Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 3 lecture points for National University of Singapore Society’s (NUSS) 60th anniversary

Topics range from SG50, PMEs, China and, you know, the usual.

By Belmont Lay | October 4, 2014

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a lecture to mark the National University of Singapore Society’s (NUSS) 60th anniversary on Oct. 3, 2014.

Held at the University Cultural Centre, the topic was “Singapore in Transition – the Next Phase”.

PM Lee spoke on the usual rehashed topics three points on Singapore’s future: To keep looking outwards while focussing on domestic challenges, balancing being both good-hearted and hard-headed, and finally understanding our past to be assured of our future.

Here are the main points from PM Lee’s notes:

1. Congratulate NUSS on its 60th anniversary

2. My theme tonight is “Singapore in Transition – the Next Phase”

a. We are at an inflexion point, changing gears, changing pace

b. Need not only to navigate the eddies and currents from moment to moment

c. But to keep in mind basic principles which will help us maintain our momentum and purpose

3. Share with you three thoughts

a. First, while focussing on domestic challenges, we must keep looking outwards

b. Second, while being good-hearted, we must not shy away from being hardheaded

c. Third, that while we immerse ourselves in the present, we must understand our past, and be confident of our future

 

1. KEEP LOOKING OUTWARDS

4. First, we must keep looking outwards even as we deal with challenges at home

5. We have been concentrating on what is happening within Singapore

a. Understandably so, as we have had urgent issues to deal with – housing, public transport, medical care

b. Also we are making strategic policy shifts to prepare for longer-term trends, like changes to our demographics and economy

i. More risk sharing, e.g. MediShield LIFE

ii. More social support for elderly, e.g. Pioneer Generation Package, Silver Support

iii. Preparing our workforce for the future e.g. ASPIRE/SkillsFuture

iv. This is our New Way Forward

c. These are major changes, with very long-term consequences, so we have to proceed carefully and make sure we get them right

i. Government has spent a lot of time developing the policies

ii. Engaging Singaporeans to understand the challenges, shape the policies, and build a consensus on the way forward, e.g. through Our Singapore Conversation

6. But perhaps because we are so focussed on these issues, I fear Singaporeans are not paying enough attention to what is happening outside of Singapore

a. More people are getting their news from one another through social media, instead of reading newspapers or watching television news

b. We are absorbed in our daily lives, leaving little time and energy to track less immediate concerns

c. e.g. Not sure how many Singaporeans can name the Prime Minister of Thailand (Prayuth Chan-ocha), or know what ISIS stands for (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

7. Three reasons why it is important to have a broader view

a. First, it sets our own issues in perspective

i. We are preoccupied with healthcare financing, aging population, immigration, income inequality, etc.

ii. But many other countries also have exactly the same problems, especially in the developed world

iii. We all face similar challenges, and are dealing with them in various ways

iv. These are not at all peculiar to Singapore

v. It is useful to study how others are tackling their problems, and learn from their experiences

vi. Also useful to understand how well we are doing, and how we can do better

b. Second, major changes in the Asian landscape are having a big impact on us, more so as we are a small country

i. Indonesia, one of our closest neighbours and partners, will soon have a new President and government. How will Indonesia change? How will our relations develop?

ii. India has a new Prime Minister, with a strong mandate and determined to get India’s economy moving. He is keen to work with Singapore. How can we take advantage of this?

iii. China continues to change rapidly

(1) Most of us still think of China as a low-cost manufacturing base

(2) But I visited Tencent in Shenzhen last month

(a) It completely defies the stereotype

(b) 15 year old high-tech firm, with many innovative ideas and apps

(c) Dynamic and young workforce and a culture just like Silicon Valley companies

(d) Grown from nothing to become the fourth largest Internet company in the world, with revenues larger than Facebook

(e) WeChat, their messaging app, has 350 mil active users worldwide. Some of you here are probably using it

(3) What does China’s rise mean for Singapore’s competitive position given our limited resources? How do we stay abreast and not fall behind?

iv. Unless we understand what is happening, we cannot anticipate or respond properly to events

v. Being open, connected and outward-looking has always been a pillar of our success

(1) It is why other leaders seek our views on international matters

(2) It is why companies set up Headquarters here despite us having no natural advantages

(3) It is why our students do well in universities everywhere

(4) It is why Singapore universities, including NUS, are highly regarded in the world

c. Third, globalisation and technological advances can create and disrupt businesses swiftly

i. Ports

(1) We are consolidating our ports into a single megaport at Tuas so that we can strengthen our role as a transhipment hub

(2) But with climate change, the Arctic Ocean is melting in summers. New sailing routes are opening up between Europe and the Far East, that will bypass PSA

(3) That is why we joined the Arctic Council as an observer, even though we are on the Equator!

ii. Car-sharing apps such as Uber and Grabtaxi

(1) Changing the nature of the business

(2) Has increased options and improved services for commuters

(3) But disrupting taxi industry and challenging regulatory frameworks in many cities around the world

(4) Triggering resistance from the incumbents in London, Paris, Germany

(5) Technology is already coming to Singapore too

(6) Futile to resist or prevent it

(7) We must track this to understand how it can help us

(8) And develop a framework to facilitate orderly change and innovation in the taxi industry, and ensure a competitive and level playing field for both old and new players

 

2. HEAD AND HEART

8. We cannot afford to navel-gaze and ignore what is happening outside

a. Like it or not, the outside world will impose change on us, and we must be prepared for it

b. We have not solved for all time the problem of earning a living, more so as we lack a large enough domestic economy to sustain on our own

c. So we have to make ourselves valuable to the world

d. Some of these global changes will bring opportunities, others will bring new challenges

e. Have to do things today with tomorrow in mind

f. Requires us to be both good-hearted and hard-headed in our approach

9. I described our New Way Forward

a. People have commended us for showing more Heart rather than Head

b. Indeed it is important to win hearts

c. So I am glad that the New Way Forward resonates with Singaporeans

d. But please do not forget that we cannot be all Heart, and no Head

10. We must never be hard-hearted, but we must not shy away from being hard-headed

a. First, Because we have to do the good-hearted things right

i. Many examples from many countries of the best of intentions producing zero or even negative results, especially in social policy

ii. Too often, the policies ends up hurting the very same people they were meant to help

iii. e.g. poverty

(1) Many countries have generous welfare schemes to tackle poverty, or minimum wage laws to help low wage workers

(2) But none have succeeded in eradicating poverty

(3) Instead they have often created welfare dependency, disincentives to work, and higher unemployment

b. Second, because we have to be good-hearted not only to ourselves, but also to our children and grandchildren

i. Which means that we need to be hard-headed about ourselves

ii. e.g. in CPF and healthcare financing, it would be irresponsible to laying the burden on our children, as some other countries have done, by paying for generous welfare benefits through state borrowing

iii. e.g. the Pioneer Generation Package

(1) We could have promised this to pioneers and left it to future governments to find the money to pay for it

(2) Instead we set aside the money now

(a) So that the PGP is guaranteed and our children are not burdened with its cost

(b) Also pioneers can be absolutely sure that the PGP will be there when they need it

iv. When this Government makes a promise, we mean it and keep it

v. So while what we do speaks to the heart, we must be hard-headed and spend within our means, because that is the only way we can deliver on our promises

c. Third, because we need growth and prosperity in order to be good-hearted

i. Without resources, good intentions mean nothing

ii. Must still grow the economy, as it is the only way our people can have a good life. A rich society is not necessarily a happy society, but impoverished societies are seldom happy.

iii. We must not go pell-mell for growth regardless of social, human or environmental costs, nor are we doing so

iv. But I worry when people say we can afford to take it easy on growth, and talk airily about more important things in life

(1) They don’t understand what their well-being depends on

(2) They are essentially telling others: “I am well off enough, you should be satisfied with what you have too, even if you are poor”

11. One important example where we need both Heart and Head is our population policy – marriage and parenthood, immigration, foreign workers

12. The Heart part is important

a. Because population is about a sense of identity and nationhood

b. Because having children is a matter of the heart, and not just a response to the size of the baby bonus

c. Because we are not only seeking the right size of population, but a harmonious, open hearted society

d. Because immigration and foreign workers have social impacts, and people must have time and space to adapt to them

e. These are all valid concerns, and important considerations in setting our population policy

13. The Head part is also important because hard facts cannot be wished away

a. Our TFR is 1.2; our population is aging rapidly

b. We have too few nurses to take care of old folks, construction workers to build our homes and MRT lines, and workers so that our SMEs can grow – Most Singaporeans understand this

c. The issue that vexes Singaporeans (perhaps especially this audience of NUS alumni) is that we also need foreign PMEs, because they compete with Singaporean PMEs for jobs

i. I understand from a micro point of view, allowing foreign PMEs to come here means more competition at work

ii. But from a macro point of view, allowing foreign PMEs to work here creates more good jobs for Singaporeans

iii. If we are too tight on foreign PMEs, many companies would be deterred from coming here, and the jobs for Singaporean PMEs may not even exist in the first place

iv. e.g. the financial industry

(1) During the Global Financial Crisis we encouraged banks and other financial institutions to expand here, and many did

(2) We now have a critical mass of financial institutions which has strengthened our position as a financial centre and created many more jobs for Singaporeans PMEs

(3) But that has also meant more foreign PMEs here, because banks that business internationally and require a multi-national work-force

(4) Created a perception among Singaporeans working in the sector that sometimes they fail to get fair treatment

(5) And I am sure sometimes, that is in fact true

(6) That is why we have created the TAFEP mechanism to investigate and redress this

v. We are determined that Singaporean employees get a fair deal

vi. At the same time, Singaporean PMEs have to compete on their merits and contributions

vii. That is ultimately the only way to secure jobs and careers

14. On the overall population policy, we are paying attention to both the emotional and practical aspects of population

a. Heart: giving weight to how comfortable people are with the pace of immigration, encouraging new arrivals to adapt to the norms of our society

b. Head: keeping inflows moderate and sustainable

15. When we debated the population White Paper in Parliament last year, the Government proposed moderating the foreign worker inflows

a. The opposition rejected this, and argued for zero foreign worker growth

b. It was an populist and irresponsible pose

c. Such a freeze would have harmed our economy, and in particular hurt many SMEs and caused Singaporeans to lose their jobs

d. Instead we decided to moderate the foreign worker inflow, but not to stop it

e. Even this is painful: many SMEs are finding it tough, despite all our schemes to help them

f. So we don’t hear any more demands for zero foreign worker growth from the opposition

g. What we are doing is necessary, and working

i. The latest manpower numbers show that foreign worker growth has slowed to a more sustainable level, and is now about where we want it to be

ii. I do not expect any further drastic measures to tighten foreign worker numbers

iii. Meanwhile our economic restructuring is progressing and we are starting to see productivity improve in some sectors

iv. We are steadily catching up in terms of housing for foreign workers, public transport etc.

16. But population is always a sensitive topic, here and in all countries

a. Other countries too face similar issues with immigration

i. Often causes nasty anti-immigration sentiments e.g. UKIP in UK, the National Front Party in France, Hong Kong very sensitive about PRC immigrants and workers, even Sweden, a famously liberal and big-hearted country, has an anti-immigrant backlash

b. We must avoid going down this road

i. Manage our numbers

ii. Stay open and welcome those who are ready to contribute

iii. Maintain our reputation for being a good place to live and work

iv. We lose this reputation at our peril – We will not attract new businesses or new jobs if people believe that investments are no longer important to us, or that talent is not welcome here, or that we have turned inwards

c. These are real dangers

i. 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 one non-Singaporean does

ii. And even blame foreigners for some things that have nothing to do with them

(1) e.g. Joseph Schooling, our Asian Gold Medallist swimmer, was called an “Ang Moh” and “foreign talent”

(2) Even though he and his father are Eurasians, and both were born in Singapore!

iii. I am ashamed and dismayed when I read such virulent and nasty attitudes, and I am sure so are many other Singaporeans

17. We have to be both good-hearted and hard-headed

a. Understand the anxieties of citizens, and doing our best to address them

b. But let us be honest and clear about what we need to do, for the good of Singapore and to secure our future

 

3. PAST AND FUTURE

18. To have an eye on what is ahead has always been the Singapore way

a. Even as we focus on the present, we must look forward to and have confidence in our future

b. And perhaps less obviously, we must also know and understand the past

19. Unless we understand our past

a. We will fail to understand what Singapore’s success depends on

b. Why Singapore works the way it does

c. Be unjustifiable pessimistic about our future prospects

20. Foreign visitors often ask me: “What is your secret of success? Can we replicate elsewhere what you did in Singapore?”

a. I reply that it is very hard to do

b. What we have achieved is a function of our history and our Southeast Asian context: how we became independent, and how the Pioneer Generation responded to the critical challenge of building a nation from nothing

c. We are stable and peaceful now, but our society experienced upheavals and riots – communal riots, the ferocious battle against the Communists

d. We are friends with our neighbours now, but we had difficult relations before – irreconcilable differences when we were in Malaysia, Konfrontasi with Indonesia

e. How did we get here from there, in the span of 50 years?

21. We ourselves must know our history, to understand how Singapore works, why we do the things we do

a. NEWater – Because water was critical to our survival and we cannot wholly rely on imported water

b. The SAF and NS – Because we cannot depend on anyone else to defend us

c. Jurong Island – Because we decided that despite our limited land and lack of oil or gas, we could build a competitive petrochemical industry to provide good jobs for our people

22. The 1950s and 1960s are within living memory, but the events are receding into the past

a. Many of us today are too young to have personally experienced the formative moments

b. Our schools have worked hard to teach our students the essential facts of our nationhood

c. But many Singaporeans have only vague ideas of what Konfrontasi was about, who the communists and communalists were

d. I suspect if asked to name one communist or one communalist, many would be hard put to do so

e. The lessons of history need to be reinforced, for if we do not remember them, we may not learn the hard-won lessons and may fail to value what we have painstakingly built

23. SG50 is an important occasion to remember this history

a. Konfrontasi, a violent conflict – Hence erecting a memorial to the victims opposite MacDonald House

b. The fight against the Communists

i. Planning a marker to remember and honour those who fought against the Communists for a democratic, non-Communist Singapore

ii. Also republishing The Battle for Merger next week, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s radio talks 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 Malaya

c. These are events 50 years ago

i. There will be more recent significant events in our history

ii. May be too recent for us to commemorate them in the same way

iii. But as we time passes and events recede into the past, we will look back and recognise the crises experienced, the challenges overcome, the achievements hard won, that were important milestones in our nation building journey

iv. And decide that they too require visible reminders, lest we forget

24. But SG50 also should be a time to look ahead

a. To set new goals for the next 50 years

b. To see and be excited by all the opportunities opening up

c. To appreciate our strengths are capabilities, and not just the uncertainties and difficulties

d. To give back to the society, so that we strengthen a “fair and just society” in Singapore

25. We must have the confidence to aim high

a. To dream, and to build on what we have

b. To make Singapore better than any other country to live in

c. To be an exceptional society

26. Sometimes young people express anxiety about the future, wondering whether their lives would be better than their parents

a. Not surprising at a time of rapid change and intense competition

b. Even in China, where life has been improving faster than in any other country in the world, young people feel pressured and anxious, even successful young people who have university degrees and good jobs in thriving cities like Chongqing or Shanghai

c. But if we understand the opportunities opening up, and realise what we can do to get ready for them, then far from being anxious, we should be eager and ready to go

27. We are already transforming Singapore in a big way

a. Our Home is being remade – Changi Airport, Paya Lebar, PSA, Jurong Lake District, doubling our MRT Network

b. We are investing in our people – New universities, ASPIRE, more opportunities for every citizen

c. We are implementing bold social policies to keep Singapore a “Fair and Just” society

28. And we have the resources, the talent, the base, to go further and make Singapore truly exceptional

a. A cosmopolitan city with an open and vibrant economy

b. Where we work hard but enjoy a high quality of life

c. Where we live in an endearing home, with our families and friends

29. Compare our lives with that of our parents

a. Many young ones now have the chance to work anywhere and thrive

i. There are so many more opportunities available to us – to experience the world, live our dreams, achieve our aspirations, well beyond material well-being

b. Many of your parents and grandparents did not even go to school – They could not have imagined that their children would live in our world today

c. In 1980, only 5% of each P1 cohort went to university. Today, 30% of each P1 cohort enter publicly-funded universities to pursue full-time undergraduate degrees

d. And even those who do not, have graduated from a Polytechnic or the ITE, and have many chances to move up in life through what we are doing with the SkillsFuture Council

30. Some anxiety is constructive, even some paranoia – it keeps us on our toes, like the anxiety before someone goes out to perform on stage

a. But it should not lead to paralysis, or despondency

b. We need to be both paranoid and confident

c. Then we can make Singapore a special nation for Singaporeans

31. I deliberately have not spoken about what Government is doing

a. The Government will naturally do its part, but for Singapore to succeed, everybody must play his part

b. The responsibility is also on individuals, on civil society, on the community

i. Not only to understand the issues we face as a country and society

ii. But to play your part: actively contributing to the community, working hard, and following what is happening around us

c. Glad that NUSS and the alumni are doing this

i. Creating opportunities for the next generation through bursaries and awards

ii. Increasing awareness by organising forums and lectures like this one

iii. Giving back to society through community events for senior citizens and underprivileged

32. So I urge all of us to

a. Look outwards not just inwards

b. Act with both our heads and our hearts

c. Take heart from the past and be confident of the future

33. That is the way to move ahead together, and create a brighter future for Singapore`

 

Top photo via Lee Hsien Loong Twitter

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About Belmont Lay

Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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