Dialogue with PM Lee Hsien Loong at the SUTD Ministerial Forum

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 5 April 2018

PM Lee Hsien Loong held a dialogue with attendees of the Singapore University of Technology and Design's Ministerial Forum on 5 April 2018. The theme of the Forum was "A Better Nation by Design". The dialogue panel comprised PM and moderator Mr Charles Wong Zheng Xun, an engineering student in SUTD. In November 2017, he had participated in the Hack4Climate held in Berlin, and was one of the top five winners.


Before the dialogue, PM Lee delivered a speech on the theme of the Forum - "A Better Nation by Design". The video of the speech and dialogue can be viewed on the PMO YouTube channel here: https://bit.ly/2GB73t5




Moderator: Welcome everyone to the SUTD Ministerial Forum. Stella is going to help us time keep. We are on the clock. Thank you all for joining us this evening, and thank you Sir for making the time to be here. As you all know, SUTD’s motto is, “A Better World by Design”, which is quite encompassing and something we are all familiar with. Since the Prime Minister is with us today, we are going to zero in a bit on that nation part, on us as a nation, and how design decisions impact our everyday lives. Questions about SUTD, design, engineering, personal development and nation building are all fair game. We are going to begin with one of my questions to get the ball rolling and then we will get to the floor right after. Sounds good?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Sounds good to me.

Moderator: Thanks Sir. Here is the first question. As budding entrepreneurs, scientists, architects and engineers, we all find ourselves looking to luminaries in our fields, yes? People who have paved the path, laid a precedence for others to follow. My question is, Sir, who do you admire? Past or present, and what lessons can we draw from them?

PM Lee: I admire people who have made their lives without having had the chance which we have. If you look at our parents’ generation, many of our parents had difficult lives, slogged, brought up their children and enabled their children to do well. They learned in the University of Life, they did not learn in SUTD. Today, we do not always remember them and I think we should remember them. We did that with the pioneer generation. If you ask me, in terms of school, I admire many of my teachers. They guided me, they imbued the right values in me, they reminded me what I should do, how I should grow up, and they stayed friends with me for many years. You see them many years later, while you are no longer their student but they are still your teacher. In politics we look at first generation of leaders, there are many of them, Mr Rajaratnam, Dr Goh Keng Swee, and my father, of course. You watch them create something out of nothing. You did not even imagine it was possible. But they did it and today we say, “Well, this is very good, now let us try to make it a little bit better”. But actually, what are doing now is building on something which without them might never had happen. I think Singaporeans forget their names. If I say Goh Keng Swee, some of you may or may not even remember who he is. But without him, his team and his colleagues, we would not be here today. So I think we owe debts to many people.

Q: Good evening Mr Lee. I am sure we can all agree in this room, that to design a better nation, we need to design better education, right? My name is Jonathan and as an engineering product and design developer, who is passionate about better education by design, better, more extremely, good education. I have been thinking about how our teachers can be better designed, kind of like products. Taking into account what the users, the students, need, and so what features the teachers need to be equipped with. If you will, Mr Lee, as you mentioned a little about teachers, please tell us about one of your great teachers that you had. What made them stand out, what was so great about them and what was the impact? Thank you very much.

PM Lee: I had a class teacher in Catholic High School. I was there six years, he taught me for two years, Secondary Three, Secondary Four. His name was Wong Wei Kong (黄伟光老师). He only passed away last year. He was 90-plus when he passed away. He taught us Chinese, he taught the school volleyball team, and he had a certain presence and personality about him that he cared for the kids. He did not just come in and lecture, he was avuncular, he was fatherly, he talked to you, guided you. If you are down, he would encourage you. If you gone on some competition, come back, did not win, he would comfort you. He remembers you, for many years. I kept in touch with him, from time-to-time I would see him at school gatherings. I just saw him two years ago. Catholic High School celebrated its 80th anniversary and he was there in good health. He had retired for many years and he spent his retirement years as a missionary. He was a good Catholic and he went to neighbouring countries to preach in Mandarin to the communities there. It kept him occupied with a purpose in life, to a ripe old age, and then he fell ill and passed away. He had what is called a rectangular life. You have a life which continues and does not decline gradually but you live it to the full, right to the end. We would be lucky if we could live a life like him.

Moderator: Full life, encouragement, some of the features which Mr Lee mentioned. Let us take a question from that microphone, the man in the jacket?

Q: Good evening, Sir. Thank you for your sharing earlier. I am Edward Lim, president of NTU’s Student Union. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had his own set of hard truths for Singapore. Will you have your own set of hard truths for Singapore? Thank you.

PM Lee:  I think the hard truths belong to Singapore and not to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. They were his take on the world, of what he considered to be realities which would not change very rapidly.  It comes down to what sort of society we are. What sort of people we have to be? What sort of region we are living in? How we must relate to the world and how we must understand what kind of world we are living in so that we can survive and prosper. I think we need that. In a way, we are more prosperous, more developed and more educated. We have more students in our universities. Therefore, you say, well, it is not quite as the same as before because we are not so desperate, not so poor and we have more choices. And yet if we want to succeed as one people in Singapore and not just 3.5 million who happen to carry red passports, well, that is just a convenience. There are things which we have to remember that it may be peace, we may be prospering, our neighbours are on good terms with us, there are opportunities in many places and yet unless you work for you living, unless you understand not everything you see is like that and there are many things which are like that, which you do not see in the world. If we do not understand that and we do not hang together, it will be much harder for us to work. There is every reason for us to work together and to make it work. The hard truths will be part of that. You will complement that with softer truths and other aspects of life, but this gritty bit must be somewhere inside there and should not be forgotten. It is a little bit the hard stuff around which the oyster so the pearl can form.

Q: Thank you, Sir.

Moderator: Thanks, Sir. Let us move on the other microphone.

Q: Good afternoon Mr Lee. First of all, thank you for sharing. My name is Lionel and I am a first year student in SUTD. My question is, as engineering and design students, we often look at the problems around us in terms of potential solutions. As we try to design this system, we have to grapple with the tensions between collecting loads and loads of data to get data insights, and possibly to apply artificial intelligence on, and the tensions with respecting an individual’s privacy. I would like to perhaps seek your opinion, as Singapore inches towards a Smart Nation, what is a vision that would balance so that as we become smarter, we remain respectable and liveable. Thank you.

PM Lee: We have to feel our way forward. We want to make full use of the information we have in order to improve people’s lives. To improve the way our society works to make it a safer environment for everybody. At the same time, you do not want to do it in a way which is overbearing, which is intrusive, which is unethical.

You have examples like this, if you have been reading about Cambridge Analytica. I hope you have heard of them – if not please Google them quickly, you will find many hits. You will know there is a trade-off. You want to collect data and yet at the same time, you have to respect people’s privacy. When you sign on to Facebook, you have to sign a disclaimer. There is some long page where you must scroll down about 20 clicks, and then you have to tick and click “OK”. If you do that, well you have effectively said I allow you to do whatever you said you wanted to do, and I share my information and may even my friends’ information with Google or with Facebook, and Facebook makes use of it. That’s their whole way to doing business. They use it in order to target advertisement at you to make money. If they did not make money, your Facebook or Instagram page would not be for free. You have to make your own decision whether you want to participate or not. Facebook has reached a point, where governments are saying this will not do. Facebook cannot set their own rules. The government will have to set the rules.

For us, with Smart Nation, we actually have a lot of information, we put CCTVs in many public places. For example, void decks, for example lift lobbies in HDB blocks. If you go around public areas in the city, you will see CCTVs in different places because we are monitoring what is happening. We need to know what is happening in public places in case there is a riot, in case there is an emergency, we can respond straight away. But if we put CCTVs, in front of your front door, or on your own corridor, watching who is going in and out, you would very legitimately be upset. So we have not done that. We have been careful. We have put it and people have accepted because it has been helpful. One of the good things the CCTV network has done is we now have far fewer loan sharks operating in Singapore. You laugh but 10 years ago, even five years ago, the loan sharks were a real scourge. Why? Because somebody living in the house before you owed money, and the loan shark does not care that the tenant has moved. He wants to terrorize you so you will go and look for the previous person and get him to pay his debt.

But with the CCTVs downstairs, now there less of that problem. That is the plus. Everybody here carries a handphone, the telcos know where you are. Otherwise they cannot communicate with you, right? The telcos will know where the concentrations of people are, where the movements of people are, which way you are going, which way is the crowd flowing. What is the trend? What is the pattern? Can we make use of that without tracing this person, this name? I saw him at this place, with this other person, this name. I think there are ways you can do it. You can anonymise the data, sample it, remove the identifiers, and then you can allow it to be used by people who will use it responsibly. These are things which we should explore, which we should be able to do. Health data. If we have an outbreak of a new disease, right now, you depend on somebody noticing a pattern in all these many medical certificates or doctors’ reports. But if I have an AI programme and I can access all these stuff, the AI programme deep learning with neural networks, I should be able to pop-up more systematically and say please take a look, this looks like a cluster of something I do not know what. Can I do that without breaching patient confidentiality? We must be able to do that. We know what we want to do, how to do it in a way which people find OK and a way which is in fact safe and OK that we have to feel a way forward. You just now said inch our forward towards Smart Nation. I hope we can progress a bit faster than inch by inch, but we will progress carefully.

Q: Thank you very much.

Moderator: Alright, great. Let’s take one from this mic.

Q: Good evening Sir, good evening everyone. This is Nacha from Learning Sciences Lab, Office of Education. I am not a student, but the question is really for the youth of today. The question is - how can today’s youth contribute to society and nation, today and tomorrow? If I may request, maybe three concrete solutions or suggestions. Thank you.

PM Lee:  First, make the most of the opportunities you have in Singapore. Education opportunities, opportunities to serve, opportunities to participate in national life. But first of all, make full use of your education opportunities. You are lucky you are here, you have all these chances. Just now, your President said 80 per cent of your students or three quarter of your students go overseas, and he is hoping that everybody will have some chance for some overseas internship or attachment. You would not see that in many other parts of Asia. But you have it here. Make full use of that. I think that is number one.

Number two, I would say, go out and do something different. Not just in your own life, but in the community. Participate in the community. Join in, do something which makes a difference to others. Not just as part of your work, but there’s something beyond your work. You can join a VWO; you can do community work; you can organise a special interest group – it can be a green group; it can be a tech group. But do something different other than just your work.  Something which will bring you into contact with other Singaporeans, which will bring people closer together, which will add to the diversity and the richness of our society. I think that is number two.

The third thing that we would like you to do to make a better future for Singapore is, in due course, find a good partner, settle down and have a good family. It is very important. It is important to you, it would enable you to do many other things in your career, in your VWO, in your philanthropic work, because you have a good family base, you have a purpose in life, you are doing it not just for yourself but also for the next generation.

Moderator: Alright, great. Let’s move on.

Q: Hello, I am Dominic. I am a senior in Information Systems Technology Design (ISTD) right now. The question I would like to ask is, as a society, Singaporeans are quite quantitative. They are very particular about certain kinds of numbers. For example, students are very particular about their grades, maybe what salaries they will get when they graduate and companies are very particular about, for example, their costs and revenue and such. I would like to ask, since we talking about Better Nation by Design, is this kind of social landscape intentional or is this somewhat unintentional?

PM Lee:  I think it is good to be able to read numbers and to know what they mean, provided you realise that not everything in life can be reduced to numbers. One of the advantages of being an engineer is that you get a sense of numbers and you look at something and you can say straight away, “Hmm, that looks okay, sounds sensible” or “Hmmm, that looks very odd, cannot possibly be”. Recently, I saw an article in the newspapers. There were two articles about artificial satellites. Somebody put out a comms satellite and ran into some trouble. The article said that a satellite weights 2,000 tonnes, so I paused. I asked my wife, “Do you believe this?” She says, "Well, one tonne is about one car, so this satellite must be the size of 2,000 cars, right?" I said it cannot be, 2,000 tonnes is the size of a big ship. So I googled satellite weight, it says, typically up to maybe 10 tonnes. The space shuttle is 100. So, what does it mean? I spent time studying numbers, she spent time studying engineering. So you looked at the numbers – it is not quite right, something must be wrong. And I think that kind of mindset is one useful perspective in the way the world is, and it will help you to catch things, which if you do not catch early, and then after you try to launch a 2,000-tonne satellite, and the rocket did not work, then you say, "Oh dear, I got three zeroes wrong." 

So I think you need that, but at the same time, you must also know that there are things which are not quantifiable, that when you are spending time taking care of other people, it is not just how many houses you covered, but what you conveyed in terms of human care and concern. When you are looking at arts and culture, you want to have people in the society who care about putting up; could be a musical performance, could be an artistic effort. Who say that this is beautiful, this is something which takes a tremendous amount of cooperation and concentration to do and I am going to do it for its own sake, because I think that this is important to me. 

When you are talking about Singapore, you also have to say it is not just how much GDP we create but why is it that you belong here? You belong here because you have grown up here, you have been brought up here, you have emotional links here, you have got people who matter to you here, you have got places which are significant to you here, therefore you are here, and therefore you belong here. And there is no dollars and cents which you could in an economic class say all that is equivalent to so much money to me, and I think we need to have that complement. On the whole in Singapore, I would say we are more numerically conscious than other societies – not a bad thing. But I would say actually in some ways, you may be numerically conscious but you are not completely numerate enough to see beyond the number, to its significance, its implications and what you should do about it. I hope SUTD will help us in that respect – ISTD even, in SUTD.

Q: Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you, Sir. Let us do microphone four.

Q: Good evening, Sir. I am Qi Tai from ISTD. Do you think that it is by design for our country to have a one party democracy? And given the increasing desire for the younger generation to have more diverse voices in the Government, is it time to re-examine our political system?

PM Lee: First of all, it is not a one-party democracy, it is a multi-party democracy, in which one party is dominant. It did not start out like this. If you studied the history of it, you would know that it started off with very rambunctious parties, very lively and intense politics, and it became like this through a series of accidents of history, as well as the effort by the PAP in the early years to stretch out to become a national movement, and I think it has worked well for Singapore. You are now in this position where you have one party which is in a strong position, and you have other parties which are trying to make headway. Does it mean it will always be like that? I do not think so. I think it depends, first, on how well the PAP can perform and secondly, on how well the Opposition can convince people that it can do better than the Government, or that the Government is doing things wrong and you should stop the Government from doing things which are no good. There is no certainty in these things. One party is dominant as long as the population supports that party. And if the population supports that party and is fine, I think that is good. If the population does not support that party, it will change. If the population supports the PAP, and you say well, now I will purposely cut back so that somebody else can grow bigger, I do not think that is a wise or even workable thing to do because in a small country like Singapore, it is hard enough for us to build one team, which will work well. If I tell my Ministers, three of you, you leave the party and go to the other side, and we will play against each other. First of all, my team will be weaker. Secondly, I think the dynamics will change and in the process, I think Singapore will be short-changed. So my approach is, we try our damnedest to make this work well, to get good people to work for Singapore. They have to be good people on both sides, in the Government, in the leadership, but also in the Opposition. You need honest and straight people who want to do good for the country. 

Are you Singaporean? What do you think? Open-ended question.

Q: Personally, I am a supporter of an MMP system, a mixed-member proportional system, because it means that different parties would have to work together but it also means that the opposition has to be good and, you know, of their standards.

PM Lee: There are many possible ways to design the system. Unfortunately, there is no way which is ideal, and there is no answer which is fool-proof. It is one of those situations where the more you have a safety net for the performer, the more dangerous the stance the performer will do, because if there is no risk, you push further. I think there are pluses and minuses, I will not go and argue about proportional representation now. You can make an argument, we have not gone that way, we had reasons for that.

I would say, we make our system work and we adjust incrementally from what is working. For example, we have created NCMPs. Why? Because we wanted to have the advantages of a system where one party can be very strong and yet will never completely shut out the others. So, we have got up to nine NCMP now. In the next election, there will be up to 12 NCMPs and we hope they will make a contribution. So they are not shut out. I would say, if you have 12 people, you are able to make a lot of noise if you have the right people. Because then, you will be able to stand up, hold the Government to account, to make the argument and make an impact. And then in the next election, they will win more. If you do not have the right team, you can have 20, 30, because of proportional representation, it will not be of help. But 12 good men, I think it will make a big difference. The proof of that, is that before PAP came into power, they had three seats in the Legislative Assembly, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was one of them. Oh, I think the colonial government was fully held to account. Today, they do not have such a person in the opposition.

Q: Thank you very much.

Q: Hi PM Lee. Thank you for visiting SUTD again. I am a Sai-Kit, faculty member of the ISTD pillar. My research is about how to use artificial intelligence or AI to help the design process. Actually two years ago, my research team and my staff used AI to re-design office space for the PMO office. My question is, some people say AI may take away job opportunities for human in the future. In your opinion, how should Singapore develop AI so that it would not take away job opportunities but actually create more? How can we compete with big nations like China and America in terms of AI capabilities?

PM Lee: AI is going to progress developments around the world. The Americans are doing it, the Chinese are doing it, I am sure the Russians are doing it too. We in Singapore, we have some researchers in this field, in SUTD as well as in the other universities. The developments we would benefit from are what we can develop ourselves, but also what is happening in other countries in the world. We learn from them and we apply them. If somebody develops a good AI to drive a driverless car, I do not need to invent my own, I will use that. What I need to be able to do, is to make sure that my people in Singapore are able to make a living, and to be able to contribute and add value even when AI exists. It depends on how fast it happens. 

If you look at driverless cars for example, or driverless buses. It is completely possible, it takes time, but it will happen. If overnight, we can have all our buses driverless, then I have several thousand bus drivers, or even more than that, who may be displaced and who will have to find new jobs. But if this happens over a period of time, over 10, 15, 20 years, then there is time for me, for the next generation, instead of becoming bus drivers, they can become something else. They can become bus engineers, they can become planners and they can become people who are running the company. That will enable us to displace and to adjust. I do not know how quickly AI will happen. 

If you are playing chess, you are playing against a computer, I think your chances are not so good, or gold.  If you are making a living as a doctor, I think there is a long time before AI will take away your job, although, you will make use of AI to do your job better. For example, if you are reading images from a biopsy. Today, a pathologist looks through the slides, slide by slide, scrutinises a complicated, microscopic image, and then she looks this whole thing and says, “One tiny spot there, let us examine that”. Tremendous skill and concentration, but a task which could be automated. It does not mean I no longer need a pathologist reading a slide. But it means the pathologist will now be able to do more, and more reliably, and advice the patients more accurately. I think it means we must master the skills. If you are in IT, then you should learn about the technology. If you are not in IT, you should learn how to make use of the technology. If you are not so young anymore, you should still keep up to date, at least be familiar, read about it so that you can use it as an ordinary person, as a lay person, who is not intimidated by what is happening in the world.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

Moderator: I think we have time for one more question. Let us have a question in the front row. 

Q: Hi PM Lee. I am Terence Lee. I am the next student joining SUTD in May. As you know Singapore has this arms race going cashless since you announcement last August. But many merchants have not made the great leap to go fully cashless. Has the Singapore Government considered imposing a cap on transaction fees to make cashless more affordable for such merchants. Thank you.

PM Lee: Actually some of the system are on very low transaction fees, even almost zero, because they are trying to get people on to the system. It has not yet caught on in a big way. Transaction costs are something we have to watch. Because if it actually costs a lot of money to operate the cashless system, then that is a drag and that is much less a describable thing to do. There are ways to bring the costs down. We should try our best to do it. Cashless is one of these chicken and egg problems. Everybody needs to do and then everybody will feel it is good to do. We are trying to breakthrough. We have some good apps. Each of the banks have their own apps. We have a system called PayNow. Even if you are on different banks, I can pay to you, if I know your phone or NRIC number. We are making progress. Not as fast as I would like, but we are making progress. I hope that if SUTD students have a better idea on how to make the apps and would like to make a start-up and make breakthrough, please go for it. You never know if you do manage to do that, it would make all the difference to the system.

Q: Thank you.