'Navel-gazing' poses risks for Singapore, says PM Lee

SINGAPORE - Thailand has a new prime minister after military chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power.

But many Singaporeans would be hard pressed to name him.

Similarly, the extremist group ISIS has been terrorising the world with its beheadings. But how many can say what ISIS stands for? (The abbreviation stands for "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria".)

In noting this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it showed people were not reading the news and were too caught up with immediate concerns.

This posed dangers, he added, as we would not know what is happening outside of Singapore and we would not be prepared to respond to the changes taking place.

Mr Lee stressed the importance of looking outwards in his National University of Singapore (NUS) Society lecture last night.

Speaking to an audience made up mainly of NUS graduates, he noted that Singaporeans have been concentrating on what is happening at home, and understandably so, given the urgent issues of housing, public transport and medical care.

The Government, however, is making strategic policy shifts to prepare for longer-term trends, such as changes to the population and the economy, he said.

"But, perhaps, because we are so focused on these issues, I fear Singaporeans are not paying enough attention to what is happening outside of Singapore."

He noted that people have stopped reading newspapers and watching the news on television, and were getting information from their friends and through social media.

Some have also been "absorbed" in daily life, leaving little time and energy to track less immediate concerns, he said. But paying attention to the world around us is important, he said, for Singaporeans to gain perspective and realise that many countries were facing the same issues as Singapore.

People, then, can make a judgment on whether they should be alarmed about developments in Singapore, or whether they should "congratulate" themselves.

Also, it would allow Singapore to learn from the experiences of others, he said. With major shifts in the Asian landscape, all of which have a big impact on a small country like Singapore, keeping an eye on the world would help Singapore stay abreast of the changes as well. He noted that changes were afoot in Indonesia, India and China.

Indonesia will have a new government and a new president in Mr Joko Widodo. India, too, has just got a new prime minister in Mr Narendra Modi, who is "determined to get the Indian economy moving, keen to make friends with Singapore", he said.

With China rising, and changing rapidly, there would also be implications on Singapore's competitiveness, he added.

While many still think of China as a low-cost manufacturing base, it now has IT companies, such as Tencent, which have innovative ideas, said Mr Lee.

"Unless we understand... what's happening and grasp how it impacts us, we can't anticipate or respond properly to events," he added.

He said Singapore had always been open and connected and outward-looking, and this had been a pillar of the country's success.

It is why other countries' leaders seek Singapore's views on international matters, why companies set up headquarters here despite Singapore not having natural advantages, and why students here do well compared with their counterparts elsewhere, he noted.

With globalisation and technological advances creating and disrupting businesses swiftly, knowing what will happen next can also help Singapore stay prepared, he added.

Citing climate change, he noted it has led to new sailing routes that will bypass Singapore's ports. Amid these changes, the ports have been consolidated into a single megaport in Tuas to strengthen Singapore's role as a transhipment hub, he said.

It was the same with the taxi industry having to prepare for competition from new car-sharing apps such as Uber and GrabTaxi.

"So, we've got to look out even while we look inwards to ourselves. If we fall to navel-gazing, that's the end of us. Like it or not, the outside world is going to impose change on us and we have to be prepared for it," he said.

yuenc@sph.com.sg


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