Saturday 11 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's interview with Singapore media ahead of the leadership transition

Bringing everyone along: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reflects on 20 years at the helm
As PM Lee Hsien Loong prepares to step down from his post on 15 May 2024 he shares his views on Singapore, the world and the road ahead.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thanks Singaporeans for what country achieved over last 20 years
People live in peace and contentment today due to efforts of citizens, he says
‘I tried to bring everybody to run with me. And I think we did have some success’: PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he has no regrets after leading the country for 20 years, having done what he set out to do with Singaporeans.

Singapore is a shining little red dot today, where people live in peace and contentment, and this is due to the effort of its citizens, he added.

As he prepares to step down from leading the country, PM Lee has this message for the people: “We’ve achieved much together... we are proud to be Singaporeans, and I am comforted by that. This is the result of everyone’s hard work, and I thank you for your effort and support.”

In wide-ranging interviews in English and Chinese looking back at his years in office, a relaxed and smiling PM Lee said he was ready to hand over to a new leader to take Singapore forward.

“We have been preparing this for a very long time,” he said at the interviews held at the Istana on April 24 and 26.

Noting that there have already been two successful leadership transitions, he expressed confidence that the third will be as smooth and peaceful.

PM Lee, a former brigadier-general who entered politics in 1984 and was appointed minister of state soon after, will stay on as senior minister in the new Cabinet after the handover.

Asked if he would deal with tricky issues as founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew did after stepping down, or travel the world like second prime minister Goh Chok Tong did to cement friendships, PM Lee said: “To the extent that I have people who know me and whom I can talk to, I will certainly make use of that and engage them. Specific, sensitive policy, that is up to the prime minister to decide.”

He added: “If he arrows me to do it, I will take the arrow.”

Whatever his role in the new team, he will only be in a supporting role, PM Lee stressed.

He said he told his successor: “I will be here to do my best to help you to succeed. You have to be your own person. You have to make the decisions.

“You have to lead in your own way, persuade people in your own way.

“I will give you the benefit of my experience and my views. But you have to set the tone, you have to carry the decisions.”

The Singapore that PM Lee and his team inherited in 2004 had just emerged from the Asian financial crisis and the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, outbreak.

At his inauguration speech on Aug 12, 2004, he had told Singaporeans: “Work with me to make Singapore a home we love, a community we belong to, and a country we are proud to call our own.”

In the years since, the country has stayed open amid the backlash against globalisation, and moved to provide stronger social safety nets. Gross domestic product per capita more than doubled from $46,664 in 2004 to $113,779 in 2023.

At the same time, income gaps widened, and Singapore moved towards redistribution programmes and more collective responsibility.

ComCare was launched in 2005 to bring support schemes together, and Workfare in 2007 to top up the wages of lower-income workers. The Progressive Wage Model followed in 2012 to uplift the wages of those at the bottom. MediShield Life and CareShield Life were then introduced to provide financial assurance for those who need long-term care.

But the Singaporean attitude should remain one of working hard and being prudent, and if things turn out well and Singapore has a good year, everybody can enjoy the upside, he said.

This upside, too, should not be just a distribution – “where you spend the money and it is gone” – but something society feels addresses real needs and deserves support.

Under PM Lee, the Government also introduced generational safety nets, in the form of the Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation packages for Singaporeans now in their 60s and older.

A visibly emotional PM Lee said: “They brought us here. If they had not stood and fought at the critical moment, and then slogged and built their whole lives to take Singapore forward, saved and enabled the next generation to move higher and further than they did, we would not be here today.”

Now that the Republic has accumulated some buffer, this is a way to thank and honour those generations, with a gesture that will help them in their golden years, he said.

With 20 more years of nation-building, the Singapore identity has become stronger, said PM Lee. “It is 20 more years of ups and downs, and trials and tribulations, and joys and sorrows.”

This identity was forged through crises, from the global financial crisis which hit in 2008 to the Covid-19 pandemic.

From time to time, Singapore has also had to work through prickly issues like the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code in 2022, which penalised sex between men, and allowing public sector nurses to wear the tudung to work.

These experiences enabled Singaporeans to understand one another better, accept one another’s differences, and work out practical arrangements, said PM Lee.

“But to say after this, we can fly solo – the Government does not need to watch, can take hands off the steering wheel or the controls, and it will look after itself – I do not think so. Never,” he added.

It is not possible because these issues will forever be sensitive, there have to be limits to discussions, and the Government needs to set the tone, he said.

“It is better for the Government to guide it, allow more discussions, allow freer exchange of views, and you can allow more liberal practices too. But I think we have to handle (sensitive issues) with very great care – always.”

This national identity will also always be subject to influences from the outside world, such as “wokeness”, religious norms, cultural norms, sexual norms and family norms.

Singapore will always be both part of a global humanity, and yet also a nation.

“I want to keep this Singapore nation cohesive, united, open, but not dissolved and just melted away. And that, for Singapore, for the long term, that is one of our key nation-building tasks,” said PM Lee.

While he will hand over his role as prime minister on May 15, there has been no announcement yet of when he will hand over the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to his successor.

Observers expect that he will remain PAP’s secretary-general until at least November, when the party celebrates its 70th anniversary and holds internal elections. DPM Wong told The Economist in a May 6 interview that he would take over as secretary-general “in due course”, without stating a timeframe.

Over the years, the party has changed, said PM Lee: generationally with new leaders; in policies and how it pitches them; and also how it engages the people to get buy-in.

“We have changed a lot over the years, and it is for the better,” said PM Lee, who has been MP for Teck Ghee ward, now under Ang Mo Kio GRC, since he was first elected into Parliament in 1984.

What has remained constant is the PAP’s commitment to Singapore, and its determination to maintain high standards of integrity and competence, he said.

Under his watch, the PAP was returned to power in four general elections – in May 2006, May 2011, September 2015 and July 2020.

PM Lee said each generation of leaders has had to govern in the way that worked best for the Singapore of that era.

“Mr Lee Kuan Yew governed in a certain way, it worked for his generation. It wrought miracles practically, but it was his generation, and him. Mr Goh Chok Tong did it his way for a younger generation, different from Mr Lee.

“And I have tried to do it my way, different from both Mr Lee and Mr Goh. If I tried to do it their way, either one, I think I would have failed,” said PM Lee.

Asked to assess his own performance, PM Lee gave his usual response that it would be up to others to judge.

But he became emotional as he thanked Singaporeans for having come on this journey with him. That is what he would cherish most about having served as Singapore’s third prime minister.

“I didn’t try to run faster than everybody else. I tried to bring everybody to run with me,” he said.

“And I think we did have some success.”

Singapore’s political system is rare and once lost there is no turning back, says PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Singaporeans have something special and rare in the country’s political system, where people have consistently given the mandate to the People’s Action Party (PAP), and it in turn has delivered outstanding results in everything from security to housing, education, healthcare and the economy, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“The way it has worked in Singapore is quite special and does not happen anywhere else in the world, democracy or non-democracy,” he added.

PM Lee, who is secretary-general of the ruling PAP, said in an interview with the Singapore media at the Istana that this state of affairs has been the envy of other leaders.

At its core, the system is built on good politics, which has allowed a good government to get elected so it can implement good policies to benefit the people, he said.

“When voters go to the polls again, they can give their vote to the same good government that serves them. Then this virtuous (circle) can continue,” said PM Lee in the interviews conducted in English and Mandarin.

Over time, the system has allowed the Government to plan long-term and deliver outstanding results for Singapore in economic growth and many other aspects of life, said PM Lee.

But for the system to keep on working, it is crucial that voters understand where their interests lie and vote for the government that can best serve them, said PM Lee.

He warned that the system can become distorted when voters want the PAP to govern, but also want more opposition MPs to check and question the Government.

“You may think that you can get a better outcome this way, but in fact, it will weaken the Government’s ability to serve you,” he said.

More time will be spent on dealing with politics, which is the case now because “you must win the politics, otherwise the policies cannot run”, said PM Lee.

With more opposition MPs in Parliament now – eight from the Workers’ Party and two from the Progress Singapore Party – debates have become more intense.

PM Lee said the quality of debate has improved, as the opposition MPs come with prepared positions and are coordinated.

But it is not clear if this has helped people better understand issues or improved policies, he added.

On non-contentious issues, the opposition has contributed good ideas, but many other important issues inherently carry some political colour, and provide a strong incentive for the opposition to use them to score points against the Government, he said. On such issues, it is difficult to achieve an objective and constructive debate, he added.

“If you help the Government to govern better and the Government says, thank you, I will do it, and the result is better, then you are making it harder for yourself to get elected the next time,” he said.

“So the premium is on showing up what the shortcomings are.”

This would have a detrimental effect.

“I think that if the trend continues over the long term, or even the not-so-long term, it will certainly affect our political system, our Government, or even our policies. This will be a different path for Singapore. This is a completely plausible danger for Singapore, and Singaporeans do not always understand this,” said PM Lee.

He described a possible freak election in which people end up voting for Team B because they assume everyone else will be voting for Team A, which they in fact want as the government.

“Just move a little bit further along the slope. No harm, nothing will happen. Life will carry on, PAP will look after you. We will be even stronger checking the PAP and speaking up for you. Marvellous. Have your cake and eat it twice. But is it so safe?”

Another scenario that could happen is a weakened Team A over time, which will be unable to provide the quality of government that people deserve, even though Team B is still not ready to replace it.

“Think about it – look at the opposition line-up now. Are you confident you can form half a Cabinet? Everyone has done the assessment, and everyone knows it is absolutely impossible. The opposition also knows it is absolutely impossible,” he said.

Either of these two scenarios could be disastrous for Singapore, said PM Lee. “At some point, the political system will malfunction. It is a risk,” he added.

For now, the opposition is “doing their best to act as a watchdog”, hoping that Singaporeans will think that they will make the Government more transparent and improve policies, or even dilute less popular policies, said PM Lee.

“I think in this aspect they are doing their best. But as to whether they can really raise the standards of policies, I have my views,” he added.

Theoretically, it is possible to have a situation where the ruling party and the opposition are largely on par in terms of abilities, said PM Lee.

“It is not just the men in white who can do it. The opposition has its own definition. It wants to have more opposition MPs, and to them this is the way to achieve better politics; they want to replace the PAP,” he said.

“We can reach this point. But this is not the situation today.”

For now, there is just not enough talent to go around, he noted.

“If there are talents everywhere, and we have a Team A that is Manchester United, and a Team B that is Liverpool, then this may be a feasible approach. But we only have one team, and it is already very difficult to form one team,” he said.

“Today, the team that the PAP offers, the quality of government we provide, I do not believe that the opposition can do it. In fact, they definitely cannot do it.”

Admitting that the opposition will have a different view, PM Lee said that in an electoral system, each party’s mission must be to form the government one day.

The PAP will continue to strive to win every election, he added.

“We will try very hard as a PAP to make sure that we continue to win the people’s mandate and to hold the position, in a different way with a different generation,” he said.

On the general election due by November 2025, PM Lee said: “We will try our best to deserve that cross against the right logo, and we will fight hard to persuade people to do that.”

Later on, when asked if he thinks he will see a non-PAP government one day, PM Lee said it could happen in 20 years.

“It can happen if the PAP has let the people down, and the opposition has become stronger and better and offers a better alternative,” he said.

“Well, in that situation I say, I am sad for the PAP, but for Singapore, go for the opposition, vote (for) the better team (to) take care of the country... and may you succeed.”

New leaders will be probed, must be ready to respond: PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

As incoming prime minister Lawrence Wong and his fourth-generation team take the helm, there may be countries that will take the chance to test their mettle, and Singapore must be ready to respond, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

People will want to get the measure of the new leaders and their policies, suss out the new prime minister’s domestic standing and support, as well as his ability to engage and hold his own, he said at an interview when asked if Singapore might be tested amid the upcoming leadership transition.

“I think that the new team will be probed, certainly. Tested, well, maybe gently, maybe issues will come, and people might push a little bit harder, or maybe not,” he said.

“But we must expect that some probing will come, and we must be ready to respond. Not in a harsh way, but quietly to stand our ground and let people know that we may have had a changing of the guard, but the new guards are prepared, and the old guards are still giving hopefully useful views to the new team on how to do it.”

To this end, Mr Wong, who is Deputy Prime Minister, is no novice and has been making the rounds to build ties with partners, noted PM Lee.

Most recently, in April, DPM Wong visited Germany and France. In 2023, he made a trip to the United States and also met various Asean leaders.

Speaking on foreign policy during the wide-ranging interview, PM Lee said Singapore’s diplomacy has helped the Republic to “carve a spot in the world”.

But the external environment has also become more troubled, with geopolitical tensions rising and confidence in free trade shaken.

Amid this, Singapore has become more connected to the world. From TikTok videos to internet memes, WhatsApp messages and even travel, Singaporeans are now more exposed to influence from the outside, said PM Lee.

The result is that foreign policy and domestic policy have become increasingly intertwined, and Singapore has had to adapt, he added.

PM Lee recounted how he made a private and unofficial trip to Taiwan in 2004 before taking over, when he was still deputy prime minister.

“It caused a rumpus, and I had to state my position.

“So, my first National Day Rally, I had to spend time talking about not just foreign policy but that trip to Taiwan and why I went and why it was important to us, and why Singapore’s national interest required me to do that, and that it was necessary for me to do so, even though it caused a kerfuffle at that time,” he said.

During the last 20 years, there have been other occasions when Singapore was tested, and the Government has had to explain the issues at hand and carry the population, he said.

While Singapore’s foreign policy has always been based on the country’s long-term national interests, there can be different and competing national interests to balance.

“A specific issue comes up – there is a test – somebody probes your maritime boundary a little bit and on the other hand, he is offering to do business with you and trade green energy, for example. Do you get angry? Do you decide to overlook this and then I do business and I lump it? There is no formula answer,” said PM Lee.

“You have to look at each one, each situation, and then you have to judge. And in a big case, if you have to make a big decision and take a stand. Then the people will have a view and the Government will have to take that into account, and the Government hopefully will have its own considered view and will talk to the population, and we will discuss this.”

What has not changed over the years is the fact that Singapore is still a little red dot – “a bit redder but still little”, said PM Lee.

Singapore still depends on an international rule of law and trade, and needs to protect its interests in an environment “where everybody is jostling with one another, and we are not the biggest person in the discussion”, he added.

“We have to hold our own, which takes quite a lot of doing and keeps MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) very busy.”

To remain relevant, Singapore must continue to make friends and strike up relationships with other countries where there is common cause to be found, he added.

He cited how Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu has played an active role at the UN Climate Change Conferences.

At one meeting, she was put in charge of negotiating carbon markets – “one of the most vexed subjects on the agenda”. She went in as an honest broker and helped to pull the different perspectives together, eventually reaching a landing, PM Lee said.

“We have to master the issues, understand what they are about. If we can be helpful in putting up ideas which can bridge different positions and move a little bit closer towards an outcome, a landing place, we are very happy to do that,” he said.

“We do have a bit of a reputation for that, and it is a good reputation.”

This preparedness has sometimes put the other party on the defensive, as they may feel they have to be careful, noted PM Lee.

“But I think it is better to be prepared than for people to say, ‘Let us go and see them, they have not done their homework, and we will have a good time’,” he added.

“I think both will always be complicated relationships. Nearest neighbours, permanently nearest neighbours; you have to work together, and yet there are always so many places where you can easily have different perspectives or rub up against each other. And I think we both know that, and both try our best not to collide, because we can do many things together.”

With Malaysia, progress has been made on issues such as Pedra Branca and the Malayan Railway land deal, he said.

He added that he had spoken to Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on other issues, which can be cooperative but also sensitive, such as airspace, the delimitation of maritime boundaries, and water.

“These are things which need to be discussed. We have not settled them. So, there is work to be done by my successor,” said PM Lee.

With Indonesia, Singapore had inked three landmark pacts on airspace management, defence cooperation and extradition. The agreements came into force in March 2024 and were one of the biggest milestones in bilateral relations.

PM Lee said this puts both sides “on a good (long-term) basis that takes our two countries the next steps forward (to) cooperate together”.

On the US and China, PM Lee said the underlying tensions and contradictions between their national positions and interests may result in continued tensions for the next 10 years, maybe even 20 years or more.

Fortunately, Singapore has good relations with both, he noted.

With China, Singapore has various areas of cooperation, ranging from government-to-government projects in Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing, to an upgraded free trade agreement.

“We have had good relations with China for quite a long time now, despite periodic kerfuffles,” said PM Lee.

“So, I think overall, our relationships with them are very warm, and I think they know that we would like to do more with them, and we are not against them.”

At the same time, China knows that although Singapore is a majority ethnic Chinese country, “we are different from them”, added PM Lee, noting that it was important to maintain the proper relationship based on national interests and not ethnic identity.

With the US, Singapore has investment links, and both sides cooperate on defence and security. There are more than 1,000 Singapore Armed Forces personnel in the US at any time – one of the biggest foreign military contingents there.

Fundamentally, Singapore believes that America has an important and constructive role to play in the security and prosperity of the region, said PM Lee.

Meanwhile, Asean has remained a cornerstone of Singapore’s foreign policy, he said, noting that the grouping helps to contribute to and also benefits from a stable and secure region.

But the peace and stability of the past 40 years cannot be taken for granted, especially amid the big power tensions and rivalries that could have an impact on this part of the world, he added.

“Are we absolutely sure that for the next 20 years, there would be no war? I think the answer is, we cannot be absolutely sure. It could happen, probably not, but things can go wrong,” said PM Lee.

He added that regional resilience is as important as national resilience, and Singapore will have to “keep on building this up, contributing to it and playing our part, even though we are a very small member of Asean”.

“For the long term, what is important for the region is war and peace, and what can Asean do to contribute to peace in the region.”

Politicians and political parties are politically significant persons: PM Lee
By Chin Soo Fang, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Being designated a politically significant person (PSP) does not mean someone has committed a crime, but that they have a connection to Singapore politics or a foreign entity, and may be vulnerable to being subverted, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a media interview at the Istana on April 26.

Referring to the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, which was passed in Parliament on Oct 4, 2021 after a 10-hour debate, he said it is to deal with foreign hostile influence operations, as well as those that use individuals and organisations here for their purposes.

Under the Act, a person is classified as a PSP if he has a nexus to Singapore politics or some foreign actor. If he is a political actor but does not have a foreign nexus, he is not a threat, but at some point, some foreign actor may decide to make friends with him, and he may become vulnerable and a threat, PM Lee added.

As prime minister, PM Lee said he is a PSP, as are his ministers, opposition MPs, Nominated MPs (NMPs) and political parties, including the People’s Action Party. This means that every MP and minister, and the political parties, would have to declare their links or connections under the law.

“I am a PSP because I am the PM and therefore nexus to Singapore politics. Quite clear. My ministers are PSPs. My MPs are PSPs, the opposition MPs, even the NMPs, automatically. Not designated, but they are also PSPs,” he said.

“The People’s Action Party as a party, that is a PSP too, because the party can be subverted and every year the party has to declare I am not receiving foreign money, I do not have foreign connections. And if you declare falsely, then of course many consequences will follow,” he added.

A PSP has to declare his foreign connections and foreign sources of money annually.

The intention is to make it harder for some foreign actor to influence the PSP since he has to declare any connections, such as being in a distinguished advisory committee. This diminishes his value to the foreign actor, PM Lee said.

If the PSP does not have any connections, he can declare so and say: “I do not have any connections. You can trust me. I am a politically significant person, but I am not doing anything wrong.”

“So being declared a PSP does not mean necessarily that you have done anything wrong. It is just to put everybody on notice, that you have either a foreign nexus or you are politically active,” he said.

Businessman Philip Chan Man Ping, 59, was designated a PSP in February 2024. This made the Hong Kong-born businessman the first person to be dealt with under FICA. As a PSP, Mr Chan has to make annual disclosures to the authorities of political donations of $10,000 or more that he has received and accepted, and declare his foreign affiliations and any migration benefits.

PM Lee said Singapore has known black operations for a long time, since the 1960s and 1970s. Some were operating in newspapers such as Eastern Sun, Singapore Herald and the Chinese-language newspapers.

“But what is new is that they are now on our doorstep and in our bedroom because of the internet, because of social media, because of Singaporeans travelling,” he added.

“And now also because of AI (artificial intelligence), it is so much easier to generate stuff and to persuade people or mislead people.”

Asked if businessmen with dealings with China are in danger of becoming PSPs, PM Lee said it will be a matter of judgment and a decision which the Ministry of Home Affairs would have to make.

“Not everybody who does business in China is of interest. Not everybody who speaks well of a foreign country is necessarily a foreign agent or is likely to be a foreign agent or is likely to have influence,” he said.

“So to be a PSP, you have to cross a certain threshold. You are likely to matter and therefore, we will do something about it.”

Balancing foreign workforce with social cohesion is a continuing, long-term challenge: PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Singapore must continue to welcome foreign talent if it is to grow its economy and stand out in the world, but there must be careful calibration to maintain social cohesion, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Managing the inherent tensions between these two imperatives will be “the most difficult” long-term challenge that Singapore will face, he added.

“We have to do our best to generate political space for us, in order to feel our way forward and go as far as politically can be supported,” said PM Lee, who addressed the hot-button issue in a wide-ranging media interview.

Over time, the Singapore identity has strengthened, with shared values and ways of doing things as well as a sense of cohesion.

Foreigners can enrich that identity, bringing talent, experience and different perspectives, said PM Lee. But they also dilute it, at least temporarily, because of their different backgrounds.

“You can come from China, but you are not the Singaporean Chinese. You can come from India, but you are not the Singaporean Indian. And there is a difference between a Singaporean Chinese and a Chinese-Chinese, and a Singaporean Indian and an Indian-Indian,” he added.

While acknowledging this is a real concern, PM Lee said Singapore needs talent to develop new things, and can never have enough talent.

“We need bodies because there are jobs which there are no Singaporeans available to do, like construction. And there are also other jobs where there are Singaporeans available to do, but you would not have enough, and you need more,” he added.

The Government has managed the situation by bringing in foreigners in a controlled way that is good for the economy and complements Singaporean workers rather than putting them out of a job, without diluting social norms and mores in a way that can cause frictions and conflict, he explained.

Part of it involves making sure the physical infrastructure can handle the new additions, he said. “You have a big population, where do the foreign workers go, they need entertainment on weekends.”

It is also about educating the people who come here about Singapore’s norms, he added.

“They may not become Singaporean straight away, but you know that you are a guest and well, be a good guest,” he said.

At the same time, Singaporeans must also understand how important it is to have foreigners supplement the workforce, and make an effort to reach out to the newcomers, he said.

The Government, on its part, has been calibrating the numbers, through foreign worker quotas and levies at the lower levels, and the Employment Pass mechanism as well as salary thresholds and qualifications at the top end, among other measures.

In 2023, it also introduced the points-based Complementarity Assessment Framework to evaluate Employment Pass applications, which takes into account the qualifications of foreign employees and where they are from.

Citing these measures, PM Lee said: “We have to see how it works. It will take a bit of time to know. I am sure we will continue refining it, but we have to keep on doing these things and adjusting as we go along.”

Singapore does not have a lot of manoeuvring room, and “you cannot say, I send off all the foreign workers, and then tomorrow we will be okay”, he noted.

“That is why I said – feel our way forward. You cannot be on autopilot,” he added.

The issue of foreign workers will be raised in Parliament from time to time, with the opposition going “Sturm und Drang” and making an issue of the numbers, said PM Lee, using a German phrase for storm and stress.

Invariably, they will realise that such manpower is needed to keep companies afloat – from small and medium enterprises to multinational corporations – so that Singaporean workers can continue to have good jobs, he added.

“If we want Singapore to grow, then we have no choice but to work very hard to find ways we can have our cake and eat most of it. And that is a continuing, long-term challenge,” he said.

Amid countries turning inwards, and pursuing reshoring and homeshoring around the world, Singapore’s economy also faces other headwinds.

That is why Singapore has to be out there promoting freer trade and inter-cooperation, and developing networks of trade and investment, said PM Lee.

While other countries can think about reshoring, the option is not open to Singapore, which needs to buy components from other countries to make chips, for instance. The country’s market is also too small to absorb all the goods produced, he said.

With the World Trade Organisation now paralysed because many countries are doing their own thing, Singapore has had to work in other forums, said PM Lee.

For instance, the Republic has pushed for cooperation in new fields, such as the electric economy, and has concluded digital economy agreements with Britain and Australia, while also working on a multilateral Digital Economy Partnership Agreement with New Zealand and Chile which may see two more countries joining.

“We have to keep on being active. Smaller-scale platforms, but to us, these are all the more important,” said PM Lee.

PM Lee to the young: I wish I had been born later
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

As an “old man” in his early 70s, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong envies the young men and women of today.

They have many more opportunities and a better quality of living than those who lived through Singapore’s early years. And while they were not part of the exhilarating journey from Third World to First, they are starting at a higher level and can continue to move upwards with hard work, he said.

Responding to a question about whether the younger generations can still do better than the generations before, an optimistic PM Lee said: “I would feel very disappointed that a young person was pessimistic about his opportunities in life and wished he had been born earlier.

Each generation of Singaporeans has worked hard to ensure that future generations can do better, said PM Lee, 72, particularly highlighting the contributions of the Pioneer generation and Merdeka generation – now in their 60s or older – who faced many challenges in Singapore’s early days of nation-building.

The country’s future is bright, and young Singaporeans have reasons to be confident that they will continue to move upwards, he added.

When he was young, only between 3 per cent and 4 per cent of his generation went to universities, he said.

Now, between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of Singaporeans go on to one of the six autonomous universities here, and practically all of them have the opportunity to go on an externship or overseas attachment somewhere, he added.

The youth of today also have access to technology which allows them to connect to the world, be more productive and take on “all kinds of jobs which my generation never heard of”, he said.

“E-sports trainer – you can make a living! You are sitting there playing with your fingers and mouse, in a super special chair with a big screen, and you can make a living. So is that a worse life than the previous generation? I do not think so,” quipped PM Lee, ever the technophile.

“Well, I think my starting point is, as an old man, I envy the young men and women. Because you are enjoying advantages and opportunities which never existed in my generation.”

What the current generations will not experience, though, is the journey from Third World to First, and the attending rapid improvements that allowed previous generations to pursue constant upgrading of homes and other material possessions, acknowledged PM Lee.

Stories abound of those who had started off with a three-room flat and ended up with an executive apartment or even upgraded to private property.

“We took them there on the journey – started poor, progressed rapidly year by year, and ended up with most not poor. Many well-off and some very, very successful. That is an exhilarating journey,” he said.

But this also means current generations are now starting off at a much higher level, said PM Lee.

In terms of the quality of life – the amenities, connections, social environment in the neighbourhoods – Singapore is comparable to, if not better than, nearly every other major city in the world, he added.

He acknowledged that there is not a lot of space to “decompress” in Singapore, which is mostly developed.

But while there is no option to go “upstate”, unlike the residents of, say, Manhattan in New York and other major cities elsewhere, Singaporeans can travel to neighbouring countries which are not very far away, said PM Lee, noting that that is what many people do.

To young people, PM Lee said: “You are not starting at the same very low level, but you are starting at a higher level and a higher quality of accommodation as well as life. Can you bring it higher? Answer is yes.

“It will not improve as fast as before, but you came very fast... and you are not going back down. You are going up from here – slower – but if we work at it, we can continue moving upwards.”

During the interview, PM Lee also spoke about the anxieties of older Singaporeans who want to continue working.

Employment rates by age show that older workers in Singapore have a statistically higher chance of working compared with those in other developed economies, he said.

With Singapore’s economy always in need of workers, companies should look at how they can adapt and redesign jobs for older workers, and also workers as they age.

Meanwhile, said PM Lee, the Government will continue to prepare workers through SkillsFuture for new opportunities that arise even as their industries get disrupted.

“Many people are working well into their 60s now and sometimes into their 70s, like me. And actually, happy to have that work because it gives you something to do. It is purposeful, it is not just earning the money, but I wake up in the morning, there is something I want to do in life.”

‘I’ve been scammed’: PM Lee on how he himself was victim of an online scam
By Chin Soo Fang, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

The Government is very concerned that more Singaporeans are falling prey to scams involving huge sums of money, and it is doing all it can to combat the menace, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

About $660 million is lost in scams annually, with Singaporeans losing nearly $2 million a day to such crimes, he said during an interview with the Chinese media at the Istana on April 28.

“It is earth-shaking to be robbed of that amount daily, but it is happening on the internet every day,” PM Lee said. “This is the hard-earned money of the people and could even be an elderly person’s life savings meant for his last 20 to 30 years. His money is wiped out overnight.”

“We’ve done what we can, but it is still heartbreaking, and we are still thinking what more can be done to help the victims,” he added. “Maybe it is also about how we can prevent ourselves from being scammed.”

PM Lee shared that he himself had been the victim of a fake website, where an item he ordered never arrived.

“I’ve been scammed,” he said. “I thought it was real, but it didn’t come for a long time.”

“The online world is a colourful one, but it is also a big headache,” he added.

More than 90 per cent of Singaporeans have internet access. While it is important to have online connectivity to maintain a normal relationship with people, fake news and deepfakes have made it difficult to decipher truth from falsehood, he said.

Children should be taught to ask questions when they see a piece of news, such as whether it is credible, who sent it, what is the motive of the sender and if there is a need to verify the truth with reliable news sources, he added.

“If you see a piece of news stating that Lee Hsien Loong is selling Bitcoin, you better go check, because it is bogus unless there is something wrong with me.”

PM Lee’s identity has been used by scammers in various schemes. Some people have alerted him to such scams by sending him screenshots and expressing their anger.

“It has happened so often to me that I don’t react to such scams any more,” he said. “I told them: ‘Don’t be angry, calm down, this is a recurring issue, and we will take action.’”

While he occasionally takes to his Facebook page to remind everyone to be careful of scammers, he cannot keep up with the fake news.

“My Facebook cannot be like your bank app, dispatching security advisories to everyone daily.”

Falling victim to scams does not mean one is stupid, and even intelligent people can be scammed, he said.

“Sometimes, the bank staff may step in to help you from losing your life savings to scams. You may be scolding them, asking: ‘Why are you stopping me? I know what I’m doing, do you think I have Alzheimer’s disease?’” said PM Lee.

“You may not have Alzheimer’s, but you have fallen for a scam unknowingly. This is a very serious problem.”

The media also needs to guard itself from reporting fake news unwittingly, he said.

“It is very likely to happen, because even with your vigilance, it may slip through the cracks one day.”

The scammers are always coming up with new and better tricks, he said.

“This is an ever-evolving problem, and we don’t have a strategy to deal with it every time. It is something we have to keep tackling, and other countries are facing the same challenge.”

The problem is widespread elsewhere, including in China and probably in the neighbouring countries too. Their numbers may seem lower because many scams go unreported, PM Lee added.

“In Singapore, scams are reported to the police, so there is hope that we can manage this problem.”

Younger generation of Singaporeans understand importance of the Chinese language: PM Lee
By Chin Soo Fang, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Today’s Singaporeans understand the importance of the Chinese language, and want to ensure that the next generation of Singaporeans have a good grasp of their mother tongue, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The fourth-generation leaders likewise remain as determined as past governments to promote Chinese and maintain Singaporeans’ bilingual advantage, added PM Lee, under whose watch the learning of Chinese in school underwent major changes.

In an interview in Mandarin at the Istana on April 28, he gave four reasons why he is sanguine that the standard and status of the Chinese language can be kept up in Singapore, despite abiding concerns that younger Singaporeans are becoming indifferent to their mother tongue and culture.

The first is that schools here are actively pressing on with a bilingual curriculum, and bilingual and bicultural classes are often well subscribed. Students who have interest and aptitude in languages are keen on these lessons, and the numbers have held steady, said the Prime Minister.

Second, community groups such as clan associations are earnestly organising language and cultural activities, and these have likewise garnered a good response.

He noted that at the annual National Chinese Challenge co-organised by SPH Media’s Chinese Media Group and Nanyang Girls’ High School in April, St Gabriel’s Secondary School emerged the champion among secondary schools.

This was a good sign as it showed that excellence in Chinese instruction was not the sole preserve of just the few Chinese or Special Assistance Plan schools, said PM Lee. “Many schools are able to maintain a certain proficiency (and) that is a good phenomenon.”

The third reason is that for many immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan who have made Singapore home, Mandarin is their native tongue. When they marry Singaporeans and have children, their home environment would tend to be Mandarin-speaking, and their children would become proficient speakers, he said.

“In time to come, many would become the cream (of the Chinese community) – that is natural, and a good outcome,” he said.

Many young parents are also making a concerted effort to speak more Mandarin at home, with the hope that their children’s command of the language will be stronger than theirs.

PM Lee cited a recent encounter with a young father who was speaking in Mandarin with his three-year-old son at a playground.

The father said that while he had “returned all his Chinese language to his teachers” long ago, he was now speaking in Mandarin with his son as much as possible, with the hope of building a strong foundation from an early age.

“He said, ‘I want him to listen to Chinese and use it from a young age, so that next time, his Chinese will be better than mine’,” PM Lee recounted. “So there is hope, and we do not have to be too pessimistic.”

Despite being “rusty”, many Singaporeans realise when they go to China or Taiwan that they have a foundation in the language they can restore, he said. “After a few days or a week, you get used to it, and the words flow more naturally.”

PM Lee’s remarks came as some recent surveys, including from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), showed that all ethnic groups have become less proficient in their mother tongue languages, though proficiency in English has risen.

IPS researchers said changes in education policies over the years likely cemented the growing preference for English over one’s mother tongue.

PM Lee has played a key role in Singapore’s language education policy.

As deputy prime minister in 1999, he led the Chinese Language Review Committee, which introduced a simplified Chinese-language “B” syllabus for secondary and junior college students struggling with the language. At the higher end, more students were allowed to study Higher Chinese.

As the newly minted prime minister in 2004, his government embarked on another review of Chinese language teaching, which became customised to students’ language abilities, and with greater emphasis on reading and oral fluency.

The Government stood by its bilingual policy but had progressively realised that for most people, the more they learnt of one language, the less they learnt of the second. Basically, a trade-off had to be made, and there had to be realistic targets and expectations for learning Chinese, PM Lee told the House.

In 2011, mother tongue teaching was again updated after a year-long review by the Ministry of Education. PM Lee said then that the objective was to help every student attain as high a proficiency as he or she could. This was as the inexorable trend was English becoming the dominant language in homes.

As Singapore’s society and context keep changing, promoting Mandarin will be a “continuous, never-ending project”, he said at the Speak Mandarin Campaign’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2019.

For PM Lee, who studied in Chinese schools – Nanyang Primary School and Catholic High School – the project will now be a personal one: He uses solely Mandarin to communicate with his grandchildren.

“I hope they can master both languages when they grow up.”

‘These issues are forever sensitive’: PM Lee on handling of tudung wearing, Section 377A
By Chin Soo Fang, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Singapore has dealt with sensitive issues such as tudung wearing and decriminalising sex between men in a way that enabled people to better understand each other, accept their differences and work out practical arrangements, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He spoke on the Government’s handling of such issues and other topics such as racism and social safety nets in two wide-ranging media interviews at the Istana on April 26 and 28, ahead of his handover to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on May 15.

Here are some key takeaways from the interviews:

Dealing with sensitive topics

Besides allowing nurses to wear the tudung with their uniforms and repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, PM Lee cited the terrorism threat posed by the Jemaah Islamiyah group after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks as another sensitive issue that the Government dealt with.

“New York was far away, but it took place in our region, in Bali, in Jakarta subsequently, and how do we react?” said PM Lee. “We are multiracial. We have Muslims, we have non-Muslims. Do we trust each other or not?”

He said the Government worked with the Malay/Muslim community, religious teachers and community groups to talk openly about the issue, and guard against people becoming radicalised.

It is fortunate that no terrorist attack has taken place in Singapore so far, he said, adding that going through the experience of handling the terror threat “has helped to bring us closer together”.

“But to say after this, we can fly solo – the Government does not need to watch, can take hands off the steering wheel or the controls, and it will look after itself – I do not think so. Never,” said PM Lee.

“It is not possible, because these issues are forever sensitive ones, and you need to have limits to the discussion; you need to have the tone set by the Government.”

If the Government does not make major moves, for instance on the tudung for nurses or decriminalising sex between men, “it is not going to happen, or it is going to happen in a very chaotic and very contentious way”, he added.

PM Lee said the most difficult issue, and a long-term challenge, is managing the inherent tensions between wanting social cohesion among Singaporeans and being open to immigrants and foreign workers.

“If we want Singapore to grow, then we have no choice but to work very hard to find ways we can have our cake and eat most of it. And that is a continuing, long-term challenge.”

Stronger national identity

PM Lee said he has “no doubt” Singapore’s national identity is stronger today after 20 more years of nation-building.

The country has weathered crises such as the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic in that time, he noted.

However, strengthening national identity is always hard work because the macro environment will pull different ethnic groups in different directions from time to time.

“There have been these challenges in the last 20 years, and there will definitely be similar challenges in the future,” he said.

Social safety nets

Asked what is to stop Singapore from moving towards a welfare state as it seeks to become more inclusive, PM Lee said this would entail the Government spending about 45 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and raising about 40 per cent of that via taxes, like some European countries.

In Singapore, we do not collect 40 per cent of taxes in GDP, we do not spend 45 per cent of GDP on social and other government programmes,” he said, noting that the Republic collects about 15 per cent of GDP in tax and spends between 18 per cent and 19 per cent.

PM Lee said Singapore’s goods and services tax (GST), at 9 per cent, is very low compared with the 20 per cent or 25 per cent that is imposed in other developed countries and welfare states, plus other taxes on income, wealth and goods like petrol.

“So for us, the constraint is that if you cannot afford it, and if you are not prepared to pay for it, then we cannot have it.”

If social benefits or coverage are to be improved, then adjustments have to be made from time to time to raise revenue, he added.

“We have to be able to afford it to spend it,” he said, noting that the GST had to be raised from 7 per cent to 9 per cent to pay for steadily rising healthcare expenditure.

While the opposition may make calls to “just take a bit more” from the reserves, PM Lee said the amount of spending required for a welfare state model means that “the reserves, however ample, will be gone very soon and that will not do”.

In the absence of a constituency or political party in Singapore that calls for lower taxes and less welfare, the Government has to judge which social safety nets are necessary and wise to have, he said.

He noted that Singapore has moved very far towards better social safety nets in the past 20 years, citing schemes such as ComCare, Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model.

“It is very considerable. Of course, people will always say ‘please do more’ and we will keep on improving.”

However, doing too much will weaken Singapore’s competitiveness and economic viability, he said.

Singaporeans should work hard and be prudent. If things turn out well, everybody can enjoy the upside, he added.

Singapore’s communities

Singapore’s ethnic Chinese have never been a unified collective, said PM Lee.

The Chinese community is diverse, also comprising Peranakans and new immigrants, he noted.

Community organisations must move with the times, to cater to the needs of the era, he said.

In the past, Chinese clan associations set up schools and helped new immigrants settle in Singapore and find jobs. Today, they can help promote culture, education, or build trade ties with China.

PM Lee noted that the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry has attracted new directors every term, including young people and those who are not from traditional companies.

“That’s why I see the Chinese community keeping pace with the times,” he said as he urged the community to work together to create opportunities for Singapore.

On the Malay/Muslim community, he noted that 80 per cent of Malay students go on to post-secondary education today, and about 20 per cent graduate from university. This is a big improvement from 20 years ago, and will continue to improve, he added.

The proportion of Malay professionals, managers, executives and technicians has also risen. “These are wins which happen quietly, year by year, bit by bit, and you may not notice it, but I think we should be proud of it,” he said.

He noted that the community still has issues with incarceration rates, drug abuse numbers and dysfunctional families, which are being addressed via programmes like ComLink+. Groups like Mendaki and AMP Singapore will help the community to progress further, he added.

Turning to the Indian community, he said it has been doing well too. Groups like Sinda have some very active and passionate volunteers who are making a big difference to families who need help, he said.

One issue he flagged is between Indians who are Singaporeans and newly arrived Indians, some of whom naturalise while others do not.

“You are not the same, and therefore you have to find ways to bridge that gap with each other. And that is something which is continuing work,” he said.

Outside of India, Singapore has the biggest concentration of graduates from the top institutions in India – the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management.

Singaporeans notice the influx because the numbers are not small, but these are talented people who are a tremendous plus to Singapore, he said.

“I think we should welcome them, as we manage the flow,” he added.

Israel-Hamas conflict

PM Lee said he completely understands why Muslims in Singapore have become very distressed about the conflict in Gaza.

“It is unconscionable, it is inhuman, really... but there is also a religious element to this feeling,” he said.

But rather than do something performative, such as holding a demonstration or burning flags, there are practical ways to help, he added.

Singapore has raised donations, with the Singapore Red Cross going to Egypt to help to deliver the contributions. It also collected and purchased food and medical necessities, and air-dropped them from a Republic of Singapore Air Force C-130 plane, flying from Jordan over Gaza.

The Republic took a stand at the United Nations, where it voted for the ceasefire resolutions at the General Assembly repeatedly. There have also been parliamentary and government statements to make clear what Singapore stands for and what it condemns, he added.

PM Lee hopes that Singaporeans, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, will understand the need for the country to stay together and have a national position, even if personal views differ.

This was the reason the Ministry of Education embarked on the Character and Citizenship Education class in schools, he said – not to educate students on the Middle East, but so that they “understand that something very dramatic, drastic and tragic is happening there, and that we have different feelings about it among us, and how do we understand that and process that”.

Singapore started off with the founding ideal to be one people, regardless of race, language or religion.

The country has gone very far in that direction – racism is less seen here than in most other countries, said PM Lee. “We will work to make it better.”

But to make prejudice disappear completely between different human groups who are going to remain different, while keeping alive cultures, heritages and religions will be very hard, he added.

PM Lee said the Government will take more steps to reduce racism, citing the workplace discrimination legislation it is working on.

Once in a while, there will be incidents where someone says something outrageous that riles up everyone, and action must be taken.

“You have to react – either punishment must follow according to the law, or at least stern disapproval must be expressed, and the leaders must take a stand,” he said.

But these are things that require judgment and perspective, as overreacting to a small incident would be unwise as it risks getting everyone hyped up.

Social media

Social media is one way of fostering interest in politics among the youth, said PM Lee, who has a Facebook account and an Instagram account.

On how social media helps him connect with the people, he said it reaches a different audience.

“People who follow my posts like my pictures, know when I jalan-jalan (go on walks), may not read my speeches or listen to my rallies, but it is an audience. And then when I post something else, hopefully it will turn up on that feed and they may take notice and maybe read it.”

In a crisis, people pay attention to social media posts, he added, recounting how his posts were very well followed during the Covid-19 pandemic as people were anxious and wanted to know what was happening.

He said he will continue to update his social media accounts after stepping down as prime minister.

“I hope the new leaders and PM will grow their following on social media,” he said.

Referring to his successor, DPM Wong, PM Lee said: “He may not be into photography, but his guitar-playing skills are not bad.”

PM Lee noted that DPM Wong and ministers such as Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Desmond Lee and Mr Ong Ye Kung have TikTok accounts. He considered but decided against starting one, as he felt there was nothing he could not already convey on his existing accounts.

“I think TikTok would be for the next generation of ministers. At least, it interests the people in the personalities, maybe a little bit in the content and hopefully encourages them to think more deeply about what this is about,” he said.

His advice for the younger ministers is to maintain their dignity on social media.

“Don’t do anything crazy. It’s one thing to attract eyeballs, and another to earn respect,” he said. “It’s good if people think you are funny and humorous, but they should also know you are capable in your work.”


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