By Rachel Chang, Cai Haoxiang & Rachel Lin
HOWEVER the world changes in the next five to 10 years, Singapore will play a key role as long as it remains ahead of its neighbours.
This will involve keeping up with the latest technology and maintaining one of the best-educated workforces in the world, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at a dialogue last night.
But he emphasised that to stay ahead of the curve, a stable society is necessary - one where it is 'easy to go to school and come back, easy to go to the hospital and come back'.
Speaking to an audience of 200 business leaders at the 40th anniversary of Hewlett-Packard's operations in Singapore, he said: 'A person needs to have a life free from unnecessary hassle.
'That's what we set out to create, and that's something we should keep improving on. It doesn't matter how the world changes, we have to stay ahead of the pack.'
During the half-hour session at the Raffles City Convention Centre, Mr Lee repeated his belief that Singapore must remain connected to the world in order to survive.
Four decades ago, Hewlett-Packard was one of the first multinationals to set up shop in newly independent Singapore. At a time when all its neighbouring countries were closing their doors to multinational corporations in order to grow their local industries, Singapore flung its doors open to the world.
Mr Lee recounted how, lacking a critical population mass, this was Singapore's only option, as 'growing our own companies to compete with the successful ones' was 'a pipe dream'.
He said that having English as the country's lingua franca was what gave Singapore 'an enormous advantage'.
Because of the lack of a language barrier, the ease of doing business in Singapore still trumps everywhere else in the region, he said.
'Had we taken Chinese as our working language, there would not be a Singapore today as it is,' he declared.
'How would we make a living? How do we connect with the world?' he asked rhetorically. 'But we speak English, and Chinese as a second language. (Multinationals) come here, we connect with them.'
Even in the face of China's blistering rise in the world, this is still Singapore's advantage, he added.
'For every talented person we have, they have 4,000,' he said to laughter. But Singapore stays ahead because of its global exposure and connectedness.
He asked the Singaporeans in the audience how many of them did not travel in the course of their work and lives. Not a single hand went up.
'That speaks volumes,' Mr Lee said. 'If you go to China, and say, all Chinese who've travelled and who also speak English please raise your hands, there would be very few.'
'So yes, they can invent new gadgets, but we're better-connected. And we can leverage on their number of researchers to do our R&D there.'
Through the evening, asked by several participants to predict the future, Mr Lee repeated the same theme: the world is ever-evolving, and Singapore must be ready to ride the change. In response to a question on the United States' supposed economic decline, he said that while he believed the Americans would find a way out of their impasse, a unipolar world is a thing of the past.
[Everybody asks him to predict the future! Give him a break!]
'Over time, China will be an enormous consumer market and so will India. So the world will have a multi-polar number of big consumer countries, and you have to be ready to serve them,' he noted.
'The world is not static,' he added later, in response to a question on whether Singapore would ever see another company like Hewlett-Packard, which is one of Singapore's biggest exporters.
'Every day, somebody is creating something new which the rest of the world would want to use,' he said. 'So, we make ourselves useful to them and they'll come here.'
But despite the fighting words, he struck a sanguine note when asked what about the country keeps him awake at night.
'I don't stay awake at night,' he said. 'I sleep. It doesn't help to stay awake.'
[Good Answer. It's good to see him still making his rounds after his wife's passing.]