PM Lee Hsien Loong at the debate on the President's Speech 2018

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the debate on the President's Speech 2018

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 16 May 2018

Transcript of speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong, delivered during the debate on the President's Address in Parliament on 16 May, 2018.

 

Mr Speaker Sir

Introduction

I rise in support of the Motion.

The President’s Speech marks the formal opening of the Parliament session. The speech itself describes the Government’s agenda for the rest of the term. The Addenda to the Speech then lay out the specific programmes of each Ministry.

This is a tradition we inherited from the UK, where the Queen delivers a speech, drafted by the elected Government. Although it is called the Queen’s Speech. And the speech highlights the Government’s legislative programme.

However, our President’s Speech this year is slightly different. It sets out not only the programme for the current term, but also longer term priorities beyond this term of Government.

The speech took this approach because Parliament is re-opening at a special moment in history.

The world situation is very uncertain. The global order, which is based on openness, globalisation and free trade, has come under great pressure. Relations between the big powers, especially the US and China, and the US and Russia, are under stress. It is not clear whether the institutions and the international rules that have underpinned world peace and security for the last few decades will change. And if they change, there will be significant long-term implications for Singapore.

Singapore too is at a turning point. We are opening a new chapter after SG50. It will be a new phase of our social and economic development. We have the responsibility, and the privilege, of reimagining and rebuilding Singapore over the next 50 years and more. We are also going through a significant generational change. A new generation born long after independence is coming to the fore, with different views and aspirations. We are also in the midst of a political transition, with the fourth generation (4G) Ministers preparing to take over within the next few years.

Therefore, it is timely for the Government to set out a broader vision, a longer term agenda, in the President’s Speech. I asked the 4G Ministers to draft the President’s Speech, because they will have to carry out this agenda, continuing beyond my time as Prime Minister (PM). I gave my inputs, and I endorsed what they produced, because as PM, I am still ultimately responsible for the Government’s agenda. But my main role is to be supportive, to help the 4G Ministers present and implement the agenda, and to see through as much of it as possible while I am PM. Today I will speak about five aspects of the President’s Speech. First, coping with external changes. Next, growing our economy. Third, ensuring social mobility. Fourth, maintaining social cohesion. And finally, ensuring good politics and leadership.

Uncertain External Environment

Let me start with the external environment.

Globalisation, which has delivered growth and stability for many countries including Singapore, has come under pressure.

Countries, particularly in the West, are questioning the benefits of openness and free trade, and of the free movement of people.

The US has been, thus far, the champion and sponsor of the post-war international system. They promoted free trade. They opened their own doors to immigrants. They were generous to others, sharing technology and know-how. They spent blood and treasure to maintain global peace. They believed that all this was in their own “‘enlightened self-interest”.

But now, many Americans no longer believe this, including the Trump Administration. They feel that other countries are benefitting more from the global system, and benefiting at the expense of the US. They want to make sure that the US will always benefit directly – item by item, country by country. And not just generally, by observing the system, which is good for everybody, and indirectly good for the US. So the US has made trade a top issue, especially trade with China.

The trade tensions between US and China hurt business, but more broadly, their unilateral and tit-for-tat actions undermine the multilateral trading system. In other words, it is not just two participants who are affected or the amount of whatever it is – steel or aluminium or soybeans or cars, which is not exported and cannot be traded. The whole multilateral system, the system of rules which ensure countries, big and small, are on a level playing field, have their face in the sun and can contribute to, and benefit from international network of cooperation. It is a system which we have depended upon in Singapore. Therefore, the trade tensions, threaten global prosperity, especially for smaller countries like Singapore.

The trade disputes can also affect the overall relations between the powers.

The US and China are jockeying for position and advantage. The US is still stronger, especially militarily, but China is growing in power, influence and confidence. Increasingly, the US has to accommodate China. If there is mutual distrust and rivalry between the two, it is but a small step from a trade disagreement to a wider and more serious quarrel.

The US and China are far from going to war with each other, but it is not clear which way their relations will tilt. If they tilt towards more conflict, it will be bad not only for the two powers, but for the rest of the world as well. That is obvious. But if relations tilt to the other extreme and the two powers agree to divide up the world between them, and set rules that only benefit them, that would be just as detrimental, especially for small countries which will have no say.

As a small and open country, Singapore will always be vulnerable to what happens around us. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to say: “when elephants fight, the grass suffers, but when elephants make love, the grass also suffers”. Therefore, we must be aware of what is happening around us, and prepare ourselves for changes and surprises. 

Close to home, Malaysia saw a historic change last week in its General Election. Pakatan Harapan, led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, now forms the Government. For the first time ever in Malaysia, the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional lost power. This is a momentous development.

As Malaysia’s closest neighbour, we need to pay close attention to our relationship with them. The two countries have deep historical, economic and people-to-people ties. We hope Malaysia is stable and prosperous. We have enjoyed good relations with Malaysia under the former Prime Minister Najib Razak, and cooperated on major projects that benefit both sides. We have also worked with Dr Mahathir and several of his team before. We completed joint projects with Malaysia when Dr Mahathir was last the Prime Minister including the Second Link at Tuas. I also know Mr Anwar Ibrahim well, because he was my counterpart when I was Deputy Prime Minister. The expectations of the new Malaysian government are very high, and I think Dr Mahathir will be very busy in the days to come. But I plan to visit Malaysia on Saturday, to meet Dr Mahathir. I will tell him that I look forward to working with him again for mutual benefit.

Indonesia is having elections too – local elections this year, and national elections next year. I have good working relations with President Jokowi, as I did with President Yudhoyono before. I hope we can maintain friendly and productive ties with Indonesia too.

Regardless of political cycles and election outcomes, we will work hard on relations with our two neighbours. Their success makes for a more peaceful and prosperous region, and that is good for us.

Building a Nation of Opportunities

In the President’s Speech, she spoke about how Singapore must remain a nation of opportunities. This, to me, is the heart of our nation building journey. Our forefathers came to this land, because they sought better lives for themselves and their families. When independence was thrust upon us and the odds were stacked against us, our pioneer generation dug in and slogged to build a nation. Their children and grandchildren took up the torch after them, and improved Singapore year by year. This sense of opportunity, of possibility, hope, is the spark that has inspired generations of Singaporeans to dream big, and work hard to realise those dreams.

We must always sustain this confidence that we can build a better life for ourselves and future generations of Singaporeans that we can make tomorrow better than today. Nationally, this means growing our economy, creating new possibilities and expanding our horizons. Individually, it means improving the life of every Singaporean, in a fair, open and cohesive society.

Economic Growth

One of the top priorities of the Government is therefore to keep the economy growing. We are in a strong position today, because our economy has grown steadily for the past 50 years and more. We have enjoyed high growth for much of this half century – even from time to time exceeding 10 per cent per annum. Since independence in 1965, our GDP has grown more than 40 times in real terms. Today our per capita income is higher than Japan’s. We can see it in all our lives. 

Now that we have become more developed, our growth forecast has moderated to 2 to 4 per cent. This has made some people anxious. They worry that their children will not have better lives than they themselves do today. But let us put the numbers in perspective.

First, 2 to 4 per cent is in fact quite good for a mature economy. South Korea and Taiwan are growing at around this rate too. Japan is growing even slower.

Second, 2 to 4 per cent is just an estimate, based on our current stage of economic development. It is not the limit to our efforts or to our ambitions. Individual companies and industries can certainly do better, especially if they come up with a more innovative product, or if they expand into new markets, and till virgin ground.

We are pushing ahead with our economic upgrading. We can see the opportunities. The only question is whether we can seize them.

Take for example, the digital economy. A lot is happening all around us. In Indonesia, the tech scene is vibrant, buzzing with energy and talent. Indonesia has produced four unicorns. Unicorns are not animals; they are companies which have become worth more than $1 billion. Indonesia has four of them – Go Jek, Traveloka, Bukalapak and Tokopedia. Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia have lively tech sectors too. So if we can build up our own tech sector while connecting with theirs, we will prosper together.

We are making good progress also developing frontier technologies in artificial intelligence (AI), fintech, and advanced manufacturing. We have attracted leading AI researchers and companies to Singapore. Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has built a reputation as a leading centre in AI. The Alibaba Group recently opened a research institute on AI together with NTU, which is its first research institute outside China. When I visited Beijing recently, I went to visit Didi Chuxing. It is the equivalent of Grab or Uber. I met some NTU graduates there. The Didi Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Bob Zhang told me the graduates were doing very well. So our people are well-prepared. In fintech, MAS has developed Singapore to become a fintech hub, just within the last 2 or 3 years. The right rules, the right encouragement, the right openness, the right light-touch, and the flower blossoms; they have green fingers. More than 400 fintech firms are now based here, so are over 30 innovation labs and research centres set up by MNCs. In advanced manufacturing, A*Star is collaborating with MNCs, local companies and universities to develop new technologies in aerospace and precision engineering. For example, we have a Joint Laboratory with Rolls Royce and Singapore Aero Engine Services that was opened last year. These will create good manufacturing jobs. SMEs will benefit, and so will workers, because through these research collaborations, they get access to the new technologies.

So there are many possibilities for us to grow our economy, and to reinvent and redevelop Singapore. 

Social Mobility

But growth alone is not enough. Individual Singaporeans must see progress in their lives, must feel that their future is bright, and must know that each one of us has our stake in it. This means sharing growth widely and equitably, to improve the lives of all Singaporeans. It also means fully maximising the talents and efforts of our people, and getting the most capable and reliable people into the most consequential jobs, where they can make the most difference, and the greatest contributions. In other words, making sure there is social mobility, so that our meritocracy continues to work.

How do we know if our meritocracy is working? First of all, every child must have a good start in life, regardless of which family you are born into. Secondly, every talent has to be recognised and developed to the fullest. Thirdly, every opportunity has open to anyone with the right attitude and ability. Finally, a capable person must face minimal social impediments to being accepted, to contribute, to be in a position to lead in society.

In the long term, this last part – keeping the social impediments down – is the most difficult to sustain. We want Singapore society to maintain an informal and egalitarian tone, where people interact freely and comfortably as equals, and there are no rigid class distinctions or barriers that keep good people down. This is important but it is beyond the Government’s ability to bring about alone. Society itself has to be open and permeable. Each one of us must carry those attitudes, values, norms, that willingness to welcome talent and ability, and to keep the system the way it is.

Any society which has been stable for a long time tends to stratify, and it becomes less socially mobile. For example, the UK and India have long entrenched hierarchies and very fixed notions of class, or in India – caste, which they have found very difficult to overcome. Singapore is still a young country of 50 years, and notions of class and hierarchy have not yet calcified. Social cues, markers and norms are still evolving. We do not want them to evolve in the wrong direction and contribute to class divisions and rigidities. 

Social cues are important because they can become ways to pigeonhole or exclude others, knowingly or unknowingly. In Britain, your accent – the way you speak – can define your status in society. Do you have a posh public school accent? Do you speak like a professional who has been to Oxbridge? Do you speak as a working class person, with a local or regional accent? Do you speak cockney twang? Then you know you come from a certain part of London and you are a certain class of person, not very high up the totem pole. So George Bernard Shaw wrote, “an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.” Classifies him – it is a pun – it pigeonholes him into his social class. You listen to him and you will know do you respect him, do you look down on him, do you give him orders, or do you say ‘Yes Sir’. He went on to say: “the moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.” And it is true, if you do not have an upper-class accent, you are marked down straightaway. That is why Singapore schools put emphasis on teaching students to speak good English. Otherwise, those children whose parents already speak good English at home will be fine, but others will grow up at a permanent disadvantage. Without everyone being proficient in speaking standard English, Singlish will become a class marker. In other words, if you cannot speak proper English, you are “down there”. If you can speak proper English, the doors open for you. This would close the doors on many from less privileged families.

There are other social markers that can signal and entrench class differences. Members may recall the recent fuss over an unauthorised secondary school social studies guidebook. It contained a table that had sweeping generalisations about people in Singapore from high and low socio-economic statuses (SES). For instance, supposedly, low SES speak Singlish, play soccer or basketball, and eat at hawker centres, while high SES speak formal English, play golf or tennis, and only eat at fine restaurants. The story went viral. Many Singaporeans were appalled and rightly so. Luckily, it was not a guidebook approved by MOE. Lifestyle choices can indeed become separators in society, distinguishing marks. What you eat, how you dress, where you go for holidays, what games you play, what clubs you belong to. In every society, people have ways to show who is in and who is out. You take one look at a person or you listen to him for a moment and you can already place him. There are distinctions in Singapore society too, but the general tone in Singapore is one of restraint. If you wear a chunky gold watch and dress flashily, instead of being impressed, people may think you are a loan shark! That is as it should be. We must discourage people from flaunting their social advantages. We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status, or worse, look down on others less well-off and privileged. We should emphasise our commonalities, not accentuate our differences. And so you will see, if you look around the Chamber, everybody informally dressed discussing serious matters of state. In any other Parliamentary Chamber in this part of the world or anywhere in the world, we would all be togged up in our Sunday best just to show that we are somebody in society, but that is not the Singapore way.

There is a further obstacle to social mobility: elite groups who become closed circles, preventing outsiders from getting in. Every society has its elite. They occupy the key leadership positions in society – in the Government, in academia, in business, in professions, in politics. Members of the elite share similar backgrounds, interests and social spaces. They may be alumni of the same schools, they may have done business with one another, they may have worked in the same professions. They know one another, they have interacted with one another in different roles over long periods through their lives. Such networks are natural structures in society. They are useful for people to know one another, to get things done informally, to share an implicit understanding of the interests of the society, and to feel a collective sense of responsibility for the society. Such networks are an important part of our social capital.

But social networks must always remain open and permeable. They must not close up; they must not form glass ceilings. It must not be difficult or impossible for others with talent or ability, but lacking the right backgrounds and connections, to be welcomed into the elite group, to rise to the top, to take their rightful place and make their full contribution. If this happened, not only would social mobility be frustrated, but soon the elite group would start to only look after its own interests, and fail in their duty to lead and to care for the rest of society. That would be disastrous for Singapore.

Let me share something which Ong Ye Kung told me recently. Raffles Institution (RI) is one of our most popular schools. I did not go to RI but I can tell you it is a good school. It has a strong tradition of accepting students from diverse backgrounds, so long as they make the cut. But over the years, RI has become less diverse. The new RI principal has been putting in the effort, speaking to parents of potential students in primary schools across Singapore, to encourage them to apply to RI. To his surprise, some of the parents told him they did not want to send their child there. Why? Not because they thought their child could not cope with the academic demands but because they feared he would not be able to fit in with other more well-off students. Actually, I think this fear is unfounded because in reality, RI students do come from varied backgrounds. Just over half the students live in public housing, 53 per cent, and all the students get along confidently and comfortably. Bursaries and scholarships are readily available. No parent needs to worry that they cannot afford to send his child to RI, or that his child will feel out of place. But if such a perception exists and discourages promising students from applying to the school, it is not good for RI, it is not good for Singapore. RI knows what it has to do in order to uphold its egalitarian tradition. MOE will work with them and other popular schools too, so that these schools never become self-perpetuating, closed circles.

Government policies and programmes must, and do, support social mobility and meritocracy. We make sure that the fundamentals are done well – quality education, home ownership and affordable healthcare, which improve the lives of every Singaporean. We give everyone a good education, and now we are investing heavily in pre-school, to give all Singaporean kids, in fact, almost babies as well, a good start in life. We have a strong social safety net, with targeted assistance schemes, so that those with difficulties are not left behind and forgotten. And we intervene with extra help – whether in education, housing, healthcare or jobs training – for those who need it, to enable them to take full advantage of the opportunities.

Above all, our education system must stay open. We have set aside places in primary schools for children without affiliation to these schools and we will do more if necessary. We are expanding opportunities for students from different schools to interact, through sports, community activities, and the Outward Bound Singapore (OBS).

Last year, I visited the Outward Bound Singapore for their 50th anniversary celebrations. I had attended the course 50 years ago. I chatted with Nicholas Conceicao, who is the Executive Director of OBS. I told him that when I went to OBS 50 years ago as a 15-year-old, they only took in two students per secondary school. So the group of 130 odd, there were people from 50, 60 different schools, different language streams, very different social backgrounds. We all had to get together because they mixed us up properly. We went to the course together, we became good friends, and came away understanding the diversity of our society better, and how we could all work together because seventeen days at that impressionable age is an intense experience. You are put through physical stress, you are emotionally put to your limits, you have to work with others, and there is very little that you can do alone and if you do not make friends, you are miserable. You have to make friends across boundaries.

So I recounted this and Nicholas told me that today, because of the larger numbers, they cannot take in students from 60 or 70 schools at a time, but they take in students from two to three schools at a time. Nowadays the students all speak English, but still, he finds clear differences in the cultures and interests of the students from the different schools, and even in the way they use language. All speaking in English, but different interest, different vocabulary, really different world perspectives, almost. At OBS, the students still learn to work in teams. So when they pitch a tent, build a raft, or safely belay someone on an obstacle course, they must work closely with teammates; you can’t do it alone. So the students learn to bridge their differences, and to trust one another.

So after 50 years, OBS remains a valuable opportunity for students to mix and interact across different schools and social groups. And we will do more of this. So we are building an extension of OBS on Coney Island. When that opens, even more students will benefit from this experience.

So we are doing many things to improve social mobility, but I have to be honest with you, there are no easy solutions. Many societies have faced this problem. Many ideas have been proposed and tried out. Political philosophers, statesmen, all powerful human minds have been brought to bear, to try to deal with this conundrum of how to keep the society spry, open, stable. There have been no magic bullets. There have been varying degrees of success. The most successful models, perhaps are the Scandinavian countries, but even they have seen widening social inequality in recent times. So, we have to understand that this is what they call a wicked problem. It is a problem with no easy solution, which we will discuss, rightly, repeatedly, in this House, through the years.

Our strategy in Singapore has been more successful than most. With universal education, with home ownership, with the Government’s determination to widen opportunities and make the most of every citizen, we have made meritocracy work in Singapore. Now that our society is more settled, we must work harder to keep the pathways open, and to level people up. The Government is not ideological. We are pragmatic. We will try anything which works. We will learn from our own experience, and the experience of others. But we must also be realistic. Spot what looks promising, but please also recognise what will not work. Some people have suggested, I read in the newspapers, a Universal Basic Income, which is a neat idea, so far unproven anywhere in the world. The Finns tried it and aborted the experiment early. It didn’t work for them. Others want to abolish the PSLE. That is in fact very hard to do. Educators have very different views, and even parents have very different views, whether it is PSLE, you would be better off without the PSLE. But we are taking the first step to change the status quo, by doing away with T-scores. If anyone can come up with a better alternative, certainly, we will certainly consider it. In the end, the Government must focus on practical, effective policies. As a society, we must uphold clear social norms that minimise social barriers and encourage mobility, so as to keep our meritocratic system working well for all Singaporeans.

Social Cohesion

Meritocracy is about individuals having opportunities and being successful. 

But we must also be successful together, as one people, one society, and one nation, not just successful alone, but successful together. That is what social cohesion is about. We must feel a sense of social responsibility, and concern for our fellow citizens. Without which, our society cannot hold together. 

What holds us together is not our pink NRICs, but the shared experiences that we build together over time. We grow up together in national schools, and we are comfortable around each other, regardless of our family backgrounds. We go through National Service, building brotherhood and camaraderie when we march and fight together. We eat at hawker centres, regardless whether we are rich or poor, so the guide book is wrong. We live in HDB estates. We learn the habits and preferences of different races and religions, and we help neighbours out when they are in need. We travel together on public transport. And unlike in some other countries, there is no social stigma to living in public housing, or taking the bus or the train. We celebrate our successes together, such as SG50 recently, and every National Day. And when crises hit, we go through them side by side.

We have made much progress in our nation-building. We are now much more cohesive than fifty years ago, when we didn’t live in integrated HDB estates, townships nor did we do NS together. Or even twenty years ago, before 9/11, and before SARS.

But nation-building will always be a work in progress, because the forces that pull Singaporeans in different directions never go away. Race, language and religion are enduring fault lines. From the start, we knew they could divide and destroy us. Today, our social cohesion has grown stronger, but these tidal pulls have grown stronger too. Take from example the influence of China and India on our own ethnic groups on Chinese Singaporeans and Indian Singaporeans. These are two vast nations, even civilizations. They are growing in strength and confidence. It will be a very long time before we become immune to their ethnic, cultural or economic pulls. Furthermore, the relationship is complicated, because on one hand, we want to maintain our separate identity as a multi-racial, sovereign and independent country. But on the other hand, we want to say, we speak Mandarin, we have overseas Indians, we have ethnic links, we have cultural ties, we have an inside track. So between the two, there is tension, and we have to keep that balance, and maintain our position and our cohesion. Likewise, with the Malays. Over time, a Singaporean-Malay identity has emerged clearly. But still, it overlaps with the Malays in Malaysia, both in terms of race as well as religion. And the call for a global ummah (a community of Muslims around the world) has a powerful appeal. Furthermore, we are exposed, in this Internet age, to extremist and exclusivist teachings. These can lead individuals astray, and if there is a terrorist attack, it will cause great fear and distrust between Muslims and other Singaporeans.

Beyond race, language and religion, we must work at building bridges between different groups in society. Traditionally when we talk about social cohesion, we think of race, language and religion. But if you look at it at other dimensions, there are other gradients, other possible fault lines, other ways where we have to strengthen our social cohesion, and become closer together. One of them is between unions and management. Another one is between old citizens and new.

The Labour Movement is one institution vital to our social cohesion. Because of the tripartite partnership, labour management relations are a source of strength for us, unlike in many other countries where unions and managements are bitterly opposed. Whereas in Singapore, labour harmony is secured with the help of a strong NTUC, as we sing at every May Day Rally. But in the new economy, fewer workers are doing jobs traditionally covered by the trade unions. Many more are freelancers and professionals. So if these new groups are left out, and that Union coverage shrinks as a results of the changing workforce composition, and you have more people who are not represented, not taken care of, don’t feel protected and look for other solutions, it would weaken tripartism and our social compact. So it is better for the Labour Movement to embrace them, to adopt their concerns, to become more inclusive. That is what Chan Chun Sing did in NTUC, widening the Labour Movement membership beyond trade unions, to include NTUC new associates - the PMETs and the freelancers. And now Ng Chee Meng in NTUC will carry on his work.

Another bridge we need to build is to our new citizens. Immigrants are part and parcel of our history and our identity. And if you look ahead, we need a steady flow of immigrants, not too many, not too few, just right to top up our population. First generation immigrants into any country will always take time to settle down, to understand the nuances of the culture and character, to progressively integrate into the society. And that’s what happened in the past with previous waves of first generation of Singaporeans over the last 200 years and that is a necessary process which has to happen as we continue to have an inflow of people in joining us to become Singapore citizens.  The new arrivals have chosen to make Singapore their home, and they will contribute to our country, our society. They have to make every effort to mix and interact with everyone else. On our part, we should welcome them, we should support them in their journey to become Singaporeans, as others have helped our forefathers and help ourselves.

Therefore, there is much work to do to maintain our social cohesion.

Constructive Politics, Good Leadership 

Mr Speaker Sir, these are the challenges for the next generation of leaders. To continue to grow Singapore – reinventing our economy, creating new possibilities for the future. To ensure that Singapore is always a land of opportunity, a meritocratic, fair and just society. To hold Singaporeans together in one cohesive society.

Can the next generation of leaders build on our shared experiences of 50 years, and maintain the sense of collective mission?

Can they work to improve the lives of all Singaporeans, and not the interests of narrow groups, so that they pass on an even stronger, more united Singapore? I think they can

The 4G team is now in place. They are overseeing their own portfolios and projects, explaining their ideas to Singaporeans, implementing policies and making them work. Many of them joined in the last three General Elections, from 2006 onwards, so about the last 12 years. I have also promoted promising backbenchers to become office holders, including in the recent reshuffle. It is a strong team of able men and women, with a balanced combination of skills and strengths. They are gaining experience, willing to serve, and most importantly, their hearts are in the right place.

We need new leaders for each generation, from each generation. Because each generation has its own challenges to tackle, and tough choices to make. The electorate will be different, the economic landscape will be different, the international order may well also be different.

Some hard truths will always remain for Singapore. But even old problems may need new solutions. We must be pragmatic and non-ideological in our approach. Keep an open mind, and make decisions with both the head and the heart. Remember our history but don’t be trapped by it. And that is why leadership renewal is crucial: new ideas, new bonds and new connections are needed with every new generation.

Last week, at the reopening of Parliament, I had a chance to chat with Mr Low Thia Khiang. Someone took a picture of us and The Workers’ Party posted a smiling photo of the two of us on their Facebook page. It was a nice picture. What were we talking about? I think Mr Low won’t mind me sharing. I asked him – the Workers Party is having a leadership transition too. What will change, now that the WP has a new leader? And he replied, “Nothing much. We the WP have our role. These things should not change suddenly. Don’t you agree?”

I agreed with Mr Low. As an opposition party, the Workers’ Party plays a role in our political system, whoever is their party leader. Opposition parties keep Singapore politics contestable. In other words, the ruling party, the PAP does not have a monopoly of power, does not have the right to rule Singapore indefinitely. So long as the PAP government performs, it keeps the voters’ support, it stays in power and the opposition cannot gain ground. But if the PAP government becomes incompetent or corrupt, then of course the opposition will grow. So our system gives the PAP government, gives every government the incentive to perform, and to keep the opposition performing its role where it is, namely, in the opposition.

The PAP is determined to perform. We treat every election as a serious contest. We take every debate in the House seriously. And that is why we amended the Constitution to ensure that there will always be at least 12 Opposition and NCMPs in the House, whatever the outcome of the General Election. 

Political parties do not have a fixed lifespan – a time to live and a time to die, as Ecclesiastes puts it. How long a political party continues in government – or in opposition for that matter, because parties come and go in the opposition too – depends on whether it can renew itself, continue to serve the people, continue to bring progress to the nation. If the PAP can keep on successfully doing that, we can stay in government. But if we ever fail, we deserve to lose. So my message to all PAP MPs is “work hard, serve the people, hold the ground, and win elections”.

This does not mean the Government will shy away from difficult problems. A Government must govern. And if Ministers are not prepared to govern, then give it up. Because that’s your duty, that’s what you are here for. Governing means from time to time you have to do difficult things, when they become necessary. Leadership means you got to explain, persuade, and convince people that you know what you are doing, and you are doing it for good reason, and it is the right thing to do. That is the way to maintain people’s trust, and trust is crucial.

Take taxes. In the recent Malaysian election, one hot issue was their GST. The previous government had introduced the new GST tax three years ago, and it had caused great unhappiness in Malaysia. After Pakatan Harapan won the election, Dr Mahathir announced that his new government would abolish the GST. Why did this happen? It was not because of the economic merits of the GST. From the economic point of view, the GST is better than the Sales Tax that it replaced. But politically, Malaysians linked the GST with other complaints they had against the previous government, and they rejected the explanations and persuasions and they said no, I don’t accept this, out with it. Does that mean no government should ever raise taxes? Alas that is not the real world. From time to time the country will need to spend more – on healthcare, on defence, on education, or something else – and if revenues are not enough, it will have no choice but to raise taxes. Then the government must convince the population that it is raising taxes for a good reason, for the right reason. Whether the voters accept that will depend not just on the arguments, but also crucially on whether they trust the government. Because in arguments, for every right argument, you can produce five doubtful ones which look quite plausible. And in elections, there is no shortage of producers of such arguments. And people can get confused. Finally, they have to decide, who they will trust. What is their track record? Do you want to leave your future, your fate, your children’s future, in the hands of this team and believe that they have your best interests at heart? And if you do, you vote for them and you take all the things which need to be done as one bundle. Finally, voters have to trust the government to do the right thing on their behalf, even when it is painful. 

I think this is the right lesson to learn. Without trust, the Government can’t govern. It won’t dare to do painful but necessary things. Politics becomes the art of pandering – a bidding war between parties, who can give more, who can offer more. You say you can reduce the tax, I say I can abolish the tax. And you say I can give you a ‘hong bao’ on top of that. And how to pay - we can think of that after the elections. And the country goes downhill.

The 4G Ministers understand this. They have been working together, learning to complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses, making decisions as a team, and taking collective responsibility for these decisions.

To me, this working together is just as important, if not more important, than the question of who should be the next PM. Because for the next PM, I know there is more than one qualified candidate. We are fortunate that this is so, as it provides strength and depth to the team. Now it is about the team coming to a consensus on the best option. But to work together as one team, there is no other option. Whoever becomes the next PM, the team has to work closely together for him to succeed. If they cannot or do not do so, the next PM will fail, whoever he is.

Even in the best of times – and certainly in times of severe crisis – Mr Lee Kuan Yew did not run the country by himself. Neither did Mr Goh Chok Tong, nor myself. When Mr Lee received the Freedom of the City of London in 1982, it was a grand occasion, he dressed up, he made a speech, he said: “I feel like a conductor at a concert bowing to applause, but unable to turn around and invite the accomplished musicians in his orchestra to rise and receive the ovation for the music they have played. For running a government is not unlike running an orchestra, and no Prime Minister ever achieves much without an able team of players”. I think I can speak for Mr Goh Chok Tong when I say that we both feel the same way. All three of us were not sole leaders, but primus inter pares – that means first among equals – but the emphasis is equals, but just that we are the first among equals with our colleagues. We take their views, we take them seriously, we benefit from their advice and their abilities, their skills. We have fierce arguments as to what to do, but we are on a team together, with strong enough bonds that we can to deal with issues together and there is leadership but it is unforced, it has to be unforced leadership that the team accepts, respects and knows that it has an important role to play. They are not there just to carry on orders. We were all fortunate – Singapore was fortunate – that the PMs had such stalwart colleagues. Mr Lee had a core team of very strong Ministers supporting him – Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, Othman Wok. ESM Goh had a talented team too – Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, Wong Kan Seng, S. Jayakumar, S Dhanabalan, Abdullah Tarmugi, George Yeo, just to name a few.  If anything, ESM Goh’s team was even more comprehensive than Mr Lee’s. And when I took over as Prime Minister, I inherited ESM Goh’s strong team, and Mr Goh himself stayed on, and we added talent to his team. And now that he’s stepped down, I rely on my own core team, which now also includes several of the 4G Ministers. So the next PM must have, and will have, his stalwart colleagues too, his generation and I also hope, younger ones.

I know everyone is anxious to know who the next PM will be. Well, the leader must command the respect and loyalty of his whole team. He must enjoy the support and confidence of the broad mass of Singaporeans. These things take time; they cannot be forced. I do not believe we are ready to settle on a choice yet. Nor is it helpful to treat this either as a horse race, or a campaign to lobby support for one or the other candidate. This is a team game. We want a strong, cohesive team so that Team Singapore is the winner.

I have just reshuffled the Cabinet, have moved some Ministers to new portfolios, and expanded the responsibilities of others. The 4G Ministers now helm two thirds of the ministries. They have a major say in policies, and the direction to take Singapore. Let’s give them the time and space to do their own work, to work together in their new roles, and to get better known by the public. I am confident that in the fullness of time we will see a clear outcome, and a leader will emerge from the process. Certainly I expect this to happen before the next General Election.

For these 14 years as PM, I have been working with the 4G team, guiding them, assessing them, preparing them to take over the reins. When Heng Swee Keat rounded up the Budget Debate this year, I was happy to hear him describe the Budget as one that not only meets the needs of today’s generation, but also accounts for the needs of future generations. It showed that the 4G Ministers understood that their deepest responsibility is to be a steward of Singapore. What does it mean steward? The Government is certainly not the owner of Singapore, but neither is it just the manager of Singapore. It is the steward, it’s responsible for taking good care of the country, for holding it in trust, building it up and handing it on in due time to future generations. The Government must keep faith with the past generations who gifted this country to us. It has to be responsible to the present generation who continue to build on what we have inherited. But above all, it must consider future generations, whose lives and whose futures depend on us, the present generation. Depend on us thinking of their interests, acting on their behalf, making wise and far-sighted decisions to cause Singapore to endure and flourish for many more years. 

I am confident that when the time comes for me to hand over to a new Prime Minister, Singapore will be in the hands of good stewards.

Conclusion

We have built something truly special here in Singapore. Countries near and far look to Singapore as a model of governance and development. People want to live here, do business here, even the US and the DPRK are planning to hold their meeting here!

In many other countries, political leaders plan only up to the next election or next crisis. But in Singapore, we are able to think beyond the immediate and ourselves, we care about our community, our country and our future. Our religious leaders, they visit temples, churches and mosques together, they give blessings on one another’s milestone celebrations. Our neighbours and friends invite us over for makan during Chinese New Year, Deepavali or Hari Raya. Our youth travel and experience the world, they come back eager to apply what they have seen and learnt around the world, back home. Our grandparents and parents bring us up and nurture us. They are living examples of how by working hard, we can build better lives for ourselves and our children.

We are all living the Singapore Story, and keeping it alive. We must sustain and pass on this shared vision of prospering together, progressing together. That way, we will make this little red dot shine bright in the world, as well as in our hearts, for many, many years to come.

Thank you Mr Speaker.


Question

Low Thia Khiang: Speaker Sir, I would like to seek clarification from the Prime Minister. Given that the 4G leadership, especially the three frontrunners for the next Prime Minister largely come from the SAF or the Civil Service, is it not a sign that there is now a political elite class in Singapore?

PM: Mr Speaker Sir, this is an example of the way not to think about the problem. When you look at the person, you ask, “Is he making a contribution? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What are his contributions? Does he or does he not measure up?” You do not ask, “Where did he come from?" Who his parents are. Is it bad to come from the Civil Service or the SAF? No. Is it necessary to come from there? No. Is it good to have people from a wide range? Yes, and we do have a wide range. He talked about three frontrunners. I do not know how many people are running. I just said it is not a horse race, it is a team. I have people from the private sector, I have doctors, I have lawyers, I have brought in new people from the back-benchers, some of whom are also from the private sector with business experience. So we are looking for people wherever we can find them, to bring in, to form a Singapore team. The stronger this team is, the harder I make Mr Low’s job. I cannot help it; it was not my objective. I just want the best team for Singapore.