Lee Hsien Loong: Democracy is not the only way forward

SINGAPORE: What’s next for Singapore after its 50th year of independence in 2015? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says Singaporeans need to be “paranoid” and “aware” that someone could take their lunch away.

“Looking forward beyond the 50th anniversary, I think that is what Singapore needs to do – to be aware, to be paranoid so you always know that somebody can take your lunch away, at the same time have the confidence that I have a good base, I have a strong position and I am determined to do better, and I think that’s what we want Singaporeans to think and to feel.”

Mr Lee made this point at the Forbes Global CEO Conference at the Shangri-La Hotel on Tuesday (Oct 28) evening. Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media LLC, hosted a dialogue session with Mr Lee.

He asked Mr Lee how he has evolved over a decade as Prime Minister, and where he sees himself five to 10 years from now.

“More gray hair today and even less hair in 10 years,” Mr Lee said to laughter. “Hopefully, with a bit more sense of the limits, but also a bit more confidence to push those limits. Because it is always a balance – what we are trying to do; what is possible, what you think is possible, you must know, because otherwise, you are just talking in a vacuum.

“But what can you make possible – beyond what we believe can be done, and you do something a bit more than that, whether it’s for the economy, whether it’s education, whether it’s the quality of the city we are building.”

ON POPULATION GROWTH

Mr Lee also addressed constraints on infrastructure in Singapore, due to rapid population growth and an influx of foreign workers. “They came in, well, they put a load on us, I think if we had not brought them in and shut them off, we would have faced other problems. But the infrastructure shortfall was a problem and we have been building houses, we have caught up now, expanding our metro – our train system has not quite caught up, but it is in progress and we are seeing improvements already. So I think the infrastructure problem can be resolved,” Mr Lee said.

“The challenge really is – how can we grow, not so much with so many people coming in, but with higher quality growth?”

ON ASEAN’S GRAND PLANS

Touching on regional issues, Prime Minister Lee commented on ASEAN efforts towards integrating their economies by the end of next year. The ASEAN Economic Community will see freer movement of goods and services, as well as better rules for investments.

“We have an ambitious road map, we’ve made about 80 per cent of it already. The last 20 per cent of course, is the hardest part, most politically sensitive. So I am sure there will be work left over to be done even after we have the Economic Community, but we will make progress and we are heading in the right directions.”

Asked if Asia would ever have a single currency like the European Union, the Prime Minister said: “Probably after my retirement”, to more laughter from the audience. “If you’re going to have a single currency in Asia, will it be based on the renminbi, or the yen?” said Mr Lee. “That answers that,” Mr Forbes quipped.

ON WHAT KEEPS HIM UP AT NIGHT

Mr Lee was asked what issues are most pressing for Asia, and what keeps him up at night.

“I think we’re primarily concerned about peace in the region,” he said. He touched on territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea and tensions over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. He also raised concerns that groups like ISIS are “bringing back to Southeast Asia, the virus and radical fervor of fighting somebody else’s war in the Middle East”.

“If that goes wrong, we have a problem in Asia, and I have a problem in Singapore,” he stressed. “Of course, it’s incumbent on us to make sure that within each country, we solve our challenges too. Challenges like maintaining political and social cohesion in a very rapidly changing world with income inequalities, with uncertainties, with difficulties which are going to put a lot of pressure on societies.

“Other people can’t solve these problems for us, but we have to solve our own so that we are able to work together and prosper together,” he said.

ON POPULAR DEMOCRACY

Mr Lee was asked about “popular democracy” against a backdrop of protests in Hong Kong, calling for universal suffrage. He said Asian countries are “complicated”. “In Thailand, you have elections, but the king plays critical role, the military plays a critical role – sometimes overtly. It has been so for a long time. If you look at India, they have a democracy. It functions in terms of getting a new government in place every now and again, but in terms of addressing fundamental challenges, which a country faces, it makes it harder to do than perhaps is the case in China.

“If you look at China, they have no elections, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the problems of having a government which is legitimate, which is functioning well, and which is subject to checks and challenges.”

As for Singapore, Mr Lee said democracy here does not automatically guarantee good government.

“If you look at Singapore, we have elections, we have a parliament, we have an elected government, and yet if you ask whether that is a formula which would automatically yield a good government and a successful country for the next 50 years, nobody can say. It depends on the people, it depends on the values of the society, it depends on the quality of the leaders, and the connection between the leadership and the population.

“So I think each country has to find its own way forward. I don’t think there is salvation in saying we need more democracy and that will make these countries prosper. And Hong Kong is just one of the cases in point.”

– CNA/ly

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