DPM Lawrence Wong's Interview with Local Media (May 2024)

PM Lawrence Wong | 14 May 2024

Transcript of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong’s interview with local media ahead of the leadership transition. The interview was aired on 14 May 2024.

 


John (Channel News Asia): DPM, I would like to start the conversation talking a little bit of your background. So you grew up in a HDB flat; you attended a neighbourhood school, you then worked your way through the civil service and now you are on the cusp of becoming Singapore's next Prime Minister. Some people might say that really embodies what it means to be within the Singapore system as well as the Singapore social compact, if you will.



DPM Lawrence Wong: I am the product of the Singapore system.



CNA: What is your response?



DPM Wong: The social compact is in many ways, the essence of the Singapore Story. It is about who we are and the kind of society we want to be. And I believe all Singaporeans would like Singapore to be a place where there are opportunities for everyone to excel, thrive, maximise their potential and be the best possible version of themselves. But everyone is different. We all have different abilities and strengths. We learn at different paces, so recognising that, I think this pursuit of our dream, it is not about comparing with one another and ending up in some endless rat race. But it is really about understanding what our strengths are, what paths each one of us might choose, and in the end, embracing these different, multiple pathways of success.

But to make this happen, we must have a system and a society where every job is respected, where there is fair pay for every job. And we recognise people for each of their contributions. It is not a hierarchy; it is not about status, because people will succeed in different ways. And we must embrace all these different pathways and these different roles and contributions that everyone in society makes.

At the same time, I think part of the compact is also about having a system where there is greater sense of assurance and security for Singaporeans regarding the basics in life, whether it is housing, education, healthcare, retirement. So whatever path they choose, whatever job they pursue, so long as they work consistently, they can be assured of these basics through every life stage. And they can also be assured that if they were to fall into troubles, or some inevitable setbacks in life, they will be able to bounce back stronger. And this assurance, this support, has to be provided not just by the government alone, but it also has to be something provided by all of us in society, so that we feel a sense of shared responsibility to one another, and we can grow as a more gracious, more generous, more big-hearted society.

So, I think these are the key elements of what we would like Singapore to be. These are captured in the Forward Singapore report after we have engaged with many Singaporeans, and we certainly will take steps towards strengthening this compact and shaping this future Singapore together.

CNA: I mean, that has been quite a prominent message across the past couple of years in your political career. But even before that, you started off as a civil servant, before taking the leap into politics. I just wanted to understand what your motivations for that were. And maybe on a related note, how much has your life changed since then, and now that you are about to become the Prime Minister, how much more are you prepared to show of yourself on a personal level to Singaporeans?

DPM Wong: I entered politics because I saw it as a continuation of public service. And I have over the years found my calling in public service. It was not the case when I started out to work, to be fair. When I started working, I was an economist in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. I had been rejected by the Public Service Commission to be in the Administrative Service, so I was not involved in a lot of policy work. My work was largely around economic analysis. I would be the quant, so to speak, or the guy doing all the analytical work; somebody has an issue, you want to analyse what happened to the economy, under these circumstances, there is a regional financial crisis, what is going to happen to Singapore? Well, you ask me the question, I will run my models, I will do the technical number crunching and I will give you the output. That was a lot of the work that I was involved in at the start of my career. And when I was looking at myself, I was looking at friends around me and other schoolmates and peers. I figured, I can do economics work in the government, I can do exactly the same kind of economics work in the private sector too and they are paying better. So, the thought did cross my mind. Maybe I should just leave and join the private sector, maybe a bank. But at that time, I also had very good bosses in the civil service; Khaw Boon Wan happened to be my first Permanent Secretary in MTI and then there was Lim Siong Guan in Finance and they persuaded me to stay on. And they said, “You are only involved in doing economics work now, but if you stay on, you may get exposure to other kinds of work, doing policy work, and you will find the work more meaningful and more interesting”.

So, I took that advice. I stayed on. And indeed, it was the case because after a while I got involved in working in Budgets, I got involved in policy work, I got involved in even going out into the community to explain Budget initiatives. And I found all of that very meaningful because that is the kind of work I would not have been able to do in the private sector. So I decided I did not have to leave. In fact, I did not want to leave. So I stayed on. And each time as I stayed on in the public service, each responsibility I got became progressively larger and larger; the work never shrinks, the work just gets bigger and bigger.

In 2011, when Prime Minister Lee invited me to enter politics, I said, “Look, this is my calling, I decided that being in public service is what I would like to do”. And so, I saw entering politics as a continuation of that. And that is why I have been in politics since then. So, it is altogether 15 years in the civil service, and about 13 years in politics now, nearly 30 years of public service. I do not regret that at all. I found the journey very meaningful, very fulfilling.

And being in politics, of course, it is different from being a civil servant. You know that when you enter into politics, while there is a public service element to it, it is also different because there is political contestation. You have to open yourself up to the public and you have to be prepared for that. So, I was prepared for that when I entered politics. The good thing in Singapore is that where politics is concerned, while there is exposure, while you have to put yourself up to the public, and there is less privacy, I think generally we keep families out of it. Families are separate. Our families did not choose to be politicians. We are the ones who took the step forward. And so, people generally respect that and that is a good thing. But as far as I am concerned, I have made the choice. I entered politics and so as I take on this new responsibility, if people would like to ask more information of me, find out more about me, I will be very happy to share.

CNA: Speaking about getting people to know you, I think that it is fair to say that you shot to prominence when you co-chaired the (Multi-Ministry) Taskforce of COVID-19. What were some of your biggest challenges, what kept you awake at night during the pandemic, as you were co-chairing this taskforce?

DPM Wong: The beginning was very difficult. Because at the beginning, we were really fighting in the fog of war and we did not have a lot of information, what the virus was about, there was no vaccine, and you could see, as we learnt more, how horrifying it was because the fatality rate was higher than the normal flu, and it was spreading so quickly. So, at that beginning, I think the biggest challenge was what happened with the dormitories and the huge wave of infection that caught up one dormitory after another and the very real risk of our hospitals becoming overwhelmed. Because if that were to happen, then you could see in many other places, the death rates will shoot up very sharply. So, we were very concerned. That was probably the one of the most difficult periods, including the decision to introduce a circuit breaker, and also looking at ways to find additional capacity to strengthen and augment our hospitals. That is why it was so good to see people rallying together, private sector, everyone working together, and we got the expo facility set up and we were able to eventually stabilise the situation. So that was one very difficult situation I remember.

The second I suppose, difficult, not quite the same but still very challenging was when we had to reintroduce measures. If you remember, because this was first wave; everyone, very difficult, challenging, then we went through vaccination, but then when we went through yet another new wave, variants, and then when we had to reintroduce some of these restrictions. And this went through some ups and downs, too. Because we introduced, and then we allowed some relaxation and then after that we realised we went too far and we had to reintroduce restrictions.

That bumpiness and explaining to Singaporeans why and how we managed the balance – we want to get our lives back to normal, but we also have to make sure that we do not overwhelm the hospital system – that was also very challenging. That was nearer to the second part of the COVID-19 period. That was also a very difficult period for us, more so to explain to the public because they were getting frustrated, and more so to make sure that everyone understood our approach towards tackling COVID-19.

Sheo Be (Zaobao): DPM, we just heard about your thought process in deciding to join politics. You also shared before, your decision in agreeing to become the next Prime Minister. Just wondering between the two, what were the differences? Was there a different kind of struggle that you had to cope (with) and also wondering what was Mrs Wong’s reaction when you agreed to be the next PM?

DPM Wong: It is similar and yet it is different. Similar because it is still very much a continuation in my mind of public service. Different because obviously this is a much bigger step forward. From a civil servant to entering politics: first of all, when I made that shift, it was not about “Oh, I am making the shift to be a Minister” – you do not know what role you take on when you enter politics. No one tells you. So you just know that you are entering politics and only later they assign you an appointment. I started out as a Minister of State; there was a transition, an adjustment to be made, but I knew what I was getting myself into. I had worked with many office holders in the past as a civil servant. I knew what the job entailed, and I was prepared for it. From a Minister to a Prime Minister, yes, you are first amongst equals, but I had seen also the scale of responsibilities, what it entails, and how much and what was involved in this job. It is not just about one Ministry, one GRC, now you are talking about national responsibility, leading the party into election. So, it was a much bigger role. And I had to ask myself, whether it was something I was prepared to do.

But I suppose what happened at that time was when Swee Keat decided to step down (as leader of the 4G team), it was a difficult decision for him, but we accepted it, but it was also a consequence of that – the team had to get together. The rest of us among the younger ministers or 4G team asked ourselves, how do we proceed? Or how do we amongst us, choose a leader? And we agreed very early on, that we would not want to rule anyone out. We would want to have a more open and thorough process, so that we choose amongst ourselves, who might be the leader and whoever that person is, we will rally and support that person. And so, on that basis, I agreed. I reflected on it, and I felt that that is the best way forward. I should not rule myself out. I should let the process take its course. Then the question was, how do you go about this process? And as you would have known, we decided we might do it differently, rather than what we had done in the past. We might find someone to help facilitate this. Really, talk to everyone in the team, get views, and do it in a way that will help us get the answer, select the best person to lead the team but also bring a team together. And eventually when we discussed with Prime Minister, he decided to ask Khaw Boon Wan to do the job. And that is why Boon Wan went about interviewing each one of us. As he was going about the interviews, Boon Wan was very careful, he did not let on at all who might have emerged from the process. Not at all. I mean, he was interviewing me. I told him my views. He listened, he asked me some questions, and then at the end of it, he said, there is a consensus emerging. And that is all. So, I did not think very much of it. He did not tell me who it was. I did not ask; I did not probe. All he said was, he has done about half of the interviews and there is a consensus emerging.

So I did not think very much of it because my view towards that process was let the process run its course; the team will choose. I did not know who it might be. I did not care to probe. And Boon Wan was very careful, he did not tell anyone. The only time I knew was at the tail end of the process when he had pretty much completed his rounds, and then when PM and him told me that I had been selected. So actually, at that time, I was surprised and I went back home to tell my wife, she was surprised too, but we had been prepared for it because she knew I was part of this process. And we knew that going into this we would accept the outcome of the process. And if this is the result, then I would step up and I would take on the responsibility. And that is why I am here, where I am now.

ZB: So we also know that you love to read books, just wondering whether you would have a list of must-read for different groups of people. And also, out of the books that you read, do they actually help to shape your thoughts and also your approaches, as well as whether there are some characters in some books that you admire most?

DPM Wong: I do not have a must-read list; I read widely. I think many Ministers do; it is not just me. I read mostly non-fiction these days. A lot of it is current affairs. From time to time, I would select topics that I would like to read more, learn more about. So some of the more recent topics, I am trying to figure out more about quantum computing, artificial intelligence, so I just read some books on that. And then I do read biographies of leaders, local and foreign, so whether it is Mr Lee, but not just Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself, and books on the founding generation of leaders – Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam. Irene (Ng)’s book on Raja, the first volume is very good. And she has just finished a second volume, and I am looking forward to reading it. I think she is going to do a launch, she asked me to be the guest of honour and I happily agreed. So certainly the founding generation of leaders - I think it is always insightful to read their life stories and what they say. And then of course, overseas leaders too. I mean, there are a whole range of them, whether in the region or beyond the region, in the West. In the US, when I was in college, we would take classes on political leadership on US Presidents and then you read about Teddy Roosevelt, FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt). I remember one of the books I read on Eisenhower, and what he had said about leadership that always remains with me. He talked about leadership; he distilled leadership into two things. One, knowing what to do and two, getting people to do what is the right thing. And it sounds very simple. It sounds very simple, but actually, there is a lot of wisdom in that.

First, you need to know what to do. Knowing what to do does not mean that the leader must have all the answers, but certainly the leader can listen to advice, get views, but eventually the leader must say this is the way forward, because if you are not even able to articulate and express this way forward, then there is no need for a leader to exist. So knowing what to do is important, but the second part is equally important. You have decided after a process or whatever it is, this is the best way forward. How do you get everyone to come around to agreeing with you and bringing everyone on the same page and say, let us move this way. That is not easy to do too, that requires communication, it requires persuasion, it requires ways to inspire people, engage people, motivate them and get everyone on the same page. And that is just as important, otherwise the leader will be charging alone. So I think, thinking through these two aspects of leadership, how it is actually manifested, and how best to bring to bear such leadership skills in every situation is something that has always remained for me.

Norman (Berita Harian): DPM, in preparation for your role to be the leader of the country made up of multiple races and religions, perhaps you can share with us a glimpse of how you have been preparing yourself for the role, perhaps to be more familiar with the communities here, Malay community? Perhaps you have been reading more Berita Harian, listening more to our podcasts or perhaps taking Malay language lessons?

DPM Wong: I am taking Malay language lessons; I am doing it as best I can every week. It is not something only now, I have been doing it off and on. For some time even before that as a civil servant, I did a little bit, conversational. And then after entering politics, I also continued with it but now ever since the appointment as DPM – for close to two years now – I have been taking the lessons more seriously too, because I do want to engage more in Malay, speak in Malay, so it is a continuing process. I think to be able to deliver a speech, it’s something I can do; to be fluent and be able to engage completely in Malay – I think that will be much, much harder. But never say never, just keep on working at it and trying to get better.

BH: As Singapore society matures, so does our identity. And what is your comment on this evolving Singaporean identity in terms of the different ethnic groups here and maintaining their separate cultural identities?

DPM Wong: We have a unique Singaporean approach to this, which is that we value every community, big or small and we want to make sure that every community has a place, is respected, is valued and feels a sense of belonging in Singapore. Which means that every community must be able to continue with their customs and traditions, their own ethnic cultures, and never feel like they are excluded from Singapore society. At the same time, we work with all communities to find common ground to see what is it that brings us together as Singaporeans. And we continually work towards evolving and strengthening this sense of Singaporean identity.

And this is not a new approach. This has been our approach since independence. And you can see the results of it. It is the reason why we say a Singaporean Chinese is different from a Chinese from China. Likewise, a Singaporean Malay is different from someone from the region; a Singaporean Indian is very different from someone from India. If you listen to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, the way they sound is very different from a Chinese orchestra from China, and same for our Malay, our Indian, cultural and arts groups. There is something distinctive about that Singaporean tradition. And I think that is something precious which we must continue to build upon and it will continue to evolve.

At the same time, I think we also recognise that as a diverse society with different ethnic groups, we will always be susceptible to external forces outside of Singapore. And these are powerful external forces that can easily influence different segments of our people, whether it is Chinese, Malay or Indian. Because these external links are deep, they are ancestral links, they are cultural links, they are very strong links. And I think they are important because they are about who we are and we value them. But even as we maintain these links, we must be mindful that we are first and foremost Singaporeans and while we have these links, we must continually work towards strengthening our Singaporean identity and expanding the common ground that we all share as Singaporeans. So this pledge that we talk about every day, to be one united people, regardless of race, language, or religion; the words in our pledge, that is a work in progress, and it is something that we must continue to come together, work together to make it a reality every single day.

Linette (The Straits Times): DPM, on this note, right at the start of the interview we talked about the Forward Singapore exercise, and how it is very important to build a shared consensus, but at the same time, there will always be groups that disagree and they can be quite vocal even after consensus has been reached. So do you think that your government will change the way that you manage such dissenting voices?

DPM Wong: We are becoming a more diverse society. There is no doubt about that. I think we will continue to move in that direction. And so the way forward is for us to embrace that diversity, continue to engage one another, and at the same time, work even harder to find unity amidst diversity, to find common ground.

From the government's point of view, we do want to open up the space for different groups to be involved in shaping our future – we take this very seriously. That is why, in our Forward Singapore engagements, we engage many different groups. That is why we are also creating new platforms for people not just to give their views but to participate in decision-making. We have youth panels, we have Alliances for Action, we have created a Singapore Government Partnerships Office (SGPO). So we are creating more and more platforms for Singaporeans to be involved.

There will be instances of course, where we have to agree to disagree, because there will be differences in views. There will be instances where the government after sounding out different segments, may have to embark on policies that are not so popular, but we think necessary and important for Singapore and for Singaporeans. And in such instances, then the government will have to carry the decision. We will have to explain, engage with the public, why we think this is important and hopefully be able to persuade Singaporeans to move along. There will also be instances where there are sensitive issues, where different groups have different views and sometimes competing, contradictory views. And in those instances, it may be that the government does not have to always take the lead. But our role is more of a facilitator, a listener, an honest broker, and we find ways to get the different groups to come together, engage one another, listen to each other's views, and to find accommodation and compromise. And then think about what is the best way for Singapore to move forward without fracturing our society.

So there will be these sorts of issues that we will have to deal with, and I think our approach in Singapore is one where we embrace diversity. We do not accentuate our differences, but we find always, ways to accommodate, compromise, and move forward together as one people.

ST: On that note, you said recently yourself, the opposition is here to stay, there is an appetite for greater political contestation. But the government also emphasises that Singapore's success is built on the success of the PAP and that once this is lost, it is not something that can go back. So how do you balance between these two things?

DPM Wong: The opposition presence is certainly here to stay. We accept that it is going to be a permanent feature in our political system. In the past, when you think about the days of PAP dominance under Mr Lee Kuan Yew, those days are over. I am sure going forward, all seats will be contested.

The opposition now says they want to win at least one-third of the seats in Parliament. But in fact, if you look at the last election results, there were quite a number of hotly contested seats. And if you were to take not just the Workers’ Party but one or two other opposition parties in the next election, the contest is fiercer and we were to lose just a few percentage points, it is not unimaginable for two or maybe three opposition parties to come together, form a coalition and run the government. Get more than 50%, not at all unimaginable. And that is why when I say that I do not assume that PAP will win the next election or that I will automatically be the PM after the election, I say that seriously. This is the reality of our political situation today. It is no longer a dominant system, one-party system. It is a system where there are alternative voices in Parliament, where there are diverse views that can be heard on any issue. And it is a system where there is consent, but there has to be a mandate and effective governance for whoever is given the mandate. That is what we hope to preserve – that this will continue to be a system where a mandate is given to the ruling party, and the ruling party is able to govern Singapore in the best interests of its people.

Of course, on my part as leader, as Prime Minister and later Leader of the Party, I will do my very best to make sure that the PAP earns the confidence and trust of Singaporeans and we get the mandate to govern. But if along the way, who knows how long, but down the road – we hope not, this will not happen – but if it does happen, that the PAP is not able to deliver up to the standards that Singaporeans expect of us and an alternative party or parties emerge that can offer a better answer, then they deserve to get the mandate. But so long as it is under my watch, I will do everything I can to make sure that the PAP earns (the) confidence and trust of Singaporeans.

ST: So, a few weeks ago during a doorstop, you also talked about how we need to re-examine and refresh our approaches and also relook certain things that we might want to change. So if that is the case, do you have any specifics on what you might want to relook as Prime Minister and are there any sacred cows you are prepared to slay perhaps?

DPM Wong: We are prepared to relook everything; it is not so much that we are going to slay a sacred cow for the sake of doing so, but we are prepared to re-examine all our assumptions and consider under different circumstances, different societal expectations and needs; how might we do things different? And we have already started this process because the Forward Singapore work has already started. We have done things like updating the definitions of public housing — that was a big move. We have put in place significant and substantial improvements to SkillsFuture. Soon we will be announcing the new details of the unemployment benefit scheme which we talked about, which in the past had said this was not something we would do. But again, now under different circumstances, recognising that the economic environment is going to be more volatile, that the pace of change will be faster, technological advancements are continuing and therefore jobs will be disrupted more and more, we feel it is necessary to have some support system in place. And that is why we are doing it and we are designing it in such a way that it will allow people who are unemployed to get new skills, a new wave of learning, not as a burden, not for grades, but really to give them a second boost in their careers and then hopefully they will be able to get a better job after that. So it is one illustration of how we are prepared to re-examine all our fundamental assumptions and consider ultimately what is the best way to take Singapore forward.

Melissa (Seithi): Over the years, Singapore has overcome several challenges and we have grown from strength to strength. And we have mentioned very accurately our stance has always been pro-Singapore. But having said that, we do acknowledge that external events do impact our nation. Given that the external environment right now is filled with uncertainty, and there are countries advocating for their own nationalistic interests, what are your biggest concerns for Singapore at this point in time? And also what are your guiding principles in steering Singapore through these choppy waters towards the right direction?

DPM Wong: The external environment is indeed a big concern for us because even as we go about leadership transition and entering our next phase of development, we are doing so at a time when the world is changing, and it is going to be a new global order, which is likely to be very messy and unpredictable, because the world is in flux. The unipolar moment for America has ended. Everybody talks about going into a multipolar world but it is not quite at a stable equilibrium yet. And this period of transition will be very messy, a lot will be marked by nationalism, protectionism, excessive nationalism – nationalism itself is not a bad thing – but excessive nationalism, very aggressive nationalism, protectionism, rivalry between the major powers. The pattern of globalisation that we have benefited from in the last 30 years will also be very different. And Singapore being such an open economy, we have trade three times the size of our GDP, we will certainly be impacted.

But it does not mean that it is all doom and gloom, because amidst this challenging environment, there will be opportunities and there will be silver linings in the dark clouds because Asia is still where, I think, the centre of gravity of the global economy will be. That is where most of the growth for the global economy will come from and a lot of companies therefore want to be sited in Asia. A lot of international multinational companies still want to have presence in Asia and they want to diversify their exposure in Asia. Not just in China or any one single country, they would like to look at broadening their exposure, de-risking, diversifying and therefore ASEAN becomes an attractive proposition. And within ASEAN, Singapore also has a very high level of international reputation today. We are admired, we are trusted. And companies do want to do business out of Singapore to service not only ASEAN but the wider Asian region.

So if we make the right moves, if we strengthen ASEAN integration and unity I think we can continue to thrive and excel even in a dark and troubled world. We still can make a good living for ourselves. Of course, navigating this new environment will require us to be more thoughtful, quite careful to be nimble and to find ways to not get caught up in the geopolitical currents.

You asked what are the guiding principles for that? At the end of the day, we have to be guided by what is in Singapore's national interest and do so in a way that is consistent and principled. And that means from time to time, we will have to say things or do things that some countries may not be so happy with. It could be China one day, it could be US another day. We are not here to find a balance between the two. So if one day I take a position against one country, the next day I have to find another thing to say or do for the other countries so that I can somehow achieve some perceived balance. That is not our approach. Our approach is to stick to our national interests and act in a way that is consistent and principled. And doing so, not everyone would like what we say all the time. But I think if we continue with this approach, it will make us a more credible and trusted partner over time, because people know what we stand for, people know what Singapore means. And I think they will be better prepared to partner with us and work together with us.

Seithi: So the next question that I have for you is, in the past (the) Singapore government has looked at other advanced economies for new ideas and for latest technological developments. But at this point in time, I think Singapore has a cutting edge in many areas. I mean, of course, there is work in progress, but at this point in time, given the situation that we have an edge in many areas, do you believe and are you confident that the government has and will have the talent to actually write many more successful chapters in our Singapore Story?

DPM Wong: I am confident not just in the government, but in Singaporeans. I think in the end, it is up to us to move forward in this new phase. You are right, that in this new phase we are entering at a much higher level than we used to. We are in a much stronger position today than ever in the past. Our economy is already at a high level of development. And if you look at any area of society, housing, healthcare, education, transport, and you find indicators to benchmark, we probably rank quite high in each one of these. In the past we could come up with a broad statement like (the) Swiss standard of living. It is very hard to identify one single benchmark today. So in this new phase, we are in unchartered territory. We have to find our way forward. We have to still learn from the best, find best practices, but we have to break new ground. We have to find fresh solutions for our problems and challenges. And that is what I will endeavour to do, not just with my team, but by harnessing the collective energies of all Singaporeans.

Xing Qi (Mothership): DPM, let’s talk about the future generations of Singapore. You have met many young Singaporeans during the Forward Singapore engagements. What are some of your observations that gives you hope and confidence in this new generation?

DPM Wong: I am confident and hopeful because the sense of Singaporean identity is growing amongst younger Singaporeans I engaged. They are confident about who they are and proud to be Singaporeans. And you saw that certainly during the last few years when we had to tackle COVID-19 together as well. Young Singaporeans, responding to the very difficult restrictions that we had to impose but also doing their part to help their fellow Singaporeans.

I am also hopeful because I see many young Singaporeans nowadays certainly much more well informed than I was when I was their age. They read a lot more widely. They get access to all sorts of information, and they are clearer about what they would like to do in life. From the conversations, I get the sense that they would like to contribute not just to their own careers, but they would like to contribute to something larger than themselves, to a larger purpose. And I think that is very meaningful. That is a good and positive sign.

Many of them say they want to go beyond the five Cs of the Singapore dream of the past. And they would like to achieve something larger than themselves. When we talked about that in the Forward Singapore report, there were critics who said “Oh, that means that young Singaporeans cannot aspire towards the Singapore dream of five Cs anymore”. But that is not the case. I think that is misconstrued, and that is completely inaccurate. Young Singaporeans want to have a good life, but they want not just the good life to be measured by narrow metrics based on material success. They are looking for meaning, they are looking for fulfilment, they are looking for purpose. I think these are very noble aspirations. And certainly we will do our part in the government to support these aspirations and help them young Singaporeans to realise them.

Mothership: You also recently shared a letter from a seven-year-old girl named Faith who shared her appreciation and excitement towards your leadership. My children too, are equally excited.

DPM Wong: I am glad to hear that.

Mothership: And these are my son's words, “The new principal of Singapore”. Faith and my kids, they are part of the post-Lee Kuan Yew generation, who may not fully appreciate the journey Singapore has taken thus far. DPM, what do you wish to say to a young Singaporean who is watching your swearing-in as the fourth PM of Singapore?"

DPM Wong: I would say that we have come a long way as a country these last 60 years. We have fought incredible odds; we have defied incredible odds to achieve this miracle called Singapore. It is a transformation beyond anyone's imagination.

Now, we are in a new phase of Singapore's development. But in fact, the best chapters of the Singapore Story are yet to be written. And all of us, but especially the young generation, people like your kids and Faith, they are going to be the authors of this next chapter. So I would call on all of them to work with me and my team to write the next chapter together.

ZB: You mentioned about you learning Malay. But what about Mandarin? How advanced are you now? Because I understand even from grassroots, they have been singing a lot of praises for your command of the language.

DPM Wong: I also continue with Mandarin lessons in the last one or two years, probably not as frequently as Malay because I have had to bring up my Malay to a better level, so focusing on Malay, but I do continue with my Mandarin lessons from time to time. With Mandarin, it is different. It is not so much about learning a language from very low levels. After all, I have studied Mandarin in school all my life and also struggled with studying Mandarin in school all of my life. But I have had the foundations in me. It is just that I did not have the benefit of growing up in a family environment where we spoke Mandarin regularly.

So it is very interesting because when I compare with some friends who have that kind of an environment, they are more confident in speaking Mandarin on a day-to-day basis. Yet, when we talk about writing and reading and understanding of words, somehow my foundations are better than theirs. Because I took Mandarin classes seriously, I studied Mandarin seriously. And therefore, my reading, writing foundations are all there. So to me with Mandarin, it is about just using it more regularly. It is about gaining confidence over time, using it not just on a conversational basis. With my residents, it is not difficult to do that on a conversational basis, but to start using it, going beyond that conversational Mandarin to using it for work, using it for interviews. So that is a higher level or that is my next phase in my Mandarin journey and I hope I will continue to get better at it.

CNA: DPM, I wanted to bring up a point that you made just now about how you see governance. You mentioned that in future for more difficult issues or some difficult issues, the government is prepared to play the role of a facilitator.

DPM Wong: Not in future; I think we have always been doing it and we will continue to do so.

CNA: Are there particular areas that you think is more suited to this aspect of governance?

DPM Wong: Well, we have had to deal with this in sensitive issues like the tudung and the S377A in the past. I do not know what new issues will emerge, but there will be, there will continue to be issues like that down the road, I am sure, where there will be different views among different segments of the community. And in some of these instances, not all, the government does not necessarily have to lead from the front. Because in some of these instances, social norms have to evolve more organically, and (for) the government therefore, its role is not so much to say “this is ‘the way’”, but to facilitate, to bring people together to find consensus on how best to move forward as a people.

Seithi: I would like to ask during the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe many Singaporeans still remember the visual of you expressing your appreciation to the unsung heroes who fought hard during the pandemic. It really struck a chord with many people. So I think the human side of you, you really showed that so beautifully. So, in a recent interview, when you are asked about how would you govern Singapore, you mentioned that if you have to take hard decisions in the interest of Singapore, you would do that. So can we say that you would lead Singapore with an “iron fist encased with velvet gloves”, or how best would you describe your leadership style?

DPM Wong: Well, it is what I have described already, which is that I will listen, I will engage widely. But at the end of the day, I will have to carry the final decisions and bear the ultimate responsibility of decisions taken. And when I do so, I will have to explain to the public, especially when it comes down to decisions that may not be so popular, but the government feels are important for Singapore. I think Singaporeans have seen me doing that time and again during COVID-19 or in the Budget. So they know that as far as my leadership style is concerned, I will be open, consultative, I will listen. But in the end, I will not shirk from doing the right thing and the important decisions that are necessary to take Singapore forward. So that is how I would describe myself. I do not know if that means “iron fist in velvet gloves” or whatever other metaphor you want to use, but I think over time, Singaporeans will get a better sense of me and my leadership style. And these things will play out and time will tell.

I do not have to write my legacy today. Hopefully at the end of my time and my tenure, I will leave people to write my legacy and what kind of a Prime Minister I am. But for now, entering this role and taking on this responsibility, I will only endeavour to do my best and to serve with all my heart, Singapore and Singaporeans.

CNA: DPM thank you very much for joining us today for this interview. We appreciate the time as well as the insights that you have shared with us. So thank you once again.

DPM Wong: Thank you, everyone.

Governance

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