Singapore can aim to be even better, says PM

SINGAPORE has come a long way in the last 50 years, but this milestone should be seen less as a final destination than a springboard to an even better future, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In an interview with Singapore media this week, he sketched new challenges facing the country in the next 50 years amid the higher expectations of an older, richer and better-educated populace.

They want "not just a job but a good job (and) assurance of a career which can progress and take them well into their 60s and 70s", he said. "People are looking for fulfilment, for satisfaction in life, (for) work-life balance. I think these are all reasonable things to want, but between what you want and what you are able to do, you have to find the right accommodation."

Looking ahead, he painted a picture of a Singapore that can be an "outstanding" home for generations to come, if the country continues to work at addressing the significant economic and social shifts that have occurred since Mr Lee entered politics 30 years ago.

These include slower wage increases in tandem with more modest economic growth, and a changing political landscape as Singaporeans negotiate for alternative voices in Government, he said.

The interview, held at the Istana over two hours on Wednesday and Thursday, was conducted in English first and then in Mandarin. It was to mark Singapore turning 50 this year and Mr Lee's first 10 years as Prime Minister.

He touched on a wide range of topics - from the highs and lows of his decade as Prime Minister to new trends such as social media, the rise of special interest groups and the terror threat. He also dropped some hints on the looming General Election (GE).

One point he made clear was that Singapore must hold on to its core values of meritocracy, openness and multiracialism, even as the Government adapts to the myriad changes in society by becoming more flexible in implementing some policies.

As Prime Minister, Mr Lee has shifted towards a more compassionate and consultative form of governance.

Citizens' views and the needs of the marginalised have been given more weight in recent policy moves, from boosting social safety nets to reviewing the Central Provident Fund scheme.

But consistency on some policies remains crucial, he said.

He cited Singapore's openness to foreign investment, which has come into question in some quarters after the Government reduced foreign worker inflows.

Singapore's diplomats and Economic Development Board officers soliciting new investors "have been asked questions they were never asked before", about whether Singapore's politics is changing and if it is still keen on foreign investment, he said.

"If we give wrong signals and people conclude that you have just become like any other country, with the same pressures and same inconsistencies in policy over time, (they will not invest in Singapore and) we will be in serious trouble."

Asked about his biggest achievement as Prime Minister, he said it was placing greater emphasis on education, from investing more in early childhood schools to expanding tertiary education and spurring continuous learning on the job.

His top regret was moving too slowly to cater to a fast-growing populace. Frustrations over housing and transport contributed to the People's Action Party's (PAP) worst election showing in 2011.

But he believes the Government has done what it must since then to mend bridges ahead of the next GE, which must be held by January 2017. Apart from ramping up home-building and improving infrastructure, it is offering Singaporeans more diverse paths to success.

If it can convey the message that people will always have opportunities to upgrade themselves, the PAP can "face the next election with more confidence", he said.

"But it's for Singaporeans to judge, not for us to score ourselves well."

This article was first published on Jan 17, 2015.
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