PM Lee Hsien Loong's Interview with Local Media – Section 3: Social Safety Nets and Social Cohesion (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): We will move on to the next topic now, which is on social safety nets. One important policy that you introduced some years ago was the idea of generational safety nets, beginning with the Pioneer Generation Package. Then we had the Merdeka and Majulah packages for the young seniors amongst some of us who may not have built up enough savings. When my father received notification of his Pioneer Generation Package, the letter, he held it up to me and said, “See Dawn, Prime Minister has not forgotten us old-timers.”

It was important to that generation. Why has uplifting entire generations of Singaporeans like this has been so important to you?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: They brought us here. If they had not stood and fought at the critical moment, and then slogged and built their whole lives to take Singapore forward, saved and enabled the next generation to move higher and further than they did, we would not be here today. Every generation does this for the next generation – hopefully, wants to do this – but I think for the Pioneer Generation and the Merdeka Generation, it was exceptional. Exceptional in that, in the challenges they faced and the courage which they showed, and in the privations they experienced because they came from poverty and nothing to a level which you would say much more prosperous than before, but a long journey to go yet. Over their lifetimes, what they earned, what they saved, is much less than what the younger generations are earning and saving.

That is why just now when you asked me about younger generations feeling hard done by, I said, I think that is not true. We have worked very hard to enable the younger generations to do better than us, and therefore I think we owe it to them (PG and MG). Now that we are not poor, now that we have accumulated some surpluses and some buffer to be able to say thank you very much, we honour you, here is a gesture which we hope will be helpful to you in your golden years.

The Pioneer Generation especially so. The Merdeka Generation a different package. The Majulah Package is slightly different because by the time we reached the young seniors, I think they would have been able to provide quite a lot for their own old age and retirement because our CPF rates were higher and they would have had good CPF contributions during the years of working.

But we know that amongst that generation, there will be some who do not have enough and quite a few who are sandwiched. In the sense that their parents are now old and need care and support, and their kids are still dependent on them, maybe still in school or university or poly. So, with fairly heavy burdens. We felt that the Majulah Generation package would be appropriate and I think would be appreciated. It is an indication that we understand that they are carrying a heavy burden and this is, we hope, something which should be helpful to you. Fortunately, we could afford it. And so we have done it.

CNA: PM, the ethos of self-reliance has long been an important political philosophy in Singapore. It has been important for Singaporeans to remember that idea, or the pursuit of self-reliance, at least, and it does not matter what part of Singapore's history you really look at or what economic circumstances we have been through. But you said in a speech in 2004 that, and I'm going to quote you, “More money is not always the solution and can sometimes create other problems as well.”

What is there to stop us from sort of moving towards a welfare state, as we pursue what we want, which is an inclusive society?

PM Lee: Well, we have some restraints and we do not have some restraints. The restraint is if you do not have the money, you cannot do it. You may want it, you may think it is good, but if you do not have the money, you cannot do it.

And if you become a welfare state like the Europeans, you are talking about spending maybe 45% of the GDP, by the Government, on your behalf, and the Government taxes and raises maybe 40% of the GDP from the people. So from the first dollar you earn, you pay 20 or 30 cents, and then therefore you can afford the health care, the pensions, the unemployment benefits and so on. In Singapore, we do not collect of 40% of taxes in GDP, we do not spend 45% of GDP on social and other government programmes. We collect 15% of GDP in tax, and we spend maybe 18 or 19% of GDP in total Government spending.

So it is a totally different scale. People said, GST is so high. But actually, the taxes in Singapore are very low compared to other countries. Our GST went up recently, it is 9%. In the developed countries, the welfare states, you are talking about 20 or 25% of GDP, plus many other taxes, on income, on wealth sometimes, on petrol, diesel, all sorts of things, because otherwise how can you afford it?

So for us, the constraint is that if you cannot afford it and if you are not prepared to pay for it, then we cannot have it. If you are prepared to pay for it, and if you think that benefits need to be enhanced, if the payouts are not enough or the coverage needs to be improved – these are things which you do have to adjust from time to time. We have to do them, but we have to afford them. And that means if we have to raise revenues in order to pay for them and raise taxes once in a while, we have to do that.

Which was the reason why the GST – GST in Singapore is nine – had to go up from 7% to 9%, and the reason is because of healthcare. Healthcare expenditure is going up steadily, sharply, predictably and unavoidably, and I have to afford that and I have to pay for that. The Opposition will tell you to just take a bit more from the reserves, you will not go broke and you will not feel bad about raiding the bank. But if you look at the scale of it, if you want to go for a welfare state and you raid the reserves, from 18% of GDP spending now, to what their welfare state spends, double that or more than that, I think the reserves, however ample, will be gone very soon and that will not do. So basically, we have to be able to afford it to spend it.

Secondly, the other thing we do not have by way of restraint is, we do not have a political constituency which says, I do not want so much revenue, I do not want too much welfare, I do not want so much taxes. I want lower taxes, less welfare. Like the Republican Party in America and the conservatives in Britain, we have no such constituency in Singapore, there is no such party in Singapore. That is not the PAP's policy, it is no opposition parties’ policy.

Why? Because in Singapore, if you want to form the Government, you have no hope of forming a Government saying less taxes, less welfare, because we have made the country equal, we have made the constituencies all mixed, and the majority of Singaporeans are Singaporeans who are both paying taxes and enjoying the benefits, and really they are in the income groups which would say, give me a bit more benefits, but do not tax me some more. So the pressure is to push the benefits up, to push towards more generous social safety nets, and at risk of going to too much excess, and then we dull the incentive to work and then we have a problem also with paying for it.

What does that mean? That means in the absence of a political restraint from a Conservative-type party, the Government has to be the one to be that gatekeeper and balancer and has to judge what it is we must spend, what is it which we need to do, which social safety nets are necessary, how far should we go before we draw the line, what can we afford and what would be wise from the point of view of balancing between incentives to achieve and safety, in case you fall upon hard times.

That is the Government's job, and over the last 20 years, we have actually moved very far towards better social safety nets. We created ComCare to bring all our schemes together, to enhance the schemes and focus them better. We did Workfare for lower-income workers. We did a progressive wage, again for lower-income workers, so that it is not just topping up to a certain level, but you have job progression and wage progression. We have enhanced protections for MediShield Life, for medical insurance so that you can afford your hospital bills, for CPF Life for old age so that you have money for retirement, for CareShield Life in case as you grow older and gradually become less able to look after yourself, you are needing long-term care, or while you are not in the hospital but you need some support, you have CareShield Life.

So these are all things which we have done, all within the last 20 years, it is very considerable. Of course, people will always say ‘please do more’ and we will keep on improving.

Tham Yuen-C (The Straits Times): PM, as you said, nobody will say less taxes, less welfare, but there are some people who are saying maybe less taxes or keep the taxes, but more welfare.

PM Lee: That is right.

ST: For example, after the Pioneer Generation Package was launched, people started speculating if there is going to be another package? And at subsequent NDRs, people are always hoping for a Majulah Package or a Merdeka Package and indeed there were other packages. So how would you resist the pressure to have more and more packages, because maybe people will have that kind of expectations, and also, will we be able to afford it?

PM Lee: It depends and I think the attitude should be, we work hard, we are prudent, if things turn out well and we have a good year, everybody can enjoy the upside. And we try to make the upside not just a distribution of dividend— where you spend the money, and it is gone— but something meaningful which addresses, not just somebody's real need but something which, as a society, we feel this is a group which deserves our recognition and support.

And from time to time, I hope we'll be able to do well enough to be in that situation and to have the Prime Minister deliver good news at the National Day Rally, and the Finance Minister has a happy Budget, but you have to work at it. And if you say I want happy NDRs and Budgets every year for the next ten years, well, that is not the way the world works.

CNA: For the last 20 years as Prime Minister, Mr. Lee, you have kept your ear to the ground trying to foster this inclusivity, trying to convey to every Singaporean possible that they are heard, maybe not addressing every single issue immediately, but that they are heard. At the same time, you have striven to keep Singaporeans united, and you have had to deal with a number of issues in that regard. With the S377A issue, with the wearing of tudung issue as well, do you think after 20 years that Singaporeans have been able to foster, to grow a stronger Singaporean identity?

PM Lee: I have no doubt the identity is stronger. It is 20 more years of nation building, it is 20 more years of ups and downs, and trials and tribulations, and joys and sorrows.

Before me was SARS; we had Covid. Before me we had the Asian Financial Crisis, then we had the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), then we have had other economic problems from time to time. In 2015, Mr Lee Kuan Yew died, and it was an enormous outpouring of emotions, of a shared experience and bonding. And there have been other issues we have been dealing with too, during these 20 years, like 377A, like the tudung issue, which, in the way we dealt with it, enabled us to understand each other better and to accept each other's differences, and respect each other and work out practical arrangements for that.

Another very important issue which we dealt with, which was also sensitive and could easily have caused a very big problem was, the JI group after 9/11, because terrible terrorist attacks had taken place. New York was far away, but it took place in our region, in Bali, in Jakarta subsequently, and how do we react? We are multi-racial. We have Muslims, we have non-Muslims. Do we trust each other or not? Will we have an incident here or not? How do we prevent people from being led astray and, become radicalised and then become a danger to Singaporeans?

So we worked very hard at that. Mr Goh Chok Tong started it because 9/11 was on his watch, and then I carried on afterwards. We worked with the Malay-Muslim community, worked with the asatizahs, particularly the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi chairing them, worked with the community groups, talked to them, had sessions with them, mixed sessions with everybody together to talk openly about what we fear will happen and what, why, and how we must not fear one another. And after all that we came through, we were fortunate, we have not had any terrorist attack in Singapore so far. I mean, several were aborted timely by our security agencies, but it could have happened easily but it did not. I think going through that experience has helped to bring us closer together.

But to say after this, we can fly solo – the Government does not need to watch, can take hands off the steering wheel or the controls, and it will look after itself – I do not think so. Never. It is not possible, because these issues are forever sensitive ones, and you need to have limits to the discussion, you need to have the tone set by the Government. And if we are going to have to make a major move, for example, on the tudung for nurses, or decriminalising male homosexuality, if the Government does not make it, it is not going to happen or it is going to happen in a very chaotic and very contentious way.

It is like in America, the government does not legislate that. The federal government is unable to legislate on abortion legislation. So what came about was Roe versus Wade, which was really a political judgement by a Supreme Court, the judicial body, and it is a political issue rather than a judicial issue. And it is being fought out again, 40 years, 50 years after Roe versus Wade, in the political arena in all of the states, and again in the federal government and in the presidential elections.

So I think that it is better for the Government to guide it, allow more discussions, allow freer exchange of views, and you can allow more liberal practices too. But I think we have to handle this as very great care. Always.

Hadi Saparin (Berita Harian): PM, just a follow up to that. You have been able to communicate with the Malay-Muslim community on a lot of sensitive issues, getting the support, the trust. What is your sense about the trust with the 4G leaders, DPM Wong, and what would your advice to them be, in terms of approaching sensitive issues with the community?

PM Lee: I think both sides are working at it. I see DPM Wong has been attending many iftars, buka puasas, over the Ramadan period recently. And it is not just that, because he has been meeting the community leaders and religious leaders, MPs and PAP ground Malay activists. All this will be part of the work of developing that relationship and mutual confidence and trust, understanding each other, where you stand, what you can say yes to, what you can ask for, what you can ask for but the Government will probably be unable to agree to. And it will take time to build up, but I am sure they will be able to do it.

BH: And following up on all the issues you spoke earlier, about tudung, about 377A and about terrorism, Jemaah Islamiyah, which is the most difficult and sensitive topic you have had to approach?

PM Lee: Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorism threat was a longstanding one, so if you ask about difficulty to handle, that was one where for more than a decade and even for two decades. You had to keep on watching it and worry whether something would suddenly go bang and then you are in serious trouble. Or you have a crisis to handle to prevent serious trouble. So that is a continuing challenge over 20 years.

The other issues like tudung or 377A, we handled over a long period of time. We had talked about it since way before I became PM, but we could discuss it, and it was something where we had confidence that the community had a moderate view, understood and accepted the Government's perspective and was prepared to work with the Government and give us time to manage the issue without polarising and hardening opinions. That was a tremendous help and enabled us finally, when the time was right, to deal with them and to have a good resolution.

But I think the most difficult one, which is going to be a long-term challenge again, is what Dawn talked about earlier. That is managing the inherent tensions between wanting social cohesion among Singaporeans and being open and bringing in immigrants and foreign workforce, and managing that and making people feel comfortable and not feel threatened or having social tensions build up. That is something which is going to be very difficult to manage because we do not have a lot of manoeuvring room on the downside. You cannot say I send off all the foreign workers, and then tomorrow we will be okay.

Every now and again we have a debate in Parliament, and the Opposition goes - Sturm und Drang1 Why so many?, and we say, well, do you want to cut it all off and let all the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have no foreign worker quota, and they say, no, no, no, we do not mean that, we feel for SMEs too. Well, if you do, and you feel for not just the SME employer, but the SME’s Singaporean worker, and the Singaporeans working for multinational companies (MNCs), and the Singaporeans whose jobs are in companies where without the foreign worker, the company would not  be here, and if we want Singapore to grow, then we have no choice but to work very hard to find ways we can have our cake and eat most of it. And that is a continuing, long-term challenge.

BH: If we can talk a bit more about the Malay/Muslim community, you have worked closely with the community for 20 years.

PM Lee: Longer.

BH: Yes, of course. As Prime Minister for 20 years, where do you think community has done well and perhaps where we could have done better?

PM Lee: Well, where you have done well is the things which we talked about. Our national cohesion, our social cohesion, our unity is stronger today in large part because the Malay community has played its part and has helped us to manage issues and bring everyone closer together, and not become further part.

If you look at the progress in the traditional indicators, the portion going to post-secondary education, now 80% of the Malay students go on to post-secondary education. If you look at university participation for young adults, that means between their twenties to thirties, you are talking about 20% of that cohort having graduated from university.

It has improved a lot over the last 20 years, and I think it will continue to improve because with each generation, you have gone to school, you have completed Polytechnic, you know how to make this journey and you are better able to take care of your kids and encourage your kids to do the same as you, and go further than you. So I fully expect this to improve, and you can see it in the workforce. Proportions of Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) have gone up who are Malay, and it is quite common, you see a Malay engineer, a Malay lawyer, a Malay doctor. Everybody thinks it is quite normal and treats them completely equally, because they are equal and up to par and same standard as everybody else, that is how our system works.

These are wins, which happen quietly, year by year, bit by bit, and you may not notice it, but I think we should be proud of it. You still have issues with incarceration rates, you still have issues with drug rates, drug abuse numbers, you still have issues with dysfunctional families, we are working on them with ComLink, ComLink+, MENDAKI has all kinds of programmes.

And I think the willingness of the professional, successful Malays, to come back and contribute, has been sustained in MENDAKI. Certainly you look at the other groups like AMP Singapore, they have been able to keep going and build up their programmes – AMP is now existing for about at least 30 years. So these are achievements, and these are reasons to hope that we will continue to make progress.

BH: There are also issues beyond our shores. So for example, the Israel-Gaza issue, views from outside has an impact on the community, what are your views on this?

PM Lee: It is a reality of our society, that compared to 20 or 30 years ago, compared to before, when the outside could be far away, today the outside is on your doorstep. In a previous generation, if there is war in the Middle East, it is war in the Middle East. We really did not know much about it. You may read about it in the Berita Harian, and some reports, but really, you did not get the feel, the smell of the fear and the anger and the passion which is there.

But today you see it. You see it on TikTok, you see it on your WhatsApp groups, you see people discussing it with one another. You see it also when you get a clip come your way and you do not know whether this came from Gaza or from Chechnya, or maybe it came from somewhere else altogether, nothing to do with it, but you send it to your friends and then everybody gets worked up. So it is a reality, it is the way the world is, it is the way our own society is.

I completely understand how Muslims in Singapore have become very aroused by what is happening in Gaza, very distressed. It is unconscionable, it is inhuman, really, what can you do about that, and you feel for it, because first, you are a fellow human being like everybody else. But also there is a religious element to this feeling, because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not about religion, but religion is an element.  You talk about Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, and here there is a religious identification. So the Muslims feel much more strongly about this, generally speaking, than the non-Muslims in Singapore. I think others too, young Singaporeans, they are worked up, but I would say if you are Muslim, that is an extra factor which makes sure you are very, very engaged.

And I think we have to recognise that, respect that, understand it, and try to get people to work together, so to see what we can do to acknowledge these feelings, but to do which is practical and not just performative. I can strike pose, say this and that, have a demonstration, burn flags, it is cathartic, but does it help people who desperately need help? What will help? You raise donations, I think that makes a difference. We have raised donations generously; the community has contributed. We arranged the donations. The Singapore Red Cross went to Egypt to help to deliver, I think they went to Al-Arish in Sinai, where the base is.

We went further. We decided that we would make a donation, if the Government would donate, we would make another collection because the donations had been enough. We collected and purchased more appropriate food, medical necessities and so on, and we delivered it to the Middle East and actually airdropped it, on a RSAF C-130, flying from Jordan over Gaza, and we dropped the food and the parcels to the population there, and hopefully help them with their urgent needs, but also show that they have got friends. These are practical things you can do.

To take a stand, to state what we approve of, disapprove of, we have to do that. So we have taken that stand, first at the United Nations (UN) where we voted for the ceasefire resolutions at the General Assembly repeatedly. Secondly, Parliamentary statements and Government statements, and make clear what we stand for, what we approve of, what we condemn.

We stand for peace in the Middle East, we stand for humane treatment, we condemn terrorist attacks, including 7 October which was unconscionable and abhorrent. We also do not approve of what has happened, and we reject the actions which are taking place in Gaza, the hardship and the misery and the destruction and the innocent deaths of so many people, women and children and old people, from Israeli retaliation in Gaza. That the Israelis have to hit back, that they have to protect themselves and to hit at Hamas, I think they are entitled to do that. But the degree of damage and destruction and civilian casualties and collateral damage, I think, whatever the legalities from a humanitarian point of view, that must stop, and we have made that view quite clear.

That is the right thing for us to do, and I hope that, Singaporeans, whether Muslim or not non-Muslim, will understand that and will also understand the need for us to stay together and to look at it as Singapore, as a national position, which the Government has to take, even though we will each have different personal attitudes. Which was the reason the Ministry of Education (MOE) embarked on the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) class in schools — not to educate people on the Middle East, that is too ambitious a project, it will take you a Master's course to understand that —but at least to understand that something very dramatic, drastic and tragic is happening there, and that we have different feelings about it amongst us, and how do we understand that and process that, I think that was what was essential.

Melissa Manuel (Seithi): I think on a lighter note, I think if people were to ask me, how would you best describe Singapore using a dish, I would say we are like rojak. We have the best of everything, truly we are melting pot of so many different cultures, and I take pride in that as a Singaporean Indian. Now that you have touched on the Malay-Muslim community, I would like to ask you, how do you think the Indian community has evolved over the past few years, and what are some challenges and gaps that have to be addressed?

PM Lee: The Indian community has been doing well too, in the sense that – not that you do not have issues because, like every other community, you have a certain group who are having family issues, and kids growing up not quite right who need to be helped. But you have got SINDA and SINDA has done a very good job. It is smaller than MENDAKI, but you have got some very active volunteers, passionate volunteers. Some Singaporeans, some immigrants, some not even citizens but just families working here, some kids, teens who are working with families who need help, who go and do reading with them, who mentor them and who guide them, and I think it makes a big difference.

You would have to keep on doing this because these are problems which will not easily disappear. But you are doing the right thing. You do have one issue, which I talked about a couple of National Day Rallies ago, which is that – between Indians who are Singaporeans and the newly-arrived Indians, sometimes naturalised, sometimes not. You are not the same and therefore you have to find ways to bridge that gap with each other. And that is something which is continuing work. We have tried hard to do it, to talk to the new arrivals - This is Singapore, it is not the same as a city in India. We welcome you, but please, know how things operate down here in Singapore, in our temples, you know, multiracial interactions. And at the same time, talking to Singaporeans so that they can understand why there is an inflow and how to think about it.

But that is an issue which, I mean, other Singaporeans also notice an influx, because the numbers are not small, but they are talented people and they are very valuable to us. I think we should welcome them as we manage the flow. It so happens that when people talk about top institutions in India, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), if you can get into one of them, it is like getting into MIT or Stanford or Harvard. And we have the biggest concentration of IIT and IIM graduates in the world, outside of India. They are in Singapore, and they have an association or two and maybe two associations. And from time to time, they have functions. I think that is good because it adds something to us. We generate our own talent. But if I can get such a pool, come here and work here, it is a tremendous plus for us.

ST: PM just now you mentioned, you know, now we have the outside at our doorstep and sometimes maybe the outside tries to cross the boundaries. As a very small country that is very open, we can sometimes be an attractive target for people who want to try to influence the population and this also affects our unity.

So, Singapore has passed the Foreign Interference and Countermeasures Act (FICA), and in fact, we designated the first person as a Politically Significant Person (PSP) already. So I am wondering, you know, maybe you can elaborate more about your views on these measures. And also, what does it really mean to be a Politically Significant Person?

PM Lee: That we are open is more so now, but to some extent has always been so for quite a long time, because we are so small. That there are people outside who want to influence us, sometimes for the better, sometimes for their own purposes, is also not a new thing. We have known black operations for a long time in Singapore, in the 1960s, 1970s, some were in the newspapers – meaning not reported in the newspapers but operating in the newspapers. Eastern Sun, Singapore Herald, Chinese newspapers had their own cases too. So black ops by foreign players and some of them used political individuals, people in Opposition, politicians in Singapore to spout their messages and to try and influence Singaporeans in those days.

So that there are outside powers or actors wanting to influence us, is nothing new. But what is new is that they are now on our doorstep and in our bedroom because of the Internet, because of social media, because of Singaporeans traveling. And now also because of AI. It is so much easier to generate stuff and to persuade people or mislead people. So what do we do? We have passed this Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), as one of the ways which we are dealing with foreign hostile influence operations and also operations to use individuals and organisations here for their purposes. So, what is the difference?

Hostile influence operation means you get all kinds of messages on the social media. Looks like, it is viral, but actually, it is the same virus which has been distributed into 1000 different monikers. But hostile influence of persons is really – I use you, and then you have been either willingly or for some purpose, some reason are willing to speak up and to speak on behalf of the foreign actor, and the organisation is willing to speak or act on behalf of the foreign actor and participate in politics, and thereby influence what is happening in the country. And I think that is improper, that is dangerous. And that is also not hard to do. So what do we do about it and what FICA has done about it is to say, I will call you a Politically Significant Person, PSP.

What does it mean? It means you either have a nexus to Singapore politics – you are politically active and or you are supporting some political party –  or you have a nexus to some foreign actor. So if you have a nexus to some foreign actor, you may not be politically active, but you could become politically active and become a player and a problem.

If you are a political actor but you do not have a foreign nexus, you are not a threat, but at some point, some foreign actor may decide to make friends with you and then you may become vulnerable and a threat. So what do I want to do by declaring you a Politically Significant Person? I want you to declare every year, “These are my foreign connections, these are my foreign sources of money”.

What does that achieve? First, everybody will know you are a PSP. I think that is helpful. So when you come, they will know that this is somebody politically significant. He is not just an innocent third party advocate who believes deeply in what he says and is putting that view forth. But possibly you must know what his connections are. Secondly, it makes it harder for somebody, some foreign actor, to influence him. Because if you put him onto your distinguished advisory committee, he has to declare and that diminishes his value to you. Thirdly, if he does not have any connections, it enables him to declare and say, I do not have any connections. “You can trust me. I am a Politically Significant Person, but I am not doing anything wrong.”

So in that way, we manage the problem. So who are PSPs? I am a PSP because I am the PM and therefore nexus to Singapore politics. Quite clear. My ministers are PSPs. My MPs are PSPs, the Opposition MPs, even the NMPs, automatically. Not designated, but they are also PSPs. The People’s Action Party as a party, that is a PSP too, because the party can be subverted and every year the party has to declare I am not receiving foreign money, I do not have foreign connections. And if you declare falsely, then of course many consequences will follow. So that is the reason why we have a mechanism to declare, to define PSP, to declare somebody to be a PSP and therefore try to keep our system safer. So being declared a PSP does not mean necessarily that you have done anything wrong. It is just to put everybody on notice, that you have either a foreign nexus or you are politically active.

ST: Is there a difference between being gazetted a PSP and being declared a PSP?

PM Lee: No. The ministers, the PM and so on, we do not have to be gazetted or declared – gazetting and declaring are the same thing – the Ministers and so on, we are PSPs automatically. Because you are occupying that position, you are a PSP. I think the PAP as a party likewise, you are a party, you are a political party, you are by definition, politically sensitive. If you are another organisation, it could be a trade union for example, you could be politically active because you can support one party or another. You are entitled to, but you are not automatically declared under the law to be a PSP, you could be gazetted. So gazetting makes you a PSP. Once you are one, it does not matter how you became one.

ST: So does that mean then that, the PAP and the other political parties would then have to declare their links or connections under this law?

PM Lee: Yes, yes. Every MP and every minister. We have to do that, from now onwards.

ST: What about all these, you know, there are a lot of businessmen, maybe, who have dealings of China and all that, and maybe for their own economic interests they are always pushing for certain things, and you know, certain actions to be taken. Would that put them in danger of becoming PSP because they all surely have links?

PM Lee: Well, that will be a matter of judgement and a decision which the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would have to make. Not everybody who does business in China is of interest. Not everybody who speaks well of a foreign country is necessarily a foreign agent or is likely to be a foreign agent or is likely to have influence. So to be a PSP, you have to cross a certain threshold. You are likely to matter and therefore, we will do something about it.

ST: Do you foresee more people being gazetted?

PM Lee: I do not know.

ST: Okay, thank you PM.

BH: We can talk a bit about racism. The minorities have come a long way in the past two decades and beyond, but racism still exist. Do you ever see it being eradicated, or what are your views on this?

PM Lee: I think, it is less in Singapore than most other countries. We will work to make it better. To make it completely disappear, I think would be very difficult. We started off with the founding ideal to be one people, regardless of race, language or religion. And actually, we have gone very far in that direction by policies, by government, indoctrination even, by the way we have built our society to make it one people, regardless of race, language and religion, and to treat everybody equally at work, at social occasions – in the way we interact with one another, full opportunities and equal treatment. But to make prejudice disappear completely between different human groups who are going to remain different and keep our cultures, our heritages and our religions, which are not the same – I think to remove altogether any sense of that different distinctiveness, I think that would be very hard.

So I think that we will improve, we will do more things to nudge this in the right direction. For example, the workplace discrimination legislation which we are working on. And I think it would make a difference. But ultimately I do not believe that you can make this completely disappear. And we have to know what to do when we fall short of perfection and something happens. So once in a while, you have something or somebody say something outrageous, and then it makes everybody very angry. Once in a while you really have a bad incident and we have to take action about it. You have to react, either punishment must follow according to the law, or at least stern disapproval must be expressed and the leaders must take a stand. But these are things which you have to judge, and you have to decide what is the best way to handle it. Because sometimes if there is a small incident and you overreact and everybody gets hyped up overnight because you saw one – somebody made a – foolish post, I think it is not really the wisest way to handle it. You have to see it in perspective, if it is wrong, I condemn it. Do not do it again. Let us move on.

Sometimes you can do that, sometimes you cannot. You have to go further, but you have to judge it and you cannot have maximum response every time. In the West, they have a movement called Wokeness, where you are super sensitive about other people that you become super sensitive about other people's issues, and you become hypersensitive when other people somehow or other say things or mention things or refer to you, without the respect which you or your super subgroup feel you are entitled to. And it leads to very extreme attitudes and social norms, particularly in some academic institutions, universities. You talk about safe spaces, you talk about appropriate pronouns, you talk about how “I am about to say something which may be offensive to you, if you do not want to hear it, perhaps you would like to leave now.”

And life becomes very burdensome, and I do not think we want to go in that direction. It does not make us a more resilient, cohesive society with a strong sense of solidarity. We must be more robust.

CNA: But PM, as small as the world is become and as interconnected the youth are, I mean, and I don't mean just people who are in their 20s and 30s, people who are under the age of 40 or 50 and below, young enough, their attitudes get shaped, they get influenced. Are we at risk of that as well?

PM Lee: Yes, we are, we are open to outside influence. You do not want to be completely closed and ignore the rest of the world, but when a new fad sweeps the world, we should look at it cautiously, and I think we can afford to wait a while before we decide whether it is wise or not.

But these things happen. I talk about Wokeness, but it is also religious norms, it is also cultural norms, sexual norms too, family norms. We are all part of one global humanity. And yet we are a Singapore nation. You will always be both of this and I want to keep this Singapore nation cohesive, united, open but not dissolved and just melted away. And that, for Singapore for the long term, that is one of our key nation-building tasks.


[1] German term for storm and stress.