Sunday, October 5, 2014

Singapore must be both "good-hearted and hard-headed" as it faces transition: PM Lee


By Olivia Siong

03 Oct 2014

In a speech at the National University of Singapore Society Lecture, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on three broad themes for Singapore as the country stands at an inflexion point.

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has singled out three principles that will help Singapore keep its momentum and purpose as it enters a phase of transition.

Mr Lee spoke on Friday evening (Oct 3) to an audience of some 1,500 at the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) Lecture that marked the society's 60th anniversary.The audience included students, NUSS members, NUS advisors and senior management, as well as some foreign dignitaries.

In a wide-ranging and hard-hitting speech entitled "Singapore in Transition - the Next Phase", Mr Lee said that the country is at an inflexion point and is in the process of changing gears and pace.

He touched on three broad themes, beginning with the need for Singaporeans to keep looking outwards even as the country focuses on domestic issues.

He also explained why Singapore must not shy away from hard-headed policies when it comes to tackling challenges.

Mr Lee then spoke on the need for Singaporeans to understand their past and be confident of their future, even as they immerse themselves in the present.


Mr Lee said one of the key principles for Singapore is to be both good-hearted and hard-headed in its approach to tackling challenges.

"We must never be hard-hearted, but we must never shy away from being hard-headed," said Mr Lee, highlighting three reasons for this approach.

The first reason, he said, is because the good-hearted things have to be done right. Mr Lee pointed out that there have been many examples from many countries with the best intentions, but which produced zero or even negative results, particularly in social policy.

He added that, too often, the policies ended up hurting the people they were meant to help, with one example being the issue of poverty. Mr Lee pointed out that many countries have generous welfare schemes, or minimum wage laws. But none have succeeded in eradicating poverty, and instead have often created welfare dependency, disincentives to work and higher unemployment.

The second reason, Mr Lee said, is the need to be good-hearted not only to this generation, but to future generations as well. He said this is why the money for the Pioneer Generation Package has been set aside now, so that the next generation is not burdened with its cost. The third reason is because growth and prosperity are needed in order to be good-hearted.

Mr Lee pointed to Singapore's population policy as one important example of this. In terms of the overall population policy, he said that the Government is paying attention to both the emotional and practical aspects of the problem.

"So last year, when we debated the population White Paper in Parliament, the Government proposed moderating the foreign worker inflows. The opposition rejected this. They argued for zero foreign worker growth. They said no inflows - shut it off. It was an populist and irresponsible pose. It was not a serious policy, because such a freeze would have harmed our economy, and in particular would have hurt many of the SMEs which desperately need workers, and would have caused Singaporeans to suffer and lose jobs," said Mr Lee.

"So we didn't do that, and instead we decided to moderate the foreign worker inflow, not to stop it. Even this is painful, we know that. The policies are biting - many SMEs are finding it tough, despite all our schemes to help them. So nowadays, you don't hear any more demands from the opposition for zero foreign worker growth. But what we are doing, what we said we would do, is necessary and is working," he added.

Mr Lee said that the latest manpower numbers show that foreign worker growth has slowed to a more sustainable level. "I do not expect any further measures to tighten foreign worker numbers further," he said.

Acknowledging that population is always a sensitive topic, Mr Lee added that immigration issues have caused nasty anti-immigrants sentiments in other countries. He said that Singapore must avoid going down this road by managing its numbers, and staying open and welcoming to those who are ready to contribute to the country.

"We must maintain our reputation for being a good place to live and work, because we lose that at our peril. If people think that we are not interested in attracting investments, that talent is not welcome, that we've turned inwards, I think that's the end of us," he said.

Mr Lee said these issues are real dangers for Singapore. "We see a tendency, especially on the Internet, to blame everything bad that happens in Singapore on foreigners, and blame all foreigners for anything bad that any one non-Singaporean does. All bad things are done by foreigners, and all foreigners do bad things. And they even get blamed for some things which have nothing to do with them - like winning medals at the Asian Games! Joseph Schooling - he is born here, his father is born here, he happens to be Eurasian, he won a gold medal, in fact he won three medals, and he was called an ang moh foreign talent. I think it's a compliment to the ang moh foreign talent," Mr Lee said.

He added that he felt ashamed and dismayed to read of such "virulent and nasty attitudes". "And I am sure so are many other Singaporeans. And we have to stand up and have the courage to say so, and not be cowed into being silent. There are problems of integration, or numbers congestion, we deal with them. But bad behaviour, rude behaviour, behaviour that is really a disgrace to a Singaporean, a human being, we should have the courage to call it such," he said.

Mr Lee said the Government is doing its best to address the anxieties of citizens, but added that Singapore has to be honest and clear about what it needs to do, for the good of the country and to secure its future.


The second principle highlighted by Mr Lee is the need to keep looking outwards while dealing with challenges at home.

"But perhaps we are so focused on these issues, I fear that Singaporeans are not paying enough attention to what is happening outside of Singapore," said Mr Lee, adding that people are absorbed in their daily lives, with little time and energy to track less immediate concerns.

He said that a broader view sets Singapore's own issues in perspective. "We are preoccupied with healthcare financing, with ageing population, with immigration, income inequality and so many other domestic items. But these are not items unique to Singapore. Many other countries in the world, especially developed countries, face similar issues and exactly the same list of things. And we are all facing, dealing with the challenges in our different ways," he said.

"So to make sense of what faces us and to assess what we are doing, and to have ideas on what we can do, we have to know that this is not peculiar to Singapore. We have to know how others are tackling their problems and learn from their experiences. And then I think we can see our issues and perspective and we can make a judgement. Is this something you should be alarmed about, where we should congratulate ourselves or which we can do something about."

Major changes in the Asian landscape are also having a big impact on Singapore, noted Mr Lee, and unless Singapore understands what is happening, it cannot anticipate or respond properly to events.

Globalisation and technological advances can also create and disrupt businesses swiftly, he said.


The third principle highlighted by Mr Lee is the need for Singaporeans to understand the country's past, and be confident about the future.

"Unless we understand our past, we will fail to appreciate what Singapore's success depends on, why Singapore works the way it does, and we will become unjustifiably pessimistic about our future prospects," he said.

Mr Lee said the 1950s and 1960s are within living memory for many Singaporeans, but felt that the events are receding into the past. "The lessons of history need to be reinforced because if we do not remember them, we may not learn the hard-won lessons and we may fail to value what we have painstakingly built," he stressed.

"SG50, our 50th anniversary next year, is an important occasion to remember this history. Konfrontasi was a violent conflict, so we are going to erect a memorial to the victims opposite MacDonald House. The fight against the Communists, if it had gone the other way, Singapore would have been very very different. So we are planning a marker to remember and honour those who fought against the Communists for a democratic, non-Communist future for Singapore. And we are also republishing next week The Battle for Merger, which is a collection of radio talks by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, which he gave in 1961, which exposed the real aims of the Communists, explained what was at stake and why it was important for Singaporeans to support merger with Malaysia."

But Singapore's 50th birthday next year should also be a time to look ahead. "If we understand the opportunities which are opening up for us, and realise what we can do to get ready for them, then far from being anxious, we should be eager and ready to go," said Mr Lee.

"Anxiety is understandable, anxiety is even constructive, up to a point. Even some paranoia is helpful, " said Mr Lee, adding that this can help keep one on one's toes. "It's like the anxiety you feel before you go on stage to perform. But it should not lead to paralysis, or despondency. We need to be both paranoid but at the same time paradoxically confident. Then we can make this a special nation for Singaporeans."- CNA/xy

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