Monday 26 January 2015

PM Lee Hsien Loong's live Facebook chat draws over 1,600 questions

He takes on various topics, from pink shirts to policies, in 45-minute session
By Lim Yan Liang, The Sunday Times, 25 Jan 2015

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wears pink on the advice of his TV producer, takes photographs with his iPhone and a compact camera, likes home-cooked food best and his favourite Malay dishes are asam pedas and ondeh-ondeh.

Like many Singaporeans, he struggles to balance work and leisure, but gets in a workout every morning, has started learning Pilates and sleeps six to seven hours a night.

In an alternate world, he would have liked to be a teacher or lecturer.

These were some personal nuggets he shared in a live 45-minute Facebook chat yesterday from the social media giant's office in Cecil Street.

He said in a Facebook post in the evening: "I had a hard time keeping up with all the questions coming in, but it was an interesting and successful engagement."

Mr Lee had invited questions at 11.30am, and started answering them 15 minutes later.

By noon, more than 500 questions had flooded in. By the time the session ended at 12.30pm, there were more than 1,600. He managed to respond to just about 30, including several on policy issues in the news recently, like transport and Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings.

Some 363,500 people saw Mr Lee's chat, Facebook said yesterday.

There are 3.4 million active Facebook users in Singapore.

Transport was a hot topic, with over 100 questions on everything from petrol prices to the fare increases announced last week.

Mr Farouk Yusoff asked about his money in the CPF and the Minimum Sum Scheme, saying: "Dear PM Lee, why can I not use my CPF the way I want to? I want to spend it on my family while (I'm) still alive."

Mr Lee replied that the CPF savings are just the basic amount to take care of everyone in old age. "The Minimum Sum is not a lot. Every society has some arrangement like that, and ours is the CPF."

One participant asked if the upcoming MediShield Life scheme to provide health insurance coverage for all might be a drain on Singapore and result in cutbacks in other areas.

Mr Lee said: "This will be an issue if we are not careful. The Government does not have unlimited money, so if we spend more on health care we will have less to spend elsewhere, or must raise taxes to pay for the spending. We must get the right balance."

Mr Avin Look told Mr Lee that his retired parents, who need regular follow-ups at polyclinics and specialist centres, say they pay a lot for non-standard prescribed medications because there are no generic ones in the market.

He wanted the Pioneer Generation benefits to be extended to such medicines as well, especially for the elderly.

Mr Lee replied that there are a lot of non-standard medicines like vitamin pills. "So we have to be careful. But if the doctor thinks the non-standard item is essential, and your parents can't afford it, we have a scheme to subsidise them. Where do your parents live? Perhaps I can ask their MP to help them?"

In response to a query by Mr Allen Yu on immigration, he said Singapore would stay open to immigrants, even as he noted that some businesses found it hard to get workers due to recent limits. "We have set our immigration policy for now, but will review it after a few years."

"I'm sorry I couldn't answer all of the questions you have asked, but thank you for participating," he said. "I will do this again one day. I hope you'll be there again. Next time, I'll try hard to get to more questions."

Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan, who was among the netizens posing questions online, told The Sunday Times later that although some of those taking part were not serious, there was "quite a bit of courtesy and respect".

The general conversation online can be quite nasty, he said, but added: "In this case, I'd like to think that people still have respect for the PM."


Lim Jialiang: Why do you keep wearing pink shirts? I like pink too! Let's go to Pink Dot this year!

PM Lee: My TV producer tells me to do that!

Michael Gressick: Your photos are great! What kind of camera do you use? If it is your phone, any touch-up or editing with a mobile app?

PM Lee: iPhone, and a compact camera (especially at night). I use Lightroom to edit, and also Lightzone, which is free but very good.

Farisa Ann (in Malay): What are your favourite Malay dishes?

PM Lee: Asam pedas and ondeh-ondeh!

Inez Wee: Do you prefer traditional coffee or European coffee like latte, cappuccino or espresso?

PM Lee: I don't usually drink coffee, but once in a while I try whatever brew is being offered (yesterday at the Launchpad @ one-north, I had a cup of kopi-si)

Christine Aw: If you were not the PM, what would you want to be?

PM Lee: A teacher or lecturer. It is fun to interact with young people.

Shyam Meghji: I see that you wear Jawbone (a wristband that tracks activity) all the time. May I know how many steps you take in a day and your average hours of sleep?

PM Lee: I sleep six to seven hours a day, and walk on average 7,000 to 8,000 steps. Once in a while I do more than 10,000 steps, and the app sings and dances!

Wei Hann Loo: Dear PM Lee, given your hectic work schedule, how do you balance your work with family and personal life?

PM Lee: Always a struggle, like everyone else. But I exercise every morning, and try to take a walk with my wife on weekends. I am also just starting to learn something new - Pilates!


Ramesh Subbaraman: You have consented to post Minister Chan Chun Sing to NTUC full time from April. Which areas of work in NTUC and tripartism do you hope to see him building on in the years ahead? What's most critical for Singapore when it comes to worker issues?

PM Lee: You should ask Chun Sing that question! Certainly worker upgrading is important, so that our people can do better jobs. So is working with employers and the Government, to cope with the rapid changes in our economy. We talk about restructuring just as a concept, but for a worker whose job is restructured it can be a very painful and difficult thing.


William Wan: What is your view on our evolution as a gracious society? In what ways are we making progress and how can we continue to make progress?

PM Lee: We have made progress, but must work harder. For example, in some MRT stations (like Bishan) commuters queue up to get into the carriages. We should do that in all our stations. I know the Singapore Kindness Movement is doing good work. I will post about it on FB soon, so that more Singaporeans learn about what you are doing! (Mr Wan is general secretary of the kindness group).


Jeff Wu: I run a small business with my girlfriend and we are having a very hard time finding Singaporeans willing to work entry-level jobs... Easing restrictions on the foreign worker quota would allow us to grow and thrive.

PM Lee: Jeff, many SMEs have experienced the same problem as you. We have tightened on foreign workers, but we have not shut them off. Some people wanted us to stop foreign workers altogether! We have to continue to be tight, but we are watching carefully to make sure we don't overdo things. This is one issue DPM Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) is studying.


Alanna Si Jia Tan: Why is it that our transportation costs keep on increasing? Can't the Government take back shares within the transportation system such that the prices don't increase every year, and work with the privatised operation? The price of fuel drops but our rates increase again. Hong Kong's MTR has dropped their transport fees to give back to the society. What about us? Can we stop experiencing fare hikes?

PM Lee: This is a difficult problem everywhere. Nobody likes to pay more for train and bus rides. Yet it costs money to run the trains and buses, and to improve the service standards. It is not true that SBS Transit earns huge profits. In fact in recent years their bus operations have not been making money. The Government subsidises public transport heavily - we are spending billions every year building MRT lines, and also spending almost a billion on the (bus services enhancement programme) BSEP. But commuters too have to pay a fair share.

This year fuel prices have dropped. According to the formula, fares should go down too. But we have half an adjustment left over from last year, so overall fares have to go up a bit. Hope you will understand.


Atiqah Jamal: Will you build more HDB flats for singles? Will you allow singles younger than 35 to own a flat?

PM Lee: We are indeed building more HDB flats, and singles can now apply for them. But I don't think we will reduce the age below 35. It is not so old!


David Teh (in Mandarin): When will Singapore have a woman Deputy Prime Minister?

PM Lee: Now that we have female ministers, of course it is possible to have a female Deputy Prime Minister! We recognise meritocracy, and don't make a distinction between male and female.


James Lao: I am a secondary 4 student. With the O levels looming in the distance, there have been quite a few debates on the usefulness of bilingualism among some of my friends, with some arguing against it... I would like to ask: What was the most compelling argument you have faced that is against the bilingualism policy, and what was your response?

PM Lee: The most compelling argument is: it is a very heavy investment to study two languages. Why not concentrate on one, and do it really well? My answer is: it is a heavy investment, but the benefits are very important. We keep our mother tongue and culture, and we open ourselves to the both East and the West. If we only spoke English, we would lose our roots. If we only spoke our mother tongues, we would lose our living. So we study both. Not quite perfectly, but that way we have a place for ourselves in the sun!

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