PM Lee Hsien Loong's Interview with Local Media – Section 2: The Economy (May 2024)

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 10 May 2024

Edited transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's interview with local media ahead of the leadership transition. The interview was aired on 10 May 2024.


Dawn Tan (CNA): PM, let us move on to talking about the economy now.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Yes.

CNA: So, managing the competing demands of continuing our economic growth.

PM Lee: Yes.

CNA: As well as having these political considerations vis-à-vis the foreign talent and the fact that here in Singapore, there are continually anxieties among some Singaporeans about this. Government is having to reassure Singaporeans about it. How have you managed to approach this in a way that supported the principles that you have?

PM Lee: We have to do our best to generate political space for us, in order to feel our way forward and go as far as politically can be supported. Let me explain what I mean. I think the concerns which people have about foreigners, about dilution, about values, about social impact, these are not unreasonable concerns. Because we are a society, we are a country, it is not just a city. London, you have the whole of Great Britain. So, London, you do not have to mobilise an army and go and fight. And there is a whole population which is outside of London, and London is cosmopolitan and diverse, it can have a majority of foreigners, it is still the capital of Great Britain.

But Singapore, the city is the country. So, the city itself, the cohesion must be there. The sense of the values must be there, the sense of identity must be there. The way Singapore works, there is a certain way we have socialised with one another. We are Singaporeans together, as the song goes. When you bring in foreigners, in many ways you enrich that. They bring talent, they bring experience, they bring a different perspective on things, but at the same time, you dilute that, at least temporarily, because they do not have the same background. You can come from China, but you are not the Singaporean Chinese. You can come from India, but you are not the Singaporean Indian. And there is a difference between a Singaporean Chinese and a Chinese-Chinese, and a Singaporean Indian and an Indian- Indian. And I told one foreign leader this once, and he looked at me in puzzlement, and he turned to his interpreter and said, what is this, Chinese-Chinese, Indian-Indian? I do not know what his interpreter said, but I gave him a further elaboration, just in case the interpreter did not convey my meaning, but you know what I mean, and it is a real concern.

On the other hand, we need the economy to grow. We need talent to develop new things in Singapore, to stand out in the world. And you can never have enough talent. We need bodies because there are jobs which there are no Singaporeans available to do, like construction. And there are also other jobs where there are Singaporeans available to do, but you would not have enough, and you need more. And if I can have 10 percent or 20 percent more engineers or technicians or healthcare workers, I can do a lot more things; I will be more productive, but I cannot take away 10 percent of people then become 10 percent smarter and faster just on my own. So I do need the bodies. So how do I reconcile these two?

If you look at a country like UAE, their answer is – I just bring in as many as I want, I have oil, I use that oil to basically to take care of my resident population, and I run the economy and everything, practically everything is done by people who come from all over the world. But Singapore cannot run like that. So we have got to keep on bringing in talent, keep on bringing in numbers, but in a controlled way, which is good for our economy, which complements Singaporean workers and professionals rather than putting them out of a job. And at the same time, which does not dilute my social norms and mores and the way Singapore works, and cause frictions and conflict within Singapore. And you have to judge that. It is partly making sure you have enough infrastructure, that is the physical part of it. You have a big population, where do the foreign workers go, they need entertainment on weekends. It is partly educating the people who come here that this is Singapore, please respect Singapore norms and some things you can do in your home country, please have a care and do not do them like that here.  They may not become Singaporean straight away, but you know that you are a guest and well, be a good guest.

On the other side is also on our part, getting Singaporeans to understand how important it is for them to come in, for them to be here and being able to make accommodations and make that effort to reach out with your hands and say, “Welcome, I am your neighbour, I am a Singaporean. If you need any help, please let me know, and let me show you around.”

And then hopefully you would not bump into so many things as you go around Singapore and break them.

CNA: You are right, PM. The need for foreign talent is not unique to Singapore. It occurs around the world, in almost every jurisdiction. But it is particularly acute here in Singapore. Do you think that there may ever come a time when we need to calibrate the way that we think about this, even as we keep these principles of our open economy alive?

PM Lee: We have been calibrating it already. You cannot go and just open your doors, and anybody who wants to come, can come. Millions want to come, literally, we will be swamped. So, we have to manage it. And at the low end, we have got foreign worker quotas, we have got foreign worker levies, a very complex system, and you manage by numbers.

At the top end, we have not managed by numbers, but we manage by qualifications and what sort of jobs you are doing. And so, we have the employment pass mechanism, we adjust the salary threshold, and we adjust that progressively so that it is comparable to Singapore salaries, and they come in at the appropriate level. And even that is not quite enough. So last year or the year before, we introduced a COMPASS system for EP holders. There is a point system, what is your industry, what is your qualification, the particular company that you are in, does it have a good diversification of foreign employees or not? So that it is not a company with 90 percent of the people have come from a single source. And hopefully we will have a more diversified and more easily integrated foreign population.

And therefore, we can accommodate a few more. We have to see how it works. It will take a bit of time to know. I am sure we will continue refining it, but we have to keep on doing these things and adjusting as we go along. That is why I said – feel our way forward. You cannot be on autopilot.

Melissa Manuel (Seithi): PM, moving forward, I would like to ask about, the youngsters in Singapore and how can they actually build confidence that they are actually doing better than the previous generations, especially so when they are less likely to actually do upgrading?

PM Lee: Well, I think my starting point is, as an old man, I envy the young men and women. Because you are enjoying advantages and opportunities which never existed in my generation. We have built Singapore, we have built the education system, we have educated you, we have given you perspectives on the world and opportunities to travel. If you go to university, practically everybody who goes to NUS (National University of Singapore) or SMU (Singapore Management University) or SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design) has an externship and overseas attachment somewhere during his university course. About 40%, nearly 50% of Singaporeans now go to our autonomous universities. In my generation, only about 3% or 4% went to universities in Singapore.

Now, you grow up learning to swipe the iPad before you learn to speak. It may not be a good thing, but you have the opportunity to be exposed to the technology, to use the technology to connect to the world, to be more productive, and to do all kinds of jobs which my generation never heard of. E-Sports trainer – you can make a living! You are sitting there playing with your fingers and mouse, in a super special chair with a big screen, and you can make a living. So is that a worse life than the previous generation? I do not think so.

What is true is that the previous generation came from third world to first. We took them there on the journey – started poor, progressed rapidly year by year, and ended up with most not poor. Many well-off and some very, very successful. That is an exhilarating journey. You start off with a three-room flat, you end up in an executive apartment, or maybe you even upgraded to private property. This generation, you have a four-room flat or five-room flat or maybe, a condo. You are not starting at the same very low level, but you are starting at a higher level and a higher quality of accommodation as well as life. Can you bring it higher? Answer is yes. It will not improve as fast as before, but you came very fast from here to here and you are not going back down. You are going up from here – slower – but if we work at it, we can continue moving upwards. I would feel very disappointed that a young person was pessimistic about his opportunities in life and wished he had been born earlier. I wish I had been born later. You must argue, you are a young person.

Seithi: Well, fair enough. Actually, I think I do stand with what you say.

Tham Yuen-C (The Straits Times): How do you think the government can convince young people to not look at all these financial gains? I think a lot of the times, as you said, it is looking at other people starting with a three-room flat and then ending up in a bungalow. And they are thinking that that is never going to happen to me. Because of that, they almost feel like they are not doing well as the previous generation. How would you convince the young people?

PM Lee: I think I would talk about quality of living. Very many in the old generation were living five or six or ten in their rental flat. Nobody does that today. There were many who went from rental flats to executives, some even to private property. Not so few. Can everybody make that journey from where you are now, if you move into a new flat in Bidadari or Tengah? Probably not everybody can do that. But that is only in terms of the area of the house you live in. In terms of the quality of the life in your home – the amenities, the connections, the social environment in the neighbourhood which we have built up – I think you can have a very high quality of life in Singapore, and comparable to, if not better than any nearly every other major city in the world.

What we do not have is what other major cities in bigger countries can do. That is, if you are working in Manhattan in New York, maybe you can go upstate and out of Manhattan on the weekend and go to some other place with a bit more space to decompress. Same if you are living in London or Sydney. In Singapore, there is no upstate Singapore, because all of Singapore is pretty developed. But our neighbouring countries are not very far away. Many Singaporeans travel – that is why there are long traffic jams on the weekend on the Causeway.

Hadi Saparin (Berita Harian): You do not decompress when you go through a jam.

PM Lee: Well, the RTS Link will make things better. I am told what people do is that if they expect a jam, they download their Netflix movies and sit there to watch the movies while waiting to clear CIQ.

ST: Hopefully not the driver doing it.

PM Lee: Hopefully not.

ST: PM, on economic well-being – since you spoke about young people, what about older people? You yourself worked way past retirement age and Singapore is also moving towards raising retirement age. Yet anecdotally, you hear from some old people that it is quite hard for them to find a job. Or if they have lost their job at around 50, not even old yet, maybe young seniors, they are not able to find a job that that easily, something that pays them well enough, or they have to downgrade a little bit. How are we going to help these people? And even as we raise retirement age, what are the opportunities actually, for more mature workers?

PM Lee: I think it is an anxiety for many Singaporeans. Statistically, your chances of working as an old person in Singapore are very good. Because if you look at employment rates by age – not unemployment rates but employment rates by age – the older workers in their 50s, in their 60s, and even in the late 60s, are high, are rising and are actually good compared to many other developed economies. Many people are working well into their 60s now and sometimes into their 70s, like me. And actually, happy to have that work because it gives you something to do. It is purposeful, it is not just earning the money, but I wake up in the morning, there is something I want to do in life.

So, the economy needs workers. We are short of workers. Older workers are valued and we should make the best use of them. It is not just a numbers thing, because you also have to adapt the jobs so that older workers can do the jobs. You also have to train the workers so that as they grow older, they can do the jobs which are available for them. They may have to change careers because the industry has changed and the old job does not exist anymore and they have to go to a reconfigured job or even change industries.

And it happens. In the finance industry, for example, you used to have bank tellers. They sit there, you come, they smile, they chop your bank book, and then they do the transaction. But now, everybody is on ATMs. What do you do with the bank tellers? The banks have been training them by the hundreds, sometimes the thousands, to go and do other jobs and redeploy them within the system. And not just say, sorry, I do not need tellers anymore, here is a gratuity, off you go. Some of them for example, go and become customer service officers. You need them because, ATMs are good, but you want a personal touch. If the ATM frustrates you and you press the help button, you want somebody smiling there, and not just – if you do not know how to press this button, press two. And then you are dealing with a robotic voice and you get very frustrated. They are there, a face comes up, smiles, says how can I help you as a real person, and talks you through it.

There are new jobs, but the change will continue. AI has come. Next time you see a face, maybe it is synthetic, maybe it is a real person, and the real person will be free to do something else. We will work very hard to make sure that he or she can do something else. We have SkillsFuture and we have SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) as an organisation which is pursuing this nationally. We put a lot of effort into this and we get workers to take it seriously. One of the small hongbaos in the big Budget this year was a $4,000 SkillsFuture grant, which everybody 40 and above will receive and can use for some significant training course. It is not such a small amount of money, but it is a token of how seriously we take it and how much we want you to go and improve yourself and improve your opportunities.

CNA: The messaging to Singaporeans seems to have been to adopt this idea of lifelong learning and to upskill. And that message is not just for the older generation. It is for the younger generation as well for skills acquisition. During your time as Prime Minister, the idea of changing our mindsets as far as that upskilling is concerned, that has become more entrenched. How much progress do you think you have seen over the last 20 years in that regard?

PM Lee: I think people understand it. There are a lot of schemes, there are quite a lot of programmes, and many people have been making use of this. I think the unions certainly have got the message. The rank and file, it varies, but when you have a downturn, I think people feel a cold shiver and they take fright and take it more seriously. When the conditions improve and things look better, the fear is a bit less and maybe they relax a little bit. But I think with things changing so fast, we cannot afford to relax. So we have to push hard.

One of the things the unions did – Ng Chee Meng’s initiative as Secretary-General a couple of years ago – was to start introducing CTCs (Company Training Committees) in companies, so that the company works with the union or the worker representatives to discuss what is the upgrading which would be useful to the company and how to adapt the jobs. And you can work together to keep on making this training and upgrading be productive. Because it is quite easy for you to go for a course, and then you get a piece of paper, and the paper may or may not help you in your job. That is not what we want.

So with the CTCs, we thought it was a good idea. The government backed it with some financial support, I think $100 million. It has been going very well. I think the companies are getting the spirit of it now. They have seen it work in other firms so they are prepared to do it. I met some unionists recently who were preparing for May Day and one of them told me, the scheme is working very well, we are using up the government grant, can you help us a little bit more? I said, if you can get it to work, the money is not the problem. The challenge is to get the mindset changed, the training executed, the workers’ jobs and livelihood protected and enhanced. And I think we are doing that.

ST: PM, have you had a chance to use your SkillsFuture credits?

PM Lee: Not yet. One day I will do that. I will go on a photography course, or maybe I will go on a course on how to appear on TV and be interviewed and look relaxed.

CNA: It is good to research some of the opportunities out there. There are so many, it is mind-boggling.

PM Lee: There are many, and I think there are people who will go and attend a course, decide they like it, go deeper into it and then, they turn into a photographer or videographer. Some of them turn into social influencers. That is another career which never existed before.

CNA: Indeed, one of my daughters is actually working in social media management.

PM Lee: Some of them are very successful.

CNA: Just to wrap up on this discussion about the economy – PM, can we just talk a little bit about the fact that you have been such a vocal advocate for globalisation? The headlines keep telling us that the world is becoming more fragmented economically and that globalisation is a bad word. Now, you have said you do not believe that is so. Singapore still needs to stay open. It still needs to have those multilateral rules-based trade relations with various quarters, as many as there are. But we are seeing these networks starting to evolve right? Smaller groupings evolve. Can we still stay relevant in that environment?

PM Lee: We have to. We have no choice. Other people can say reshoring. What do I reshore to Singapore? I am making chips for the world. And if I make all the chips here? First of all, I need the components and all the supporting industries, which I do not have. Secondly, if I make a million chips a month, who is going to use them in Singapore? It does not make sense. If I am going to reshore and feed myself, I have resilience requirements and we have an ambition to say 30 by 30 – 30% of nutrition is generated in Singapore by 2030. Maybe I can make 30 by 30. But if you want 100 by 30, what am I going to eat? I'll be back to planting ubi kayu – tapioca! Which is what people did during the war. So it is not possible. We have to be out there promoting freer trade, promoting inter-cooperation, willingness to be interdependent, and willingness to develop the networks of trade, investment, trust and finance to work together. We used to do it on a multilateral scale at WTO (World Trade Organisation). We were very active.

WTO negotiations have more than a 100 plus countries, now nearly 200. You cannot really discuss with all over 100 participating in the conversation. So, you form groups. One of the key groups used to be called the Green Room when I was Trade Minister long ago. The Green Room had maybe 20, 30 countries. There were no particular reasons why Singapore would have been entitled to be there, but because our representatives were active and people found us valuable to help the conversation. We were able to be there, participate in the Green Room discussions and at least help to shape the outcomes of the discussions.

The WTO is now paralyzed because many countries are all doing their own thing. Everybody pays lip service and then they default. That is very sad. We have to work in other forums. There are smaller forums, but we will work there. We have the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), we were very active. In the end, we nearly got it all the way there to the finish line. Then the Americans could not participate and opted out. But the Japanese under Prime Minister Abe rallied the rest of us and the 11 countries got it over. We got the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). It is a great achievement. Remember that it started as the P4, which Singapore was part of, because the P4 was Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei. We started this little FTA (Free Trade Agreement), very little or relatively little trade between us. We were so far away on different corners of the world. But we had a dream. One day others will join in and it will grow into something substantial. That was the nucleus around which eventually CPTPP came.

There are things like that which we can do. We are doing that in new fields, for example, the electric economy. You are talking about data, e-commerce, rules for data storage, sharing information, governance and data security. You need a new age kind of agreement. And we concluded digital economy agreements. We have one with Britain, we have one with Australia, we have a multilateral one which we call the DEPA (Digital Economy Partnership Agreement), with New Zealand and Chile. The three of us. And there is a queue to come in. One or two countries are quite advanced in the queue and will be joining soon. We have to keep on being active. Smaller-scale platforms, but to us, these are all the more important.