PM Lee Hsien Loong's Interview with Local Media – Section 4: Good Politics (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.


Melissa Manuel (Seithi): Moving on to good politics. You have led PAP during a time where there was growing appetite for opposition and diversity. You have mentioned this several times where the majority of people, they want PAP to rule, but they still want the Opposition to keep the government in check. So the question is, people have questioned PAP's dominance over the years. How do you view that perception that people have, and also has PAP changed over the years?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: We certainly have changed. We have changed generationally, new leaders. We changed in terms of the policies, updated regularly. We have changed in terms of the way we pitch the policies. How do we reach out? How do we put it out? How do we explain it? It is not just going on to social media and TikTok, but the way in which you engage people to discuss it with them, modify your views as you go along and then finally present in an interactive way and get people to buy in. I think we have changed a lot over the years, and it is for the better.

Certain things have not changed. Our commitment to Singapore has not changed. Our determination to maintain high standards of integrity and competence, it has not changed. Our commitment to serve Singaporeans is the same. Our intention to keep on providing a high-quality government for Singapore, that must always be there. And Singapore depends on that, because if the PAP did not do that, I think any other political party would be hard put to do the same thing. It is a reality.

As for dominance – I would not say dominance I would say this is a mandate of the people. They want the Singapore Government to govern. We are governing the way we think works best for Singapore, and works best for Singapore, for this generation. Because Mr Lee Kuan Yew governed in a certain way, it worked for his generation. It wrought miracles practically, but it was his generation, and him. Mr Goh Chok Tong did it his way for a younger generation, different from Mr Lee. And I have tried to do it my way, different from both Mr Lee and Mr Goh. If I tried to do it their way, either one, I think I would have failed. But beyond that I do not know what you mean by dominance because we set the agenda, we implement the policies, we make it work.

But in Parliament, there are ample alternative voices. The Opposition has a dozen MPs there are NMPs as well. All views are aired and questions are asked without any restraint – answered, debated. People write all sorts of pieces on op-eds online, on CNA Insider, in the newspapers. That is the way a vibrant system works.

So yes, we have the people’s support, finally the people want us to govern. If you call that dominance, well, we are dominant. But if you say we are a government with a strong mandate and a system where many other views are heard and not suppressed, I think that is a more accurate description of where we are.

Tham Yuen-C (The Straits Times): PM, you spoke about, how in Parliament there are now more alternative voices. And you have said before that, you know, the PAP is in this unique quandary where people want you to be the Government, but yet they want the Opposition to do well enough so they can come into Parliament to check you. And you mentioned how that could have an impact on, maybe having to spend more energies on politics rather than policies. So during your time as Prime Minister, have you seen, you know, how has this affected maybe the debates in Parliament and have you seen actual impact?

PM Lee: Well, I think there is no doubt that we are spending more time on politics than before. I think we still spend more time on policies, but that we do feel in the PAP that we have to spend the time on politics because you must win the politics, otherwise the policies cannot run.

That is the way the system works. Parliament with more Opposition, more active Opposition –  I think the debates have become more intense. From the point of view of quality of debate, if you are watching it as a television debate, I would have to say the quality has improved because there are more Opposition MPs. They have come with prepared positions. They have coordinated amongst themselves. They make their pitch, the Government replies.

From the point of view of Government, has it improved people's understanding of issues and enlightened the public? The answer is mixed. Because, once in a while you have a non-contentious issue. For example, if there is a nasty accident, then you discuss what should we do more to provide prevent accidents from happening. Our heart bleeds for the victims. Or you got a problem which is completely non-political, such as, Internet scams. How do I protect people better from being cheated on the internet – old folks, vulnerable people. I think there it is not so hard to have a constructive debate. And the Opposition will chip in ideas and sometimes if you close your ears, close your eyes it sounds it could have been made by somebody wearing white and white.

But many other important issues inherently carry some political colour to it. And it is very difficult to take that political colour out and have a debate which is solely focused on improving the policy and making things better or clearing that out. If you ask why health care is not more affordable, if you ask why housing does not come faster, and should we build more houses or not? If you ask about education – should we have more university places or fewer? Should we teach things in school one way or the other? The temptation to make this an occasion to score points against the Government, the incentive to do it, not that temptation, but the incentive to do it is very strong because if you help the Government to govern better and the Government says, thank you, I will do it, and the result is better. Then you are making it harder for yourself to get elected the next time, and you want to get elected, right? So the premium is on showing up what the shortcomings are. Why is it you do not do it the other way; I have a good idea; here is how you can make it cheaper, better, faster.

And then TV-wise, it is still a good debate. But enlightenment-wise and productivity- wise, I am not so sure. You may have to go through it because some of these arguments will be out there. The views will be there. You have to deal with them, you have to rebut it. But I think if we spend more and more time thinking up clever arguments and rebutting clever arguments, we will have less and less time thinking up good ideas and implementing good ideas. And if the trend is that I want more and more check and balance and more and more alternative voices, and still I want a PAP government, you are inevitably going to weaken the Government in terms of the energy it has to work on policies that benefit Singaporeans, in terms of its ability to assemble a team which is up to scratch, to deliver a high-quality government to Singaporeans. And I think the quality of government will go down, our policies will be less creative. The results will generate fewer benefits for Singaporeans and at some point, the political system will malfunction. It is a risk.

ST: Is there a magic number or some proportion in Parliament by which you know, it will tip over?

PM Lee: There is no magic number, but we have to push very hard against this. That there is a trend, I think, that is the way politics works. When I came in, and I was elected in 1984, there were two Opposition MPs in Parliament. Elected MPs, Jeyaratnam and Chiam See Tong, and we thought that it was quite a major setback because up to then there was Mr Jeyaratnam who was appointed in the by-election. And we thought this was a major setback and, we would have to work very hard to deal with this. Well, we were able to hold the line, and after Mr. Goh Chok Tong took over, he had a General Election in 1991.

In that General Election, the opposition contested very few of the seats. And Mr Chiam See Tong very proudly declared that this was his by-election strategy, meaning that there is no danger of my taking over the government. You have got a PAP Government, now please vote for me. Quite safe. Nothing would happen. I would not be your government. You can vote for me. And he got elected. But, that was then. It is an amazing approach.

When I became PM in 2006, I called the General Election for the first time. Even then, there was a minority of seats which were contested. Most of the seats were not contested and the government formed the government. I think there were 47 seats contested out of 84.

This last election, all the seats were contested. Now the Opposition says we want one third to check the PAP. So one newspaper columnist said they want one half. They stoutly denied that, strong rebuttal, indignation — “We do not want one half!” Why are you so indignant? Shock and awe, because they want people to feel it is quite safe. Just move a little bit further along the slope. No harm, nothing will happen. Life will carry on, PAP will look after you. We will be even stronger checking the PAP and speaking up for you. Marvelous. Have your cake and eat it twice. But is it so safe?

So you asked me what is a safe number? I say there's no safe number. This is the way the system will work everywhere if you have elections. You must have elections. Because without that we would have other very serious problems in politics. And we have to make this work as best we can. The way it has worked in Singapore is quite special and does not happen anywhere else in the world, democracy or non-democracy. There is consent, there is mandate and there is restraint and there is sustainable continuity. It is remarkable.

You leave it, you can never come back. People ask how does politics work in Singapore. So I explain to them, they look at me, they think I am a Man from Mars. They cannot imagine anything like this happening in their country. Union foreign delegates visit the NTUC. NTUC talks to them about tripartite relationship, how they work with a government, with the people, with the employers, how we go for win-win, how we negotiate to protect workers rights; so we are not at loggerheads with one another, confrontational. They listen to NTUC, they tell NTUC, “When my government behaves like your government, I will behave like you.”

So there you are. You get there. You cannot come back. We are here. Keep it like this for as long as you can. It delivers outstanding results, whether security, whether economy, whether housing, education, healthcare – everything. To make this Government work like this, to have this kind of standard of living in Singapore, to be able to have a leader who can say, “I have the support of the people. I have done my best for, the people, and I think I have delivered”. I think that is a very rare privilege which Singaporeans have. Keep it.

ST: But PM, you can imagine maybe the Opposition parties will say that this is your pitch. And of course, they are probably hoping that this does not remain forever.

PM Lee: Yes, of course. You have to. That is the way the system is set up. And that must be their mission.

ST: So do you think in your lifetime you might see a non-PAP government in power one day?

PM Lee: I hope not. We will try very hard as a PAP to make sure that we continue to win the people's mandate and to hold the position, in a different way with a different generation. But if that happens, that means we have failed to do that. It can happen.

Dawn Tan (CNA): PM you speak about the mandate and ultimately the power lies in the hands of the electorate, at the ballot box on Election Day. Are you concerned at all as we face the prospect of another general election, which must be called, not too far- I mean, before November next year? Are you concerned at all about an erosion of support for the PAP?

PM Lee: You mean support the people who want us to be Government, or support the people who actually put the cross on the right spot on the ballot paper?

CNA: Putting that cross on the ballot paper.

PM Lee: You never know. I mean, in 2015, the results were better than we expected. In 2020, the results were not as high as we hoped. So you never know. We will try our best to deserve that cross against the right logo, and we will fight hard to persuade people to do that. But it can go to the wrong place. And the earlier question, 20 years, it can happen. It can happen if the PAP has let the people down, and the Opposition has become stronger and better and offers a better alternative. Well, in that situation I say, I am sad for the PAP, but for Singapore, go for the Opposition, vote the better team take care of the country. So be it. It has to be. And may you succeed. May you take the country forward.

But it can also be that the political system has malfunctioned, because I described to you how it can go wrong and therefore, the Government was less able to govern well and therefore lost the support and there is nobody else there who is going to be able to do better. And then I think the country is in real trouble, and that can easily happen.

Seithi: How can we actually foster more interest in politics amongst our youth? I have to also say that some of our Ministers’ social media game is strong. It is getting better actually, and it is giving a tough fight for the youngsters. But how do you think we can increase youngsters’ interest in politics?

PM Lee: Well, I think that social media is one way of doing it. I went onto Facebook, Instagram, then came TikTok. I think TikTok would be for the next generation of Ministers. At least it interests the people in the personalities, maybe a little bit in the content and hopefully encourages them to think more deeply about what this is about.

But frankly, you cannot convey the essence of being a Singaporean via social media. Even with a television channel and a newspaper and acres of newsprint, you work very hard to get that sense across, because it is not just the message across, but the interaction and participation and the life experience and engagement which makes it happen.

So to make the younger generation interested, I think if you have a crisis, people pay attention. During Covid, my posts were always very well followed because people were anxious and wanted to know what was happening. And if I had something new to tell them or to update them, they wanted to know. I am sure there would be other tensions which would come and people would pay attention. During Gaza, Israel-Hamas, I think news consumption went up. During Ukraine, in early stages news consumption went up, probably now tapered off.

But hopefully people read all these and do not just treat it as entertainment. I finish watching, flick, I finish watching, flick, and then tomorrow I flick new stuff. But some thing sinks home, and you think about it and contemplate it and conclude what does it mean to be a Singaporean. And I think that is a lot of work. We try to do it in school, we try to do it through National Service. I hope parents try to do it with their children. We do it every year; National Day we make a big show, a big thing of the Parade, because it is an opportunity for people to take pride in the country, these things mean something, and we need to do more of them.

ST: PM what about not just to pay attention to politics, but your advice for young people you know, on taking the next step and to join politics, like you have.

PM Lee: If you are idealistic, if you want to do something, if you want to make a contribution, please seriously consider that. It is very hard, it is harder now. I think, to join politics maybe not so hard because it may not be in the limelight. To decide to be a candidate is harder because then you are exposed, and your family also has their privacy infringed upon. And family time, I mean, if all your weekends are spent in the constituency, when are you going to take your kid to the zoo?

So that is a consideration. But also, social media and online discourse, which can sometimes be very vicious, is a real consideration. And the families say, “Why do I want to put myself and my kids through this? Even if you are willing to sacrifice, you must think about us. So that is a real problem. And that is why we try- we disapprove strongly of the false and vicious stuff which comes out on the internet. We have not got a good an entirely good solution yet, but it is a serious problem. And it is particularly a problem looking for people coming in to take office. To be Parliamentary Secretaries, Ministers of State, Ministers. What for? And yet you need high quality Parl Secs, MOSes, Ministers, MPs, grassroots activists.

ST: So PM having gone through all this, would you encourage your children to join politics like, any of your children?

PM Lee: If they had an interest, and if they were not my children and if they had an interest – Yes. But they are my children, and the hurdle is higher. So far, none of them have showed any interest. My grandchildren are much too young.

ST: Thanks PM.

Hadi Saparin (Berita Harian): Okay. You talked about social media, nice segue to our next question, you are possibly our original social media influencer.

PM Lee: Ah a very small time.

BH: How does the platform, you know, help you in terms of connecting with the people?

PM Lee: You reach a different audience. People who follow my posts like my pictures, know when I jalan-jalan, may not read my speeches or listen to my rallies, but it is an audience. And then when I post something else, hopefully it will turn up on that feed and they may take notice and maybe read it. It is somewhat transferable, but when I post jalan-jalan the response is very good. Tomorrow, I post a meeting with so-and-so very important visitor, it is not the same, but that is the way it is.

ST: Okay PM and you know after you become Senior Minister, do you already know what you might be doing in Cabinet? Have you discussed this with DPM Wong?

PM Lee: Well, I talked to him. I said, I will be here to do my best to help you to succeed, you have to be your own person. You have to make the decisions. You have to lead in your own way, persuade people in your own way. But I will give you the benefit of my experience and my views. But you have to set the tone, you have to carry the decision.

ST: Are there areas that you think you can contribute more in? Like some of our previous SMs, they have maybe dealt with a lot of foreign policy issues or some of the tricky issues between Singapore and Malaysia.

PM Lee: Well, I hope that the people I know, the network of leaders I have met and who know me, will still be there for some time. They are getting old too and getting on. For example, President Jokowi is completing his term this year and many of the leaders I have known, like Angela Merkel and Tony Blair, they retired some time ago. But to the extent that I have people who know me and whom I can talk to, I will certainly make use of that and engage them. Specific, sensitive policy, that is up to the Prime Minister to decide. If he arrows me to do it, I will take the arrow.

CNA: PM, in a 1999 exchange between author and columnist William Safire and your late father Mr Lee Kuan Yew who was then Senior Minister. Your father was asked a question about you, about your role as Deputy Prime Minister – would you have even had that role if you had not been Mr Lee's son? And in response, he said, that ‘if he were not my son, he would be Prime Minister’. He said, “I will tell you honestly, I stopped him because Hsien Loong can run faster than any of the others.”

Well, you did become Prime Minister in 2004 and you will be remembered as a Prime Minister who was pragmatic. You will be remembered for your resilience, for being tenacious. But what will you cherish about the privilege of having served as Singapore's third Prime Minister?

PM Lee: Well, I did not try to run faster than everybody else. I tried to bring everybody to run with me. And I think we did have some success.

Interviewers: Thank you PM.