becoming more flexible in implementing some policies.

As Prime Minister, Mr Lee has shifted towards a more compassionate and consultative form of governance.

Citizens' views and the needs of the marginalised have been given more weight in recent policy moves, from boosting social safety nets to reviewing the Central Provident Fund scheme.

But consistency on some policies remains crucial, he said.

He cited Singapore's openness to foreign investment, which has come into question in some quarters after the Government reduced foreign worker inflows.

Singapore's diplomats and Economic Development Board officers soliciting new investors "have been asked questions they were never asked before", about whether Singapore's politics is changing and if it is still keen on foreign investment, he said.

"If we give wrong signals and people conclude that you have just become like any other country, with the same pressures and same inconsistencies in policy over time, (they will not invest in Singapore and) we will be in serious trouble."

Asked about his biggest achievement as Prime Minister, he said it was placing greater emphasis on education, from investing more in early childhood schools to expanding tertiary education and spurring continuous learning on the job.

His top regret was moving too slowly to cater to a fast-growing populace. Frustrations over housing and transport contributed to the People's Action Party's (PAP) worst election showing in 2011.

But he believes the Government has done what it must since then to mend bridges ahead of the next GE, which must be held by January 2017. Apart from ramping up home-building and improving infrastructure, it is offering Singaporeans more diverse paths to success.

If it can convey the message that people will always have opportunities to upgrade themselves, the PAP can "face the next election with more confidence", he said.

"But it's for Singaporeans to judge, not for us to score ourselves well."

Three phases in decade at the helm


"I WOULD break down the 10 years into three segments. The first is from 2004, when I took over, till 2007, when the financial crisis came. We were recovering from Sars. The economy was gradually picking up, developing momentum and we were catching the wind while the sun was shining and doing quite well.

Then the financial crisis came - 2008. It was a very turbulent time for us. It was unsettling - a sudden dip - and frightening, followed by a quick recovery, which was unexpected.

In the end we had a tremendous rebound. We should be happy with that, but it caused infrastructure problems, we ran into housing concerns. And that led to other new difficulties.

The third phase would be from 2011 onwards after the general election. There is a new team in charge, new expectations among the electorate, and further shifting of our emphasis. (We are) continuing on economic growth but (placing) further emphasis on social safety nets, health, giving people an extra hand up and making sure that we make progress forward together."

On the right track with education


"PUTTING a lot of emphasis on education. Right from the beginning, at my first National Day Rally, one of my themes was on the young.

We were talking about schools - teach less, learn more - and getting people to get the maximum out of their education.

We have followed through on that in many ways - investing in schools, Edusave, increasing resources for the principals, making sure every school is a good school, developing tertiary education, building up ITE (Institute of Technical Education). So I think it is not a single decision but a continuing, consistent emphasis over a long period of time."


"IN RETROSPECT, it is easy to say that we should have been building up our infrastructure a lot faster, that we should have got our trains running, we should have built more HDB flats. At the time, we thought we were doing the right thing, pacing it, measuring it out, building it when we needed it and not spending resources until we needed to spend them. It turned out that things did not pan out the way we expected. I think that we have to plan in future less conservatively and try to be less precise in our prognostications."

Holistic education goes beyond grades


"I THINK it is important that we do take education seriously. If parents were unconcerned about their children's education - it does not matter whether you do well or not, does not matter whether you do your homework or not - we would have another set of problems.

But we also would like people to have a holistic education. It is not just grades; it is also your character, your leadership training, your exposure, your understanding of the world, understanding of the society we live in.

That does not come so easily from classroom, from books, or from tutorials or tuition. I think we need to place more emphasis on that.

I think that collectively we put too much emphasis on tuition. We think that if we hothouse our children, it will make all the difference. I am not so sure. I can understand the concerns of the parents who want to give their children the best, but we also want to give the children the time and the space to grow up."

Voter-MP bonding key amid winds of change in politics
No certainty that what we have now is going to continue: PM
By Zakir Hussain Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes that while politics in Singapore will not remain static, how it changes will depend on the voters and the way new PAP MPs and ministers bond with them.

He also drew a comparison with Britain and the United States, where different regions are strongholds of competing political parties, and they tilt one way or the other but "never completely topple over".

But in Singapore, he said: "We are flat. The tallest mountain in Singapore is Bukit Timah so you make one small change, the sky can change.

"That is not a comfortable position to be in, but that is the way our society is and we have to know that."

Mr Lee was responding to a question, in an interview with Singapore media, on how he saw democracy here evolving over the next few decades amid calls for more political diversity.

"It must change. I am not sure which way it will change," he said.

"We are in a very unusual situation where there is a clear consensus for the ruling party. There is a desire for alternative views, yes. But basically Singaporeans want the PAP to govern Singapore.

"If you ask the opposition parties - whether it is the Workers' Party or the Singapore Democratic Party - nobody says 'Vote for me, I will form the government, I will be the prime minister, I will run this place better'."

Hence it is important for the Government to continue to maintain support and be able to carry the consensus of the population over the long term.

But this state of affairs will not remain, he said, and how it changes will also depend on the situations the country faces.

"If you run into turbulent situations, people will be very worried about the dangers and there will be a flight to safety," he said.

"If you are in a peaceful, prosperous environment, people say, 'Well, this is the way the world is, why do you need the government? We can prosper without the government'.

"So there is no safety net. There is no certainty that what we have now is going to continue. And each election is a very serious contest for who is going to form the next government."

Asked what he felt was a healthy version of checks and balances in Parliament, Mr Lee said voters should elect the best person to represent them.

In Singapore, there was no possibility of Parliament being all-PAP, with Non-Constituency and Nominated MPs, he said.

"Outside of Parliament, voices are influential too. There is media and new media, blogs build up a following, and so there is no lack of alternative voices."

But voters should ensure those they elect are up to the mark.

"A person who sits in Parliament and is not competent is not going to be a check on the Government.

"A person who can be in Parliament and can raise questions, ask and debate and intelligently question what is the Government doing and why are you doing this and not doing that - that is what you need when you are talking about checks and balances."

MPs must be able to operate on the ground too, as a "test of readiness and competence", he added, in an oblique reference to the Workers' Party, which has come under fire from PAP MPs over the management of its Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

"How you run your town council, whether your constituencies are well managed or not, there is a reason why we put the town councils under the MPs - because we want it to have this test," he said.

Taking up a similar point in his Mandarin interview, he said: "You can do a lot of work if you have a good opposition MP."

He noted that only three PAP members were elected to the Legislative Assembly in Singapore's first election in 1955: Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Lim Chin Siong and Mr Goh Chew Chua.

"Three of them were sufficient to establish a force, so it is about having the best and not the most," he said.

PM Lee: Electoral Boundaries Review Committee yet to be set up
By Fiona Chan, The Straits Times, 16 Jan 2015

Addressing fevered speculation about the timing of the next General Election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, which sets the boundaries for each election in the first sign of an upcoming GE, has yet to be set up.

"We are now busy planning the SG50 celebrations, so we haven't had time to think about when it will be set up," he said in an interview this week with local media. "When we set it up, everyone will know."

Mr Lee would also not be drawn on potential changes to the compositions of GRCs and single-member constituencies (SMCs), but said he was "satisfied" with the decision in the last GE to reduce the average number of members in each GRC and to add more SMCs.

He also said the People's Action Party is likely to field around the same number of new candidates as in the last two elections, each of which saw the introduction of 24 fresh faces.

'About 24' new PAP faces likely in next election
By Fiona Chan, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

THE People's Action Party (PAP) is likely to field about 24 fresh faces in the next General Election (GE), continuing the pace of political renewal seen in recent polls.

Each of the last two elections introduced 24 new names, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated in an interview with Singapore reporters this week that the number of PAP candidates debuting in the upcoming GE would be "around that figure".

Among them might also be the next prime minister, Mr Lee said.

Asked about whether his future successor is already in the current Cabinet, he said it is possible but "not entirely certain".

"I will bring in some MPs and some new people with leadership calibre in the next General Election," he added. "Therefore, we should be able to find a successor between this election, the previous election and the next election."

The next PM will not have as much time as Mr Lee did to prepare for the top job, but Mr Lee noted that countries such as Britain and the United States have elected leaders without much governing experience.

As the problems facing Singapore become more complex, an "able" leader will be needed to withstand the tests and secure the support of the people, he added.

In the interview, Mr Lee also dropped some hints about what to expect at the hustings.

Some GRC teams fielded by the PAP may be led by ministers of state or other political office-holders, rather than by Cabinet ministers as has been the custom in recent years, he said when asked.

If the situation calls for it, such an arrangement cannot be ruled out and "everyone should be prepared for this possibility". While he would not be drawn on potential changes to the electoral boundaries, he said he was "satisfied" with the decision in the last GE to reduce the average number of members in each group representation constituency and add more single-member constituencies.

Terror threat 'is real and we must be prepared for it'
By Zakir Hussain, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

AS TERRORISM stalks the world, the Government will do its best to prevent any such attack in Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

But it cannot say for sure that a terror attack could never happen here, he added.

In the event that it does, Mr Lee believes the greatest damage would not be in the number of direct casualties from the attack "but the trust and the confidence that we have built up over the years between the communities".

He made the point in an interview on Wednesday with Singapore reporters, who had asked him about the terror threat.

As part of its preventive measures, the Government is closely watching developments abroad like the rise of the militant group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he said.

It is also keeping an eye on self-radicalised individuals, and tries to nip the problem in the bud before it becomes a disaster.

At the same time, it strives to educate Singaporeans about the threat and prepare them for it.

"We should not be completely shocked should we have an incident happen either here or close to us," he said.

He noted that the Government held regular dialogues on the topic with leaders of various communities.

Last November, he met Muslim and non-Muslim community leaders to talk about ISIS, and said several hundred individuals from South-east Asia, including a few self-radicalised Singaporeans, had gone to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the militants there.

When they return home, they pose a threat to the region.

Said Mr Lee: "Indonesia has a very serious problem, hundreds of people have gone to the Middle East.

"Malaysia has quite a serious problem, they have dozens of people who have gone to the Middle East, Iraq and Syria, including several who have actually committed suicide bombings."

"In Singapore, can I say that it will never happen? I cannot say that," he added, referring to the possibility of a terror attack.

"What I can do is to try my best to prepare people to minimise the chance, and to prepare people psychologically so that if it happens, we are not completely shocked and stunned, and we also are able to maintain the ties between the communities and we keep our multiracial fabric."

Slower wage increases as growth moderates
By Fiona Chan Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

THE heady days of big pay rises across the board are over.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singaporeans have to get used to a more gradual wage increase as the country's economic growth moderates to the lower level typical of developed countries.

Growth of 5 per cent to 6 per cent a year, as Singapore had enjoyed in the past, is no longer possible, he said in an interview with Singapore media on Wednesday.

"If we can make 2 to 3 per cent per year for the next five years, I think we're doing well," he added.

"Domestically, we have to get used to what that means.

"Three per cent (growth) per year means your wages will go up correspondingly, gradually, year to year - maybe not every year, but over four, five years, you will see improvements if we are successful in our policies."

Mr Lee pledged that in the face of these slower wage increases, the Government will do more to help lower-income groups and keep costs down for the middle-income, so that they have greater spending power.

"We are succeeding in keeping the tax burden down on middle- income Singaporeans considerably," he said, adding that Singapore's taxes on the middle class compare favourably against those of Hong Kong and Australia.

Low taxes are important "so that what you earn, you keep, rather than (the Government spending) on your behalf", he added.

Mr Lee also reiterated the importance of keeping the economy growing to create a better future for Singaporeans, a point he made in his recent New Year message.

"If we can maintain that, then we can improve our lives progressively.

"If we cannot maintain that, (if) we go to zero growth, I think we have a problem," he said.

Singapore expects its economy to grow in the range of 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent this year, amid a volatile global economic outlook.

This requires it to be nimble in responding to the shifts, including grinding on with the productivity drive.

"(This drive) is a very tough job because you are asking companies to change the way they are doing things," Mr Lee said.

"You may need to franchise or join together, you may need to change altogether and instead of having one waiter per table, you have self-service and the waiter just comes at the beginning and pours your coffee for you."

Singapore's target is to raise productivity by an average of 2 per cent to 3 per cent annually for the 10 years starting 2010.

But workers as a whole became less productive in 2012, 2013 and the first nine months of last year.

Productivity improvement, however, "is not something that can happen quickly, (it) is something which we have to continue working on", Mr Lee said. He added: "There is no alternative to this."

Ensuring Singaporeans, foreigners get along


"WE HAVE to talk about it on both sides - with Singaporeans, to understand why it is necessary (to have foreigners here) and how we are adapting our policies to minimise the impacts and the side effects.

But with the foreigners too - what are the rules when you come here, when you live here, you are living in Singapore, you have to comply with Singapore, fit in with Singapore norms and customs, and not the norms and customs of your own country.

It takes a while. There will be some people who will behave badly on both sides. Some Singaporeans rant away. Some foreigners occasionally rant away.

There was one person these last couple of weeks working in Tan Tock Seng (Hospital), who has been fired (for inappropriate remarks about Singaporeans).

But we should not let these bad behaviours affect the overall relationship. Amongst ourselves, we know the limits and between different religions, between different races, everybody knows there is good behaviour, what is good behaviour, what is unacceptable behaviour.

I think we need to develop those norms also between the Singaporeans who are native born, who have been here a long time, and those who are not so long here and those who are visiting or working here but not Singaporeans."

Govt should be the last recourse, not the first


"WE HAVE to take a somewhat detached view of issues so that when issues come up, our first instinct is not (to have the) Government do something about it.

Whether it is a problem with rats in the neighbourhood, whether it is a problem with feeding of birds and therefore other vermin turn up, whether it is a problem with neighbours upstairs, downstairs, the Government should be the last recourse, and should not be the first recourse.

Residents' committees (RCs) and the neighbourhood committees of course do a lot of work. But there are many other groups which get together and look out for their interests.

For example, when we have a new HDB neighbourhood precinct and people are beginning to get ready to move in, before any RC is formed, there is already a Facebook group, and they will share information about where to get the best curtains, which interior decorator is good, who gives you good value, who is to be avoided and when to get together to go and see the new MP and ask for something which is not fixed.

But actually, you ought to organise to get things done, not organise to ask the Government to do things."

Sharing light moments as well as serious content


"IT MAKES me a lot more conscious in pitching what I want to say, to ask myself how will I distil this down in a form which someone can digest on Facebook or Instagram?

You cannot always be putting out long learned dissertations on some cosmic issue or another. There are times when you have to be light-hearted, when you see a beautiful sunset, you share it with people and hope they will enjoy it with you.

When you catch an owl somewhere in the Istana, maybe somebody else is interested in the owl. It is something unusual and personal.

But it is also necessary to have serious response and content as well.

For example, (on Tuesday) I went to speak to a civil service seminar about the importance of keeping our system corruption-free. I posted on Facebook and Instagram.

I do not expect as many hits as when I put an owl up or even a picture up, but I think it is important that I do that, and I think it has some impact."

Working together for positive change
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 17 Jan 2015

SINGAPORE's initial years as an independent nation were tough.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his interview with the Singapore media this week, the first few years were uncertain and the 1971 British military pullout had a big impact on the economy.

The oil shocks and recessions in the 1970s and 1980s caused significant economic pain, just as the terror threat and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak a decade ago represented new kinds of challenges, and tested the nation's social cohesion as well.

But Singapore was able to pull itself through these crises, and is today in a better position than many other countries were when they turned 50.

Touching on how countries like China and Israel have had a much more difficult time over 50 years, Mr Lee said: "We have been spared many of these upheavals."

As the country turns 50, no one can say with certainty that Singapore will be spared a major upheaval, whether in the form of a terror attack or an economic slump, or both.

What is certain is that Singapore's social and political landscape will continue to evolve, even as how it changes will depend on how a new crop of PAP leaders manages the situation.

Many among Singapore's earlier generation already feel unsettled by the speed at which some changes have taken place in recent years. These include the pace of immigration and the proliferation of civil society and special interest groups, as well as the desire for greater checks and balances on the Government.

The PAP's ability to pilot the social, economic and political path that Singapore took in earlier decades - shepherding the process often with tough if unpopular policies - and its ability to co-opt a range of voices into its ranks, helped ensure that it was returned to power in successive elections.

But its leaders recognise that they cannot fully control the speed of change as they once had.

Mr Lee's remarks indicate the Government will try to continue to manage that change, with an eye on ensuring especially that the vulnerable in today's society do not get displaced and left out.

But as the public space has become increasingly diverse in recent years, liberal and conservative groups have pressed their concerns. Civil society groups have become more vocal in advocating their interests, from animal rights to the plight of foreign workers.

In recent months, several PAP MPs have sought to make common cause with some groups, to engage moderate activists and try to meet them halfway.

"In a normal society and normal democracy, all these will have their place," Mr Lee said. "People will speak and form and mobilise, and will lobby. The Government has to be in touch with them, make friends with as many of them as possible."

But, he added, at the end of the day, these groups must be able to stand back and ask themselves: What is in the national interest?

Indeed, taking that step back and asking that fundamental question is the reason why Singapore has succeeded in many areas in the past 50 years.

Many wonder if Singapore can do as well going forward, especially amid a trend of people still expecting the Government to wade in on even the most municipal of issues - and yet becoming critical when the Government steps in on other areas.

Mr Lee welcomed and encouraged Singaporeans to become more involved to get things done.

And if Singaporeans want to see the country do better, they should take up the challenge to do more, both on their own, and by working with the Government to steer change for the better.

SG50 a jump-off point, not final destination


"WE MUST use this (SG50) as a jump-off point, not as a final destination.

The 50th year is a good time for us. It is like reaching the end of a 50m swim. I touch (the wall), I take a breath and I swim on.

And I think swimming on, we have to set broader targets but one common element will be that in Singapore, we have a home, in Singapore, we have a future and in Singapore, our children can grow up and do well. We can work together to do that."

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