Published July 12, 2008

Next 5 to 10 years will be most promising for S'pore: MM Lee

We are going to move into a new plateau, a new platform, he says


(SINGAPORE) For someone who has openly admitted that he worries constantly about the future of the country he's helped to build, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew yesterday painted a surprisingly upbeat picture of what the near future holds for Singapore.

The next five to 10 years will be the 'most promising' in the Republic's entire history, said Mr Lee last night at a dialogue organised by the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS).

Responding to a question about whether he was still optimistic about Singapore's growth prospects, Mr Lee said: 'If there are no big recessions worldwide, easily 4 to 6 per cent, maybe 7 to 8 per cent (a year). We should be all right.'

The hour-long dialogue at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel - attended by over 800 guests including economists and academics - was the first time that Mr Lee had spoken at an ESS event since 1969.

'We are going to move into a new plateau, a new platform. I took a drive around Marina Bay the other day. You can see the boardwalk they are putting up, the integrated resorts, Clarke Quay, the Singapore River. This will be a beautiful city in five years. In 10 years, it will be wonderful and on a different plane,' he said.

But with Singapore facing tough structural issues such as an ageing and dwindling domestic population, Mr Lee described the country as 'not normal' compared to other cities such as Hong Kong and Macau.

'We are on our own, running our own navy, army and air force. Hong Kong does not do that, neither does Macau. We therefore have no room for making mistakes, hence the biggest expenditure in our budget is defence, followed by education. Without defence, you are inviting everyone to just walk in and take over - and they will,' he said.

At the end of the day, Mr Lee said, the government had a duty to give the best life possible for the population. But the 'biggest problem', he said, was in retaining talented individuals that want to make Singapore their home.

'We have educated Singaporeans in English to the best of the world's standards, made them viable and employable anywhere in the world. You need that core group who are able, well-trained, to say this is my country and I'm going to build it up,' said Mr Lee.

On the flip side, however, he explained how Singapore has been successful in attracting talent from overseas who eventually take root and settle down here.

'We have lost some whom we would have dearly loved to keep. We've trained them, high fliers who went to the US to top universities, then worked for financial corporations and big institutions. Maybe they'll come back, maybe they won't. At the same time, we have even larger numbers of people - from India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, who want to stay here,' he said. 'I'm not so pessimistic about the trade-off. I think so far we are net winners.'

Mr Lee was also asked about whether Singapore needed a liberal democracy to succeed economically, a suggestion that the Minister Mentor pounced on.

'Over the years, nations have become quite ideological in saying that if you want to succeed, you must have a free market and liberal democracy. The idea is that if everyone had a liberal democracy, there would be no wars. I doubt that.'

'They are prescribing universal rules for the whole world. My question to them is: 'Have you ever run Singapore? Do you know how we got here?'. . . We are not stupid people, they give us all this advice. The International Bar Association, who are they? Have you ever built a community and given them jobs? We have, and we know what's good for us.'

Mr Lee then suggested how there was a conspiracy by foreigners against Singapore's success story. 'Why? Because we are a little red dot. They see us as a threat. The Russians are studying us. How does this little country, with so little talent, keep its ruling party in place and run a tight ship, honest and effective, and make progress? Can they do it? I don't know. They are picking up points here and there. If they can, good luck to them.'

The key to being successful in this regard, he added, was to 'have a feel for the people and be honest and meritocratic'.

'Can this system last? I'm not sure. I've done my job. I've passed it on to the next generation. I hope they will pass it on to an equally confident generation. As long as they can do it, they will last.'