PM Lee Hsien Loong at the PA Kopi Talk 2018

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 14 October 2018

Opening remarks by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the PA Kopi Talk - Post NDR Dialogue with the Prime Minister on 14 October 2018 at Ci Yuan Community Club.


It has been more than a year since we last had a dialogue here. I thought it was useful for us to meet again, get your views and hear the sentiments on the ground.

I just came back from Bali. I met President Jokowi for the annual bilateral Leaders Retreat and our relations are good with Indonesia. Economic cooperation is progressing and Jokowi hopes to attract more Singapore investments. Indonesia is going to hold national elections in April next year, in fact on April 17, I marked the date on my diary. We hope to keep relations stable during their campaign and to pick up our cooperation with them afterwards.

Our relations with Malaysia are also stable. The HSR was an issue potentially but we worked out a 2-year deferment for the HSR project and that was a constructive resolution of what could have been a spiky dispute. Next month, Dr Mahathir is visiting Singapore. He is coming for the ASEAN meetings and then about 10 days after that, I am going up to Putrajaya for our annual retreat between the Singapore and the Malaysian PM. I hope that at the retreat, we will be able to look ahead, to discuss win-win opportunities in order to deepen our cooperation and friendship.

At home, over the last few years, we have been tackling issues which concern Singaporeans. Our public transport has been greatly improved. On the trains and on the buses, crowding has been considerably reduced because we have more buses, more trains running. We have opened more train lines, with improved MRT reliability after several years of very hard work. This year, the reliability has gone up to mean kilometres before failure of 660,000 km.  It is about 10 times better than where we started, say five years ago. So they have put a lot of effort in, and I think people can see it, are benefitting from it and appreciate it.

For public housing, we have built more flats, the BTO queue is much shorter now, we have improved affordability. Incomes have gone up, flat prices have remained stable. Young people are buying - often only using their CPF, no need to touch their cash. And we are introducing new flat concepts like 2-room flexi-flats, like Kampung Admiralty.

For healthcare, we are building new hospitals. Ng Teng Fong Hospital has been running for several years now. Sengkang General Hospital, just down the road from here, is already taking patients. We are getting new polyclinics up, old ones re-done. Crowding has come down, and waiting times have come down. And we have strengthened healthcare financing with MediShield Life, with CHAS, which will be expanded, and soon with CareShield Life.

For education too, we have put a lot of work into the different levels and especially for pre-schools which we have expanded, improved and made more affordable. Especially in young towns like Punggol and Sengkang. Now the parents do not have to wait until their children grow up before they get a pre-school place. The places are coming on and good places. If you go to Punggol North, you visit the new PCF centre there, it is very impressive. We are also tackling other cost of living issues. For example, U Save vouchers to keep utility tariffs affordable. Then, we are looking at how to pay for these things, finance, and how to keep our programmes financially sustainable. We are planning ahead to make sure we have enough revenues, especially with the GST increase sometime beyond 2021.

At the National Day Rally, I spoke about several of these issues. I explained what the Government was doing and what people can do to help themselves. Because it is not just what the Government is doing but also individual efforts and attitudes, how you can work together, and how you can work around problems. I addressed key segments of the population and their concerns – young families who were concerned about housing and education costs; sandwiched families who also have education costs because the children are not grown up yet, and at the same time starting to worry about healthcare costs for elderly parents; the Merdeka Generation who are getting on in their 60’s and concerned about their own future healthcare expenses.

So I talked about individual, specific things we are doing. But beyond the individual initiatives, I had two broader messages. First, that whatever our difficulties, none of us are facing it alone. The Government understands people’s concerns. We are working with you to tackle the problems together. We are working on the same side. Please help us to solve these problems.

Secondly, even as we tackle these immediate problems, we have to look ahead and plan for the future. When we became independent, we faced many desperate, urgent problems. But the Pioneer Generation looked to the future. They built up the SAF, spent blood and treasure strengthening it and upgrading it year after year. They secured our water supply, building reservoirs, cleaning up the Singapore River, building the Marina Barrage, going for NEWater and desalination. They pursued the vision of a garden city, planting ample greenery and enforcing strict anti-littering laws. Today, we are the beneficiaries of their foresight, their imagination, and their resolution.

Our generation must do the same. We must continue to plan for the future even as we address immediate concerns. Therefore, we talked about pre-schools, investing in our youngest, preparing them for a whole lifetime of contribution, of achievement, of progress. We talked about CareShield Life, starting with people aged 30 to 40. They asked - why are you starting so young? I saw one of the questions which came up in the grassroots discussion after the Rally dialogue. Why do we start so young? Because we are preparing ahead. However young you are, one day you will be not so young. One day you will be old, and one day you may be having long term disability. The earlier we start, the sooner we can prepare for that day to come.

We talked about HIP II and VERS, which will only start 10 or 20 years from now. We are building new HDB townships – Punggol is coming up, Tengah next and Bidadari is already coming up. We talked about Paya Lebar which may be re-developed, the southern waterfront city, is akan datang. Akan datang over the next 50 years, maybe longer. So the paybacks will be many years to come. Meanwhile, there will be sacrifices, there will be opportunity costs, and we have to make decisions. Invest now for the future. But investing in our future is the right thing for us to do.

We cannot tell what the next 50 years will bring. We have had decades of peace in Singapore, SAF has not had to go to war, but we live in a troubled world and the world faces many intractable global problems. Domestically, we have become a united people and a more cohesive society, but we face powerful external pressures and possibly internal tensions too. These will stress our social fabric, and we will have to work very hard to stay together and to make sure this good work is not undone. So there are uncertainties, but despite the uncertainties we can plan ahead and we must plan ahead.

Unlike most other countries, we can do this. It is a unique position because we have the resources and the focus. We can tackle things beyond the next election. We can imagine things three, four, five elections down the road. We have to make the plans and the preparations now to secure a safe and bright future for Singapore. If we do this, then 2065, celebrating SG100, our grandchildren can say: our grandparents’ generation, they did the right thing, that is why we are here today. Work hard, SG150.

But to carry out these plans, Singaporeans must feel that they are worth doing, that they have a stake in the future. That we all want the country to progress and when the country progresses, we ourselves, will benefit and therefore, they embrace the vision, and therefore they put heart and soul into making it happen.

The World Bank has just launched its new Human Capital Index. Singapore ranked number one out of 157 countries, investing in human capital and in our people. We do not spend the most on education and healthcare, but we get the best outcomes; in terms of years of education, in terms of standard – the PISA scores, in terms of infant mortality or adult health. We have made the most of our human capital, we have invested in our people.

When I went to Bali, one of the things I did was to speak to the World Bank meeting about Singapore’s experience. Because the World Bank President, he came to see me, he said do not tell anybody yet, you rank number one. I said thank you. He says, please come and be interviewed with me. I said, let me think about it. But I decided to do it and to explain what Singapore did and what our philosophy was. I said that we started with nothing, but our basic philosophy was, we wanted to make sure we improved life for all Singaporeans. And life was hard then. Bad housing, there were not enough schools, healthcare was very basic, there was a population explosion, and we could not provide for the kids. But we wanted to improve life for everybody. That was our starting point and we did it. So public housing, healthcare and education. We tackled poverty, and we raised standards of living. Then as our economy grew and we had more resources and more abilities, we could invest even more in our schools, in our hospitals and create a virtuous cycle. Therefore, there is more work and people’s lives improve, and we could do even better.

Even till today, ensuring that progress benefits every citizen is still our basic philosophy, our drive. It is not just for economic reasons – if we invest in people then they can be more productive and the country is more prosperous, the GDP is better. It is not even only for political reasons – because if we improve lives for everybody then there is more support for a good government which will look after the country. But it is actually for a fundamental aim – that is, we are doing this because we want to improve the lives of our people, to improve the lives of all Singaporeans. To give everybody a brighter future and particularly if you have kids, a brighter future. That is the way forward for Singapore.

Even till today, ensuring that progress benefits every citizen is still our basic philosophy, our drive.

PM Lee Hsien Loong

One threat to this objective to improve life for everybody, is inequality and lack of social mobility. Today, we often hear people talking about this – worries that our society has become more unequal and stratified. Recently, SMS Janil hosted a CNA documentary, “Regardless of Class”. You may have seen it. It is a good video. Janil has many talents and he presented it. I thought for a while he had been employed by Mediacorp because he was so professional. If you watch it, it will give you a sense of how people react to one another, think about one another, talk about one another, feel about the way others look at them, talk to them, and the attitudes towards them. And it brought together school kids to exchange views, some in Normal Technical, some in the poly, some in the Integrated Programme, a wide range of kids. He interviewed the security guard at the condominium, he interviewed the professionals who talked about how they interacted with the others who were serving them, who were looking after them. It gives a vivid sense of the different levels of Singapore society today, and how people view one another across the different social groups.

Inequality exists everywhere. In every society, there is a certain amount of inequality and there is no society where the top and the bottom are the same. Even when you go to North Korea, you can be sure that the Chairman is not the same as the labourer. And if you look at your own children, you know, same parents, but the kids, brothers, sisters, they are not the same. Each one is different. Different temperaments, different characters, different abilities, and different life outcomes. When people come to see us at MPS, they will say, 我这个,第二个,读书没问题,第三个,头痛一点 1。It is like that.

So in Singapore, inequality has always existed. In the past, it was also there. It is not clear that it was much more equal. If you look back 50 years ago, a lot of people were poor and lived miserably, and still there were rich towkays and landlords. And there was a range from the rich to the poor. But we have worked hard to lessen this inequality, to raise the base level up, to make sure that Singapore becomes a fair and just society. How have we done it? Through high quality and affordable housing, education and healthcare for everybody. We have a tax system. Our income tax is progressive, and we redistribute more to the lower income. Poorer households receive proportionately more subsidies and support in all areas whether HDB grants, transport vouchers, U Save or healthcare subsidies. Over the last decade, as the economy has changed and income gaps have widened, we have enhanced our social safety nets. We have introduced Workfare for lowly paid workers, we have got ComCare for those needing extra support, we have got MediFund and ElderFund to help pay for those with medical and long term care expenses who cannot cope despite all our other schemes. These have substantially mitigated income inequality in Singapore.

But I think the worry is not just inequality, but also worry about the lack of social mobility. Because people can accept that some are rich, some are poor, provided if I am poor I have a chance to work hard and get better off. If I am poor, my children have a chance to study hard and improve their lives. And if they improve their lives, they will improve my life. That is what happened in the previous generation and many of the successful people today have very poor parents who lived in rental flats. Seven, or eight of them, squeezed into two rooms. Somehow they studied, they made good, they grew up and they contributed. And they looked after their parents, I hope. But if it is not like that, if people are poor, say there is no hope, the doors are closed, that we will always remain poor, and my children too, no matter what they do, then I do not think people will accept it. So I think social mobility is even more important than inequality.

We must not allow social stratification to harden in Singapore. It tends to happen in society after a long time with stable conditions, people separate out and it is not so easy to move and divisions start to appear. The way you dress, the way you talk, what you eat, and where you go on holiday. You compare notes then you feel, I show you a little bit that I am better than you. I think we have to combat that. We must ensure that when the country progresses, the lower-income are not disadvantaged and do not get left behind. Our system is meritocratic, but we have to strive to bring everyone to a good starting point, to give everyone a fair chance to do well and to compete, whether you come from rich or poor families, whether your parents have connections or not, you must be able to show what you can do, to contribute what you can and come up with, and be able to be recognised for your contributions.

Therefore, that is what drives a lot of our policies, especially our education policies. The preschool emphasis is one of these. Why do we talk about preschools? Because we want to start with kids young. Make sure that if the parents cannot afford to send you to a posh place, you still have a good and affordable preschool which will bring you to a good point when you reach primary one, and you are at a good point to start your formal education. We level the playing field as much as possible.

We designed our HDB towns this way. Same neighbourhood, rental blocks, and sold flats. Same block, three-room flats, four-room flats, five-room flats, and they are mixed. Because we want high and low income families to live together side by side, get along with one another, interact with one together. Not live apart and treat each other as aliens from a different world.

These are government policies which are important to safeguard social mobility and cohesion. But just as important as government policies are social attitudes. In other words, the attitudes of each one of us individually, as Singaporeans, towards one another. We want to, and I think we generally do, live in a society where the ethos is open and informal. We want people to interact freely and comfortably as equals and we must have regard and respect for one another, regardless of income or status. So the way we dress, the way we talk to one another, where we eat, we go to the hawker centres, we are quite comfortable. We want it to be such that people from lower-income families do not feel that they are being discriminated against, and this is their lot in life. They should be able to hold their head up high and be treated with respect because he is earning his keep and he is doing his best to provide for his family. His children should be proud of him too and want to do him proud, because with good education, they have every opportunity to succeed at their chosen careers, and to improve their own lives and their parents’ lives.

If you happen to be successful and happen to have been born in a wealthy family, you should neither flaunt your wealth or your success. No need to show off, and people are not impressed. If you succeed, remember, it is not purely the result of your own hard work or even of your own talent. Because many others have helped you along the way. Your teachers, your friends, your colleagues, and the whole Singapore system which has given you the opportunity to be well educated, to develop your career, to bring up your family in a safe, stable, conducive environment. If you grew up in another country, you probably may not have the same opportunities. You may not have had the same success. But you grew up in Singapore, remember, a lot of people made this happen. You owe respect and gratitude to your fellow citizens, and you have a responsibility to contribute back something to the society and to the system which enabled you to do well. And to your fellow citizens, fellow Singaporeans, remember, you help them, they help you, and we progress together.

We have got to maintain this spirit, this social ethos, and remember how much we rely on one another. If we do that, then people will say yes, SG100 means something. Work for it. Then Singapore can remain a united society, and we can realise our hopes and dreams for the next 50 years and much longer.

Thank you very much.

[1] Referring to comments made to MPs during MPS on resident’s own children, my second child is doing fine with his studies, but my third child is struggling.