PM Lee Hsien Loong's Dialogue at the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 30 June 2015

PM Lee Hsien Loong held a dialogue session with participants of the SMU Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series on 30 Jun 2015. The dialogue was moderated by Mr Ho Kwon Ping, Chairman of SMU.


PM Lee also delivered a speech before the dialogue session.


Mr Ho Kwon Ping (Moderator): First of all Prime Minister, I think really on behalf of all of us, that has been not only a very incisive analysis of the challenges facing Singapore but it is one of the most passionate explanations we have heard and we truly take heart from there. In fact, I should let you know that your constant exhortation to procreate have not fallen on deaf ears. As of three weeks ago, Claire and I have become yeye and nainai.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Congratulations!

Mr Ho: My son and daughter-in-law when they gave birth, they were given the special SG50 hamper and with your personal message on it, they were so thrilled, they framed it up.

PM Lee: And do not stop there.

Mr Ho: No, we have a daughter who has also got married and we are telling her she has to listen to you, Sir. We listen to our leadership to procreate.

PM Lee: Do it for yourself.

Mr Ho: Thank you, Sir. I think it was not exactly for the SG50 hamper but certainly I think the joys of parenthood and the joys of grandparenthood are certainly something that is really impossible to reproduce. Now there are a lot of questions for you. So I think we go straight into it. There are two microphones set marked one and two. People who are queued there, you would ask your questions. If you have a question to ask, please queue because with this large audience, it will be impossible for me to identify anyone raising their hands. So if you have a question, please make your way to the microphones. Shall we start first with the first questioner Number One and then we will go to Number One and then we will alternate. So over to you, Sir.

Q: Thank you Mr Lee for your speech. My name is Kenneth Ho and I am from SMU. You mentioned that GDP growth and population growth has been slowing down but I think the level of competitiveness has been steadily increasing and I am sure most of the students here will agree with me. My question is, do you think that we have reached an unhealthy level of competitiveness and if yes, how should we address it? Thank you.

PM Lee: I think when you say competitiveness, you mean two different things. Competitiveness meaning competing with one another amongst the students, I think we compete very hard. Competitiveness meaning we are a lot better than people outside there, well I think we are better but I am not sure that we have such a big lead. So, we have to work hard. I think students today work very hard. I suspect that you work harder than I used to when I was in school. You do a lot more group projects and that usually means no sleep. Kwon Ping was just telling me you got places where you are allowed to crash out in your campus because you are on these projects and it is an intense experience. I think it depends on the spirit in which you take this. It is necessary for you to put your all into your studies but you want to work on this not just as individuals but in teams and be able to work together with your friends and your classmates. You compete with each other but you work together with each other. I think that some parents in Singapore, probably some students also if I may use a Singapore word a bit more kan cheong that they need to be, more anxious than they need to be. You must get into the right school. You must get into the right class, you must get into the right stream. If you do not do that, your life is permanently channelled into the wrong path for the rest of your life. I think that is a wrong attitude. There are many opportunities in life. You try to take them when you can but there is always another chance down the road. To keep on looking forward and working for that one and I think that way we keep our balance.

Q: Good evening PM Lee. I am Kenneth Yeo from SMU as well. I have a question regarding the economy because Singapore’s economy is largely dependent on the foreign economy and the global economy as well. So right now according to the assessment, the world economy is pretty uncertain with the potential Greek exit from EU and China’s economic slowdown. Also the US being one of the major superpowers, has elections. It is pretty uncertain. Can students or graduates like us exploit these opportunities or overcome these challenges?”

PM Lee: What are you studying?

Q: I am studying social science.

PM Lee: Well you can go into many different careers and professions as a social science graduate. It is general education but I think that you must expect as you go along to learn new skills as you proceed because I do not think you have a complete set of skills for you to take you through any career. The world economy will always have its uncertainties. There will be ups and downs, there will be alarums, some things are up, some things are down. There will always be opportunities even in the midst of crisis. You take Turkey for example. It comes to mind because I visited them last year and they were working very hard to try and get closer to the Europeans and enter the EU. It has not succeeded but they were working towards it. The Europeans went into a crisis. They reoriented their directions, they focused on new markets, they developed their links with Africa, with Latin America and I think they had a lot of success opening the markets, getting their businesses there, getting a new source of growth. The Australians had the same problem when the global financial crisis came because they were exporting to Europe. Where do you export to? Well, you have to find new markets for your dairy products, for your minerals. They found the Chinese developed the emerging markets, they promoted new customers, they found a living. Singapore has to be like that too. Singaporeans also have to be like that. I think that if you are in SMU, the way they are training you, that is what they are trying to make you be able to do. Not to have a ready-made set of skills so you can just plug in and well straight away you can work, but to be able to have that spryness in an uncertain situation to judge where you want to go. Have you had spent time overseas as a student?

Q: Not as a student but the last time I went overseas I was with you as well at APEC in Bali two years ago.

PM Lee: Well, you have seen how APEC is. You met your classmates or your contemporaries who are also participating. I think they are hungry too, but I think that having met them you know that you can do business with them and you are equal with them, at least. So I think there is a reason to be confident.

Q: Good evening Mr Ho and good evening Mr Lee. Thank you for the very insightful and thought-provoking lecture today. By way of introduction, I am Kimberley Yang from SMU, a final-year economics student. I am not sure how you see it. But one thing I am sure of is that if I don’t ask it today, I’ll have a regret to live for the rest of life.

PM Lee: No, there will be many more chances but go ahead.

Q: Thank you, Mr Lee. So over the weekend the same sex marriage was legalised in the United States. Effectively nine citizens redefined marriage on behalf of millions of their peers, many of whom were opposed to the idea of same sex marriage. What is your view on the appropriateness of judges’ views overriding properly-passed laws? Do you think a political or judicial solution is better to address such a thorny issue especially for countries like Singapore? Thank you.

PM Lee: Well, this is the way the American system works. They have created the Supreme Court. It is nine men and the nine men decide important issues and in this case, it was five to four. So actually one man decided the issue. But that is their system. They will not say that they made a decision on the issue, they will say that they interpreted the Constitution in its true sense and this is what the US Constitution has always meant. That is the way there. I am not a law professor but I think that is the way they explain their legal system. It is how they resolve social, political, economic, racial, all kinds of important issues. Congress, the Parliament does not have the last word. It goes to the Supreme Court. Things like abortion, things like racial discriminations, drugs, all sorts of things go to the Supreme Court.

It is not our system. In our system, the Parliament decides, the Executive through the Parliament, takes the lead, legislates and legislates on behalf of the population. On an issue like LGBT where there are very strong views in the society, I think the legislature has to act very cautiously. You can pass a law but will it be accepted? Will it be respected? Will people feel that it is legitimate? I think that we have to have a good sense of the ground, a good sense of how people feel and reflect the values and the attitudes of the population or rather than try to impose your own on them. Even in America, there are people who feel like that. I mean there are 40 percent of Americans who are opposed to same sex marriage and they say “well you decided this but I do not like this. I have to accept it but it is not my preference.” In Singapore, we have different legislative arrangements. We have a much more cautious approach towards social issues. On LGBT issues, I have stated my position. It is one where we move carefully because it is really a conservative population and I think we let the views evolve with time. The population has to decide collectively rather than the government decide that I am going to go one way or the other.

Mr Ho: It looks like the issue that you said about identity and fractured sense of cohesiveness you mentioned LGBT as being an issue 50 years from now. It looks like it coming sooner for Singapore.

PM Lee: No, I do not think the LGBT issue will wait 50 years to come up. It is here but if you want to stay one nation cohesive for 50 years, these are the kinds of issues you must manage without fracturing our society.

Q: Good evening PM Lee. Thank you for being with us here today. My name is Ashwariya and I am from SMU. You have been bringing up the issue of having more children and progression of families. So there was this competitiveness question that came up which was between university students but it definitely goes beyond that. It is one of the obstacles that young couples face because they feel that it is going to put a brake in their career progression. What is your message towards such young couples who may be facing this dilemma; if they would like to have more children but they feel that it is going to bring a pause?

PM Lee: I think I have a kind of a split message. On the one hand, I fully understand young people wanting to pursue their careers – whether they are men or women, they want their careers, they worked hard, they want to become good lawyers, good accountants, good managers, good leaders or entrepreneurs. So we would like you to do that and yet have kids. We would like you to be a super mom but not everybody can be a super mom and so we try to make it easier, easier in terms of childcare, easier in terms of preschool, easier in terms of affording it because you got the Baby Bonus, easier in terms of employers having the right attitudes encouraging their family, their employees to have kids, to be able to bring the children to work. You know, family days and generally welcoming the family into the workplace and into the whole life of the employee. I think that is one part of it. But the other part of it which is not perhaps such a welcome message for Singaporeans is to say well we all want everything in life, but we must have a balance in life and you need to have a balance between wanting to have a family and wanting to have a career. You have to spend some time on your kids, you have to spend some time bringing them up looking after them, nurturing them and it means that time is taken off your career and at the end of the day, would you like to look back and say I have been a super lawyer or I had a good career and I also had a good family, have children, have grandchildren and I am content, I have lived my life well.

I think that it is very difficult to ask a 20-year-old to imagine what a 70-year old would like to feel but if you take that perspective, in other words if you use my framework – 10, 25, and 50 years – on a 10 year perspective you would pursue your career. On a 25 year perspective you might have one or two kids. On a 50 year perspective you might decide the kids come first. I think that is something which we have not come to terms with. If you look at the Scandinavians who have lot of kids, they are often content to have three-quarters of a career. They work hard but they do not work 12 hours or 18 hours a day. They work, they finish in the evening, 3 o 4 o’clock, they fetch their kids from childcare, they go home, they spend time with the kids and it is a balance. It is a different kind of society, we are not like that but it is a balance and these are choices which we have to make for ourselves.

Mr Ho: But the Scandinavian countries PM, they have achieved higher TFR, they also have huge government support industrial support for long parental leave up to a year.

PM Lee: The Scandinavians throw the kitchen sink at the problem. It is not just huge parental support six months or one year or longer but they give you everything. I mean the bonuses, the childcare. Essentially every kid has a childcare place and basically half the moms are employed taking care of the kids of other moms because a big part of the women are employed working as childcare people.

Mr Ho: But their TFR has gone up.

PM Lee: Their TFR is not bad. 1.6, 1.7.

Mr Ho: Do you think Singapore would ever contemplate anything close to that?

PM Lee: Well, if you are prepared to have a GST of 20 per cent I can imagine funding that. It’s up to you.

Mr Ho: I noticed that SMU students seemed to have made sort of monopolised all the questions. Could I have a show of hands of who is not an SMU student because we clearly invited other universities. Could I ask the non-SMU students to jump the queue please and give you the opportunity to ask because we do not want to monopolise this although SMU students are totally enthralled by this lecture. We would want others to have the opportunity. So, please go ahead.

Q: Good evening PM Lee and other distinguished leaders in the room today. I am Kit Mun, a Sec Four student, not from SMU, I am from River Valley High. PM Lee, in your speech you mentioned a lot about the need to increase productivity in Singapore but a troubling trend to note in the recent decade especially in countries such as America is the decoupling of wages and productivity where people are working harder, they are working more efficiently but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are earning more. And let us be honest, we are not going to earn more money. It is likely that we are not going to bother trying to be more productive. So do you fear that Singapore will too face this problem in the future and touch wood, if it does, how do you think we can combat it?

Mr Ho: With the question like that I think she should definitely come to SMU after you finish.

Q: I am more interested in the Sciences.

PM Lee: Well studying productivity is a scientific question. It is a conundrum. Nobody quite understands why, it may be that the unions have lost bargaining power in America, it may be that the top bosses have, you know, I scratch your back, you scratch mine, I pay you $50 million you pay me $70 million, and taken at this proportion of share of the profits. It may be because of the finance industry growing rapidly and in the finance industry the winner takes all is a very strong phenomenon. So the fact that economists are not quite sure why it is happening in America, it could therefore happen in Singapore. We hope it doesn’t happen in Singapore. I think if we look at wages in the last decade, Singapore wages have been going up. In fact our wages have been going up faster than productivity. So far, touch wood, so good. We will have to watch this, but I would say productivity going up, wages may not. Productivity does not go up, wages will not, that is for sure. So you have no choice, you will have to become more productive then we have more resources, then there is a chance our lives can improve.

Q: Good evening Prime Minister and Mr Ho. I am definitely not from SMU, although I am a former student of River Valley. My name is Ken, I am from BH Global, a homegrown mainboard listed marine offshore company. Thank you very much for your very insightful sharing on your view on a lot of domestic issues. What I am looking at, something that probably is quite concerning. Recently it is probably at the regional factors, especially the prowess of China.

PM Lee: Sorry, what of China?

Q: China’s actions by way of Spratly Islands.

PM Lee: You’re talking about South China Sea?

Q: Yes, that is right, as well as its recent interests in Kra Canal. That portion probably is something that is beyond our domestic control. Just would like to know your view on this and the few factors.

PM Lee: Well, we all in Asia see great opportunities in China’s rise. We see it as a benign force and one which can do a lot of good in the world. I think in South China Sea, there are disputes within China and several Asean countries and we think that it’s important that these disputes are managed in accordance to international law and particularly the law of the sea and managed peacefully and not on the basis that might is right. We think that it is in China’s interest to do this because you can go on might is right, but at some time you get tired and people no longer acknowledge you. That’s something which the Americans have discovered and it’s the reason why the Americans are welcomed in Asia after so many years since the war - because it is not just might but they are welcomed. They give space to other countries, there is chance for you to prosper to grow, mind you, sometimes they twist your arm too, but it is much less than you might imagine if it were just a power relationship.

The Kra Canal is a very interesting question. It is a subject which has been there for many decades, they have talked about it, but it has not happened. In this case, the subject came up from a business, I think from some business source. The Chinese Government said they have nothing to do with this. The Thai Government I do not think has anything to do with this. Some people in the Thai Government have a strong view that if you create a Kra Canal, then part of Thailand will become cut off from the other part of Thailand and that is not necessarily a good thing, so it is something which they are thinking about which may or may not happen. If it does not happen, we are in Singapore with PSA. If it does happen, if PSA is efficient and it saves money going to PSA than you do cutting across the Kra Canal, then I think we have a living. You look at our airport, Changi Airport is further away than Suvarnabum, along the air routes from Europe to Hong Kong to the Far East but Changi is a successful airport – one of the best in the world. Suvarnabum makes a living in Bangkok but it does not take away my lunch. I still maintain Changi Airport, it is special. So if PSA can be special, I think we can keep our lunch.

Q: Good evening sir, my name is Kate from National Junior College (NJC), your former school, very excited to be here today. Singapore is an active and key member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that is currently on the way to fruition. As the US tries to win back a little dominance over Asia, it has highlighted as part of the TPP negotiations that participating countries limit support for state-owned enterprises, as well as give companies the right to sue the Government directly. Now, my question is how does this play out for Singapore in the long run and our domestic interests in protecting jobs at home? Thank you.

PM Lee: Well, you have studied this in detail, which is as it should be for an NJC student.

Q: Thank you.

Mr Ho: She is coming to SMU now.

Q: As an aspiring diplomat, I would love to have the opportunity to study overseas, and serve Singapore.

PM Lee: You are right, what you have named are two of the issues which are on the negotiating table. State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and what rules should apply to them, and Investor-state dispute settlement. In other words, if there is an issue between the country and the company, can the company take the country to arbitration and not go to the court in that country, which may or may not be completely uninterested in the outcome. These are issues which we are discussing with the TPP participants.

We have SOEs, which we must make sure get fair treatment but at the same time we also want our companies to get good treatment when they go to other countries and to get fair competition compared to SOEs in those countries, so we are on both sides. In fact, our SOEs are different from other people’s SOEs. We do not call them SOEs, we call them GLCs, Government-Linked Companies. There is a very big difference because the Government-Linked Companies, they do not do the Government’s bidding. We have shares in them but they have proper boards, many of them come under Temasek. Temasek appoints a Board, the Board oversees the company and we expect the company to operate properly. We do not give them special perks, we do not ask them to do special duties. So if it is DBS, if it’s SIA, if it is Keppel, if it is Sembcorp, or Singtel, they are supposed to operate like proper companies and everybody knows that Singapore GLCs are different from SOE elsewhere, and I think the Americans know that. I think in negotiating to protect the opposition that’s a very important fact, which we hope will be taken into account. I cannot tell you what the outcome is because it is not settled but I’m sure that we would be making sure we’re protected.

ISDS is another issue like that, investor-state dispute settlement. We are not necessarily the ones who are sensitive about investor-state dispute settlement because often we are doing business in another country and if our companies run into trouble, you want to be able to have some recourse and you cannot always be sure that if you go to the Court there, that will solve your problem. To have ISDS is not necessarily a bad thing and many of our agreements do have ISDS but the Europeans have become allergic to this recently, particularly the Germans, because of a specific case, I think with the Americans and the Americans themselves are also allergic to this. So that’s something to be discussed, but don’t worry, if you become a diplomat, you will never run out of work, solving this kind of problem.

Q: Mr Prime Minister, my name is Shao Wei from SMU School of Law and it was a pleasure to attend your lecture today. I have two questions. The first question relates to your 50-year challenge of identity. Singaporeans are now more well-travelled, they are cosmopolitan and you mentioned that our society may split along fault lines, such as LGBT issues and socio-political fault lines. So my first question is: how does the government engage the special interest groups such as the environment groups or LGBT groups? My Second question relates to political renewal, which you mentioned good leadership is key at the end of your lecture. So on many occasions you mentioned that different forums that attracting talent from the private sector has been difficult. So in view of the impeding elections, can you give us a update of the success of the People’s Action Party in attracting talent from the private sector?  Thank you.

Mr Ho: May I interrupt here. I am not trying to prevent an interesting question from being asked, it is that I have five minutes left. So if I may, because we generally would not like to have to prevent people from asking questions, if I could ask each of the other people, there are so many of them could I ask them just to quickly come up to the mike and ask the questions that they have? Could I have two more persons from this side, two more from here ask you question and then PM Lee summarize and decide how he wishes to round off the final answer.

Q: Good evening Mr Lee, Mr Ho. My name is Ken. I am from the private sector. I am a father of two and I did some volunteer work with problem youths in as a volunteer work. My question is actually that the given that Singaporean youth are getting smaller and smaller in numbers and every year we lose some of our youth through the system. Wouldn’t it be better for the country if we devote more resources into our education, having more teachers that can help to identify problem youths, grow them, and prevent them from going down the wrong path before something actually happens?

Q: Hi Sir, I am Ben from Anglo-Chinese School. I would like to know if you agree with the notion that solving the Gini Coefficient issue or tackling income inequality as a whole, would help address each of the issues that you named in your speech - Economics, demographics and identity? What exactly is the government looking to do to solve this issue?

Q: Good evening Prime Minister Mr Lee and Mr Ho. My name is Ma Ning Zhi and I am from Serangoon Junior College. My question is regarding just now you said that, you mentioned the importance of technology, improving the productivity. I feel that by using technology, there will be a loss of humanity. I think the sense of humanity has a close relationship with what you had mentioned, such as identity.  How should Singapore find a balance between using technology? Thank you.

Q: Good evening PM Lee, my name is Benjamin, I am from SMU and currently on internship at Apollo Global Management. I would like to ask PM where he thinks the concept of graciousness fits onto the national agenda. Graciousness as in the value. My perspective is that it facilitates everyday interactions and basically enhances quality of life. I would like to ask PM where he thinks it fits onto the national agenda.

PM Lee: You covered the whole ground. I need another lecture. I would say on identity, yes, the government has been working hard to engage groups, but the groups must also want to engage not just the government, but each other. It is not easy, between the pro-gay groups and the anti-gay groups. I think the gulf is quite deep and it is not easy to establish a dialogue. Unless people are prepared to have some give and take on many issues, and if each one insists that what I want is my absolute right, I think we are going to fracture and have schisms amongst ourselves. That would be very serious.

We really want a society which is cohesive and graciousness is an important part of this. Graciousness meaning we are about each other, we feel for each other, we are not just in a rat-race, but we are in a team together. The Japanese are good at that. The Chinese in China, I think they have changed, because under the communist system and then now under the market reforms, the competition is ferocious and each person is out. If you have heard about their higher examinations, “Gao Kao”, you will know what kind of a system, what kind of pressures are on the students there and it continues into the workforce. We want to maintain something which is different, where we compete, we compete hard, but at the same time we work together and we feel together. I think graciousness therefore is an important part of this. We may be losing some of this, maybe because of pressures, maybe because we are more focused on small families. We do not have extended families, maybe because we are more concerned with materialistic goals, but I think that this is something which we do have to worry about and where the government has some roles setting the tone. That extends also to what Ken said about putting resources to troubled youths, which I agree with you. Yes, we should do, we are doing it.

That extends also to what Ben says about the Gini Coefficient. It is not easy for us to decree a more equal society - these are very deep economic forces, but you do want to build a society where we have a chance for everybody to feel that he is respected and he has a valued place. You do not want to be a place where you are rich, you live in one little circle, if you are poor, you are cut out from that circle. We are all Singaporeans together, we all eat at hawker centres from time to time, we all visit the same places, even when we go on holiday, we do not go on such drastically different places for holiday and we meet each other overseas. That is the right sort of society we want to be. If we can do that, if we can keep that sense, then I think there will be the social matrix, the basis on which people will say, ‘Yes, I want to get to married, I want to start a family. One kid is nice, two is better, two are nice, three would be even better.’ At the same time, be able to find the right balance between that, and growing the economy and having, trying for new things. We’re making sure that tomorrow will be better. If you can do that, then I think we will have a good 50 years ahead of us.

Mr Ho: Thank you sir, ladies and gentlemen, we have now come to the end of the lecture. I think I can truly say on behalf of all of us, and particularly even the young, that what we have come to expect from our national leaders and from Mr Lee is naturally the intellectual rigor of analysis. I think what we have seen beyond that in what the young people in particular in this room and in Singapore, are able to truly ascertain is the authenticity of your personality, Sir. The fact that you are so popular among the young, because you engage with them, you truly share your entire self with them and the passion that you have for this country is so palpable.  I think truly for that, we are very grateful. So on behalf of all of us, I would like to thank you again. After this, Mr Lee will be adjourning to another room where there are going to be students, particularly prepared who want to meet up with you, everyone wants to take a selfie with PM and put up on their Facebook, and the rest of you will sit at another reception which Mr Lee will go to afterwards. So can I ask you all again, on behalf of all of us here, particularly all the people in the young who have so many questions to ask Mr Lee, can we thank you Sir, for being who you are.

PM Lee: Thank you very much.