The Dialogue was organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. It was chaired by Washington Post columnist and CNN host Dr Fareed Zakaria.
Dr Fareed Zakaria: Thank you all. Let's just thank NUS and Kishore Mahbubani and the Lee Kuan Yew School in particular for organising this extraordinary event and giving us all a chance to celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary and of course the school’s own anniversary. For me this is a great, great pleasure and honour because I have known and admired the Prime Minister for many years. Henry Kissinger says those who need no introductions are the ones that crave them the most. I happen to know that in this case that is not true and so I will not go through the absurdity of introducing the Prime Minister to his people. I better use your precious time by getting straight into it.
Just before Singapore was founded, somebody said it would be a political, economic and geographic absurdity to have an independent Singapore. That person was Lee Kuan Yew, and you can understand why he would say it – no resources, no internal market, defenceless, and in a time and atmosphere of Cold War confrontation. What do you think was Singapore’s greatest challenge at that early moment?
PM Lee Hsien Loong: I think it was to disprove Lee Kuan Yew’s earlier conviction.That was the most important thing - to believe that you can build a country here, there’s a future and we can make it happen. If you believe that, then you can take steps and you can think of solutions and you can make progress. If you don’t believe that, you can’t start. In fact, you will fall apart. Fortunately not only did the leaders believe that but they were able to convince Singaporeans of that. And as we were able to make progress, we got into a virtuous circle which brought us here 50 years later. I think that was the master solution. The policies are important - economics, free trade, armed forces, building up the SAF, diplomacy, getting our place in the world, educating our people, housing, healthcare. All those are important and you must get good people looking after all of them. But first you must have that conviction that here there shall be a nation.
Dr Zakaria: It’s a fascinating point and I think it’s a very important one to think about when you watch what’s going on in the Middle East today where, from Syria to Libya, what has collapsed is not just the state but the nation. There are simply not many Iraqis who believe in Iraq as a national project, Syria as a national project, Libya as a national project. What do you think made a nation in the case of Singapore where this polyglot population, people who had migrated here for reasons of colonial trade?
PM Lee: Partly good luck, partly good history, partly good leadership. Leadership has a lot to do with it. It is not something which would have happened on its own. History has something to do with it because if we had not gone through those experiences before independence in the 1950s and early 60s - the troubles with the left-wing and the communist unions and riots, the difficulties with the communalists in Malaysia, the feeling of oppression, of helplessness, of not mastering your own destiny, which caused us to decide that we will be masters of our destiny; and then if we had not had good luck along the way to have America engage in the region, the Vietnam War last long enough so that we could establish ourselves, and Southeast Asia become a region of peace and stability with a stable government in Indonesia after Sukarno when Suharto took over, giving us the possibility as a small nation to prosper in peace in the international community of nations, I don’t think we might have made it. As Lee Kuan Yew used to say, if he did it again, he might not be as lucky the second time.
Dr Zakaria: How fragile is the accomplishment. How much do you worry?
PM Lee: We worry all the time. People say we are paranoid, which I suppose we are and we need to be. Because you are at a higher level, you expect to be at a higher level. You don’t expect to go back to where you were in the 1960s. And yet, it is not natural that you stay at this place. Is it to be expected that the population of 3.5 million citizens and maybe a million foreign workers will have the best airline in the world, the best airport in the world, one of the busiest ports in the world, a financial centre which is one of three or four key financial centres in the world, and an education, healthcare and housing system which gives us a per capita GDP which is, at least by World Bank calculations if you look at PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), higher than America or Australia or Japan. It’s an entirely unnatural state of affairs and one which we should count our blessings for, if not every day at least every election.
We worry all the time. People say we are paranoid, which I suppose we are and we need to be. Because you are at a higher level, you expect to be at a higher level. PM Lee
We worry all the time. People say we are paranoid, which I suppose we are and we need to be. Because you are at a higher level, you expect to be at a higher level.
Dr Zakaria: When you listen to the early leaders of Singapore and the early years of Singapore, what is striking is the degree to which the concern was ethnic and religious harmony rather than the issues of economics and such. There was a real concern borne of course out of the severing of ties with Malaysia about that. What I’m struck by when you look at the policies of Singapore, people think of Singapore as a very tough place with very tough laws and I was struck about this even when talking to Lee Kuan Yew about it over the years. On racial, religious issues, it’s actually almost the opposite. There is a great deal of sort of live and let live, there’s a great deal of a sense of allowing, celebrating and cherishing every community and its religion. Is that, you think, part of the success?
PM Lee: There has to be a lot of give and take because you need strict rules but at the same time this is an area where if you insist on going by the rules, everybody is going to be the loser. It is not possible for us to codify in a set of statutes exactly what is permissible, what is not permissible conduct. You know that the French had this murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist in Paris earlier this year, freedom of speech, I am Charlie Hebdo. We have freedom of speech too but we also acknowledge restraints when it comes to denigrating somebody else’s faith, when it comes to proselytising and trying to persuade somebody else to come over to your faith, or even when it comes to how you express your own beliefs so as not to cause offence to others. Some of these are written down and in extremis we have to take a person to court as happened with this young man, Amos Yee, recently. But most of the time really you need some way to tap the person on the shoulder or tap his religious leader on the shoulder and say, “Do you really want to do this? Is it wise?” Fortunately for us we have religious leaders who have been wise and so we have avoided having to use the law very often. But with social media, it becomes a harder problem because the restraints are less, the possibility of giving offence and the ease of taking umbrage is so much greater. Overnight, you wake up, you can find somebody has been unwise and everybody has become upset and we have to run around putting out fires. It’s happened more than once and I’m sure it will happen again.
Dr Zakaria: I remember when talking once to Lee Kuan Yew he said to me, because he knew that I grew up in India, he said: “You know I was like Nehru. I was a great socialist in my orientation initially but then I realised it doesn’t work.” When do you think Singapore adopted the policies economically that have brought it so much success and why?
PM Lee: I suppose we learnt quite fast after the PAP became the government in 1959 because you had to deal with the situation, you had to create the jobs. In particular we decided that we needed to bring in foreign investments and to industrialise the economy. You do not succeed in bringing in foreign investments if you scare off investors and if you have market unfriendly policies and you have restrictions which are onerous on business people and companies. You have to go on, not quite laissez faire, but economic motives, economic incentives and the efficiency and the pressures that the free market bring to cause companies and individuals and groups to be productive, and we learnt that.
My father used to tell the story of how we started building HDB flats and he put Lim Kim San in charge. Lim Kim San came to see him one day and said you must make up your mind because this guy - somebody else, Ong Eng Guan - wanted him to hire so many people to build the flats. He said you must decide whether you want to build flats or you want this to be an employment agency. The urgency was to build the flats; we went for the efficient solution and we saw the social problem but using the power of free markets and the efficiency of markets. We went very early, but we never were, how shall we put it, maybe not the Tea Party types but we were never fundamentalist free marketeers. When it came to housing, we intervened massively. When it came to education, the State is there, in fact we require compulsory State education. When it came to healthcare, the State intervened but in a way which used market incentives whenever possible. We have hospitals, we own them, but they operate, they have to break even and they have to watch their bottom line. When it saves money to outsource the reading of images to qualified doctors in India, and it’s cheaper and faster and better, the doctors in India get the job and our people get better healthcare at a lower cost. I think it’s been a pragmatic approach and we’ve adjusted as we’ve gone along.
Dr Zakaria: When you look at the past of Singapore, you think about the things we’ve been talking about, politically, socially, economically, so much of it was formed and forged out of a sense of adversity, out of a sense this is a country that was not meant to be, there were forces against it, from Malaysia initially, the Indonesians launching Konfrontasi, the realities of the Cold War, the Soviets and the Chinese in Vietnam, and so much of the policy and the national coherence came from that. If you look at young Singaporeans today, they’ve grown up in one of the richest countries in the world, they don’t really believe that Malaysia is a threat, Indonesia is not a threat.
PM Lee: How do you know all these?
Dr Zakaria: I had a conversation with one very articulate one last night at dinner and he mirrored what people say over and over again. First of all, it happens to be true that these threats have diminished in objective terms. How do you maintain the pressure and the sense of drive? I’m asking a question in a sense that every rich parent wonders about with his children.
PM Lee: It’s a real challenge.The threats have changed but in fact threats have not disappeared. You may not think of them as existential threats in a sense that an army will come and invade you and take over you but can your cheese disappear? Yes. Can your lunch disappear? Yes. Can your business go somewhere very rapidly? It’s entirely possible and something which we worry about all the time. We are the second busiest port in the world; Shanghai is the busiest. They came from nowhere. Why are we the second busiest port? Not because we generate the business but because we are efficient and transhipment cargoes come to Singapore from very far away. They used to come from Chennai in India to Singapore to be transhipped in order to go to Europe, it makes no sense. Few hundred, few thousand miles to the east and back again but we can provide a service which obviously, nobody else more conveniently-placed can. Why can we do that? Because we are performing exceptionally and we need to keep on being able to do that, otherwise, somebody would move our cheese.
It’s a real challenge. The threats have changed but in fact threats have not disappeared. PM Lee Hsien Loong
It’s a real challenge. The threats have changed but in fact threats have not disappeared.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Dr Zakaria: But how do you maintain and instil that drive, that sense of…
PM Lee: I think the young people are hungry, they want a better life, they want careers to advance, they are very driven. What is not so much there is what is very difficult for us to convey that, in fact this place was vulnerable and remains vulnerable. And I will give you one very telling small example, you talk about race and religion and those dangers, so we now have a Racial Harmony Day, celebrated in our schools once a year, on the day of, I think, in the middle of July. I went around to visit the school one day, they put up an exhibition and they trained their kids to be docents. The kids took me through the slides and this is how we were and these were riots and these were the strikes and these were the things which happened. At the end of it all, this young boy, must be about 14, 15, asked me, he said, “when you were in school did we have Racial Harmony Day?” I said “No, when I was in school on that day, one year, we had a riot, and that’s why we have Racial Harmony Day.” So in a way, he understood all of the slides and the displays but in a more fundamental way, how can I make him understand what it was like 40 years, 50 years ago.
Dr Zakaria: Do you think that the problem of racial harmony is largely solved?
PM Lee: No, it’s still there. We are more of one country now. And our sense of being Singaporeans together is stronger. If you see somebody overseas, whether he’s Indian or Malay or Chinese or Eurasian, you look at him carefully, you can tell that he is Singaporean, something about him.
Dr Zakaria: Usually the quality of the clothes.
PM Lee: Or, maybe the way they go around looking for food. But the problem is not gone because one of the ways the world has changed in the last 50 years is that religion has become more prominent, Islam, Christianity even the Buddhists and more prominent in the world and more prominent in Singapore. Everybody is more conscious of their identity. Church attendance in Singapore is at record levels. On Sundays, you will be hard put to find an empty hall, the churches as well as all kinds of other venues. The Muslims take their religion very seriously in Singapore, I think much more so than a quarter century or half a century ago. So these are lines which are very clearly drawn and unless you make a very strong effort to overlap them to work across them, to integrate, despite them, they can always render you asunder. And if I have one day an ISIS attack in Singapore, I will have a very big problem. Not just because of a few people may be killed, but because of the suspicions and the enmities and the unspoken fears which will be created instantly and which will show in people’s conduct, in their interactions with one another, in the way fear generates fear and people separate out and you are not quite one society again.
Dr Zakaria: So when people talk about the rise of Islamic terrorists, or jihadists, the politically correct thing to talk about is depravation and things like that. But what is striking to me is, many, many of these people are not particularly deprived, they are often University students, they often had lived…
PM Lee: Yes, indeed so.
Dr Zakaria: So when you look at those stories of people in London or Paris or now Tunisia.
PM Lee: Or in Singapore.
Dr Zakaria: So what do you think it is that motivates, what is the driver?
PM Lee: Well, I think in every generation, there are people who are out of sorts with the world, in a previous generation, you had the Japanese Red Army, you had the Baader-Meinhof, the Americans have all kinds of little anarchists groups, some very violent. In this generation, apart from those who are religiously-motivated, I think, there are others who are out of sorts with the world and who adopt the jihadists’ ideology, not because they understand Islam, they know nothing about it but they want something with which to fight the world. One European security agency told me, I think a British one, that one quarter of their people who go to fight in Syria and Iraq are recent converts to Islam. They are not people who are deeply Muslim, understand Islam and therefore decided to go there. These are people who know nothing about Islam, they are unhappy with the world and they have decided this shall be their flag.
Dr Zakaria: What is the best counter?
PM Lee: Well, Tony Abbott was here last week and he said, you’ve got to defeat ISIS and that will diminish its allure because if ISIS is successful, then all the more people will think, maybe perhaps the caliph of the faithful is there and the end of days has come. So that’s part of it but it is also necessary for the ideology to be countered as necessarily for it to be done really within the Islamic faith and to have Islamic leaders speak up, both put right those who are born wrong and guide rightly the flock, so that they don’t get led astray. It’s not easy to do, we have had some progress doing that in Singapore, we are lucky we have leaders who had the courage to take the stand and have the standing to keep their flock despite taking such a stand. It has helped a great deal, I mean we have arrested 70, 80 people over the last decade since 9/11. We have released most of them and so far, less than 10 have relapsed and had to be picked up again. So it’s not a bad record.
Dr Zakaria: Is getting worse or better?
PM Lee: Well, most of the people were picked up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when we found a big group here. Since then, there’s been a trickle and in recent years, a trickle not from organised groups but from self-radicalised people. As you said, not those who are downtrodden and have a reason to have a beep with the world, but people who are educated, we had one lawyer, we’ve recently picked up a student from a polytechnic who was making plans to go to the Middle East to join ISIS and had back up plans if that didn’t work, well he was going to try to set up a group here and assassinate the President and the Prime Minister. He is a young man, he’s got an education, that system is looking after him but he went wrong.
Dr Zakaria: One of the other keys to Singapore’s success is, as you pointed out was that you had an era of an American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, you had...
PM Lee: I don’t think hegemony is the right word, they were a major power present in the Asia-Pacific.
Dr Zakaria: You are putting it more politically correctly than I am, I will let it be noted for the record.
PM Lee: We are very nice to our hegemonists.
Dr Zakaria: But, you are entering a different world, China is on a major offensive, if you add up all the projects and spending proposals that China has in the region, I think it amounts to something like a trillion dollars, to put that in perspective, entire Marshal Plan in today’s dollars, it will be about $120 billion. In this new era of Chinese prominence, I’m not going to use the word hegemony, do you think that Singapore will have the same ability to succeed and thrive, and will China view Singapore as an American outpost in Southeast Asia?
PM Lee: I think, as long as there is peace, security and stability in the world and a place for small countries, we should not be one of the least successful small countries. How much space you would have to decide your own path, depends on the strategic balance in the region. With the Americans, one of the reasons they have been successful and why I raised a small eyebrow when you said hegemony is because despite their dominance, they gave space to other countries. You could disagree with them, you could argue with them and they do twist your arms sometimes but they are benevolent hegemonist. Whether other great powers take the same approach or whether they will take a purely realpolitik view where big powers do what they will and the small countries suffer what they must, that’s to be seen.
Dr Zakaria: You know what the Chinese inclination in that regard, it is much more realpolitik?
PM Lee: The Chinese say that all countries big and small will work on the basis of equality, mutual respect and benefit.
Dr Zakaria: That’s the rhetoric but Chinese policy is fairly realpolitik.
PM Lee: Yes they are, so that is to be seen but if they do take such a view, there will be a pushback from many countries and it will be harder for them. They will have to make their assessments.
Dr Zakaria: Do you feel that China is displeased with Singapore’s relationship with the United States? I think about your speech to the Central Party School two years ago in which you were quite blunt to the Chinese about the virtues of America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific. I think about for example China’s representation at Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral which was frankly not adequate to the situation. There seem to be many ways in which the Chinese express a certain degree of displeasure.
PM Lee: I would not read too much into attendance at funerals but I would say the Chinese are, as you point out, realists. They understand our position. They know why America is important to us and so they work on that basis. Of course they would prefer us to speak up more often and more, how shall I put, in a more closely aligned way with what they would prefer on every single issue but they understand we are different countries and it’s not possible.
I had a conversation with one of them recently and he was here for a meeting in Shangri-La. He said we have great respect for Singapore and from time to time our polices don’t agree and you take views which are different from ours but nevertheless on a personal point of view we have great respect for you and your system. I said vice versa too, because it works both ways, it has to be. We are a country, you are a country, you have your interests and your calculations. I must have my own. We are not the same country, we are not against anybody. We are friends with many countries, we are very good friends with China. In fact our President is in China right now on a State Visit but from time to time countries have different perspectives. Even with America we’ve had some famous encounters.
Dr Zakaria: True but I’m just going to press you on this. I wonder at the end of the day, do you think that China is succeeding in its efforts to pressure, woo, seduce, bribe the region into a greater degree of comfort with its powers?
PM Lee: You use a lot of verbs. China uses all sorts of measures. They want friends…
Dr Zakaria: That’s why I needed all the verbs.
PM Lee: They want to win friends and influence people but at the same time they also want their interests advanced and they would like their friends to support their interests and yield to their interests. You see that when they interact with ASEAN. South China Sea is a hard issue but at the same time every ASEAN country wants good relations with China. They want the trade they want the investment, they want the foreign aid which is sometimes generously distributed and so it’s a multi- dimensional dynamic.
Dr Zakaria: Does China fundamentally want to thrive and shore up the current international order or does it want to fundamentally replace it or adjust it in order to allow for a much larger Chinese?
PM Lee: I think they just want to come into their own in the world. Their time has come. When they celebrated their 60th anniversary, I think, in 2009, they raised the flag in Tiananmen and the soldier who marched forward and raised the flag marched 168 steps because that was the number of years since the Opium War when China’s humiliation ceremonially began and today China’s humiliation has ended and they want their place in the sun. If they can get it under the status quo, I think they would prefer that because they know that conflict is not a straightforward matter. I don’t think they can imagine in today’s world that China can be the Middle Kingdom. But, America is there, Europe is there. Japan, is a considerable economy. They have technology, they have advanced military capabilities and you have to do business with them, they are markets. And your people all want to study there. Why is that? They are not just barbarians.
Dr Zakaria: Let’s talk about the political future of Singapore. When I talk to people, I’m still struck by the degree to which there are misconceptions about Singapore in the western world, in the United States about a being more authoritarian, more oppressive than it is. But one question that people do ask is how can a party that win 60 percent of the vote get 80 out of 87 seats? Is that going to change?
PM Lee: That depends on how the electorate votes and how the votes are distributed. You might ask in the western countries how a party which wins 30 percent of the vote can form the government. It happens, In America not quite so extreme, but in Britain it just happened, it’s an electoral system; it’s a system which is meant to give the country a stable and effective government. It’s not meant to give a country a proportional representation Parliament. The purest proportional representation Parliament, I think it’s in Israel, and I am not sure whether they are totally happy with the system.
Dr Zakaria: Well, ten years ago they did something that the historian Bernard Lewis described it because they made it more proportionally, he said, "I didn’t think it was possible to improve on Israeli political dysfunction, but they have managed”.
PM Lee: We are not trying to improve on political dysfunction in Singapore.
Dr Zakaria: But let me ask a question in a different way. Every other advanced industrial economy that has crossed a certain per capita GDP, where the money, where the income has been earned, not derived from natural resources, has transitioned to a multi-party liberal democratic system. Singapore is quite liberally the only exception in the world. Why is that?
PM Lee: We are a multi-party liberal democratic system, the outcome is not what you would like to see, but that’s what Singaporean voters have decided.
Dr Zakaria: No, we can debate this. But if you look freedom houses rankings, you look at almost any independent…
PM Lee: They don’t like us, fair enough, doesn’t mean we are in the wrong.
Dr Zakaria: That’s not the point. The point is, I would argue you should take it as compliment, but explain to me why. Why is it that Singapore has been able to achieve this extraordinary circumstance where it has not on several key political dimensions, transitioned the way that Taiwan has, South Korea has…”
PM Lee: Well it is a fundamental question because if you look at the countries which you have cited and also Israel, which I mentioned, they have all made a transition and not always as smooth and happy one. But the dispensation which prevailed when they first became independent, has not lasted. Israel from 1948 till 50 years later, the Labour Party was no longer the government, even the Likud was not stably the government; unstable coalition system. Taiwanese, after 50 years are not in a completely satisfactory situation either. Korea after many years of semi-military rule, now has elections, but a lot uncertainties in their government. I’ve written congratulatory and valedictory letters to many Korean Prime Ministers. I have just signed another one.
So, I mean do we want to be there? I don’t think we want to be there. Why have we avoided doing that? I think firstly, because we have been small and it’s quite a homogeneous society, so I don’t have Sephardic Jews versus Ashkenazis versus Russian immigrant Jews. I don’t have like in Taiwan, between the local Chinese – “Ben Sheng Ren” and “Wai Sheng Ren”, the immigrants from China. I have a multi-racial mix, but I have a mix where everybody has benefited from the system and everybody has a stake and can see that it is working for it. It has prevailed so far. Will it prevail for another 50 years? I cannot say. I think it’s not easy, we don’t know how the world will change, we don’t know how Singapore society will change. But I think that, for as long as we can, we should try and maintain a system where the interests of the majority of the population is to support a good government, which will give policies, which will develop policies, which will help most Singaporeans. In most other countries, the governments do not develop policies which are meant to help everybody equally. If you are Republicans, it’s quite clear whom your policies are meant to help. Mitt Romney said, “This is 55 percent and the other 45, they should take care of themselves.” If you are Democrat, you also know what your constituency and you take care of the constituency. If you are the Senator from Montana, you know that you are supposed to bring the bacon back to Montana. But in Singapore, the government’s job is to look after as large a proportion of the population as possible. Whilst still giving people the incentive to vote for this government so that they will get some benefit from it. If we take the view that “if you voted against me, I shall help you first, because that’s shows my largeness of spirit”, then I think we would go extinct as a government.
Dr Zakaria: So your answer is in a sense Singapore’s exceptionalism is a product of exceptional political leadership, fair?
PM Lee: Well, I would say leadership policies and the way the society has developed. Whether you can sustain that, that’s still to be questioned.
Dr Zakaria: So let’s talk about that one. I am going to ask this question, in a slightly roundabout way, so indulge me for a second. I wrote a book recently in which I tried to answer the puzzle why was the United States so innovative over the last 30-40 years when it has always done badly at Science and Math tests? People think that the United States does badly on this PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test that Singapore does superbly on now. But the United States did badly in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s, and yet has dominated the world of innovation, science, research, technology. One way of answering the questions, I asked myself, what other countries have been very innovative, using the same measures, the two that popped up were Sweden in Europe, and Israel, which are both off the charts. And what was striking to me about the most is Sweden and Israel both also did very badly in those tests. In fact they did worse than the United States. But then you ask yourself what are they good at? They are very open, dynamic, flexible economies. And very crucially seemed to me and talking to the number of people who studied this. They have a culture of a lack of respect for authority, of a deliberate almost upending of hierarchy, of challenging authority and of perhaps undue self-confidence. So when you ask Americans; PISA asked after the end of the Math test, “How did you think you did?” The Americans who do badly on the Math, but they do fantastically on the self-confidence scale. They come second. You ask yourself who comes in number 1? Israel! Who comes at number 5? Sweden, even though it’s 27th in Math. You see where I am going? You need a culture of disrespect in Singapore and I am going to posit. After having spending six hours….
PM Lee: I don’t think we are lacking in that.
Dr Zakaria: But I think that there is a very strenuous effort. You spend six hours like yesterday in court trying to do this, to instill a culture of respect and isn’t it exactly the opposite of what you need for your economic future?
PM Lee: I think you must have a balance. We want people who stand up. We don’t want people who scrape and bow. But if you don’t have a certain, natural aristocracy in the system, people who are respected because they have earned that. We level everything down to the lowest common denominator, then I think the society will lose out, you may think that then Israelis do this because they are rude to one another, but I think the Israelis also do this because they are very smart. And I think they are smarter than us. I don’t have evidence, but I know that if you look at Nobel Prize winners, many are Jewish, if you look at the people who came from Russia and immigrated to Israel, scientists, mathematicians, writers, musicians, everybody who came down off the aeroplane carried either double bass or violin or little clarinet tube and the chap who came down empty-handed, he was the conductor. Any number of symphony orchestras in Israel, I have one who is not bad, and a few others, small ones. But I don’t have that same concentration of brilliance. America has, some your own, many attracted from around the world. And you have given them a matrix where I think disrespect has been helpful. It has worked for you, in specific spots. Silicon Valley, Harvard, you go to MIT, you go to Yale, Carnegie-Mellon. It blossoms. So even though your overall PISA scores are not very good, you have these spots of excellence, where people can work with one another and you’ll never have to meet somebody you think “why am I wasting my time?” That’s how they feel and that’s why they go there.
Dr Zakaria: But it’s beyond intelligence, Prime Minister. You go to a Chinese lab. They’re brilliant. The junior researcher would never dare question the Chairman of the department, that’s the problem, that’s the point I meant.
PM Lee: That is a problem. And so the Chinese leave and they go to America. Some of them, they do.
Dr Zakaria: And then in…we reject…
PM Lee: So, you must have the right balance. If you end up with anarchy, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be delivered with brilliance.
Dr Zakaria: Could it be that Singapore is too paranoid about the anarchy and that fear will not develop innovation?
PM Lee: I think if you look around Singapore and spend a bit longer, you find that it’s not such an orderly place as all that.
Dr Zakaria: When you think about the future…
PM Lee: I spent six hours in Court yesterday. If this were a really orderly place, would I have to do that?
Dr Zakaria: Well I would argue my own humble opinion you should have ignored it and look at what people call Barack Obama on the Internet. It would make your blood curdle. But tell me about this balance. Younger Singaporeans are growing up in what is actually a very open media culture, particularly when you look at the Internet. They’re growing up much more autonomous, they are growing up with a much stronger sense of individual identity. And they grow up, let’s face it in an age of an enormous peace and prosperity of compared to your generation and your father’s generation. Aren’t you going to have to accommodate to that reality?
PM Lee: I think the politics will change. It’s a new generation, they have different aspirations, different interests. You look at the causes which they adopt, some are religious, some are green causes, some are social causes, all sorts of things. So they have passions, they are pursuing them. And we have to find…they have to find leaders who will be able to marshal enough of them to form a core, to lead the country and a majority of them, to support the system, which will work. If you are right, and anarchy will lead to spectacular enlightenment, then we are lucky.
Dr Zakaria: But, do you worry about the fact that they may get frustrated, they may leave Singapore, they may…
PM Lee: I think that we are in an environment where people have choices. I just made a speech earlier this week, pointing out that whereas in 1960s, our backs were to the wall and you either make a nation or perish. Today is not so stark, because if you don’t quite succeed, well a lot places will take you. We all speak English, we all are educated. Amongst the young generation, probably about half have a university degree of some sort or other. Many doors are open. So we can only keep this place together as long as people want to stay here and I think that is a challenge. You want to stay here if you can develop your own aspirations, your own ambitions and careers if you want to bring up a family here, and if you believe that here it is your home. If you believe that, you will make this place work. If you don’t believe that, well you can be off to New York, maybe one day host a talk show. Many possibilities.
Dr Zakaria: Alright, on that note, I am going to open it up to questions and stop conducting the talk show myself. This is always the difficult part. The first question; Prime Minister does want to take some. Sir? My only request is if you identify yourself please and make sure that the question is in fact a question.
Q: Thank you, I’ll try. My name is Paul Tambayah from the Medical School. First of all, I have a small comment. I think Singaporeans are smarter than Israelis because we know how to live in peace with our neighbours. The question: The last 50 years have been characterised by tremendous economic progress and development but also arrests and detentions of, as you pointed out, a legit communist liberation theologians and others. But in recent months, the focus seem to have shifted to minor players such as a rude and insensitive teenager who know Christian group is actually specifically complained against; the son of the a Chai Tow Kway seller who wrote 400 blog articles as you pointed out. Do you think in the future as Mr Zakaria pointed out there will be more space for diverse views for growth in Singapore, perhaps not total anarchy but at least a measured degree of anarchy that could lead to Facebook or Instagram coming out of Singapore at some point in time.
PM Lee: There are so many presumptions and assumptions in your question. I don’t know where to start answering it. First of all, over the last 50 years, it’s not just an economic development but also social development and political development. We become a nation. Liberation theologians didn’t figure very prominently. We had one episode somewhere along the way but that is something we have left behind us and the country is one country, we feel one country. Where we are today is a different society from what we started off with in 1965. I think it’s more stable, I think the people are closer together, I think it’s a more open society. The scope for talking about sensitive things is more. We talk about racial differences, we talk about religious differences. We talk about difficult problems to solve within our society which in other countries would be taboo, such as differences in performance of different ethnic groups in education, and social, in the professions and so on. Are there limits? Yes, every society has limits. One of the limits is you can say anything you like, you can discuss anything you like. You can’t defame anybody you like. And if you do, there are legal remedies which we have inherited from the British. In fact, from the English. Good English law. It’s right and proper that there should be ways for a defamation to be examined, determined whether it’s true or false and if it’s false, that there should be proper damages and redress. And I think that’s necessary. If you can’t redress defamation, how can I clear my name when somebody defames me? That’s a big problem when you talked about somebody I think Fareed mentioned Barack Obama. But Barack Obama’s predecessor Bill Clinton – he had a big problem. People said terrible things about him. There was no way he could clear his name because under American law, defamation is practically no longer a civil action open to leaders. I don’t think we should go that direction.
The other issue is which is going to be sensitive for a long time is race and religion. I don’t think those sensitivities ever go away. You have seen what’s happening in America, never mind what’s happening here. And you say the wrong word, people get very angry. You can give offence even without intending to. So when you intend to give offence, I think we have to act against you. If you’re a young person, well, the courts have ways to deal with young persons which are appropriate. Juvenile delinquents exist in every society. So I think when you say that defamation, the blogger writing 400 articles or a young person who posts a rant is a centre of our attention, I think you give them too much attention. They have to be dealt with in their place but I think the country has got many other things to attend to.
Q: Mr Lee, Mr Zakaria, I am David, I am law student.
PM Lee: Where?
Q: I am from UK.
PM Lee: Okay.
Q: Well, we talked about geopolitics just now. My question is should Singapore aim to become a diplomatic hub like say Switzerland, like say Brussels and what can a government and the people do to support that?
PM Lee: Well, I think we have to do it selectively. I don’t think we want to become like Brussels. If you meet the locals in Brussels, I am not sure they are entirely happy. They get business servicing the diplomats, but the diplomats live a diplomatic lifestyle. Whether it’s tax free, it’s many perks and privileges. They have to work very hard but it’s different from the local society. So if we become a host like that, I am not sure it’s good for Singapore. Where it makes sense for Singapore, we encourage them and they come here. So the APEC, they’ve got an outfit here. The ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) they have an outfit here doing cooperation in the region. INTERPOL, we invited them to come here, they’re here, I think the cyber security unit is here doing good work. We have ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery). These are all strange initials which I don’t remember what they mean but ReCAAP deals with counter piracy and terrorism at sea in this region. We have an interest in that, we have hosted them here. So where it makes sense we bring them here, where it doesn’t make sense, we don’t try so hard.
Q: Prime Minister, my name is Alain Vandenborre. I am of Belgium origin. I am celebrating my 20 years in Singapore. So for me it’s SG20, not SG50.
PM Lee: It will come one day.
Q: Thank you. I think I just want to say to one of your points that I have achieved in my own little way things in Singapore that I would never have achieved in my country of origin because there was not the system of support here. I think this nation is blessed to have a leader like yourself and my question is are you prepared to stay put for another ten years because I think we need that?
PM Lee: I strongly prefer not to. This is a job which needs a young man, people with energy, people who will be there and can connect with young people and will fight the battles with the young people, not for five or ten years, but for 20, 30 , 40 years to come and you need somebody of that generation.
Dr Zakaria: Why don’t you write 400 blogposts? That’s what the Prime Minister is thinking. Anybody else? Yes, the lady, you have the last question.
Q: Good evening, my name Gillian Koh from the Institute of Policy Studies. We’re looking at Singapore 50 years hence. So my question to the Prime Minister is what is the extent to which that future will depend on, how ASEAN as an entity shapes up? You discussed the geopolitical sort of dynamics that tends to the hopefully peaceful rise of the US. And I believe that there is a lot of space in between which is ASEAN. This is the year where we are trying to solidify the idea of the ASEAN Economic Community. So it will be really nice if Prime Minister can you indulge us with that view of yours as to what is the extent to which ASEAN will factor into that future?
PM Lee: Well,50 years ago, nobody would have imagined that ASEAN is in this reasonably happy position today. Indonesia stable, one country. Malaysia, also stable, not without issues, but on good terms with Singapore. Indochina, war over, some of the countries on the verge and with the potential to take off and ASEAN working together towards an economic community at the end this year. It will not be a perfect union but less imperfect one. So we are heading in the right direction. If you can continue to head in the right direction for another 50 years, who knows I think this will be a region which will have the potential to prosper because incomes are there, because the resources are there, because I think the economic systems are there which can generate the wealth and the prosperity and the cooperation. But it is not to be taken for granted and it’s entirely possible that things can go very wrong in some of the countries in the region. None of the transitions can be assumed to be effortless. And you can have any system you like. I man you can say that it’s a liberal democracy or not but in every system, the question is from one generation to the next, who will be the new leaders and is there a crashing of gears? Or worse? And I think that is something which many countries are focusing on. Myanmar is not worried about that. The Thais are very concerned about that. In Singapore, we have made that an obsession. How that works out will tell us in 50 years’ time whether ASEAN will be making a contribution, or not. If it does, we would prosper with it. If it doesn’t, I think we will still be doing our best to make a living.
Dr Zakaria: Let me ask you to close out, Prime Minister. What is the unsurprised, what is the surprising success that Singapore might have 20, 30 years from now that it is laying the seeds for now that you hope people might look back and say they got this right. Is there something 20 years out…
PM Lee: Well first, you want to be lucky. You don’t want to have a war, you want to have the possibility to have a fighting chance and you want to be able to prove what you can do. If 30 years from now, we can still be prospering, still be united and still have that drive to do better, then I think we have done very well.
Q: I want to close by thanking the Prime Minister and just pointing out to all of you, that I don’t think you’ve realised that the Prime Minister is actually quite ill. He has a flu; he still was determined to come here. He is, I am sure you know been taking medicines and has not complained for a moment but some of you might have noticed his voice has been faltering at the end though not his intelligence and his spirits. It’s an enormous compliment you’ve paid NUS and this conference in being so kind and indulgent. So thank you very much.
PM Lee: Thank you very much.
You don’t want to have a war, you want to have the possibility to have a fighting chance and you want to be able to prove what you can do. If 30 years from now, we can still be prospering, still be united and still have that drive to do better, then I think we have done very well. PM Lee
You don’t want to have a war, you want to have the possibility to have a fighting chance and you want to be able to prove what you can do. If 30 years from now, we can still be prospering, still be united and still have that drive to do better, then I think we have done very well.
 Term used by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to John Adams on Governance – “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s61.html
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