PM Lee Hsien Loong at NUSS 60th anniversary Lecture

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 4 October 2014

Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the NUSS 60th anniversary lecture on 3 October 2014 at the University Cultural Centre.


Mr David Ho, President of the NUSS

Mr Chandra Mohan, Organising Chairperson of this evenings’ event

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, President of the University

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Congratulations to NUSS on your 60th anniversary. 

My theme tonight is “Singapore in Transition – the Next Phase”. We are now at an inflexion point, changing gears, changing pace.  We need not only to navigate the eddies and the currents from moment to moment. But we also have to keep in mind some basic principles which will help us to maintain our sense of direction, our momentum and our purpose. 

Tonight I would like to share with you three thoughts. First, while we look inwards, we must not forget to look outwards. Second, while we are good-hearted, we must not shy away from being hard-headed. And third, while we immerse ourselves in the present, we have to understand our past, and be confident of our future.

Keep Looking Outwards

Let me start with inwards versus outwards. We have got to keep on looking outwards even as we deal with challenges at home. 

We have been concentrating in recent years on what is happening within Singapore and understandably so because we have had urgent issues to deal with – housing, public transport, medical care and so on. 

And also as a society we are making some strategic policy shifts to prepare for longer-term trends, trends like changing demographics, ageing population and maturing economy. We are strengthening and enhancing the social risk-sharing to bear the vicissitudes of life together for example with MediShield LIFE. We are providing more social support to the elderly, for example through the Pioneer Generation Package and the Silver Support scheme. We are preparing our workforce for the future through the work of the ASPIRE committee and now the SkillsFuture committee to create opportunities and upgrading paths for all our people wherever their positions in our economy. That is our New Way Forward. 

These are major changes, with very long-term consequences, so we have got to proceed very cautiously and make sure we get them right because once you make the move it is irrevocable. So the government has spent a lot of time developing the policies. We have spent time and energy engaging Singaporeans to understand the challenges, shape the policies themselves, and build a consensus on the way forward for example through Our Singapore Conversation.

But perhaps because we are so focussed on these issues, I fear that Singaporeans are not paying enough attention to what is happening outside Singapore. More people are getting their news not from reading newspapers or watching television news or the BBC but from one another or through the social media, and focusing on domestic events. We are absorbed in our daily lives, leaving little time and energy to track less immediate concerns. I will not give you a test but I do wonder how many Singaporeans could at the top of their head name the current Prime Minister of Thailand. You do not have to put up your hands. Or how many of you can remember what ISIS stands for and whether that is the same as ISIL. These are just random facts but the general point is we are looking inwards and not paying enough attention to the world around us.

There are three reasons why it is important for us to have a broader view. 

First, it sets our own issues in perspective. We are preoccupied with healthcare financing, aging population, immigration, income inequality, and so many other domestic items. But these are not items unique to Singapore. Many other countries in the world, especially developed countries face similar issues and exactly the same list of things and we are all facing, dealing with the challenges in our different ways. So to make sense of what faces us and to assess what we are doing and have ideas on what we can do, we have to know that this is not peculiar to Singa¬pore. We have to know how others are tackling their problems, and learn from their experiences. Then I think we can see our issues in perspective and we can make a judgement – is this something that we should be alarmed about or we should congratulate ourselves about or which we can do something about. It is also useful to understand how well we are doing, and how we can do better. 

Second, there are major changes in the Asian landscape which are having a big impact on us, more so because we are a small country. Take Indonesia, one of our closest neighbours and partners.  It is soon going to have a new President and government. How will Indonesia change? How will our relations with them develop? India – new Prime Minister – strong mandate, determined to get India’s economy moving and keen to work with Singapore. How can we take advantage of this? China is continuing to develop rapidly. Most of us still think of China as a low-cost manufacturing base just a place for labour intensive factories, sweat from morning to night. But I visited Shenzhen recently and I went to Tencent which is one of the IT companies and it completely defies this stereotype. It is 15 years old; it is a high-tech firm with many innovative ideas and apps - the most well-known app probably is WeChat. 350 million users active worldwide including, I am sure, some of you here because there are many users in Singapore. I met them and talked to them. They are a dynamic and young workforce. The ethos and culture is just like that of a Silicon Valley company. It has grown from nothing to become the fourth largest Internet company in the world, with revenues larger than Facebook.  So China is changing. What does its rise mean for Singa¬pore’s competitive position given our limited resources? How do we stay abreast of these changes and not fall behind? Unless we understand what is happening and grasp how it impacts us, we cannot anticipate or respond properly to events. 

We have always been open, connected and outward-looking in the past. This has always been a pillar of our success. It is why other leaders seek our views on international matters because we watch, we study carefully, we have a vested interest in knowing.  It is why companies set up their Headquarters here despite Singapore having no natural advantages. It is why our students do well when they travel overseas and study overseas in some of the best and top universities in the world - Because they have been in good universities in Singa-pore. It is also why the universities in Singapore are highly regarded in the world, including not least, NUS. So we have to know what is happening around us. 

Third, we have to know what is going to happen in the world, anywhere in the world. Major trends, unexpected developments such as globalisation and technological progress can create and disrupt businesses swiftly, much faster than we think and much faster than sometimes we would like. Take ports for example. We are the second biggest port in the world. PSA has got multiple terminals in Singapore, six of them and we are consolidating them all into a single megaport in Tuas eventually so that we have one centralised efficient outfit and consolidate our position as a transhipment hub. But the climate is changing and the Arctic Ocean is melting. New sailing routes are opening up, the North-East passage via the Arctic Ocean from Europe to the Far East. Not all the ships will go there but some will and bypass Singapore and PSA. What does it mean for us? We have to watch, we have to understand. Most of you may not have noticed but Singapore has become an observer in the Arctic Council. It is not a joke. We are an Equatorial country, right in the middle of the tropics, but we decided we better become an observer in the Arctic Council as it can affect us. We want to know and we want to be part of this change. We have no choice. 

Take another example - car-sharing apps like Uber or Grabtaxi. They are changing the nature of the business. What is the business? Not taxis but cars bringing people from place to place, providing a service to people where they want it, when they want it, the way they want it. It has given commuters increased options and improved services but it has disrupted traditional industries, and in particular the taxi business in many cities.  It is challenging the regulatory frameworks which govern the taxi operations in cities around the world. So you find that incumbents are very anxious, worried, pushing back, resisting, protesting, filing suits whether it is in London, Paris, Germany or Sydney. The change is happening and not everybody likes it. The technology is already in Singa¬pore too. Not just Uber but Uber X, GrabTaxi and there are others as well. It is futile to resist it or try to prevent it. I think it is a wrong attitude because it can bring better services and better lives to our people. So we have got to track this and understand how it can help us. And we have got to have a response to be able to develop the framework to facilitate innovation and at the same time orderly change in the taxi industry, and ensure a competitive and a level playing field for both old and new players. 

Head and Heart

So we have got to look out even as we look inwards. If we fall to navel-gazing, that is the end of us. Like it or not, the outside world is going to impose change on us, and we have to be prepared for it.  We have not solved for all time the problem of earning a living for ourselves, more so as we lack a large enough domestic economy in order to sustain ourselves on our own. So we have got to make ourselves valuable to the world. Some of these changes will bring opportunities, others will bring create new challenges but we have to do things today with tomorrow in mind. That requires us to be both good-hearted and hard-headed in our approach. 

I described our New Way Forward just now. People have commended this New Way Forward for showing more Heart rather than Head. And indeed it is important to win hearts and I am glad people appreciate what we do. I am glad that the New Way Forward resonates with Singaporeans. But please do not forget that we cannot be all Heart, and no Head. 

We must never be hard-hearted, but we must never shy away from being hard-headed. 

First of all, because we have to do the good-hearted things right. There are many examples from all sorts of countries of the best of intentions producing zero results or worse sometimes even negative results, especially in social policy. Too often, the policies ends up hurting the very same people they were intended to help. Take the problem of poverty. Many countries have generous welfare schemes to alleviate poverty, or minimum wage laws to help poorer workers but none of them have succeeded in eradicating poverty. Instead they have often created welfare states, bureaucracy, dependency, disincentives to work, and even higher unemployment. Because what you want from a policy is not necessarily what you get from it. You intend some outcomes but you will often produce unintended results. So that is the first reason we have to be hard headed – to get the right results. 

The second reason is because we have to be good-hearted not just to ourselves, but also to our children and to our grandchildren. That means that we need to be hard-headed about ourselves. Take CPF and healthcare financing, it would be easy for us to lay the burden on our children, as some other countries have done, by paying for generous welfare benefits through debt financing or hopefully one day future taxation. That is not what we have done. We have the Pioneer Generation Package. We could have promised this to pioneers and left it to future governments to find the money to pay for our generosity. But instead we set aside the money now so that the package is guaranteed. The Pioneers can be sure that they will get it and our children are not burdened by the cost of what we do. 

When this Government makes a promise, we mean it and we keep it. So while what we do speaks to the heart, we must be hard-headed about how to make it happen and how to live within our means, because that is the only way we can deliver on our promises. 

Thirdly, we need growth and prosperity in order to be good-hearted. You cannot just get growth and prosperity just from good intentions. Without resources, good intentions mean nothing. We have to grow the economy as it is the only way our people can have a better lives. A rich society is not necessarily a happy society, but an impoverished society is very seldom happy. We must not go pell-mell for growth regardless of social, human or environmental costs, nor are we doing so. 

But I do worry when people say we should take it easy on growth because we are okay, and they talk airily about the more important things in life. They do not understand what our well-being depends on and I think there is a strong element of condescension and complacency in that view because essentially they are telling others: “Well I am well off enough, you should be satisfied with whatever you have even if you are poor” because we have growth, you cannot make somebody better off without making somebody else worse off. That is not the way forward. 

One important example where we need both Heart and Head is our population policy – for example talking about marriage and parenthood, about immigration, about foreign workers.

The Heart part is very important here because the population is also about a sense of identity, of nationhood, of belonging. And because you talking about babies, and the next generation, and having children, it is fundamentally a matter of the heart and should be and it cannot just be a response to the size of the baby bonus. We are not only seeking the right size of population, but also a harmonious and open hearted society. We know that immigration and foreign workers have social impacts, and people have to have time and space to adapt to these impacts and to adjust to one another. So the Heart is very important. These are all valid concerns and important considerations when we put out a population policy.

The Head part is also important because hard facts cannot be wished away. What are the hard facts? Our TFR (Total Fertility Rate) is 1.2 babies per woman; our population is aging rapidly, already one old person for about ten working persons, and getting worst year by year.  We have too few nurses to take care of old folks, too few construction workers to build our homes and too few construction workers to build our MRT lines, and not enough for our companies and SMEs to grow. And I think most Singaporeans understand this

The issue which vexes Singaporeans, maybe especially this audience of the university alumni, is that we also need foreign PMEs, not just foreign workers or construction workers, but foreign professionals, managers and executives because they compete with Singaporean PMEs for jobs. 

I can appreciate that from a micro point of view, if I have a foreigner working beside me and in a similar job, he is competing with me, and it means that I am under greater pressure. But from a macro point of view, allowing foreign professionals to work in Singapore in fact creates more good jobs for Singaporeans. If we are too tight on foreign PMEs, I think many companies would be deterred from coming here, and the jobs for Singaporean PMEs may not even exist in the first place.

Take the financial industry for example. During the Global Financial Crisis we encouraged banks and other financial institutions to expand here, which they did. Even when they were shrinking elsewhere, our financial sector grew. Now we have a good critical mass of financial institutions and it has strengthened our financial centre and created many more jobs for our professionals. But it also meant more foreign PMEs here in finance and banking insurance, because the banks do business internationally and they need a multi-national work-force; they need the mix; they need the numbers. 

Unfortunately this has created a perception among Singaporeans working in finance that sometimes they do not get fair treatment. And I am sure that once in awhile, that is in fact true. That is why we have created the TAFEP - the tripartite group for fair employment practices as a mechanism to investigate cases, complaints and do something about them. And I think the foreign employers are cooperating with us. 

We are determined to get a fair deal for Singaporean employees. At the same time, I think I should remind Singaporeans that they have to compete on our merits and contributions. It applies to all our workers, blue collar, whether you are a white collar, whether you are a professional, whether you are a boss or the employee, whether you are in the government or private sector, you have to compete on your merits and contributions. That is ultimately the only way to secure jobs and careers.

On the overall population policy, we are paying attention to both the emotional and practical aspects of the problem. In terms of Heart: we are giving weight to how comfortable people are with the pace of immigration. We are encouraging new arrivals to adapt to Singapore norms - to the way our society functions.  In terms of Head: we are watching the numbers, keeping the inflows moderate and sustainable. 

So last year when we debated the population White Paper in Parliament, the Government proposed moderating the foreign worker inflows. The opposition rejected this, they argued for zero foreign worker growth. They said no inflows, shut off. It was a populist and irresponsible pose. It was not a serious policy, because such a freeze would have harmed our economy, and in particular would have hurt many of the SMEs which desperately need workers and would have caused Singaporeans to suffer and lose jobs.  We did not do that and instead we decided to moderate the foreign worker inflow, but not to stop it. Even this is painful. We know that the policies are biting - many SMEs are finding it tough despite all our schemes to help them. So nowadays we do not hear any more demands from the opposition for zero foreign worker growth.

What we are doing, what we said we would do and are doing is necessary and is working. The latest manpower numbers do show that the foreign worker growth has slowed to a more sustainable level, and is about where we want it to be. I do not expect any further measures to tighten foreign worker numbers further. Meanwhile our economic restructuring is progressing, productivity is improving at least in some sectors, and we are steadily catching up in terms of our infrastructure - housing, public transport and so on. 

So you must put together your heart and your head, and think carefully and feel how people feel and choose a solution which suggests to the extent possible both the heart and head and convince people to accept it and support it. 

But I am under no illusion that this problem is over. Because population is always a sensitive topic - here and in all countries. Many others face similar issues with immigration and with the response of the population to the immigrants. Often we will see nasty anti-immigration sentiments. In the UK you have the UKIP, in France you have the National Front Party which is now led by Le Pen - the daughter of another right wing nationalist politician. Even in Hong Kong where you are talking about one country two systems, the people are very sensitive about Chinese immigrants from the PRC and Chinese workers from the PRC. Or Sweden which is a famously liberal and big-hearted country, they have taken a lot of foreign immigrants and refugees and now they are seeing a right-wing nasty party and an anti-immigrant backlash.

We have to avoid going down this road. We have to manage our numbers. We have to stay open and welcome those who are ready to contribute to Singapore and who are ready to make their home here.  We must maintain our reputation for being a good place to live and work because we lose that at our peril. If people think that we are not interested in attracting investments, or that talent is not welcome here, or that we have turned inwards. I think that is the end of us. 

These are real dangers because we see the tendencies. I am sure you do too, especially on the internet, to blame everything bad that happens in Singa-pore on foreigners, and blame all foreigners for anything bad that any one non-Singa¬porean does. All bad things are done by foreigners and all foreigners do bad things. And they even get blamed for some things that have nothing to do with them like winning medals at the Asian games. Joseph Schooling, he is born here, his father is born here, he happens to be Eurasian. He won a gold medal, in fact he won three medals, and he was called an “Ang Moh foreign talent”. I think it is a compliment to the “Ang Moh foreign talent”. 

I am ashamed and dismayed when I read such virulent and nasty attitudes, and I am sure so are many other Singaporeans. We have to stand up and have the courage to say so and not be cowed to remain silent. There are problems of integration, problems of numbers, of congestion, we deal with them.  But bad behaviour, rude behaviour, behaviour which is really a disgrace to Singaporean or to a human being - we should have the courage to call it such. 

We have to be both good-hearted and hard-headed, understand the anxieties of people, and do our best to address them. But we must be honest and clear about what we need to do for the good of Singapore and to secure our future.

Past and Future

To have an eye on what lies ahead has always been the Singapore way. Even as we focus on the present, we must look forward and have confidence in our future. And perhaps less obviously, we must also know and understand the past and especially our past.  

Because unless we understand our past, we will fail to appreciate what Singa¬pore’s success depends upon - why Singa¬pore works the way it does. We will become unjustifiable pessimistic about our future prospects. 

Foreign visitors often ask me: “What is your secret of success? Can we transplant that secret and that success elsewhere?” I reply to them that it is very hard to do. Not that I am not willing to share or to explain, I can do that. But what we have achieved here is not just because of who we happen to be. It is also a function of our history and our Southeast Asian context. It depends on how we became independent, and how the Pioneer Generation responded to the critical challenge of building a nation from nothing and created the challenge and the response and a virtuous cycle of conditions and results – to bring us to today. You cannot create that cycle starting from any random starting point or out of nothing just by saying I want to do that. 

We are stable and peaceful now, but our society experienced upheavals and riots – communal riots, the ferocious fight with the Communists. We are friends with our neighbours now, but we had difficult relations before – irreconcilable differences with Malaysia when we were in Malaysia, Konfrontasi with Indonesia which was a war- a low intensity war although it was not called war. 

How did we get here from there, in the span of half a century? We ourselves must know this history, to understand how Singa¬pore works, why we do the things we do. For example why did we invent NEWater? Because water was critical to our survival and we know we cannot wholly rely on imported water. And even today if you read the newspapers, even within the last few weeks, people are saying how about we charge them a little bit more for the water. Why do we have the SAF and NS? Because we know we cannot depend on anyone else to defend us. We have to be prepared to stand up and fight ourselves. Why did we build Jurong Island? Because we decided that despite our limited land, even though we do not have oil or gas, we could still build a competitive petrochemical industry and we can provide good jobs for our people. 

Imagine it, decide on it, do it and make it happen. 

It goes back to Independence and before, and it is 1950s, 1960s, within living memory, but the events are receding into the past and many of us here today are too young to have personally experienced these formative moments. So our schools have worked hard to teach our students the essential facts of our nationhood. But many Singaporeans only have the vaguest ideas of what Konfrontasi was about, who are the communists and why are they different from the communalists. If I asked you, I suspect, to name one communist figure in Singapore or one communalist figure, something to do with the history of Singapore, I suspect many of you would be hard put to do so, unless you go and look up google. So the lessons of history need to be reinforced, because if we do not remember them, we may not learn the hard-won lessons and may fail to value what we have painstakingly built.

SG50, our fiftieth anniversary next year, is an important occasion to remember this history. Konfrontasi was a violent conflict – so we are going to erect a memorial to the victims opposite MacDonald House. 

The fight against the Communists, if it had gone the other way, Singapore would have been very different. So we are planning a marker to remember and honour those who fought against the Communists for a democratic, non-Communist future for Singa¬pore. And we are also republishing next week, The Battle for Merger, which was a collection of radio talks by Mr Lee Kuan Yew which he gave in 1961 which exposed the real aims of the Communists, explained what was at stake and why it was important for Singaporeans to support merger with Malaysia. 

These are events from 50 years ago, there will be more recent significant events in our history - may be too recent for us to commemorate them in the same way. But as time passes and events recede into the past, we will look back and recognise the crises experienced, the challenges overcome, the achievements hard won, that were important milestones in our nation building. And in time, we may decide that they too require visible reminders, lest we forget.

But SG50 also should be a time to look ahead, to set new goals for the next 50 years; to see and be excited by the opportunities opening up; to appreciate our strengths and capabilities, and not just the uncertainties and difficulties; to give back to the society, so that we strengthen a “fair and just society” in Singapore. We have to have the confidence to aim high, to dream, and to build on what we have, to make Singapore better than any other country to live in and to be an exceptional society.

Sometimes young people express anxiety about the future - they wonder whether their lives would be better than their parents. It is not surprising at a time of rapid change and intense competition, and there is some self-doubt. Even in China, where life has been improving faster than in any other country in the world, any time in human history, young people feel pressured and anxious - even successful young people who have university degrees and good jobs in thriving cities like Chongqing or Shanghai, also feel this existential angst and worry that the best years are past and they would not have it as good as their parents. 

But if we understand the opportunities which are opening up for us, and realise what we can do to get ourselves ready for them, then far from being anxious, we should be eager and ready to go.

We are already transforming Singapore in many ambitious ways. We are remaking our home, expanding Changi Airport, moving Paya Lebar Airbase, shifting PSA to Tuas, building Jurong Lake District, and doubling our MRT Network. That is just the hardware, but we are also investing in our people – New universities, the work of ASPIRE and jobs future, more opportunities for every citizen.  And we are implementing bold social policies to keep this a “Fair and Just” society.

We have the resources, the talent, the base, to go further, to make this a truly exceptional cosmopolitan city with an open and vibrant economy, where we work hard but enjoy a high quality of life, where we live in an endearing home, with our families and friends. 

And we can live our lives and compare where we are and where our parents are and say yes, we have made this a better place. Many of our young people have opportunities to work anywhere and to thrive anywhere. And there are so many more openings available to us – to experience the world, to live our dreams, to achieve our aspirations, well beyond material well-being. Many of our parents and grandparents did not even go to school – and could not have imagined the world their children live in today or the way the children live in the world today. 

Just 1980, thirty five years ago, only 5% of each P1 cohort went to university.  Today, 30% of each P1 cohort enter publicly-funded universities in Singapore to pursue full-time undergraduate degrees. And even those who do not, they would have graduated from a Polytechnic or the ITE, and they will have many chances to move up in life.

So anxiety is understandable, anxiety is even constructive, up to a point, even some paranoia is helpful – because as Andy Grove says, only the paranoid survive. And it can keep you on your toes - it is like the anxiety you feel before you go on stage to perform. But it should not lead to paralysis or despondency. We need to be both paranoid and at the same time paradoxically confident. Then we can make this a special nation for Singaporeans.

This evening I have deliberately not spoken about what the Government is doing, because naturally the Government will do its part, and will do more, will do whatever we need to. But for Singapore to succeed, everybody must do your part. The responsibility is on individuals, on civil society, on the community - Not only to understand what is happening to the country, to our society, the issues that we face, but also to play your part: to actively contribute to the community, to work hard, to follow what is happening around us and solve problems and open new windows for us.  

I am glad that the NUSS and the alumni are doing this.  You are creating opportunities for the next generation through bursaries and awards. You are increasing awareness by organising forums and lectures like this one.  You are giving back to society through community events for senior citizens and the underprivileged. 

So I urge all of us to look outwards, do not obsess inwards. Act with both our heads and our hearts. Take heart from the past and be confident of the future. 

That is the way to move forward together, and create a brighter future for all of us. Thank you very much.

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