Getting out of a hole, after Lee Kuan Yew

Getting out of a hole, after Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore just crossed a watershed with the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Some Western journalists and not a few Singaporeans have asked: "How will Singapore do after Lee Kuan Yew?"

My answer has been quite consistent. We have as strong a chance as any country, after the departure of a giant from the political scene, of continuing well into the future, and we are better placed than most.

Why do I say that?

Mr Lee always emphasised building institutions and finding the right people to run them. He shaped the civil service, demanding nothing less than excellence. He emphasised the importance of finding good men and women for politics and the civil service. It was not just paper qualifications he was after. He wanted people with ability, integrity and that special quality of keeping cool under severe stress.

Mr Lee was fascinated by the Apollo 13 astronauts who in 1970 were in trouble out in space. They had to get themselves out of the jam. One false move and they would be orbiting in outer space, never to return to earth. We know what happened. The three astronauts came back. Mr Lee was very interested to know how Nasa selected the men. In the first three decades, our civil service came under his direct tutelage. Even when he was no longer prime minister from November 1990, Mr Lee was in the background symbolising the high standards of public service that civil servants are urged to reach for.

Getting out of a hole in a crisis

THE successor generation of leaders who took over from 1990 have been in place for 25 years. They have produced policy initiatives and handled crisis after crisis, changing the direction of the economy in tandem with global trends.

There were the Economic Committees and the Competitiveness Committee. PM Goh Chok Tong, the first successor, was in charge for the post-9/11 Jemaah Islamiah threat. Singapore averted the terrorist attacks and, though there were sensitivities initially, we kept good relations among our ethnic groups. It could have gone the other way, developing into Islamophobia, as happened elsewhere.

Then PM Goh had to deal with the Sars threat. It was heart-stopping as it was a total unknown and the illness spread stealthily and fatally. The Task Force of Ministers, medical doctors and civil servants worked round the clock. It was full credit to the medical service, doctors and nurses, that they took the brunt of the crisis. It showed that Singaporeans pull together when a crisis happens. Tourist arrivals fell. The airport emptied. The Government introduced a package of economic policies to help Singapore businesses recover from the economic crisis created by Sars. It was not just a medical disaster by our reckoning. I do not know how many countries would have adopted this comprehensive approach to deal with a pandemic.

In 2008, the US economy saw the near collapse of its financial industry and housing market. The world was clearly going into deep recession. It was only a matter of months before it would hit us.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong had taken over as prime minister. With Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, they came up with a Budget to anticipate the downturn. The Budget presentation was brought forward to the end of January instead of the usual period in late February to put a stimulus in place early.

What we did with our $20.5 billion "Resilience Package" Budget was declared creative by foreign observers. The Government decided that the best stimulus to the economy was to make sure people kept their jobs. Under the Jobs Credit Scheme, the Government gave employers a 12 per cent cash grant on the first $2,500 of an employee's monthly wages.

There were other measures like a Workfare income supplement and also easier bank lending terms for businesses. I recall when our ministers and officials told Treasury and White House officials of our measures, the Americans were struck by how smart and sensible our approach was and how immediate the impact could be.

So it is clear that our successor leaders can come up with good policies to meet the challenges. Some policies will work better than others. Some will not work.

The important question is: When faced with a crisis, can we get out of the hole? Can we recover fast enough? There is ample evidence the successor leaders can get us out of the hole.

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