Transcript of PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the NTU Ministerial Forum on 28 Jan 2014

31 January 2014


“Singapore: Progressing Together”

Professor Bertil Anderson
President of Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

Mr Jordan Tan
Chairman of the Organising Committee

Ladies and gentlemen, young men and women of NTU and I think a few from National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University too. Welcome!

We have chosen tonight for this speech - ‘Singapore – Progressing Together’. I think it is an apt theme. We are approaching our 50th birthday. We have just launched the SG50 movement which is our effort to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of our independence. And it is time for us to take stock of what we have achieved, to honour those who have made it possible for us to be here today, particularly the pioneer generation of Singaporeans but also to rededicate ourselves to nation-building, to invest in our people and our future, to pass on the torch to the young. And many of you belong to that next generation of torch-bearers. I dare say none of you were born 50 years ago in 1965.

I would also say that most of you will still be here when Singapore turns 100. You think about it. You are about 20 years old now, 50 years from now you will be about 70 - well below the average lifespan. If you are lucky, you are still working. If you are lucky, you will be a grandfather or grandmother. But the next 50 years will be the 50 years - important years in your life. So ask yourselves, what will the next 50 years bring? How can we maximise our chances over this next half-century so that when our 100th birthday comes, we have good reason to celebrate. And what can I do, I, each one of us, to make this happen?

So what will the next 50 years bring? Nobody can predict the future, but some trends are clear. First of all, Asia will play a much wider role in international affairs. China and India should continue to develop and carry along the rest of the region, including Singapore. There is one estimate by the Asian Development Bank - by the middle of the century Asia will be more than half the world’s GDP. We may or may not have the most advanced countries in the world because I think America and Europe will still be among the most advanced economies and their lead is great and it is not easy to catch up but the gap between them and Asia will narrow. And I think Asia’s influence in the world will grow. Soft power – ‘Gangnam Style’ is one-off, but Asian-style - lifestyles, music, dress, fashions, ideas, Korean drama, Ilo Ilo, all these in half- a- century’s time. If Asia is successful, people will look to Asia, want to emulate it and that means influence in the world, standing in the world.

So the first thing which I think will happen over the next half century - Asia will rise and I hope Singapore with it. The second thing which we can say with considerable certainty is that technology will change dramatically in ways nobody can imagine now. I imagine all of you are on Facebook, many of you would be on Instagram. But half a century from now, I would be amazed if many people still remember what is Facebook or Instagram - either it will have disappeared or it will have changed and become something totally unrecognisable.

IT, software, robotics, will permeate every facet of our lives. Today, we imagine 3D printing as the leading edge. You can print a toy, you can print a little gun, you can maybe print an aeroplane one day. But in half a century’s time I think that is old hat. It will be as quaint as a cyclostyle machine today. In fact, I am not sure how many of you have seen cyclostyle machines. Do you know what it is? It is one of those things where you put in a wax and you turn a handle and you print copies of the document. It is what we used before Xerox came along. How many of you have seen it, hands up? Unfortunately all are sitting in the front row. But that is not the only change in the world. Biomedicine, biomedical sciences will transform our understanding of life, of disease, of the practice of medicine, and it will change and extend human lives.

Every year, new understandings, new discoveries - how DNA works, what the pathways are, what can go wrong, which genes connect where, what you can do to engineer, to treat it, to improve it, huge long-term impact on humankind, on the world, on human societies. Not sure what, but in 50 years’ time, it will be a totally different world. And it is not just the technology and the science which will change. I think the social impact of technology and of globalisation will also be large.

Many jobs - routine jobs and not just unskilled ones - will disappear and be replaced by new jobs not yet imagined. If your job is to keep on pressing the button over and over again, a machine will come to do that. If your job is to read the same type of X-ray image over and over again, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) programme will be able to do that. If your job is to draft the same sort of legal document over and over again, a computer can also do that. New jobs will come out which are not imagined. Even today, we see jobs which ten years ago we did not know would exist. I went to the Sandcrawler recently. Those of you who are Star Wars fans will know what the Sandcrawler is, but it is actually also a building here where Lucasfilm has set up their office. They showed me around and a young lady explained to me what she was doing. She says, “I am a compositor”. I said, “What is a compositor?” She says, “Well, I take all the different special effects and put them together so that on one image, they all show up and it looks real, and Tom Cruise looks beautiful on every picture.” But ten years ago, there was no compositor, certainly not in Singapore. Now it is here. Ten years from now, what are the jobs which will be here? Not even imagined. But you will have to be ready for that.

There will be other economic implications. Income distributions likely will widen. The very successful will do very well; the so-so will become ordinary, commoditised. The gaps will widen, worldwide, affecting us. It will mean social stresses and strains. It will also mean that when you connect to the Internet on social media, people will be able to organise themselves much more easily in all sorts of different ways, some good, some bad. And our societies, our hierarchies, our organisations will be flattened; some of them will be disrupted. We will have to reinvent ourselves anew.

All this, we can discuss as if we can predict the future, but I think all this depends on one critical assumption and that is for the next 50 years, we have peace - we do not have war in Asia and in the world. The last 50 years have been generally peaceful for the world and therefore Asian economies have been able to prosper. Therefore, a whole generation has grown up in Singapore certainly, who have not known even upheaval, much less war. We hope it will continue for another 50 years, but we are talking about very big changes in the world over the next 50 years. Asia’s rise is a very major change to the strategic shape of the world and it is going to have major repercussions. There will be repercussions on relations between big powers, particularly between America and China. There will be repercussions on the global economy - on jobs, on wages, on opportunities, on competition, on natural resources. There will be repercussions on many global issues, whether it is climate change, whether it is the financial system or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

So we are talking about a very major change in the way the world will be ordered over the next half-century. And historically, these changes have been very difficult to make, between the status quo powers and the up-and-coming new powers - the adjustment, the shift in balance, the handing over of responsibilities. Will we be able to do it peacefully? Well, one difference this time is that all the major powers know what went wrong the last time. One hundred years ago, World War I began - that was a disaster, many more wars in the century. Today, all the major powers have nuclear weapons. That restrains them. Today, all the major powers are much more interdependent on one another. You are not talking about somebody with whom you have no relations, but somebody with whom you are trading, investing, exchanging, visitors, scholars, business. The penalty for breaching relations will be much heavier and everybody wants to avoid a conflict.

So that is a positive part, but still, I think it is going to be very challenging. You look at current frictions - whether it is in the South China Sea over maritime rights and islands, whether it is in the East China Sea over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands - these are relatively small examples of the problems which will arise and over the next 50 years, the tectonic shifts which we will see will be much bigger than anything we have experienced so far. So we have to hope that all the countries will manage them peacefully, wisely and with restraint. Net-net, the odds are the next 50 years will be peaceful. If you ask me to bet, I would bet on peace. But it is not a certainty.

So we are in for uncertain but exciting times. Worldwide, young people see opportunities and are going for it and pursuing their dreams. They are flocking to America, Silicon Valley particularly, other tech centres, dreaming of inventing the next big thing not to become a billionaire but to change the world. In China, you see the same - technopreneurs setting up in Beijing, Zhong Guan Chun (中关村), in Shanghai, in Shenzhen. Tremendous centres of vibrancy and energy where people are cross-fertilising ideas, experimenting, working furiously, sometimes for peanuts in the hope that one day this will be a great success.

In Israel, bright young students study furiously. They enter their Israeli Defence Forces, they work at top-secret cyber projects, some defensive, some believed to be offensive. They come out, they start their business. If you want a good, secure anti-virus software, you go there and look for it. You want a powerful virus; you also have some idea where to look. And they go on and they launch IT companies and many, many of the companies which are listed on the American stock exchange, Nasdaq, are in fact Israeli start-ups done well.

So, young people around the world feel this energy, this verve, this excitement that their time has come. But at the same time, there are also many people around the world who are feeling angst and uncertainty. They are worried about the economic outlook. They are frustrated because their wages have stagnated. They are demoralised - the young people in some places because youth unemployment is very high, they cannot find jobs. In Europe, this is the case. And they are unhappy about the cost of living. We think in Singapore that we invented the “cost of living”, but we did not invent the “cost of living”. If you look to Malaysia, they had elections last year. One issue was the cost of living. In fact, it is a hot issue right now. Australia, when they had their elections, they talked about the cost of living. In Israel, they had demonstrations - not of poor people but middle-income people. What is their problem - cost of living, cannot afford the flat they would like to buy. Sounds familiar? Similar anxieties.

So as a result, we see demonstrations, protests all over the world. In the USA, you have ‘Occupy Wall Street’. In Israel, I just told you there were demonstrations. In Turkey, they have had other demonstrations against the government. In South America, in Chile, the students are agitating, they want free university education. In Hong Kong. So in each country, the circumstances, the causes vary and yet there are certain common features. People want change, what Mr Obama called ‘Change We Can Believe In’ - although you are not quite sure change to what, but let us change.

But is not so hard, not so easy to change and after you have changed, it is you are not so easy to feel happy. But it is a certain zeitgeist, it is a mood in the world and these are things which affect us too, both perspectives. On the one hand, young people growing up in better circumstances, much better educated, aspiring to high personal goals in their careers, in their interests, in their personal lives, in their lifestyles. On the other hand, also many people worry about job security, cost of living, whether they can do better than their parents.

I fully understand these aspirations and also these concerns but at the same time, let us see them in context. We are much better placed today than the previous generation when they were facing their problems. We are also much better placed today than most other countries when they are facing their problems because we have educated our people well. We have a system which works, even though once in a while things go wrong, but generally, I think in Singapore everything works - we have built up the resources, the reserves to weather the storms and we have high international standing.

So there is no reason to think we cannot overcome these challenges and create a brighter future for all. But what can we do together in order to thrive in this bright new world? Some strategies are evergreen. We talk about them year in, year out. We work at them year in, year out. We need to educate our students better with knowledge and skills for the future, with values and good character to deal with life’s uncertainties. We need to create more opportunities for them in a rapidly-changing society - which means growth, which means jobs, which means new investments, which means upgrading. And so, we want to encourage the bold and the enterprising to go forth, start new businesses, break new ground. We have got one incubator in Singapore. It is called Block 71 Ayer Rajah where companies can go, can set up and you can plug in. Systems are there to support you, easier to get started and therefore with this environment, with this support, we can welcome in new investments and new industries like Lucasfilm, which I told you just now.

But beyond education, beyond opportunities, beyond getting economic growth, I think the most important basic requirement we must have is to stay a united and cohesive people. In other words, our society must work, our politics must work and we have to stay one people, feeling like one people - not divided, not fighting with ourselves, not split and at odds with one another. We must have a sense of common purpose to make Singapore better, to leave behind a better Singapore than we inherited, where we feel one with our fellow Singaporeans.

So far, we have done this and it is a key reason for our success and we have to maintain this for the future. Today, we are more cohesive, more integrated; we feel more at one than we did in 1965 when we became independent. But we will continue to feel stresses, we will continue to be vulnerable along fault lines and we must continue to take care to guard these fault lines and to strengthen ourselves. And I would like to talk about three of them today. One, race and religion. Two, between the rich and the poor. Three, between the locals and the new arrivals.

First, race and religion. This, I think will always be a sensitive issue in Singapore. We say in our pledge, ‘One people, regardless of race, language and religion’, but we are conscious of race, language and religion, and we have to mind these factors in our social interactions, in our policies, in our day-to-day lives. Whether it is dress or religious symbols - we have been talking about the tudung recently, which concerns the Muslim community. Whether it is the use of languages at countdown events - we had a countdown at Marina Bay, innocent occasion, everybody singing, dancing, enjoying, welcoming the New Year. But an argument arose. Was there too much Chinese, what about those who did not speak Chinese? Language became an issue. It can always happen.

We need to get along with one another, living side by side in the same blocks, in the same housing estates, being neighbours with one another, knowing each other’s lifestyles, accommodating them. If you cook curry, I enjoy the flavour. If I burn joss sticks, you get it for free. We are living side by side. We have to watch one another, we have to make sure that we accommodate and we are able to get on together. Usually works remarkably well. Once in a while, we have an issue, we have a dispute. We have to make sure that it remains a personal dispute - does not become a national problem.

So race and religion is something which we always have to watch and we have got to take an overall perspective on them instead of looking at each issue in isolation and let the changes evolve gradually and quietly and we must not suddenly change things and especially not have hot debates and then suddenly find ourselves in a new position. Take it easy, let our society evolve gradually, we bring people together at a pace which they are comfortable with. And we maintain this spirit of give and take, of being big-hearted, of feeling Singaporeans together. We made a lot of progress on this. It is something which people who have just come to Singapore I think perhaps do not realise in full because it looks just like three different communities living together, but in fact a lot of accommodations have taken place amongst ourselves and that is the secret to our living happily together.

A second fault line which we have to watch out for is a possible fault line between the rich and the poor. We know that incomes are stretching out. Everybody’s incomes are rising, but at the top, the incomes are rising faster in many countries because of globalisation, because of technology. It is not because we have gone for growth and therefore it is happening. In the countries with no growth, their income distributions are often even worse because at the low end, you have no hope of improving your life. But with growth, we bring everybody up, even though we cannot bring everybody up at the same speed.

So when this happens, we must work harder to maintain a sense of shared purpose and of mutual responsibility that we are Singaporeans together. We feel for one another, we have a responsibility to one another that we have to help one another. If you are doing well, you have to give a leg-up to those who are not doing quite as well and not treat others with disdain. If you are not doing so well, continue to work hard, there will be help, a helping hand will come, take it, pull yourself, but keep on making that effort because that is your responsibility too to help yourself get better. And we have to keep our society open and informal, what in Mandarin you say, ‘平起平坐’. So you are sitting at the same level, comfortable. You may be different, incomes, you may be different, jobs and responsibilities. Whether you are the boss or the worker, you sit equal, comfortable with one another, no scraping and bowing, able to interact, feeling that we are Singaporeans together and I think that is the most important aspect which you must do.

If you see some other societies which are more settled, it is not so easy. Maybe people look the same but somebody has some initials after his name that means he has some royal descent. Somebody else feels that he has been a peasant for many generations or maybe a lower caste for many generations and when they interact, one automatically looks down; the other one automatically looks up. It happens. In Singapore, it does not. We have come, we have mingled, we have become evened out. And as our society matures, we must make sure that we stay like that and we do not import or unconsciously adopt these hierarchies and this scraping and bowing and this stretching out, so that from the top, you look down, from the bottom, you say, ‘Well, that is out of my reach’. And that is one of the social divides which we must avoid.

The third divide which we have to deal with is between locals and new arrivals. I know that immigration and foreign workers are sensitive issues. We have had big debates about them, we have argued over them. Finally, the conclusion is, well we continue to need both, but we have to manage the numbers, the pace and be able to absorb and integrate, and maintain the spirit of our society. So we have got to keep that balance and be able to have that diversity between the locals and the new arrivals and yet that comfort and gradual integration in our society at large, but also in specific key places, including in neighbourhoods, including in institutions, including in universities.

It is very easy to work up emotions on this. One incident can cause a flare-up and everybody gets agitated. You have seen it happen every now and again. Some years ago, Sun Xu wrote a blog, one of the universities, I think not this one. But everybody heard about it, got very angry, settled down. Once in a while, somebody else comes along. Recently, there was another case - Anton Casey. Everybody gets worked up again. My philosophy is, yes, this is bad, angry, but keep my blood pressure even because we have to maintain a certain equanimity in dealing with these problems and manage them without damaging our overall relationships. And that means we have got to work at it from both sides. The new arrivals, you have got to make the effort to understand this society, understand our local norms, integrate into this society. And the locals, the people who have been here longer or more generations, well, we will help you if you will help and make the effort, and we will welcome you - we should welcome you - if you are prepared to cast in your lot with Singapore.

One factor which complicates all of these issues, all of these fault lines - whether it is race and religion, whether it is rich and poor, whether it is locals and foreigners - is the social media. You know Amy Cheong - she was a lady who had a post one day, had a rant and then, all hell let loose. You may have heard of ‘Heather Chua’, to the best of my knowledge, ‘Heather Chua’ is a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, but he became famous or infamous and the police are investigating the matter. You have heard about Anton Casey most recently. Each one issue can cause a spark and because of social media, it becomes harder to settle such problems quietly and we risk having an overreaction, we risk having unrestrained anonymous viciousness on the Internet because it becomes like pack behaviour. You scold, you swear, you curse, all the wrong instincts get fed and in a group, there is certain group dynamic, and it is like a pack of hounds hunting, which is bad.

Yes, somebody has done something wrong. Repudiate it, condemn it, but do not lower ourselves to that same level to behave in a way which really makes us also ashamed of ourselves - to become abusive hateful mobs, especially online and anonymously. Yes, the medium is conducive to this, you cannot help yourself, you are typing away, you get carried away, it is two o’clock in the morning, somebody eggs you on. What do they call it? FTW (For The Win) and you are cheered on. You put in something else and soon it has gone too far. I mean, you know this. We have to watch it and we have to restrain ourselves because it is bad for us individually, I think it does us harm collectively too, and we have to be better than that, to deal with situations civilly, patiently, tolerantly. Hold a stand, yes, but remain a civilised human being. That, by the way is also why we need rules in cyber space. Manage it with a light touch but you still need rules because in human conduct and human engagement, you must have some basis on what is out-of-bounds, what we will comply with, what is acceptable and what is not.

So overcoming these fault lines and staying united, I think, is key to us for a better Singapore. We want higher standards of living especially for lower-income people. We want better and more affordable healthcare especially for the old. We want relevant life-long education so that every citizen can develop his talents and fulfil his full potential. And we want a gracious society where Singaporeans of many different backgrounds can live comfortably and harmoniously with one other.

We have very high hopes in your generation because actually, the young generation is what your parents are living for. We want you to pursue your hopes, pursue your passion, aim high, go for your dreams, act on your idealism, change Singapore, change the world, and make this a more vibrant and interesting society but at the same time, maintain our cohesion and harmony.

And I am glad that there are many young Singaporeans who are doing this. In NTU, one young PhD student, Sally Yap, is helping to develop a vaccine for malaria. If it succeeds, that will change the world. We have mass communications students who are starting ‘The Real Reunion’ to encourage busy families to bond over meals, over Chinese New Year and they wrote to me and said how about the telling the world about us? So I think that is a good idea and I am telling you about ‘The Real Reunion’, some of whom are here today. So I you wish you every success with your project. Where are you? There are two of you here. Well done! Make sure you get a good reunion out of this.

But NUS also has the same. There is one student, Dominic Lim who co-founded SPLAT! S-P-L-A-T-! is a community arts movement for youth at risk and ex-offenders to support their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. And so, many others in our polytechnics, in our ITEs, in our schools. I think our young people have that spark in them, have that drive in them. But we have to feed that spark and fan it and let it burst in flame. But at the same time, beyond pursuing your personal goals, we would like you to take ownership of this country - make it work, lead it to great heights! Not because you happen to be born here but because it means something important to you, because you feel that you have the passion and the responsibility to make this place succeed.

And we will help you to do that. We are launching the Volunteer Youth Corps (VYC) and we want to involve young people in meaningful projects to help the lives of others. We want to provide you with opportunities beyond your academic work to instil a strong sense of values, to build character and deepen commitment to Singapore. We are going to start recruiting for the Volunteer Youth Corps soon, so please come and sign up, and do something exciting.

The future depends on you. It is an exciting time to be young. I know there are some young people who lament that they were born too late and they wish they were born 50 years ago, and they fear that they will have a tougher life than their parents. I do not agree with them. I wish I was born 50 years later. Then you are here, you are young, all the opportunities are ahead of you, there are so many things you can do, so many exciting things which you can participate in and help to shape and you have got the benefits of all the work and commitment and success which the last generation, your parents have done and now, not given to you, but entrusted to you to take from there and the next step forward.

We have so many more resources today than before. We are starting from so much a better position than we were. It would be a crime not to make it work. So seize the day, chase your dreams, build a better tomorrow and a better Singapore for all of us. Thank you very much.

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