PM Lee Hsien Loong at the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda Week

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 29 January 2021

Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Dialogue with Mr Børge Brende, President of World Economic Forum, at the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda Week on 29 January 2021.


Mr Børge Brende:  For 50 years, we had the Annual Meeting for 49 times in Davos and one time in New York in solidarity after 9/11. This is Asia’s century, we will come to Singapore. What will your message be to the leaders that are contemplating coming to Singapore in May?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: We all face different situations although we all share certain common challenges. I think we have to respond to our domestic issues in our own ways, but it is necessary for all of us to put a certain broader view ahead of us and to work together to tackle these common problems. Because otherwise, it is a scramble of each country for itself and I think we are all going to come into serious trouble. It is so for pandemics, it is so for climate change, it is so for economic recovery, it is so for a stable, global security order. I think that calls for courage, vision and also the willingness to take a political stand and to persuade our own peoples that this is the way we are putting our country’s interests ahead, and working to advance your interest together with other people in the world, because if we did not do that, we would all be in difficulty. It is very difficult. We all know what is the right thing to do, we all say what is the right thing to do, but we all come under pressure. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a very ferocious scramble for PPE, for equipment, and countries intervened to hijack – or perhaps requisition is the polite word – supplies which were destined and contracted and committed to other destinations. Now I think we may see the same with vaccines because the supplies are not coming on stream fast enough. In Europe, it is a very serious problem. I do not underestimate the political problem, but unless we can overcome those and work together as one country, you can keep one continent safe, even. But if the virus is brewing, mutating, and developing in other continents, sooner or later, it is going to reach your shores via air, land or sea.

Mr Brende: Traditionally, Singapore has had very close ties to the US, but also worked very well with China, and Singapore is, in many ways one of the largest FDI investors in China, and you said that US-China, the G2, is the most important bilateral cooperation or bilateral relationship in the world and we need to bring it into safer waters. Maybe the special Annual Meeting in Singapore in May could be a place where you could see the new Biden Administration and China meet. But what would be the concessions, each of them have to give, because if you have a full decoupling of the two largest economies in the world, it will also have serious impact on economic growth and prosperity in the years to come. And you will come into a situation where smaller countries are between a rock and a hard place.

PM Lee: We are in a position now where we have grown incrementally over three and a half, four decades since the beginning of the Chinese liberalisation, reform and opening up by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Gradually, China has liberalised its economy, has developed, has grown, and has become more prominent in the world, and has grown its influence as well, and its interlinkages with other countries, and everybody has benefited from that – the Chinese people but also all its trading partners, Europe, America and Asia. Nevertheless, we are now at a situation where the strategic landscape has changed so much because of the emergence of China. What used to work is no longer politically wearable in many countries. Adjustments have to be made, concessions made to China when it was small, when it was backward, and which remain, and technically China is still a developing country, have to be reconsidered and recalibrated.

At the same time, China's influence in the world has grown so much that it has to take on a greater responsibility for providing global public goods, whether it is for security, whether it is for trade, opening markets, whether it is for climate change, CO2 emissions. So I think China has to recalibrate its position, in order that its influence in the world is not only there because of its own power and energy, but also there because of the legitimacy and acceptance by other countries, that this is something which is benefiting other countries, and which is not at the expense of other countries.

On the part of the US, it is a very difficult adjustment, because the US, after the Soviet Union collapse, was the world's single hyperpower. And now, China is growing. It is not as powerful as the US – the GDP may be, in PPP terms, about the same, maybe even bigger – but in terms of technology, in terms of sophistication, in terms of military might, nothing like America. Nevertheless, it is a significant other party on the international landscape and potentially a challenger. The Americans are seeing it as a challenger, almost as a threat.

I think if you see China as a threat, that is going to be a very big problem because then you are creating a threat and the struggle will continue for a long time. China is not going to collapse the way the Soviet Union did. To see China as an issue where you have to develop a constructive relationship, you will compete, you will disagree, even very strongly, maybe on human rights issues, but you also have other areas where you do have to work together, because if you cannot work together, not only can you not solve the problems, but it becomes all round an adversarial relationship, you are in for a twilight struggle. It will not end, you will not have a quick win, and you are not going to disappear either. So you are in for a bad time, for a long time, and so are many other countries. To understand that and internalise that and make that an acceptable policy stance to persuade the other side, is one challenge. To persuade your own people, the population, congress, the intelligentsia, I think that takes leadership of a pretty high order.

Mr Brende: In your speech, you also underlined what we are seeing of nationalism, protectionism, and populism, and this takes leadership to show the course forward. You also said that we should not return to kind of status quo ante after the crisis. I guess the COVID-19 crisis also has put challenges on Singapore even if you are so far weathered this well, and also with the pandemic. How much has your strategy for your country, and also the region, changed? Or is it just re-emphasised, or underlined the strategy you had before. 

PM Lee: Some of it is re-emphasis, because what we have found crucial in this crisis is that there is trust between the government and the people, that the people can work together, that we prepare ahead for what is to come before the dangers are upon us. That is what has helped, I think, many Asian countries to deal with COVID-19, not just Singapore, and I think we have to keep that.

What has changed in this new world is that our social compact will be under greater stress because of inequality, because of job uncertainty, because of much more rapid technological changes and structural changes in the world economy because I think the tourism industry, maybe even the aviation industry, will not go back to where it was for quite a long time to come. And we have to respond to that to keep our economy growing, because that is the basis of our prosperity and our wherewithal to solve problems, and to strengthen our social compact and deal with these issues of inequality, of uncertainty, of anxiety which people have, in order that people have the confidence, the assurance to learn new skills to take care of themselves, to open new frontiers. We are trying very hard to do that. It is not easy to do. All countries are striving to do that. We have a lifelong learning program, we call it SkillsFuture, we are putting very heavy resources in it, so that we retrain our workers and our population, not just at the beginning of their life but throughout their working life and well into middle age and adulthood, in order that they can be productive and they can look forward to a better future. We are trying to prepare the economy for the future. Manufacturing is a significant segment of our economy – we want to keep it, but it will have to be in a different form.

Mr Schwab talks about Industry 4.0, we have a Manufacturing 2030 plan in order to develop the sorts of manufacturing industries where we will have the expertise and the competitive advantage, because it takes technology, it takes know-how, it has intellectual property, you need skilled people, you need to be flexible and to be able to adjust your strategies, your outputs and your markets constantly. These are things which you can do, provided you have a high quality population.

We also have to take advantage of what people see in Singapore as a hub – trusted, reliable, well-connected, able to function in this new world, in order to keep on developing our ties with Southeast Asia, to prosper with our neighbours, with China, with Australasia, or India to prosper with the whole region. Therefore, you are not just making a living selling meals and cakes to one another or giving one another services, but servicing the wider world and therefore, earning a place for ourselves in a different future.

Mr Brende: Thank you for underlining the importance of the new technologies. I guess this cannot be overstated. The change that fourth Industrial Revolution represents – with artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and Big Data. Data is the new oxygen in the economy, and you are a very competitive economy in Singapore but I know that you also studied a lot of economic history and that the country does well today, does not mean it needs to do well in two, three decades. Every day is a fight for also being competitive and behind also the competition between the G2, I think it is also a lot about who is going to be on top of these new technologies. How do you see technologies being at the centre of the change in the years to come and how can we also make sure that this is not the new thing that represents new inequalities in the world? Because 3.6 billion people, more than half the global population, do not even have access to the internet. That is a big paradox.

PM Lee: I think technology has to be part of the solution. If we see as a threat, then we are condemning ourselves to be being frozen where we are today. You will not move ahead, but others will move ahead. So we have to master the technology. At the same time, we must make sure that there is inclusive access to it. Within Singapore, we pay attention to that because our older folk are not so facile with technology. So if we want to register online or using a handphone or smartphone, the old folks may not do that.

We run courses to teach them how to do that – that helps. But we also have places where they can come where there will be young people who would help them to do that, and make sure that they do not feel left out, because we must take care of them, but we cannot stop the whole country in order to make sure that everybody knows how to do it by hand.

I think globally, what you have to do is to have mechanisms which will enable the poorer countries also to have access. I think for internet, there are many schemes to provide affordable access, some using balloon, some using satellites to have broadband access to wide swathes of the developing world.

When it comes to vaccines, we have the COVAX initiative to make sure that the lower income countries get what they need and it is really not just in their own interest, but in everybody else's interests too. We have to work together at this in order that they will also be able to move ahead, because if they cannot move ahead, then they may walk with their feet. One of the problems with a migration crisis which we have been seeing is because of these inequalities between countries.

Mr Brende: Thank you so much. Prime Minister.