PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke at Camp Sequoia hosted by Sequoia Capital on 24 February 2017.
The forum was moderated by Mr Shailendra Singh, Managing Director at Sequoia Capital. The full dialogue can be viewed on the PMO YouTube channel here: http://bit.ly/2lHay7B
Mr Shailendra Singh: Hello everyone. I have now an unbelievable honour and privilege to host a fireside chat with the head of state of one of the most admired, efficient, and business-friendly nations in the world, often ranked number one. In addition, he is one of the few heads of state who open-sourced his own Sudoku code. For those of you here who are engineers by training, or have a geek inside you, I am sure you have always wondered if he is quite similar to the founders in the room. Please join me in welcoming Prime Minister Lee.
Prime Minister Lee, thank you again. We are super honoured. I was joking with my wife last night that if in life, I do not do anything else that is useful, today will be good enough. I will feel happy that I have had the chance to host Prime Minister Lee here. We are huge fans at Sequoia Capital of everything that Singapore stands for. It is a great honour. Prime Minister Lee. If you could start us with a few opening remarks, then we will ask you a few questions.
PM Lee Hsien Loong: Thank you Shailendra. Welcome everybody, to Singapore. Welcome to Sequoia Capital. You are old friends of Singapore. I attended your events a couple of times before. Very honoured that we have your top management and many of your investee companies here for Camp Sequoia.
It is a challenging time for the global economy. It is a challenging time for industries like yours, which are in Information Technology, which depend on globalization, world markets and dynamism in order to prosper and to change the world. It is a challenging time for a country like Singapore, trying to find an economic strategy which will work for an economy, for a nation, not just for companies in it, but for the population and for the citizens of Singapore.
We are doing our own think exercise. We produced a report by the Committee on the Future Economy, which came out a couple of weeks ago. We had the Budget this week, which set out some of the strategies to realise the ideas we have. None of them are rocket science. The key is whether or not you can make it happen. And to make it happen faster than others, execute and bring everybody on board and see that this is the right strategy, which will work and which will benefit everybody. As for your companies, which are in tech, that is in fact one of our areas of focus. Because in terms of physical growth, numbers, space, we reach constraints. But in terms of ideas, productivity, breakthroughs, the constraint is only what the human mind can come up with, what people can organise and deliver. Tech and new companies, making use of the Internet and cyberspace, is one of the areas where we want to focus and to grow, and one of the areas where the Government needs to make high quality use of the technology itself, and be able to drive a whole country to operate in a rational, efficient, and cyber-speed way. I will talk a little bit about it later but I think it is most useful if I take your questions and respond to what you are interested in. Thank you.
Mr Shailendra: Thank you, Prime Minister Lee. I have a few questions for Prime Minister Lee and then we will open that up to our audience. Please do think about what it is that you might want to ask him. Actually, I am going to start with difficult questions on personal leadership. Prime Minister Lee, as you know, many people in the audience here, most of the audience here are founders of technology companies from around India, Southeast Asia, China, United States, Taipei, Korea, Australia and so on, from around the world. Many people in the room are role models in their industries in a small way, in their industries or in their companies. Their influence keeps growing in their respective industries.
Many people here in the room will be important in shaping technology in the future. They are still small today and their influence is growing. You have, as a head of state, had tremendous influence for a long, long, long time. Yet, you have this very highly approachable demeanour of great humility. You have always come across as exercising your influence with great balance. For founders who are growing in influence in their industries around the world, what are your philosophies on leading a country, where you have such high impact and yet displaying such a great balance?
PM Lee: I think the most important philosophy is not to take yourself or your philosophy too seriously. Because if you think you have found a formula to succeed, somewhere in there you are going to fail. It is very difficult. Because for you to have got where you are, you must have some idea, some spark, some breakthrough, some magic which makes you able to work with people and to make this company, the endeavour succeed. Yet, if you just depend on your personal magic and spark, very soon you will either run out of magic or you will make a mistake.
To go beyond that, you must be able to work with people, take views, take criticisms, change your views, even change your decisions, and then collectively find a way forward, which is collective and yet where your fingerprint or thumbprint is somewhere inside there. It is very hard. Because if you just lead by consensus, then a bot can do it. But if you just charge ahead alone, you may find that nobody is following you.
You have got to take views. You have got to know when to accept them, when not to. If you do not take the views, you must be able to persuade the team that you know what you are doing, please come with me even though this time I did not go with the majority view. I think that is a description, but it is not a formula. Because the more the formula works, the more you are tempted to think that you are right and you know better. Sooner or later, something will go wrong, hopefully not too serious. Then you learn from that and you are able to take it another step forward. I cannot be more specific than that.
I think the most important philosophy is not to take yourself or your philosophy too seriously. PM Lee Hsien Loong
I think the most important philosophy is not to take yourself or your philosophy too seriously.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Mr Shailendra: No, that is very helpful. On a similar vein, Prime Minister Lee, many founders here are managing a lot of chaos and imperfections in their young companies. Their companies grow very fast. They grow 50, 100, 200 per cent a year, or sometimes more. You, on the other hand, you have the leadership of a country. You have governments, ministries, institutions, and you are able to drive harmony. But I am sure not all things go well even from the standpoint of a government. You have been a role model for governance. How do you manage, from a leadership perspective, the imperfections that you see? How do you manage change as a leader? It will be very valuable for the young founders to hear of your leadership philosophy on these things.
PM Lee: It is a problem which every organisation faces. Small wants to grow big, and big wants not to malfunction. We have confronted that kind of problem many times in our 50-plus years running Singapore. Let me tell you a few which I have been associated with, so that you will get a sense of different ways to handle different situations.
We built up the Singapore Armed Forces. We started off with two battalions. We now have maybe a couple of hundred thousand troops, active and reserve, and tri-service. It was a painful process. We started off without officers able to run such a system, to grow such a system, to conceive such a system. We were expanding and building up units and equipment without the concepts, the doctrines, the organisations, the tactics and strategies to make it work. What do you do?
What the government did then was it looked for young people who in the normal course of events would never have gone into the armed forces. They would have gone and done tech or banking or something. We gave them scholarships, sent them to university, made them officers, brought them back into the armed forces. Half a dozen, a dozen a year. I was in the first batch. There were five of us. Over 40 years, we infused the armed forces with young officers who had to make themselves not just scholars and bright young kids, but commanders and staffers who could be trusted with men and leadership and life-and-death roles. Therefore, gradually, the organisation transformed.
It started off with them coming in and everybody looking very sceptically at them, and they say, “Those are scholars and we are farmers”, which is like a red-and-blue divide and very difficult to overcome. But gradually, the young people established themselves and the “farmer-types”, so-called, concluded that if you have a scholar, he can help you to do your work and run your unit and deliver the results better. Over several decades, we built up an organisation which today, is a professional, competent, technologically up-to-date, and credible outfit.
That is one way to change and build an organisation. You put talent in, you merge them with the existing group. Over time, you transform the nature of the outfit.
Another way to do it is from the top. Sometimes, you can do that. We did that with our banking industry when we decided to liberalise our banking industry, change the way we supervised the industry and the way we allowed companies to operate. We changed not by changing any organisations, but by changing policies and moving in a few people into the Monetary Authority of Singapore, which supervises the banks. The staff remained. The direction changed. I went in as chairman. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is now Deputy Prime Minister, went in. He was at first a staffer and then he became managing director. I moved in a new managing director and we worked with the staff in the organisation. In about two-and-a-half years, we completely changed our approach in terms of what we allowed, in terms of what MAS was responsible for, in terms of the risks we were prepared to take. In terms of our philosophy, it was whether you depended on the market or whether you depended on the regulator to decide what is allowed and what is not allowed to do. The staff supported it, worked with us. It worked.
I give you a third example. Tax collection. It is not a favourite example, probably, for this audience but an interesting one. Because tax is in fact a very important function of a government. We started off with an Inland Revenue Division. It was part of the Ministry of Finance. It is a cost centre. It receives salary and it collects taxes. We complained bitterly about how slow, how backward, how un-computerised, how inefficient it was. Nothing happened. Eventually, we decided on a drastic solution.
There was a change of leadership. And we decided to go back to the Bible. The New Testament tells you about tax collectors; it was a privatised function. We looked around the world and there were not very many examples of privatised tax collectors still around. But we decided that we needed to free up the organization, so that it can function properly. We cut it off from the ministry, set it up as a statutory board, what the British would call a quango. We gave it autonomy, made it a profit centre. It collects a percentage fee – so many basis points on each of the taxes which it collects. The more tax you collect, the more fees it gets. It had autonomy to recruit, to computerise, to change the procedures. Today, Singaporeans – I think to say that they enjoy paying taxes is an exaggeration – but it is less of a pain here than anywhere else in the world.
I give you a fourth example, telecommunications. It used to be a government department. Then, we made it a statutory organisation called the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore. It did everything. It had a monopoly on mail, phones, long-distance calls and it also regulated itself. We, at one time, came to believe that what is good for telecommunications is good for Singapore. But it was not true.
We decided, in this case, that the right solution was to push it out into the private sector. We regulate; private sector operates. We will privatise this. In the process of which, we decided we would give shares to Singaporeans at some favourable friendship prices, so that they all feel that they have a share in the distribution. As a result of which, the telecommunications sector has now grown. We have now got three, four telecommunication companies and free competition.
It would not have happened if it had stayed a government department. But we really did not do it as thoughtfully as we should have done, because we had no experience. We thought that we would just cut it off. It becomes a company, and then we will oversee it. But we did not think through what the industry structure should have been, which parts are natural monopolies. The national backbone of the network – should you want to give it to the telecommunication companies? The tunnels and the ducts, who should own that? What should be the monopoly rights which go to the new company? We ended up with a deal which from the point of view of the company was very satisfactory; but from the point of view of the country, we should have been bolder. We should have taken away the monopolies. We should have opened up the markets. We should have kept the common services separate as national infrastructure; and allowed competition more extensively, but in a managed sort of way. We did not do that right.
The next major privatisation we did, where we again wanted to change, was power. This time, we were saved from ourselves, because we were going to do about the same as we did for the telecommunications companies. But after we formed the company, we did the accounts up to the proper commercial standards and found that they were not quite as brilliantly attractive as we thought they were. We had to pull back our schemes. We had to rethink our plans. The rethink of the plan meant that we spent the next 10 or 15 years restructuring the industry, fundamentally. We broke it all up. We have a grid. We have a market. We have power generators. We have power suppliers. We have parts contestable, parts still regulated. Now, we have got a restructured organisation, which gives us competitive electricity rates.
Change is always hard to do. It is never an easy exercise and there is never a final position. But unless you make these changes, you are going to find yourself more and more antediluvian, out of touch and no longer functioning. That is just changing in response to world changing and new needs. Sometimes you must change because you have made a mistake, and you have got to find some way to acknowledge that, and move forward. But that is another big subject for another occasion.
Mr Shailendra: These are remarkable examples. Thank you. That is incredible. Prime Minister Lee, I would love to talk about technology. I know it is close to your heart, and the world of start-ups and so on and so forth. Could you share a little about how you see that play a role for Singapore in the future? How would you like for it to evolve?
PM Lee: I think it is a natural area where we do have an advantage because we are a city, we are compact and we are wired up. It is economical for us to provide very high-quality infrastructure, and we have people who take to it naturally. Individually, they know how to operate their phones or play Starcraft, Warcraft. But also, I think as a nation, our ethos is one where we are rationalist. If it makes sense, if it can be done more efficiently, if I can short-circuit the process and cut out the to-ing and fro-ing, I will want to do that. People will support that.
That is why we pay attention to encouraging start-ups, using tech, having what we call a Smart Nation initiative. We have set up a Smart Nation Programme Office in the government, in the Prime Minister’s Office, to oversee this exercise and get significant projects moving. I think personally that for all our pushing, we really are not going as fast we ought to. We are looking at major projects which will make a big difference to the way Singapore is able to operate. For example, a national sensor network which is linked together and integrated. Whether it is a traffic police network, or whether it is police cameras or the water authority cameras tracking drains or cameras in our housing estates watching lifts and security, you can pull all of the pictures together and get one integrated data source for the whole country.
We are thinking about a national identity system. We have one for the government services, SingPass, but it really does not do all the things we need it to do and it does not extend to private sector services. It does not even extend to hospitals which are restructured, semi-privatised. We need a good digital identification service which is reliable, which everybody can rely on. I can sign, I can identify myself, I can access services securely; and I can transact services online. The Estonians have this: there is no reason why we should not have it.
I need a good electronic payment system. I have got banks which offer Automated Teller Machines. In the old days, they considered that a great step forward. They have presence on the Internet. It works, not badly, some even win prizes. But actually from the point of view of users, and if you compare with other countries, there is a lot more we have to learn. We have not gone as far as we need in order to do cashless payments in hawker centres, in shops, between people. I was complaining to my Permanent Secretaries the other day. The Ministers have lunch once a week together, we pay for our own lunch and there is one Minister in charge of making a collection. We made a great step forward when he said: “I do not want to receive cash anymore, please write me cheques”. The Permanent Secretaries told me they are one step ahead, they use Pay-lah, which is a DBS application. But it shows how non-pervasive it is and what the potential is if we can get it through.
We can use Information Technology, data and the whole system to apply that intelligence to our transport system – to be responsive, to adapt to demand, to cut down on empty routes and unnecessary services.We have not done that enough; the incentives have not been brought together. There are big things which we need to do and many small things which we ought to do better. Every time I go on to a Government website, if for some reason I have to transact a service and I cannot find the link, I tell them, please put this link in. Because if I cannot find it, I think there are a lot of people who will have the same problem as me.
Actually I have in mind to have a competition, to do it the way Donald Knuth does for his code. He puts his code up. Then he says anybody who finds a bug, ten cents for the first finder. After two weeks, he says twenty cents for the first finder. The bugs gradually go down. Finally, two hundred and fifty six dollars for the first finder. I think we need that kind of involvement from people, in order to get the system responsive, in order to get people focused on it, in order for us to be at that edge.
So I think that there are a lot of things that we can do individually, as a government, as a nation, and also for companies. To be participating, to come here, set up and use Singapore as a place to start up. Singapore companies, we have some starting up and we know that there are quite a number who come from the region to Singapore to take advantage of our incubators, our environment and our access to the region in order to make their base here.
Mr Shailendra: Thank you. I think incredible examples yet again, so let me switch topics. There is a veil of protectionism around the world, with Brexit, with the United States. Now, new policies awaits. What are your views? In this new and different world, what approach will Singapore be taking?
PM Lee: It is understandable the sentiments which have come to the surface, but it is very worrying. I was reading Steve Bannon this morning and he talks about economic nationalism as being one of the Trump administration’s priorities. What does it mean, economic nationalism? In a way it is protectionism by a better name. In another way it is an approach to say: I am now no longer going to take a broad view of the benefits of trade. I want to make every deal win. Maybe make every deal win-win, but at least every deal win. I can understand the motive for that. But when you are a big country and you take that approach, I think you lose on the broad benefits of an open system where everybody is able to trade and do business together, that is of great advantage to a country like the United States.
It is not just the tech industry which thinks that, but everybody who studies economics comes to that conclusion very early in the process. And in fact, a big chunk of the population of the United States depends on this integration and multilateral trade. So if it goes a different way, there will be a pain, there will be consequences and hopefully after some time, lessons will be learned. But it is very difficult for a country like Singapore. There is no alternative, we have to connect to the world. Why not build a wall around Singapore? It will be cheaper than a wall along the southern border [of the United States] but it would be more disastrous for us. What do we do? We will starve to death. We are walling ourselves in. So we have to be open.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is off. It is a great pity and it is a setback. We have to continue to pursue free trade with the other partners, which we will. And we hope that America, even under this administration will, in its own way, seek to deepen its links with Asia, Europe and China. And in time, the mood in America will change, become again more confident and more open. We will not go back to where we were but I hope we will go on to a more positive path again, one day.
Q: First question as a Singaporean founder, first time founder, when I was in National University of Singapore, I was inspired by local heroes and trailblazers like Darius from TenCube who eventually sold to McAfee and we have got Royston and team from Zopim who sold to Zendesk.
The first question is, what is your view of the current state of startups in Singapore and where do you see this headed in the next three to five years. And actually I am a bit kiasu, greedy in Singapore terms, to squeeze a second question inspired by Sir Mike Moritz this morning over breakfast and hopefully benefits all the founders here. This question is: what is your favourite interview question when you are hiring Ministers?
PM Lee: Firstly, I think the startup scene has livened up. There are young people in Singapore who are trying things. There are also a fair number of young people who have gone into the Valley in California, who have been caught the bug and the enthusiasm and are not only working in tech companies but come out and are doing their own start-ups in Silicon Valley. I think that is a very good sign, we would like more to do that. In fact, that is one of the recommendations from the Committee on the Future Economy report, to set up a Global Innovation Network where our young people can go anywhere – whether in the region, Southeast Asia, India, China, or America, Israel, Europe – be immersed in the environment, find out what the exciting things are and be inspired to start their own things. I think that more will do it; not everybody will succeed. As of now, I suspect that the technical content of the startups vary and some meet new market needs, some really are putting up traditional businesses. But that will sort itself out. The problem is not lack of resources from the Government. Really what is needed is the talent, the drive. And we just have to get out of the way and enable you to do that.
As for questions which we ask potential officeholders or potential members of Parliament. I have done many of these interviews. We ask what they read so we get some sense of what their interests are. We ask what they have been doing outside of their work so we see whether they have an interest in social issues, whether they have an interest in helping people. We ask what policy issues they care about and have a view on and would like the Government to change. That is usually the question which they find the hardest to answer because they are not sure whether to tell us that we are dead wrong on something or other. But if they give us a good answer, we give them very high marks.
Q: The question I have is, Singapore twenty years from now. When you step back and look at how far Singapore has come in the last 40 years, a country that had more than tenfold increase in per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country has changed tremendously if you look back at photographs of what Singapore looked like in the 1970s. What do you think the country will look like twenty years from now? Partly because of technology but partly because of social change, how do you envision the future?
PM Lee: This is the most difficult question to answer because when we were a developing country, we could say that in ten years’ time, I will have doubled or tripled my GDP per capita, my growth will be that size and my towns will be up. Now that we are at the leading edge, there is no model to follow. What we do know, is that on the physical side, there is a lot of potential for us to change and rebuild.
For example, if you fly over the island, it looks like it is all built up and there is nothing more to be done. But we are moving our port out of its traditional place, which is on the southern shore of the island, right to the south western side and it is going to free up an entire space, which is six or seven times the size of this Marina Bay area and we can develop a new city there.
On the eastern side, we have an airbase which is in the middle of the land, and the airbase takes up space. The flight paths in and out constrains developments and in fact constrains developments all the way down to the Marina Bay. We are going to move that airbase to Changi and the airbase area will be opened up. It is probably the size of two or three new towns and the whole of the eastern half of Singapore can be redeveloped. It will not look like Manhattan’s density but it means that I can redo the island all over again.
In terms of society, in twenty years’ time, the population will be completely post-independence. For them, if we are lucky and we have peace, the experience will have been stability and progress for all of their lives. The challenge would be for them to still have that drive to want to make things better, to want to be at the leading edge. You can be sure that twenty years from now, if you look at London or New York or San Francisco or Sydney, they will be different from today. Different in ethos, different in issues which they are dealing with, the businesses which are thriving. We want to be like them, but like them in Asia. An Asian society, which is with it, but remembering where we came from. I think that if we can do that, then you can ask this question again, or your children, 20 years from now of my successors.
Q: I am a big fan of the Singapore story and I read the biography of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. What are you afraid of? What keeps you up at night?
PM Lee: Well, some of the things which keep you up at night, you cannot do anything about. We spent a lot of time worrying about the United States presidential election.
There are other things which can go bump in the night because we are in uncharted waters. There is a major change of direction in the United States. Other powers will react and how does that interaction work out? If it is a rebalancing, that is manageable. If it is destabilization, you do not know what the consequences are. That is one big global uncertainty.
Within the region, we also watch very carefully the trends and our neighbouring countries. Whether they are focused on regional cooperation and integration, or whether their focus is on economic nationalism – like the mood in the United States and the developed countries – and are therefore turning more inwards. We monitor this. It can happen. Because when you are a small country like Singapore, you know that you have no choice. When you are a big country, two, three hundred million people, you feel that you can strike a different balance. And if you strike a different balance, you cannot calculate all the consequences. Everybody says the right thing. If you interview world leaders, everybody will say they are for free trade. But what they mean by it and what they do when they say they are pro free trade, you have to watch and see. That keeps us up.
We also have to watch our own domestic population trends, our demographic trends. That worries us a great deal and again it is something with no easy solution. We can do certain things but you cannot drastically change it. Our birth rate is too low. The average fertility is 1.3 per female. It has to be 2.1 to just replace ourselves. We can top up to a certain extent with new citizens, with permanent residents from overseas. But you must have a core which is transmitted from generation to generation, and transmitted by birth. It cannot all be somebody naturalized. Otherwise the essence of the country somehow disappears. That is something which we are still working with. We are doing all the things which seem sensible to do. Tax credits, tax incentives, cash bonuses, pre-school facilities, infant care facilities, paternity leave, more paternity leave.
Houses – nowhere else in the world do you wait to buy a house before you get married. But in Singapore, people say, “I am not getting married, how about giving me a house first, sooner”. In fact, we are doing that. Because actually that has become the norm and it has been our policy to have every Singaporean be entitled to a public housing flat, subsidised. We can do that and it is a big differentiator between Singapore and other cities. I was just talking to a visitor this week. He said, “How do you do public housing?” Because that is the one problem he cannot solve. His middle class wants affordable housing in the cities and he cannot deliver it to them because there is a free market. But in Singapore, we can deliver public housing, affordable, to Singaporeans. You do not have to live way out in the suburbs or rent a tiny space or live with your parents even as 20, 30-year old adults. Those are some of the things we are doing.
Mr Shailendra: It is amazing. We must all encourage our friends to have more kids in order to save the nation, our Singaporean friends. It is great to have touched on many topics and housing is a great one for sure. Neil from China, if I may request you. You sent us a question earlier. Neil runs our Sequoia China business. He is part of our global leadership team, one of the most senior partners of the firm.
Q: Some of the questions have been asked by the audience. I will change my question. I remember six years ago, we are here, also at Sequoia offsite, and there was one question from the audience. Which is, ‘If you have one advice to the Chinese leaders, what is the one advice and suggestion you would give to them?’ You answered that six years ago but time flies. Today in 2017, what is the advice you would give to Chinese leaders about governance, about running countries. Thank you.
PM Lee: I will have to think very carefully whether to give any advice. But I would say Xi Jinping made a very good speech in Davos. You may have read it. I am not sure if it was published in full in China, which I found interesting. I think it was reported but it was not quite published. But that is his line – that he believes in openness, he believes in competition, he believes in free trade, he believes in globalisation; and closing ourselves up leads nowhere. I think that if they actually follow through on that and operate the system in that way, in that spirit, that will make a big difference. In every country, between the rhetoric and the implementation, there is a certain slippage. But in China particularly, because it is such a big country, between what the centre’s message is and what actually happens on the ground, the slippage is perhaps a bit bigger than in other countries. If they can do what he said in Davos, I think that would be a great service to China and to the world.
Q: It has been a pleasure listening to you. Thank you so much for making it. As the head of state of such an immensely progressive and successful state, and I would imagine by virtue of your role you are also surrounded by people who are perhaps constantly saying, ‘yes sir, yes sir’. How do you remain honest to yourself, to your fallacies, to your inadequacies? How do you truly look into the mirror and find who you generally are?
PM Lee: Well I tried to answer that in the first question which Shailendra asked just now. First of all, I try not to surround myself with “yes, sir” men. That is important because if all you have are people who say “three bags full sir”, then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous. You need people who have their own views, whose views you respect, whom you can have a productive disagreement with, and work out ideas which you might not have come up with, or who improve on ideas you had. I think that is the first requirement.
Secondly, you have to break out of that circle. You have to see the world, you have to talk to people, ordinary people. You have to have a sense of what it looks like not from the point of view of the policymaker, but from the point of view of those who are at the receiving end of your policies. I can tell you that is very hard. Because it makes so much sense – if only you drew the boxes this way, line things up like that, make that administrative adjustment and everything will work fine. But in fact, every time we draw a box like that, there is a consequence for human beings. Every time you make a rule, somebody will think of a way to operate around the rule. It is so with healthcare, it is so with insurance, it is so with financial services. There is no end to this exercise in influencing people. People generally want to cooperate, but at the same time, they are optimising for themselves or their families or their groups. You have to be conscious of this, in order to – at least to some extent – acknowledge the limitations of what you are able to do.
The personal part – well each person has to do it his own way. First of all, do not think that you are right all the time. Always leave open the possibility, I may be wrong. If the person tells you something, what makes him say that? Could he possibly have a point? You may find that after thinking it over a day or two, he has a point and you have to find some way to accommodate that and to acknowledge that you were mistaken. You can be mistaken from time to time.
Q: Singapore has been very encouraging to start-ups, both local startups and startups moving into Singapore. I am curious what policies of the government do you find to be most impactful in fostering start-ups to grow and innovate and make a difference.
PM Lee: First we create an overall pro-business environment. It is easy for you to do business here. You do not have to spend weeks starting up, registering the company or getting permits to operate. The business environment must be favourable and that must apply to companies big and small. If you are a client which has some special idea, come to the Economic Development Board (EDB). Beh Swan Gin is here. He is the Chairman of EDB. EDB will help you manoeuvre through our bureaucracy, which is better than other bureaucracies, but for which help can still be useful. That is the first basic point.
Secondly we can create the infrastructure, like the incubators, venture capitalists, the angels, the whole ecosystem to support start-ups. We have some of that, not comprehensive, but we have some of that in Singapore.
Thirdly, we want to be, and I think we are, open to talent. If you are starting a company or running a company and you need to bring in people, and you cannot find the people in Singapore, or you are just starting up and this is your team, it is very easy to bring people into Singapore. The process is not like getting an H1B visa in the United States. It does not mean that there is no wary observation by Singaporeans. Who is coming in, are they real talent or not, are there too many or not? But we do make ourselves open to talent, and that is critical.
Fourthly, we spend a lot of energy on our education system, focusing on STEM, – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – and STEM subjects. Producing students in STEM subjects, especially information technology and engineering, so that we can have people with the technological capability, technical know-how, to go and have these ideas and implement them. Those are some of the things we are doing. We also have schemes, various schemes, incentives, grants and so on. I would not bore you with those; and actually, if you are a real entrepreneur, you should not be looking for those.
Mr Shailendra: Prime Minister Lee, we can definitely attest to help from the EDB. Swan Gin and Swee Yeok are here. The team – Paul is here. They have been very, very helpful to multiple, different start-ups and that has clearly been a very, very positive differentiator for many of them to find that headquarters here.
Q: I have a more generic management question. Did you have any situation where you had a strong disagreement over certain topic or issue with your fellow Ministers? How did you overcome that?
PM Lee:When you have a big decision, there are always more than one view. For example, last year, we made a constitutional amendment to change the rules on who can become president and how you get elected president. We tightened up the pre-requisites, but the key thing was, we also introduced a rule that the presidency had to be rotated between the different racial communities. If you have had a gap beyond a certain number of terms without an Indian president, the next president had to come from the Indian community, if you could find a candidate. It is a very radical measure. It is one which we debated for probably for four or five years. It is one which we have known we had an issue with since we created the scheme of a President who is elected by the popular vote 20-something years ago. We watched it, we discussed it and we let it be. Eventually we decided to do something about it and we had a long debate as to how and what mechanism to use to make this happen, and when to make the move to introduce such a scheme.
It is not just a thing you pass in Parliament. It is a thing which you have to justify to the public, and the public has to understand, accept and support it. Eventually after long debate, we opened the subject last year. I made a speech in Parliament, explained the problem. We appointed a Constitutional Commission. The Chief Justice chaired it. He took submissions. The public submitted ideas. They deliberated on the ideas and they recommended a mechanism. The government accepted it and we implemented it. There has to be some free play. It cannot be just your idea on how to make it work. There has to be not just a decision what to do, but also when to do and how to do it. It is a very important part of making things turn out right.
Q: Prime Minister Lee, thank you so much for coming back a second time and spending time with us. I hope we can eventually persuade you to score a hat trick with us and come back a third time. Now I was going to ask you about Trans-Pacific Partnership and the implications on America but I think people would be much more interested in hearing you describe your favourite websites and the favourite applications that you use, and what you yourself do on the internet.
PM Lee: I have on my desktop the news websites open: BBC, New York Times, Straits Times, Channel News Asia. They are there all the time. Because of that, I do not watch the television news anymore. If you want to see the snippet, it is there all the time. I have Facebook open and Instagram, because I have accounts. I track what is happening to my posts, what people are saying, and whether we have to respond to it or not. It is quite useful because without those, I would not reach out to significant segments of the population, here and overseas. It is also fun, if you do not become addicted to it.
What other websites do I go to? I look at a page called Astronomy Picture of the Day. Some of you may know of that. Every day there is a picture, a nebula, a supernova, the sun, rings of Saturn, something like that. I sometimes look at blogs by mathematicians to track what they are doing. I follow Terry Tao’s [Terrence Tao Chi-Shen] blog. He covers all sorts of things. Usually I get lost after the first two paragraphs of his post but it is interesting to know what he is working on. He is the chap who proved that you can have as long a series of primes in arithmetic progression as you like. In other words, you can have ten primes which are in arithmetic progression or one hundred or one thousand. It is something which people were looking for many, many years. He has done many other things.
I look at photography websites because I take pictures. You pick up ideas looking at what people do, how they take the pictures. Some hints, some sense of what you are looking for and how you analyse a scene. Now when I look at pictures, you do not just say it is very pretty. You figure out where his leading lines are, where his focuses are, whether he put it on the one-third line or not and all sorts of technical things. It is like wine, oenophiles drinking wine and activating the brains instead of just the taste buds. But it is fun.
I use the applications which match these things. I use Kindle. I read mostly on Kindle now because it is much more convenient than carrying a book. Although it does not get absorbed as well as with a physical book. With a physical book you have a sense of where you are, how far to go, where they fit together. You can flip back, you can side-line. You can sort of do that in the Kindle, not the same, but overall the convenience makes it worthwhile.
I have lots of other apps but I use them less often. Google Earth, from time to time. iTunes, not very often. I tried Spotify. I signed on and from inertia, I left it on for about two years and I was paying them $10 a month. I will tolerate the advertisements every 20 minutes if I decide to listen to them again. That is where I am.
Mr Shailendra: That is wonderful. Actually for those of us who follow Prime Minister Lee on Twitter, he often posts pictures as he is up and about Singapore. It is very interesting to somehow know, every few days, where he went or what he shot pictures of. You are an active social media contributor as well.
PM Lee:: I watch to see whether I am influencing people or whether I am being manipulated by the system. It is not clear because either the population changes, the mechanisms, or the algorithms change, and posts that used to score spectacular homeruns, now have no audience sometimes. You are not sure whether the world has changed, whether you have become boring or whether the algorithm is trying harder to persuade you to click on ‘boost this post’!
Q: Prime Minister Lee, while all of us here come from all walks of life, from different parts of the world, one thing we share in common is that we are all dreamers and we all work every day and we work very hard to achieve these dreams. I would love to understand from you, what you want to see more from us, all of us here in the room.
PM Lee: I hope you succeed in your dreams to change the world. You do not know who will succeed. It may be to a greater or lesser degree but collectively the ferment, the effervescence, the ingenuity and brilliance which has gone into the tech scene has already made a big change in the world. Some of it, a lot, for the better, and the downsides, we are having to learn to live with. I think the way has to be forward and not backwards. We can have driverless vehicles. We need driverless vehicles. It will make a difference to human beings, to the human condition. If we can have personalised medicine, I think we should go for personalised medicine, and we will be able to treat human beings better and improve their lives. To go the other way is completely a dead end.
I went to Cuba once. I was a student at the Kennedy School in Harvard on the Mason Program and we had to vote where to go for Easter break in order to learn about economic development. I voted for Mexico but I was out-voted. The students in 1980 believed that in Cuba there was some magic about economic development. We went there, we spent a week. They lectured us, they brought their planners, their officials. They were not unintelligent people but they were operating that system. And one of them told me something which left an indelible impression. He said, “If ever somebody invents a machine which will save manpower and then become more efficient and I do not need all these people whom I am hiring, then I will take him and the machine and throw him into the deep blue sea”. That was their philosophy of creating jobs and spreading well-being amongst the population. It was a total dead end.
I went to buy an ice-cream in the park. I queued up five times. First, you get a coupon. Then, you present the coupon. Then, they prepared the ice-cream. Then, when the ice-cream is ready you go somewhere else and you pay. After that, you come back and you collect the ice-cream. They were putting this philosophy into action – or inaction. Look where it has led them. In the end, you have no choice. You have to open up. And I think for humankind too, the way forward is with technology. Use it, master it, and make life better for people.
(T)he way forward is with technology. Use it, master it, and make life better for people. PM Lee Hsien Loong
(T)he way forward is with technology. Use it, master it, and make life better for people.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Q: Sir, the Asian society is known to have a lot of mistrust amongst people and that is coming from different racial backgrounds. Singapore has achieved a great amount of trust among citizens and therefore the economic progress is natural. What advice would you give to businesses to tap into learning how to create trust and make commerce easier to do, for a mistrusting society, let us say India, where every transaction has a lot of mistrust behind it.
PM Lee: I do not know what the solution is. Technology to work in a situation where you do not have trust, I think I can imagine that. All the sharing economy apps, the Uber, the Lyft, the Airbnb, you establish mutual rankings, assessments, and then you more or less know whether the other person is reliable or not. That sort of thing, I think you can do. To change your society, I think that is much harder.
You say that in Singapore, we have growth because we have trust. But actually it also works the other way around. We have trust because the growth has benefited most people and people accept that this is something which is for them. It is going to be harder now because the growth will be slower and we have to convince people, let us work together, at least we get this 2-3 percent growth, it is good by any international standard. If you did not work together and you were at odds and you split – either regionally, like in India, with race and religion and caste, and geography on top of that, or in America, between the coasts and the centre, between the red and the blue states – I think Singapore would become a very unhappy and much, much less successful place. It is our responsibility as a government to have policies which will not let that happen
Mr Shailendra: This has been an amazing session. Thank you so much for spending time with us today.
PM Lee: Thank you very much.
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