Amid significant changes affecting the region and Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night that it was important to help Singaporeans cope with new challenges they face, some of which they may find discomforting given the fast pace at which these are happening.
In remarks which took account of new economic realities and social shifts at home as well as developments abroad, including the election of new political leaders, he said: "It's a time of change, and we have to get used to it."
Singaporeans today face changes arising from ongoing economic restructuring, the presence of new immigrants and foreigners, and a faster flow of information on the Internet and social media, he said during an hour-long question and answer session.
The Government can help companies through measures such as training and promoting ongoing learning, or obtaining equipment.
"We have to enable them to compete, make sure there's a fair playing field... to make sure we don't get held back and prevented from getting to a better place because it's too painful for the incumbents," he said at the dinner of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) alumni conference.
Over 1,000 alumni from the IIM network of publicly-run, prestigious business schools in India are here as leaders in multinational and major Indian companies.
Responding to a question on how to maintain harmony between different cultures here, he said it was crucial to manage the speed at which newcomers were brought in, as well as the mix of where they come from.
But "both sides have to make the effort", he added. "Those who come have to make the effort to fit in and participate in society. And Singaporeans have to understand that these are new arrivals and we must help them fit in."
Asked if last December's Little India riot changed Singaporeans' and the Government's perception of Indians, he said it had not. The incident was unfortunate. It was investigated, the causes established and follow-up action taken.
"The workers are here for a purpose, we need them. They are building houses for us, they are building trains for us, they are working all over - in banks, in so many companies. I think we have to manage the non-indigenous population in a way that we can bear over the long term, and the Little India riot notwithstanding, we have to continue to do that."
Just as how the riot did not change how Singaporeans viewed foreign workers, the workers themselves "continue to be quite comfortable living and working here, and certainly, many more are wanting to come. That's why we have to manage the numbers."
As for the impact of social media, he said that how information was disseminated quickly online could cause knee-jerk reactions.
"In Singapore sometimes, when someone says something outrageous, the next day everybody knows and expresses great outrage... Yes, it was outrageous, but do we need to get worked up every time that happens?"
Singapore must learn to navigate such bumps, which "narrow the margin of stability", he said.
On the region, he said Singapore looked forward to working with new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia's incoming president Joko Widodo.
About Mr Joko, he said: "I think (he has) a strong psychological mandate from his people... I'm happy that the electoral processes are practically completed."
He also encouraged India to play a bigger regional role by joining more free trade agreements: "We'd like to see that India is able to spare the bandwidth and focus to extend their reach, influence and engage with the region and benefit from it."
This article was published on Aug 23 in The Straits Times.
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