Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says he is particularly satisfied with the emphasis on education and opportunities in an interview in which took stock of his decade in office, and looked ahead to the next general election.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
SINGAPORE: As the nation gears up to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, Singapore should take the occasion to take stock and focus on its vision for the years ahead, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with Singapore journalists earlier this week.
In his first such interview since reaching the milestone of 10 years at the helm, Mr Lee touched on a broad range issues, such as the evolving political landscape, the challenges facing Singapore and Singaporeans, and his vision for the country.
ON WHAT HE IS PARTICULARLY SATISFIED WITH
"I would say putting a lot of emphasis on education. Right from the beginning, my first National Day Rally, I remember one of my themes was on the young. And we were talking about the schools - 'teach less, learn more' - and getting people to get the maximum out of their education.
"We've followed through on that in many ways, investing in the schools, Edusave, resources for the principals, making sure every school is a good school, developing tertiary education, building up the ITEs. I've now opened all three of them - the East, the West and most recently, and the best of all, I think is the Central campus.
"We've expanded our polytechnics and upgraded our polys and they are now a very attractive option for many young people.
"We've expanded university education. SUTD was one manifestation. It means a lot more young people are getting into our universities now and we are expanding the numbers further and opening up new paths with UniSIM, with SIT (Singapore Institute of Technology), and we are talking about beyond formal education, skills future, lifelong learning.
"I think it is not a single decision, but it is a continuing, consistent emphasis over a long period of time and successive capable, strong Education Ministers supported by competent and passionate professionals. I think that is very important to our future."
ON HIS GREATEST REGRET
"In retrospect, it's easy to say that we should have been building up our infrastructure a lot faster; that we should have got our trains running; that we should have got our HDB flats built more.
"At that time, we thought we were doing the right thing, pacing it, measuring it out, building it when we needed it and not spending resources until we needed to spend them. It turned out that things didn't pan out the way we expected and I think in the future, we have to plan less conservatively, and try to be less precise in our prognostications.
"You want to predict what's going to happen."
ON THE POPULATION WHITE PAPER
"I think there was a strong emotional reaction when we put out the White Paper. In retrospect, if we have had a bit more time to prepare the ground, to explain it, to soft sell and prepare people to understand what it is that is the issue and what we are trying to do, we should have done better. But that's water under the bridge.
"I can understand the reactions of people because they are not reacting on the basis of reading a paper and then trying to take a dispassionate, almost academic approach, to what should be done. They are reacting on the basis of their direct context - colleagues at work, people on MRT trains, public places where foreign workers may gather - and they have a reaction, to say things have changed.
"I am not surprised there is some such anxiety among Singaporeans. I think we have worked hard at this. We have calibrated the policies, we have slowed down the inflows, we have tightened up on foreign workers. In fact, it is causing employers a lot of pain.
"We will continue to adjust to get the balance as right as we can, but I don't think we are able to relax because we have to continue in a sustainable way. But neither are we able to say: 'We go to zero and let's do away with all these people. We don't need them to build our trains, we don't need them to make houses. We don't need them to serve us noodles in the middle of the night when we go down to the hawker centre.' I think that is not practical.
"People ask me: 'Next year, what is the growth?' Or 'Ten years from now, what will Singapore be?' The answer is what I can guess, but actually a lot depends on what we do, a lot depends on how the world goes. We have to be prepared for a wide range of outcomes and insure ourselves."
ON HIS USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
"I think it makes me a lot more conscious in pitching what I want to say, to ask myself: How will I distil this down in a form which somebody can digest on Facebook or Instagram? On Twitter it is very hard. It's 140 characters, I can just put a bit, but please click on this bit.ly to read more.
"But on Facebook, you can say a bit more, on Instagram, if you choose the right picture, the picture can tell a lot of stories. So it makes me a lot more conscious of the way I boil down my messages down into small chunks, and also the timing and the sense of the messages. You cannot always be putting out long, learned dissertations on some cosmic issue or other.
"There are times when you have to be light-hearted. There are times when you see a beautiful sunset, you share it with people and hope that they enjoy it with you. When you catch an owl somewhere in the Istana, maybe somebody is interested to see the owl. It's something unusual and personal. And I think that is helpful.
"But it's necessary, through Facebook, Instagram or whatever the next new thing is coming - I've not gone into Snapchat yet - to have not just light banter, but really some serious response, serious content as well."
ON FUTURE ELECTIONS
"I think it must change. I'm not sure which way it will change. We are in a very unusual situation where there is a clear consensus for the ruling party, for the People's Action Party.
"There's desire for alternative views, but basically Singaporeans want the PAP to govern Singapore. And if you ask the opposition party, whether it's the Workers' Party or SDP (Singapore Democratic Party), nobody says: 'Vote for me, I will form the Government, I will be the Prime Minister, I will run this place better'. Nobody.
"So in that situation, for the Government to continue to maintain support and to be able to carry the consensus of the population over the long term - I think it's very important. Will it remain the present situation exactly today? I don't think so. How will it change? I cannot say.
"It depends on voters. It depends on how the new MPs and ministers we bring in bond with the people. It depends on what situations we run into. If we run into a turbulent situation, I think people will be very worried about the dangers and there will be a flight to safety. If you are in a peaceful and prosperous environment, people will say: 'This is the way the world is, why do you need the Government? We can prosper without the Government.'
"So there is no safety net, no certainty that what we have now is going to continue. And each election is a very serious contest for who is going to form the next Government."
ON THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION
“I think there’ll be quite a few (new candidates). You have already seen some of them, so you can do an estimation.
“(The number of Group Representation Constituencies) will be decided by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee. But at the last General Election, the average number of MPs assigned to each GRC went down, and there were a few more SMCs (Single Member Constituencies). I am satisfied with that.
“In principle, every MP should be able to contest on his own to keep his constituency. I think every MP should be prepared for this because they won't be able to know whether the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee will carve out an SMC from their GRC. The objective of having GRCs is to ensure we will have minority representation in Parliament. I think this is still necessary, so we definitely will not change the GRC system.
“There is no institution that can guarantee it will never be overturned. Even if you don't hold elections, there may still be revolutions. So in Singapore, if everyone just assumes the Government will not be unseated and votes as he wishes, I think that is a very dangerous assumption."
ON HIS SUCCESSOR
“It's very possible (my successor) is already in the current Cabinet line-up, but it's not an absolute because I want to bring in a group of new candidates with strong leadership potential in the next election. I believe we should be able to find my successor from the previous two elections or the next one.
“Times have changed, and his background would also be different. He would need some time to establish his authority, to let Singaporeans know his character, his working style and his leadership abilities. In other countries, it's quite rare to find a Prime Minister that has had many years of experience before leading a country.
“But he may not be a stranger.”
ON THE NARRATIVE FOR SINGAPORE
"I think that for the next phase, the narrative cannot be a single word, nation-building. It has to be that we live in Singapore, we have a home, this is a place which is quite special, if you travel, you would know it's very special. Not just if you travel to developing countries and backward areas.
"If you travel to developed countries, you would know that this is a place where you don't find the same kind of multiracial mix, you don't find the same kind of opportunities as you would in Singapore and many places.
"I think we can make this something really outstanding for ourselves and our children. And for Singapore, as well as for the individual, we have to work at it ... it's not easy, but we have the resources, and if we can work at it, it will be better.
"Better to do what? Better for you to fulfil what you want to do in life. We accommodate one another, we are not just so many individual human beings but a society. In Singapore we get on together, and I think we can have a good future, a bright future."