Youth 'cannot afford to take S'pore's success for granted'

Youth 'cannot afford to take S'pore's success for granted'
Guests penning get-well wishes for Mr Lee Kuan Yew on a giant banner at the Tanjong Pagar GRC and Radin Mas SMC Chinese New Year celebration dinner on 26 February 2015.

Two Singaporean envoys paid tribute to the contributions of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at a US think-tank on Wednesday, while stressing that the country's success cannot be taken for granted by its young.

Speaking at an event at the Brookings Institution, former Singapore ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee and former Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Bilahari Kausikan told a US audience about Mr Lee's approach to governance and foreign policy, but made clear that the matter of whether the country can stay on track was very much an open question.

Asked about anxieties he had over the changes in South-east Asia in the 50 years since Singapore became independent, Mr Kausikan replied: "My main concerns are actually internal.

"I think Singapore can cope. We certainly have much more capability to cope, to adapt in the economic field, the foreign policy field and the defence field. But whether or not the different generation has the will and the nous to do these adaptations is another matter."

He said he worried about whether or not young Singaporeans would assume that Singapore was no longer vulnerable.

"In order to create relevance, in order to constantly adapt, you need to have a very clinical, indeed cold-blooded ability to assess your own situation," he said.

Professor Chan voiced similar concerns in her address to the crowd.

After laying out some of Mr Lee's principles on governance, she concluded by saying: "Though Mr Lee's ideas last, I would say millennials in Singapore have different ideas but I do hope they have enough sense to understand what works for Singapore, preserve what works and adjust some of the ideas to the present time."

In the short term, she said, the legacy of Mr Lee's ideas would carry on because they have been institutionalised, but the future is far from certain.

"Mr Lee, in the last few years, has said what happens in Singapore in the future really depends on the young leaders and the next generation of leaders. He leaves it up to them," she said.

Wednesday's dialogue centred on "The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew", with the topic chosen based on a recently released book of the same title.

The two ambassadors emphasised the pragmatic approach Mr Lee always took and stressed that the Singapore model is difficult to follow because there is no such thing.

"Singapore never started by saying we have to develop a model for others," said Prof Chan. "We made it up as we went along."

The panel also featured Mr Shashi Jayakumar, a co-editor of the book, and Dr Joseph Liow, who holds the Lee Kuan Yew Chair at Brookings.

The event had been in the works for months, long before news emerged last week that Mr Lee had been admitted to hospital with pneumonia.

Brookings Institution vice-president Martin Indyk used the event to send his get-well wishes to Mr Lee.

He said: "The thing that is most striking about Mr Lee Kuan Yew in Washington and why we decided to create a chair on South-east Asian studies in his honour that will live on is... his affection of the United States and his understanding of the United States.

"His understanding of us and his willingness to speak truth to power was critically important."

This article was first published on Feb 27, 2015.
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