PM Lee Hsien Loong delivered his National Day Rally speech on 21 August 2016 at the ITE College Central.
PM Lee took ill during the delivery of the English speech. For completeness of record, this transcript covers the entire part of the prepared speech, including the portions not delivered.
For the video with sign language interpretation, please scroll down to the bottom of the page.
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My fellow Singaporeans, good evening again. A lot has happened since my last National Day Rally. We had a good General Election and now we have the next generation of leaders firmly in place. We have been working hard to lay the foundation for the next 50 years, SkillsFuture, the SG future conversations and projects, the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE).
This last month has been good for Singapore. The first NDP after SG50, in the new National Stadium, went well. In Rio, Team Singapore did us proud.
But while we celebrate, we should continue to prepare for our future.
Therefore tonight, I want to speak seriously about the challenges we face. My subjects will not all be easy or fun ones. Some sensitive topics may even make us feel a little bit uncomfortable. But it is my responsibility to talk candidly about them and tell you honestly what lies ahead. What we need to do to progress together.
I want to ask three questions. One, how do we progress together? Two, how do we secure our place in the world? And three, how do we ensure good politics for Singapore?
How do we Progress?
First question, how do we progress?
We aspire to be among the leading cities in the world, New York, Shanghai, London, Tokyo, Sydney. One of the shining spots in the world, in human civilization, where people want to be. Because here, you can do great things. A good place to bring up children where our young continue to enjoy opportunities and a better life.
At the same time, we want Singapore to be our home, where we belong, where our families feel safe and secure, where we build a compassionate and inclusive society, leaving no one behind.
We know what we want, but how do we get there?
Among all the economic issues we are dealing with, slower growth, helping people to upgrade, strengthening social safety nets - the defining challenge which we face in this era is disruption. Things are changing fast, old models are not working, new models are coming thick and fast and we are having to adjust and to keep up. Because of technology, globalisation, and the disruption will happen over and over again relentlessly.
I shall just use the familiar example of the taxi business. Uber and Grab, these are private car hire services. They compete with taxis in cities all over the world. You open an app, it matches you with the nearest car. The car comes, you can see it coming on your map, picks you up where you are, takes you where you need to go. You tap on the app again, you rate the driver, the driver rates you and you pay. No need to book a cab by phone, no need to hail a cruising cab along the street. I am sure some of you came by Uber or Grab tonight. Anybody? A few hands. Some of you must have taken Comfort and other taxis tonight. Anybody? Taxi drivers must be getting worried, but I am sure there are. How does Uber and Grab work? They grab data from users. They analyse the travel patterns, they adjust the charging to match supply and demand. So if there are lots of people wanting rides, not enough cars, fares goes up, more drivers turn up. If there are a lot of drivers, not enough rides, and fare goes down, maybe more people will turn up wanting to ride, maybe some drivers will go home. It is a new way of doing it and everywhere where there is Uber and Grab, or in China, Didi Kuaidi, and in other cites similar services with different names. They are disrupting the taxi industry. Disrupting, but commuters are benefitting. Better service, more responsive, faster. But taxi companies and drivers find their business affected. In some cities like London, or Sydney, or Jakarta, or Paris, the drivers have staged protests, blockades. They want the governments to block the new services, to protect their existing ways of doing business.
What do we do in Singapore? We can respond to disruptive change like this in two ways. We can close ourselves off, try to stop people from using the new technology. You must do things the way you have always done it. So Uber out, Grab out. Any new services coming along, no to it too. We impose restrictions, we protect their old ways, the taxi companies and we force everybody to stick to that. But we will be left behind and our commuters will lose out and our economy will suffer. The other way is to embrace change. Let the disruption happen. You cannot stop it but you can adjust to it. Let the commuters enjoy better service but help the incumbents and especially help the taxi drivers to adapt to the changes. That is what we are doing. We are updating the rules to foster fair competition while protecting commuters. We require all the drivers whether taxis, Uber, Grab or anybody else, you must have the right insurance, you must have clean records.
As we adjust the rules, the companies will have to adapt and they can adapt. I think the taxi drivers are watching this very carefully. I know quite a few are feeling anxious. I talked to Ang Hin Kee who often brings them to his grassroots events. I talked to them directly and they asked what is going to happen? Will they still have a livelihood? I said you can also drive for the other side. They said yes, but we have to work hard. But they can still make a living. Our taxi drivers have been level-headed about the competition. They have talked to us, they have made useful recommendations on how to level the playing field. Some of you have actually told me that you welcome the competition because now that you can go to the other side, the taxi companies are taking the taxi drivers more seriously and responding with better offers, new technology, enabling you to compete. On the other side, we also talked to the new operators and the new operators tell us, it is not so easy to compete in Singapore because unlike other cities, in Singapore, the taxi business is quite efficient. It is competitive, the drivers work hard and so, they have to work hard to get their share of the pie. So there is competition. The playing field is in play. Not quite level. Taxis still have some extra rules. They have to drive a minimum mileage every day. I know this is a sore point. There are other statutory requirements which make taxis more expensive to operate. But then I remind the taxi drivers you also enjoy some advantages. As a driver told me, they can ‘sweep the floor’. I said, “What does that mean, ‘sweep the floor’?” That means you can pick up from the kerb. Uber and Grab cannot do street hails. There are other advantages too so we will progressively sort all these things out. But I think we all know that we cannot stop progress and even Uber and Grab are going to be disrupted and the next round, maybe no drivers but instead, driverless cars running a taxi service. In fact in Singapore next year, we are going to start a trial of driverless taxis in One-North.
So the same thing is happening in other industries as well, like retail. Shopping habits are changing, people are going online. Used to buy groceries from FairPrice. Now, you can shop online, somebody may go to the shop for you, collect it for you and deliver the goods to you the next day to your doorstep or maybe to lockers in your neighbourhood for online retailers like this POPStation. People are also buying from overseas stores, Amazon, Taobao, which has wider range and often cheaper. Orchard Road shops are affected. They have become places where people look, see, and go home to buy. You can still do business, but different and not so easy. The retail business is very big in Singapore, 125,000 workers, 16,000 companies. As retail gets disrupted, we have to anticipate what is coming, we have to help companies and workers to adapt. But it is not just doom and gloom because when you disrupt, you also create new jobs. Like now, if people order online, it still has to come to you, either to the box or to the house. So the delivery vans doing delivery service, they will have business. As a transport and financial hub, if people are buying online all over Southeast Asia and Asia, we can be in that business. The goods ship through Singapore, the financing has to be done somewhere, we can be a major player in this new logistics chain. There will be new opportunities, data analytics, digital marketing, figuring out who is buying what, who is interested in which item, how to get the item to the person who wants it.
Every industry is disrupted, but every industry is disrupted differently. So Economic Development Board (EDB), SPRING, Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore) will work with these industries one by one, with the trade associations, with the chambers of commerce, to develop specific programs to help the companies, to use new technologies, to invest in skills.
At the same time we also need an overall strategy to find out, to be able to spot whether changes are coming from, to respond when things are disrupted and to keep our economy growing. So that our companies can be resilient, able to keep on finding new ways to do business, able to keep on employing Singaporeans in good jobs. And we have to prepare our workers to do good jobs, different jobs, new jobs, during their lives.
That is what the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) is doing. CFE is chaired by Heng Swee Keat and Iswaran.
It is not quite done but I will give you a preview of three of the themes from the CFE project.
This is how we can progress together and thrive in a competitive and dangerous world.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Building New Capabilities
First, to build new capabilities.
Secondly, to promote entrepreneurship. And thirdly, to develop new skills amongst our people. First of all, we will help our companies to develop new capabilities. And one area where we can do this, which is promising, is digital. Because Singapore is well-connected, we have got fibre everywhere and our people are IT savvy. You just look at this. Where do you think this is and what do you think they are doing? Somebody did that in the audience. That is a Pokemon and Pokemon Go has gone viral. But it shows that everybody has a phone, everybody is online, everybody is comfortable, able to use digital and I think there are opportunities in digital. It is virtual, it does not require large areas of land, it will save labour and we can do business with anyone from anywhere.
We have already got companies doing interesting things in the digital space. Like Ascent Solutions. It is a logistics small and medium enterprise (SME). In the logistics business, there are two major problems. One, delays in customs clearance because when you go from border to border, somebody wants to look inside your box. And secondly, theft. That means pilferage or maybe the whole container disappears. So Ascent Solutions came up with a digital solution. They were backed by SPRING and they developed a tracking device and a lock called iSpot. The iSpot is a lock on the container which has a Global Positioning System (GPS) inside. Secure, tamper-proof and you can be sure that what is inside stays inside and what is outside does not get inside. There is no need for the customs officers to inspect the box over and over again. The owner can track where the box is, all the time, 24/7. So with IE Singapore’s support, Ascent has taken to East Africa and there are more 10,000 iSpots in East Africa. From Kenya to Uganda, it used to take 20 days to travel because there are ten checkpoints to clear along the way. Each time you wait and you may have to grease palms. But now, no need to clear customs over and over again because of the tamper-proof lock. In two days, you get there. It is a game-changer. I am very proud that a Singapore company is doing good business in Africa with help from IE.
Besides digital we also need to build capabilities in other sectors. We have some SMEs which can compete with the best in the world and we should help them to grow, to scale up. I mentioned Fragrance Bak Kwa and Luzerne just now in my Chinese speech but we can also hold our own in engineering.
HOPE Technik is a home-grown engineering SME that has been making a name for itself. It is ten years old now and it employs 110 people. You know some of the things they make because they make Red Rhinos and Hazmat Control Vehicles for Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). They also make drones and specialised industrial and commercial equipment.
Four years ago, HOPE Technik won a tender by Airbus. They beat top engineering firms in the world for this tender and their job was to build a scale model of a spaceplane. A spaceplane is a combination of a spaceship and an airplane. It is a scale model for Airbus’ civilian spacecraft programme. They built it, they loaded it with sensors, they tested it successfully, took it high up in the air, flew it down instrumentally. It is part of the research towards building a real spaceplane. So maybe in 20 years’ time when civilians go into space and spaceflight is a reality for all of us, then we can say a Singaporean firm helped this to happen.
Today, HOPE Technik is building autonomous robots, used in different settings; semiconductor plants, logistics warehouses, hospitals. They navigate themselves, open doors, go around obstacles, and avoid bumping into people
HOPE Technik focuses sharply on engineering, which it applies to niche areas. It is able to create opportunities for itself, it is able to find new markets, and it is able to create new jobs for Singaporeans. We must build this sort of new, deep capabilities in every sector, engineering, food manufacturing, logistics, and the Government will support companies to do so.
Beyond building up capabilities, we should also promote entrepreneurship. Because engineering is one thing but entrepreneurship, that dare to try something new, to venture. That is a different mindset and entrepreneurs have that mindset, need that mindset and we need people like that in our society. They play an important role, not just because they are doing business for themselves and doing well and creating jobs and prosperity and making it big. But also because they are resourceful, they are optimistic. They give the society a confidence. Anything is possible, anything you can do, and I will try and do better. And we need that mindset in Singapore. Through our own actions, we can change the world. And if we fail, we try again. If we fail, we try again. We refuse to give up. We keep on trying. One day, we will succeed.
We started a small experiment at Block 71 Ayer Rajah five years ago. Block 71 was about to be demolished. Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) decided instead, do not knock it down. Renovate it, launch it as an incubator. An incubator is a building which offers spaces for rent to entrepreneurs to start companies. This blue building, this one, is Block 71. It looks like an old JTC building with a new coat of paint. But a lot of bright ideas inside. We were offering not just buildings and their services, but also co-funding from government agencies. It started with a small group of start-ups. It has been very successful. Now, it has expanded to Block 73 and Block 79. So now they have changed the name and they have called it JTC Launchpad. We even have a Block 71 in San Francisco to help our start-ups tap the United States (US) market and the Silicon Valley network. I visited Block 71, both here in Ayer Rajah and also in San Francisco (SF). This one is talking to our young people in SF. Many of them starting their own companies.
One company which came out of the original Block 71 is Zimplistic. Zimplistic makes the Rotimatic. The Rotimatic is the world’s first automatic Chapati and Roti maker. You put in the flour, you put in the oil, you put in the water, and you press a button and after a minute, out comes fresh hot Chapati and Roti, one per minute. And if you have made Chapati you will know what hard work it is. In the old days, the women did the work, but nowadays the women are out at work, so they do not have time to make Chapati any more every day. But with the Rotimatic, the family can still have Chapati for dinner. The Rotimatic was developed by Ms Pranoti Nagarkar. She is a mechanical engineer by training and her husband, Rishi, who does the software. They brought it to market with SPRING’s help. It has generated a lot of interest internationally and later on, you can try Rotimatic Chapati at the reception and tell Pranoti and Rishi what you think about it.
Our schools are giving our students exposure to start-up hotspots all over the world. National University of Singapore (NUS) has overseas colleges in lots of places, including in the Silicon Valley, and I will just show you, these are some of the places, guess where? This one is Fudan in Shanghai. This one is Stanford in San Francisco, or near San Francisco. This one is in Tel Aviv, you can see the Hebrew street sign. But we are all over – New York, Beijing, Munich, Lausanne, and Stockholm. Students go there and they have a chance to attend classes at universities there. They interact with start-up founders and angel investors. They intern at the start-ups there and they may get bitten by the bug and start something, try to change the world.
It is still early days, but it looks promising. The start-ups are growing, and the investors are paying attention. Venture capitalists and some of the big tech companies are coming here, like Google, Paypal and Facebook. They are setting up engineering things here because they see promising talent and interesting start-ups. And maybe the next Google, Facebook or Alibaba may come from Singapore.
A strong economy, therefore, needs capabilities. You need the entrepreneurs, but you also need a skilled workforce and if we give our workforce skills, we will enable them to hold better jobs, earn better pay. And that is why SkillsFuture is crucial.
We are preparing our students well for the new economy, equipping them with relevant skills which are in demand. Our polytechnics and ITEs offer courses in digital media design and lots of these students intern at film studios like Ubisoft, Bandai Namco, Blizzard, and Lucasfilm. Eventually, some of them work there. There are also other courses to train horticulturalists, food scientists, sports scientists – all sorts of new jobs which a generation ago did not really exist. Opportunities are also opening up in cross-disciplinary areas. You study one thing, you combine that skill with something else and you create something valuable. Take Sarah Salim, she graduated from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a degree in Visual Design. She started a publishing firm doing graphic design. Now she works with GovTech@Hive and she is applying her design skills to produce data visualisations on data.gov.sg, which is where you can find all the government information. Here is something she is working on. I will show you just one example, just for fun. This shows you the activities in ActiveSG gyms during the week – weekdays, which day, which hour, when is it crowded, when it is not. You look at Bishan, it is 62 percent occupied. This shows the occupancy level on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 7.00am to 9.00pm. You can see the most popular timeslots are in the evening, the most popular days are the weekends. So, at a spot, you can see what is happening. You compare Bishan with Bedok, Clementi, Jurong West and the average gym. How are they doing? I think Bishan is working harder than the rest. Bedok and Jurong West have gone on a tea break. So, you need to make things visible, graphic, vivid and simple to understand. You need a lot of skill and hard work. So, to produce a chart like this, you need graphic designers like Sarah, contributing to our Smart Nation. Sarah will be having a baby, so, we should congratulate her too.
For those people who are already working, to help them, we are offering courses to upgrade their skills and to achieve deeper mastery. SkillsFuture offers all sorts of courses, nursing, precision engineering and pre-school education. Not just courses, but pathways to upgrade yourself in your job. That is what Madam Janessa Puvaneswari Kumaran is doing. She became a pre-school teacher with the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) about ten years ago. Now, she is a Senior Teacher and she has taken up the SkillsFuture Study Award to do an Advanced Diploma in Early Childhood Leadership at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Janessa aspires to become a centre principal. I am sure she will get there and become a great Early Childhood Educator.
Besides upgrading workers in their present careers, we are also helping workers who get retrenched, or who change careers, to transition and find new jobs. It is tough to lose your job, especially when you are young or when you are not so young and you have family to support. But there is help available. Programmes under Adapt and Grow, the Professional Conversion Programmes, and the Career Support Programme (CSP). They train you, help you to pick up new skills, move to a different industry, and settle into a new job.
NTUC is doing good work, helping not just rank-and-file workers but PMEs too, like Gerard Peck. Gerard worked 30 years at a bank in IT security, now in his 50s. He left the bank last year. He found it hard to find a new job so he signed up for the CSP. The CSP helped his new employer pay a portion of his wages for some time. It made it easier for his new employer to take him on. With e2i’s help, Gerard landed a job as Head of IT at another company early this year. The company is Datapost. Datapost is an SME in printing and mailing solutions. It is the biggest print bureau in the region. Gerard has found his former banking experience useful, helping Datapost to transform their IT system and developing new business strategies for Datapost. Well done!
I have talked about developing capabilities, encouraging entrepreneurship and developing skills. Earlier in my Chinese speech, I also discussed strengthening our safety nets. These are the ways our economy and our workers can thrive amidst disruption. This is how we can progress together and thrive in a competitive and dangerous world. It is a dangerous world.
How do we secure our place in the world?
My second question is, how do we secure our place in the world?
To start off with, we have to defend ourselves and that is why we have the Singapore Armed Forces.
But as a small country, we also need a network of friends. Friends in our neighbourhood and also friends among the big powers all over the world, even in faraway places.
We are a little bit like Mongolia. I visited Mongolia one month ago. Area-wise, they are bigger than us, population-wise, about the same as us. But similar, because their two neighbours, are much bigger than them. One is China, the other is Russia. If you ask the Mongolians how many neighbours they have, they will tell you they have three neighbours, China and Russia. Who is the third neighbour? The “third neighbour” is Japan, the US, the South Koreans and the EU. These are all Mongolia’s “third neighbours”.
In the same way, Singapore also has two neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, and we have “third neighbours” all over the world. I have been busy with foreign trips this year because the world is important and we have to keep up links with them. Beyond Malaysia and Indonesia, our most important relationships are with China and with America.
US and China
I just came back from an Official Visit to the US at the invitation of President Obama. It was a significant gesture. The last time a Singapore PM was officially welcomed in the White House with ceremonies was more than 30 years ago when Mr Lee Kuan Yew went in 1985. My visit reflects Singapore's warm and deep friendship with America, spanning many areas: economics, education, defence, security, people to people ties. We benefit from the dynamic and innovative US economy. We admire their warmth, openness and generosity. My visit was also a signal that the US values its friends and partners and appreciates Singapore support for the role that America has played in the Asia-Pacific for more than 70 years since the war, spreading prosperity through trade and investments, maintaining security and stability, enabling all the countries in the region to thrive and to compete peacefully. Singapore hopes that the US would keep on doing this even as China's influence grows.
At the same time, Singapore is good friends with China. I will be visiting China next month, including to Chongqing, where we have a third government-to-government project with China. Singapore hopes that China will develop and grow well too because an unstable and backward China will cause Asia great trouble, as happened in the 1950s and 1960s. Over the last 40 years, China has reformed and opened up under Deng Xiaoping and his successors. China has been stable and prosperous and this has greatly benefited Asia and the world, including Singapore.
We are happy to see China grow strong and influential in a constructive and peaceful way.
Therefore, we are friends with both America and with China. It is easiest to do this if the two countries are on good terms with each other and, in fact, both countries do aim to be on good terms with each other. Both believe that the Pacific is vast enough to accommodate both powers and President Xi Jinping said recently that America and China should “cultivate common circles of friends”. That is precisely what Singapore's trying to do, to be among America's circles of friends, and also among China’s circle of friends.
But life is never so straightforward. First of all, we may ourselves have some issue or other with these countries, as we did with the US when we caned Michael Fay for vandalism, and we have had issues with China too from time to time when they felt that we did not sufficiently defer to their interests. Also, sometimes the interests of our friends will conflict and we will be pressured to choose sides.
One current issue which can cause trouble is the South China Sea. It is a complicated dispute. At one level, it is a dispute among parties who claim all or some of the islands and the reefs in the South China Sea. At another level, it is about the rights of the international community, provided for under UNCLOS, The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, rights such as freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. It is also about how international disputes and disagreements can be peacefully resolved. Now, if you do not fully understand what it is about, just remember this. This is a dispute which is very complicated because it is a dispute where even what is in dispute is itself disputed. It is true, the lawyers will tell you so. What is mine is not in dispute, what is yours is in dispute.
Singapore happens to be the country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations now and this puts us in a slightly warm seat warm because each party wants us to side a bit more with them. It is not possible for us to side with everybody at once. We are doing our best to be an honest broker, dealing straight with all parties.
Now, where do all these countries stand? Let me try and give you a sense of it. China claims the “nine-dash line”. These dashes are the “nine-dash line”. There are four ASEAN countries which have overlapping claims in the South China Sea – Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The claims overlap with China, and with one another. The US does not have claims in the South China Sea, but they do have interests at stake because freedom of navigation and overflight are very important to them, including through the South China Sea.
Three years ago, the Philippines launched a case against China under The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China refused to participate, but the Tribunal heard the case, and issued its award in July. The award said that China's claim to historic rights within the “nine-dash line” is incompatible with UNCLOS. China rejected the tribunal's jurisdiction and also categorically rejected the award as null and void.
What is Singapore's interest and stand? We do not have any claims of our own in the South China Sea. We are right here, very far away, even Pedra Branca is right here. We have no claims of our own. We do not take sides on other claims. China, Philippines, the other claimants. But in other ways, we do have a lot at stake and three things matter to us, international law, freedom of navigation and a united ASEAN.
Upholding international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes, is a vital interest for a small country like Singapore. When we have disputes with other countries that is how we settle them. With Malaysia, when there was a quarrel over Pedra Branca, we agreed to take it to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Singapore secured a favourable result, both sides accepted the ruling. We had another dispute with Malaysia over the development charge issue in the Points of Agreement on Railway Land. I agreed with PM Najib to submit it to arbitration. The ruling went against Singapore, but we both accepted it and we moved on. We did not let it affect our relationship with Malaysia or my personal ties with PM Najib. And that is how international disputes should be settled. However, in reality, big powers do not always act like that. Big powers can insist on their own interests and often do. They do not submit to adjudication by international tribunals, they may not comply with their rulings and China is not the only country to do this and nor is this the first time something like this has happened. Nevertheless, Singapore must support and strive for a rules-based international order. We have to depend on words and treaties. They mean everything to us. We cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. If rules do not matter, then small countries like Singapore have no chance of survival.
Our second interest in the South China Sea is freedom of navigation. I will explain why. Take a look at the map. Singapore is this little spot down here, a little red dot. We have two vital sea lanes of communication, two arteries. One through the South China Sea, the other, through the Straits of Malacca. Ships come from Europe, the Suez Canal, they come to through the south, Straits of Malacca, pass Singapore, up the South China Sea to Japan, the Far East and vice versa. Both of these are arteries. You block one, you die; likewise with air routes. It is important to us that disputes in the South China Sea do not affect freedom of navigation or overflight by ships or aircraft.
Thirdly, Singapore needs a united and effective ASEAN. With five million people, Singapore’s voice internationally, counts for not much. But collectively, ASEAN with more than 600 million people, it can make itself heard better. This is provided ASEAN is united. On the South China Sea issue, ASEAN finds it very hard to take a common stand because the members have different interests. Some are close to China, like Laos and Cambodia. Others, like Philippines and Thailand, are treaty allies of the United States. Some are claimant states in the South China Sea, others are not. Some do not even have a coastline in the South China Sea, like Myanmar. Myanmar is not in the South China Sea. They are on the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean. ASEAN has got different interests and it is very hard to come together. But the trouble is if ASEAN cannot deal with a major issue at its doorstep affecting its members, in the long run, nobody will take ASEAN seriously and that will be very bad for all of the members of ASEAN, and for Singapore, too.
So, on the South China Sea, we have got our own stand, principled, consistent; different from China’s, different from the Philippines or America. Other countries will persuade us to side with them, one side or the other, and we have to choose our own place to stand, what is in our interest, calculate it, choose the spot, stand firm, we cannot succumb to pressure.
I tell you this so that you will understand why we do what we do and why we have to stand up for Singapore's position. Sometimes, if you read the foreign media, including the PRC media, you will find articles criticizing Singapore for not siding more with them and I know some Singaporeans are concerned about these criticisms because they have foreign friends. PRC friends, business partners, academic colleagues, personal contacts. They may tell you any tension between Singapore and China will affect your business, affect your collaboration. I understand these concerns. We would like business and collaboration to continue, too, to flourish between Singapore and China and Singapore and other countries because these are arrangements which benefit both sides. If they are disrupted, both sides lose. But the Government has to take a national point of view, decide what is in Singapore's overall interests. We want good relations with other countries if it is at all possible, but we must also be prepared for ups and downs from time to time.
Singapore has a reputation to protect, that we have our own independent, carefully-thought-out stand. We cooperate with other countries but we make our own calculations, and that is what makes us credible, consistent, reliable, valuable to others, to ASEAN partners, to the powers – America, China Europe. It has taken us a long time to build up this reputation and we have to be very careful to maintain it.
Our relationship with China is much broader than the South China Sea. The friendship has lasted for decades, we have done major G-to-G projects with them. We have the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-City. If you look at the flats, it looks like HDB flats because that is where the inspiration came from. And now we have a Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI), a third government-to-government project to support China's Western region development strategy. We engage with many different provinces and cities. We are pursuing opportunities in infrastructure, in connectivity, financial services, urban planning, clean technology, working with China on One Belt, One Road, participating in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We have many more opportunities to strengthen our friendship and cooperation with each other. That is how we do business.
Malaysia and Indonesia
Nearer home, our most important partners – Malaysia, Indonesia. We work hard to build up all ties with them, but these are sensitive and complex relationships. From time to time, there will be differences because of their deep-seated attitudes towards us. You may have read recently one Indonesian minister declared he was not afraid of Singapore because ‘it is just a small country’. It is an abang attitude towards us. It has not changed since we became independent, but we must not let these difficulties affect our broader bilateral cooperation.
On the whole today, our relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are good. With Malaysia, I settled the Point of Agreement on railway land with Prime Minister Najib – 20 years of trying, finally, we succeeded and settled it. Last month, I was in Putrajaya to witness the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the High-Speed Rail between Singapore and Malaysia. PM Najib hosted us to lunch. The durian was good. The High-Speed Rail will be better. With Indonesia, I meet President Jokowi regularly, including once over nasi lemak. We want to work with Indonesia to tackle transboundary haze, to deal with the companies causing it and he has told me he is committed to solving the haze problem. We have also been discussing enhancing economic cooperation, encouraging Singapore companies to invest more in Indonesia and including to refresh our longstanding cooperation in BBK (Batam, Bintan, Karimun) in the Riau Islands just close to Singapore. Next week, on Thursday, I am having a leaders’ retreat with President Jokowi.1 It is going to be in Semarang, which is in Java, Central Java. We are going there because SembCorp has a joint venture there to build an industrial park – Kendal Industrial Park. It is the first major industrial investment by a Singapore company outside Batam. I am going to be opening it with President Jokowi and I hope that it will encourage more Singaporeans to go and to find opportunities in Indonesia.
It is going to mean a more complicated world for us. Less tranquil and we have to be more watchful.
One urgent issue where we have to cooperate with our neighbours is terrorism. It is on our minds now. Almost every day, we read of new attacks somewhere: US, Europe, the Middle East; closer to home, Indonesia and Malaysia, too. We are seeing “lone wolf” attacks by self-radicalised individuals. They go online, they get led astray, they plan something by themselves then they mount an attack, and murder innocent people. You have the truck rampage in Nice, the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and many more attacks, each one heart-breaking, shocking, yet each time no longer a real surprise. Such attacks are almost impossible to prevent completely because they are inspired by ISIS. But there is no group involved planning and executing it. So it is just one person, two persons, it is much harder for the security forces to discover and prevent these attacks.
The terrorist groups are active all around us in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, you have read about the arrests of Gigih Rahmat Dewa and his group in Batam. They were planning to attack Singapore, to fire a rocket to hit Marina Bay Sands from Batam. Now, speaking as a former artilleryman, I will tell you it is not so easy to fire one rocket and hit one building 20km away. Can be done, but not easy. But the trouble is if you fire one rocket at Singapore and you miss Marina Bay Sands, you may hit something else. We have to take this very seriously. Furthermore, how do you now this was the only thing he was planning and he did not have other dark thoughts on how to attack Singapore? Can you be sure that every last terrorist in the group has been arrested?
Last December, the Indonesians were expecting attacks over Christmas and New Year. They had intelligence on it. They went out of their way to pick up, arrest the groups and disrupt the attacks. They nearly succeeded. They picked up all of the groups, cleaned up all the terrorist cells, except one, and that one cell evaded the dragnet. In January, they mounted an attack in Jakarta. Fortunately, not so successful, but still a couple of people died. In Malaysia, there was a grenade attack in Puchong, near Putrajaya, in June. It was ordered by a Malaysian militant in Syria. But even long before this, the Malaysian authorities knew they had problems because they had arrested around 200 ISIS supporters, including at least 13 Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) personnel. Armed forces people, trained and pre-trained. Last month, Malaysia found that seven prison wardens had been radicalized by their detainees. You lock up a chap up, the chap subverts your jailor. The wardens had to be sent for de-radicalization. It reminded me of what happened in the 1950s when we locked up the pro-communist left-wing activists and they did the same thing. They subverted their jailors in Changi Prison. That is why we had to change the jailors and put in Gurkha guards, do not speak Chinese and so cannot be subverted. There are perhaps 1,000 Malaysians and Indonesians in the Middle East fighting with ISIS. It is enough for ISIS to form a Bahasa-speaking battalion. It is called the Katibah Nusantara, or the Archipelago Battalion, meaning the Malay Archipelago. One of the leaders is Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian. The one who ordered the Christmas and New Year attacks in Jakarta. ISIS has a magazine, Al-Fatihin, published by a media agency which is its friend, in Bahasa Indonesia. We have had to ban that magazine recently. ISIS itself puts out propaganda videos in Bahasa. It shows child fighters training with firearms. These are children of Malaysian and Indonesian fighters, and it shows the Malaysian and Indonesian fighters beheading hostages on the video so as to impress possible recruits and get more people to join them from Southeast Asia.
In Singapore, we are taking this absolutely seriously. It is not just an external threat around us, it can also be, and it is, a domestic issue because Singaporeans are not uniquely immune to jihadist propaganda. We have arrested a dozen Singaporeans who have been radicalized over the last year or two. Some have surfed jihadist websites. Some listened to extremist radio stations in our region. Some were radicalized by friends. Most were self-radicalized. Several tried to go the Middle East to join ISIS and a few succeeded and they are still there. There were a few who were prepared to mount attacks on Singapore, including one who was trying to go to Syria. And if he could not get there, he would do something here and try to kill either the President or the PM. We continue to pick up a steady trickle of such people, one or two a month, and just these last two days, you would have seen the news that the police have dealt with four Singaporeans who had been radicalized and were planning to go to Syria – three with family connections and a fourth one with a link to Batam.
So, Gigih’s plot to attack MBS is not the only definite plan by terrorists to attack targets in Singapore that we know of. We know there have been others. We have quietly acted on the information. We have taken precautions, stepped up patrols, and raised protection for major events, for prominent premises. Sometimes, we have shifted and rescheduled events because of these threats. We take it seriously. It is not certain enough to warn everybody publicly, but serious enough for us to act quietly. So, the next time you see a patrol in the city, or some extra security in some areas, maybe we are just taking precautions or doing a show of force as deterrence, but it could also be in response to a real threat that we have heard about.
Fortunately, we have not been attacked so far. But what happens when the terrorists get through, and an attack occurs in Singapore? If the terrorists come from abroad, I think it may be easier for us to stand together, but if the terrorist is domestic, Singaporean, one of our own, self-radicalised, like what happened in Nice, where the truck driver was a French. I think our multiracial society will come under tremendous strain. Then, how do we react?
There are two possible things which can happen if you look at other countries. One, people stand up, stand together, show a collective will, refuse to be cowed after an attack. People helping one another, even strangers, like what happened in Paris after the major attack last November. The Parisians stepped up to offer shelter and free taxi rides to those who were stranded. They donated blood at hospitals. Muslims and non-Muslims came together, defied the terrorists and resolved to carry on with life normally – “we will not be cowed.” That is one reaction. But you also see another reaction – distrust, suspicion, fear, different communities fear and blame each other, racial attacks go up. In Paris last year, you saw some of this too, mosques and Muslim shops vandalised. Muslims physically assaulted, especially women and girls wearing religious attire.
Then the question is: which will happen in Singapore? That answer to the question comes down to our collective resolve to stand together with one another. That, in turn, depends on how well we prepare ourselves now before an attack; prepare ourselves to build trust, to strengthen bonds, to maintain and expand our common space so that instinctively, we feel one people.
One big plus which Singapore has is that our religious and community leaders have taken courageous stands. They condemn terrorist attacks, they refute extremist views. They make it clear that terrorists do not represent Islam, nor do they represent Singapore Muslims. They lead by example, they guide their flocks, their communities to stand together.
They also understand that ours is a multi-racial society. There has to be give and take. Each community has to engage and understand each other. It must not segregate itself from other communities. We have to respect one another’s religions, we cannot treat other groups as infidels.
If religious groups did the opposite, take an exclusivist approach, discourage interaction, contact with others, we will deepen our fault lines and weaken our society. Imagine, if in Singapore, only the Chinese wished each other 新年快乐; only Muslims could say Selamat Hari Raya to each another; only Indians, Hindus exchanged Deepavali greetings, and only Christians said Merry Christmas. It would be a very different, a very troubled Singapore.
It is fundamental that all religions in Singapore practise their faith in a multiracial and multi-religious context. Tolerant, give-and-take, respectful, warm. It has to be so here but it is not so in many other countries. It may be the same religion, but their practice and their teaching varies from country to country. Sometimes, these practices and teachings are exclusivist, intolerant. So, when we get foreign preachers visiting Singapore, if they do not understand our context and they want to preach these exclusivist practices and doctrines, they would cause us serious problems. So, we have to act against them and from time to time, we have acted against them. So, we have banned such preachers from coming in – Christians some, Hindus some, Muslims also some.
Our Muslim leaders have expressed concerns to us about such Muslim preachers. I am glad they are vigilant, making sure that the Islam, preached and practised in Singapore suits our multiracial context. That is why MUIS and PERGAS have the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS), to ensure that our religious teachers and scholars are reliable guides for the community. Already, about 80 percent of our asatizahs are recognised.
We need to strengthen the ARS. I welcome the call from the Malay/Muslim community leaders yesterday to make the ARS compulsory. That means all the asatizahs must be registered under the ARS and those who are educated abroad should attend a professional development course before they get registered so that they understand our local context. I support these proposals. I commend the Malay/Muslim community because they have taken the initiative to deal with a sensitive problem. With these measures, it will ensure that all the asatizahs in Singapore understand how Islam is practised here, and how you can guide Muslims and your students to live in harmony with other Singaporeans of all races and religions.
It is a very challenging landscape security-wise. The region is shifting. There are new dynamics between the powers and within ASEAN. It is going to mean a more complicated world for us. Less tranquil and we have to be more watchful. We have terrorism threatening our safety and our social fabric.
We have diplomats, security forces, Home Team, SAF doing good work but they by themselves alone cannot guarantee our security and safety or hold us together. Each of us have to do our part by understanding our national interests, supporting Singapore in our relations with other countries, preparing ourselves to deal with terrorism, standing together before and after an attack.
I am launching SG-Secure and the SG-Secure movement, in September. It is a call to action to be sensitised, trained and mobilised, for all of us to protect Singapore against an attack.
Ultimately, what matters most is that we must have that resolve to hold together, to fight, and to defend our place in the world.
You must have a sound political system and people must feel that this is theirs.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
How do we ensure good politics for Singapore?
This brings me to the third question: “How do we make sure that we have good politics in Singapore?”
We have described the strategies to progress together and to keep our place in the world.
But to have all these plans work, we must have good politics. If the political system malfunctions, we fail to produce good leaders, whom we trust and work with; or we cannot work together amongst ourselves and we are divided, then all our best laid plans will go to naught.
If you had followed the news, you will know about the Brexit referendum, the referendum in the United Kingdom on whether or not to stay in the EU. Brexit is short for “Britain Exit”. It is a vivid reminder of how important good politics is. In the end, the British voted to leave. It is already affecting them. The UK economy is down, Pound down, jobs moving out. But the bigger impact is on their social cohesion, fault lines in their society, between the young and old in Britain. The young want to look to Europe, the old want to stay – “Little Britain”. Between the better educated and the working class. Between the British and the immigrants. Even among the British, between the English and the Scots. The English want to leave, the Scots want to stay. But they voted and the consequences are there.
Why did it happen? Voters lost faith, lost faith in their leaders, in their whole political class. A lot of the population felt that they were not benefitting from globalisation. London did, the provinces did not. The educated prospered, the working class did not. Immigration was a problem. A lot of people came in and they felt they were not under control. In the referendum before the vote, people promised all kinds of things to work up the vote. It is easy to promise. After that, the morning after you have to pay the bill. During the campaign, you may have seen this famous campaign bus with “Vote Leave”. The bus had a big banner that said, “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let us fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave. Let us take back control.” Morning after the vote, after they won, 350 million pounds was struck out, became a typo, a mistake. The leaders denied it, the website wiped clean and Nigel Farage, who led the UK Independence Party, one of the leaders of “Leave”, resigned. He said he had achieved his life ambition. He wanted to see UK vote to leave. Now that they had voted to leave, he is done. What follows, somebody else can look after that. Thank you very much, I am retiring. It is amusing, if it were not so tragic. But it is people’s future, country’s future at stake, decided in campaigns like this, in the end, settled by a 52 percent of the vote.
These are anxieties and pressures which build up in Britain. But they are not just in Britain. Other countries too. Europe, America, even Asia.
Can it happen here? It could, unless we can make ourselves different.
How to make ourselves different? You need good leaders, you need politics which work, politics which would unite the country, and leaders who are attuned to what people want, the people’s aspirations. You must have a sound political system and people must feel that this is theirs. They have a stake, this is mine, Singapore, and we will fight to defend it. Then, the system can work.
We have a good system today. Parliamentary, inherited from the British, amended, modified, made to work in Singapore. So, we have NCMPs, NMPs, and more diverse voices in Parliament. GRCs, multiracial politics, and many other changes, big and small.
Review of the elected Presidency
One major change was to make the President an elected office. The President is the Head of State and the symbol of the nation. In addition, he has been given an important role: he holds the second key over reserves and appointments. Therefore instead of being chosen by Parliament, he has to be elected by the people of Singapore.
We have operated this two-key system for 25 years, and made many adjustments to it. But some aspects have not been revised and we need to bring them up to date.
In January, I appointed a Constitutional Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, to review three things: To consider how the President can give more weight to the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA); to update the criteria for somebody to be a candidate to be President; and to make sure that minorities regularly have a chance to become President.
Last week, the Commission submitted their report to me and they made recommendations in all three areas to improve the current arrangements. We are still studying the report. We will release it soon. In principle, we accept its main recommendations. Thereafter, we will publish a White Paper on how exactly we will implement the changes, then we will table a Constitutional Amendment Bill in Parliament and when the Bill comes up for Second Reading, for the debate, we will have a full debate.
Tonight, I do not want to talk about any of the details, specific recommendations. I just want to explain the principles: why are we doing this, why are we reviewing the presidency, why we need to make changes.
Strengthening the CPA
The first one, on the Council of Presidential Advisers, is the most straightforward. When we designed the scheme, we designed it like that – you have a President, he is elected, but he does not act alone. He is advised by a council of wise men – the Council of Presidential Advisers. So, when he makes decisions, he will have the benefit of the experience and judgement of the CPA. We expected to improve the CPA and strengthen the CPA over time as it became more established. The arrangements have worked well and so, the changes being proposed are incremental and straightforward.
The second thing we are reviewing is the qualifying criteria to become a candidate to become President.
The President’s job is to decide on major matters: on money, on appointments. We have built up reserves over the years. We need to make sure that the government of the day will spend within its means, and not fritter away reserves accumulated by previous generations and governments. A clean, competent public service is one of our unique strengths and enduring competitive advantages. We need to make doubly sure that people appointed to key posts are capable, upright, and will uphold our system of government. Appointments are a key thing in our Civil Service. You want to make sure that you appoint good men, you want to make sure you do not waste your money and that is why the President is there holding the second key. We need to make doubly sure that everything works.
The President who safeguards reserves and appointments must have the right experience to decide whether the Government’s budgets and spending proposals are sound and justified. The President has to judge the character, motivation, integrity, ability of the names put up and know what advice to seek and accept.
But the President, doing that, needs to have a mandate because without a mandate, he is unable to operate the system. He has to have the experience, he has to have the judgment. He has to be able to say this is right, that is wrong, this is wise to do, that one, I think we better think over. The President who does that must have experience, must have ability, must have the right judgment to know whether the Government is telling him to do the right thing or not, to judge the Government’s proposals, to judge the character of the people who are being put up. And, therefore, you must have qualifying criteria put down in the Constitution, to know who is qualified to be President. And the qualifying criteria are quite clear – either you hold a senior appointment in the public service: Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Chief Justice or you have had a senior private sector job running large, complex companies – Singtel, DBS, Keppel, for example. In the Constitution, these are companies with paid-up capital of $100 million.
But this $100 million was set 25 years ago. It is out of date – 25 years from then, we need to look at the number again. Look at what the President is protecting. I will share with you some numbers. When the system started in 1990, and what we are today in 2015. Our GDP in 1990 was $71 billion. Today, it is $402 billion, gone up nearly six times. Our CPF balances in 1990, was $41 billion. Today, CPF members have $300 billion of balances. Our Official Foreign Reserves has gone up from $48 billion to $351 billion, gone up seven times. Temasek Holdings, how much do you think it is worth? Net Portfolio value, $9 billion before, $266 billion now. So, the President’s job, protecting money, protecting reserves, those reserves have gone up, the weight of the job has increased. And the benchmark companies – if you want to do that job – you must be the likes of Singtel, DBS, Keppel. Those companies have also grown. But $100 million is the wrong number today. It is too small for a company to be considered, even in the same kind of responsibility as the President is doing here. In 1993, there were 158 such companies. Today, there are 2,000, but there are not 2,000 such companies which are comparable to the responsibility. So, we have got to update this benchmark, bring it up to date.
The President makes difficult decisions. He is not just checking numbers or adding up accounts, making sure that the accounts are properly presented. He is making economic and policy judgments. If the Government says that the Budget has got a surplus, does the President believe the Government? He has to decide – is the Government making the right judgment? If the Government says, “I want to draw money from the reserve to spend for something”, is it wise, is it justified? If a person is being proposed for a job, is he the right person? Is he suited to the responsibilities? These are real and difficult choices. The President has to make them right.
I give you one example. During the Global Financial Crisis, the world economy was crashing. The financial system was freezing up. Our economy was plummeting, jobs and businesses were at very serious risk. I went to Mr S R Nathan – he was then the President – I explained to him. I asked him for permission to draw from the reserves. How much? A lot of money. For jobs, to save businesses and jobs through Jobs Credit, $5 billion. Then we needed money to guarantee bank deposits in Singapore, a lot of bank deposits, $150 billion standing there. You may not need it, but you may need it to keep confidence in the system. We were not certain whether the plans would work, whether they would be sufficient. The President had to judge whether the Government had got it right, whether our recommendations were sound. So, we briefed him, we briefed his advisers, the CPA. They listened carefully, they thought it over, and they consulted. Eventually, Mr Nathan said “yes”, he gave us permission. We went ahead. We implemented the plans, turned out we did the right thing. Because of the intervention, the outlook changed, we bounced back quickly, and our jobs were safe. We even made good the reserves. In fact, we came through so smoothly, some people even did not notice we had a crisis.
So, it is here that the President makes critical decisions and it is here that we need the President to be competent, to be on top of the job, to be capable and that is why we need the most qualified person.
The third thing we need to do with the President is to safeguard, to make sure that from time to time we have a minority – a Malay, or an Indian, or an Eurasian, or a non-Chinese – to become the President, because this is a multi-racial society, and we became Singapore because of this fundamental reason. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said right at the beginning, “This is not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place in Singapore”. The President is the Head of State, he symbolises our nation. Every Singaporean has to identify with him, everybody must know that somebody of my race has a chance to be President, and, in fact, from time to time, does become President – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or any other race.
Over 50 years, we have made a lot of progress becoming one people, regardless of race, language and religion. We had a poll recently done by CNA and IPS. It showed strong support for meritocracy. Most people believe that race does not influence success; that the interests of one’s own race should not come before the interests of other races. And everybody believes this. Even the Chinese believe that Chinese should not come before others. It is the result of a lot of work over the years. We brought people together, we acknowledged our diversity. We did not pretend that race and religion doesn’t matter and we worked against the natural flow to expand our common space.
We use English as our common working language. We mixed all races together in HDB estates, so that there are no enclaves or ghettos. We implemented the Ethnic Integration Policy to prevent HDB estates from becoming re-segregated and recite the Pledge in schools every day. We also came down hard on chauvinists who try to play up racial sentiments.
Notwithstanding the progress, we are not a homogeneous society. When it comes to personal choices for example whom you marry, whom your best friends are, who your business partners are – race still matters. The same CNA and IPS survey asked respondents, “Would you accept a particular race marrying into your family?” [To elaborate on slide] Thus it is not surprising that in elections, race is still a factor and other things being equal, a minority candidate is at a disadvantage.
It is the same in other multi-racial societies. In choosing the Head of State, they often consciously arrange for minorities to be appointed or elected, so that minorities feel assured of their place. Canada, an English speaking country with a large French minority, 22 percent, alternates between an English and a French speaking Governor General. New Zealand, with Asian immigrants and a Maori indigenous population, regularly appoints a non-White Governor General. The current one LTG Jerry Mateparae is a distinguished Maori, former Chief of Defence Force. His predecessor, Sir Anand Satyanand, was ethnic Indian. Switzerland has three main ethnic groups (German, French, and Italian). Swiss Germans make up two-thirds of the population. If the Swiss held elections for President, the Swiss Germans would tend to win. Instead Switzerland has a Federal Council with seven members. By an unwritten understanding, the Council includes representatives from the minority ethnic groups. The Presidency rotates annually among the Federal Council members. In all these countries, nobody questions the fitness of the Head of State, just because there is an arrangement or special effort to find one belonging to the minority group
In the US, the President is the Head of State, and is elected every four year. The US ideal is a melting pot – many immigrant races becoming one American people. It should make no difference whether a black or a white becomes President. Yet when President Obama was elected in 2008 it was a huge thing, especially for Black Americans. After 42 White Presidents, and 143 years after the Civil War, a black man finally made it into the White House. As Michelle Obama said, “a house built by slaves”. People said Obama’s election showed that the world had changed, race didn’t matter anymore in US elections. This is completely wrong. Overall, Obama won 53 percent of the votes in 2008 against John McCain. But break down these votes by race, and you will find race mattered hugely. Whites – 43 percent, a minority voted for Obama and Hispanics 67 percent. Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Mr Obama – 95 percent.
In Singapore too, if we ask Singaporeans what race would you like your President to be. Each race prefers their own to be President! Most Singaporeans will accept a President of a different race, but not all. Seen in perspective, we have made great progress in becoming one people. Also glad that younger Singaporeans are more willing to accept a President of a different race than older Singaporeans. But still in an election for President, race does matter, and will matter for a long time to come.
When we created the elected President, we knew this would be an issue, but we had to address a more pressing issue then – finding suitable candidates to stand. We did not have multiple candidates contesting a hot election, putting a good minority candidate at a disadvantage. So we decided not to make any special arrangements for minorities, and instead watch carefully how things worked out.
Over the last 25 years, we were fortunate to have had one minority elected President, Mr SR Nathan, who served with distinction for two terms. Loved by many Singaporeans, of all races. However, he was elected unopposed, both times. Today, the environment has changed. Elections are hotly contested. It will be harder for a minority candidate, however capable or qualified, to win.
Before Presidents were elected, when Parliament chose the President, we had Presidents from all races – Encik Yusof Ishak, Dr Benjamin Sheares, Mr Devan Nair, and Mr Wee Kim Wee. Yusof Ishak was our very first President, and so far our only Malay President. If the next several Presidents are also not Malay, after some time Malay Singaporeans will start to feel uneasy, and understandably so. Likewise with Indian Singaporeans, if we do not have an Indian President for a long time after Mr Nathan. Minorities will ask: Do we have a place in Singapore? Are we truly equal? The Chinese majority may become less sensitive to the needs of other races. We will weaken the sense of shared nationhood, not just among the minorities, but for all Singaporeans. We have to do something about the problem well before that.
This problem is not easy to solve. Meritocracy and equal treatment are fundamental ideals of our society. They have become part of our basic mindset, including among the minorities. Some people fear that if we make an explicit arrangement to ensure a minority President from time to time, it will compromise the principle of meritocracy. The non-Chinese do not want it to appear that we have lowered standards for the sake of having a minority President.
This makes it a delicate problem. Legally it is hard to draft and politically sensitive to explain. Psychologically it takes time to accept.
But it is a real problem, and we have to solve it. We must ensure that minorities get elected as President from time to time. We can and will make sure that all candidates for President, including minority candidates, fully meet the qualifying criteria with no compromise. Then it will be clear that when we do have a minority President, he will be as fully qualified as any other President.
This is not the first time we have introduced special provisions for minorities in our constitution. We did so with GRCs. When the idea was first floated, the minority communities had misgivings. That they did not need it, that it would be patronising and that they were quite happy with the status quo. But now after 30 years, people have come to accept GRCs. GRCs have become an important stabiliser in our system, ensuring that there will always be minority MPs in Parliament, whatever the election outcome. GRCs have also pushed politics towards the centre, favouring multi-racial parties and multi-racial policies, because all parties have to field multi-racial teams and win votes from all races.
Similarly, we need a mechanism to make sure that from time to time, we have a minority President. The Constitutional Commission has proposed a mechanism. Tonight, I am focussing only on the principle. Not how to do it, but why we need this. We want a minority Singaporean regularly to become President, to represent what we feel about Singapore, and our ideal of a multi-racial society. To follow through at the apex of our system – the Head of State – all the things we are doing in schools, in workplaces, through SG-Secure, to strengthen racial harmony. So that a generation from now Singaporeans of all races will feel even closer to one another.
But remember, no matter how carefully we design the elected President system, or our whole political system, there is no absolutely fool proof safety net. We will still always be on a high wire. Our politics can still go wrong. People may be elected who look good, but turn out to be unworthy. Voters may be misled to make unwise decisions through sweet talk and empty promises. Many new countries like us, and even old countries, have gone wrong.
We have been very lucky in Singapore for the last 50 years. First, very lucky that we had Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team. The people supported him, gave them a long run to set us on the right path. Second, very lucky that Mr Lee and his team were able to self-renew, stay abreast of changes, and keep people’s support beyond the first few years, without going wrong or corrupt in office, unlike so many founding leaders of other newly independent countries. Third, even more remarkable that after Mr Lee stepped down as PM, we went through two leadership transitions. Now beyond Mr Lee’s lifetime, the system is still stable, still functioning, and we continue to progress with a new generation born into a very different Singapore, with very different expectations and aspirations, yet understanding what is at stake, working closely with Government and supporting policies which will make Singapore succeed for them.
We count our blessings, but we must do our best to make sure that our political system keeps on working properly for Singaporeans. How?
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1 After the National Day Rally, PM Lee subsequently went on medical leave, so the Leaders’ Retreat with President Jokowi was postponed to November.
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This is the end of Part 1 of the speech. Please click here for Part 2 .
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