Singapore remains a sampan, but an upgraded one: PM Lee

SINGAPORE will be in trouble if it thinks it has arrived and can afford to relax, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated on Wednesday.

The country is small, and while it is no longer as poor and defenceless as it used to be, it must continue to be on its toes and work hard to improve.

Speaking to the Singapore media at the end of his official visit to France, he said "my eyes popped out" when he read a commentary in The Straits Times likening Singapore today to a cruise ship.

Commentator Koh Buck Song had argued in Monday's Opinion pages that Singapore politicians' oft-used metaphor of the country as a sampan, easily tossed about by the waves of global competition, was no longer valid.

He said it risked promoting small-mindedness and cramping national self-confidence and ambition.

Instead, Mr Koh said, Singapore was more like a well-oiled cruise ship that caters to every need.

As it offers the smoothest of journeys, passengers can relax because they feel secure, he added.

Mr Lee, however, warned: "Once you think you are in a cruise ship and you are on a holiday and everything must go swimmingly well and will be attended to for you, I think you are in trouble.

"We are small, we are not as poor as we used to be, we are not defenceless, we are able to fend for ourselves and to make a living for ourselves, and we are better off than before, and I think that we need to keep on working hard, to continue improving."

As to what might be a more appropriate metaphor, he said with a laugh: "I think we have upgraded our sampan. It's sampan 2.0."

He made these remarks when asked about the meetings he had held with French business leaders since he arrived on Sunday.

Mr Lee said the businessmen had a strong regard for the Republic and saw it as very useful because they could do business in the region from Singapore.

"So it's not just Singapore, but Singapore in the context of the region," he pointed out.

The businessmen were keen to find out more about Singapore's long-term strategy for economic development, and asked about the tightening of foreign talent and workers in recent years as it might have an impact on their business plans.

Mr Lee reiterated that Singapore had to find a balance when it comes to foreigners.

He said the number of foreign workers is "still a little higher than what we would like", but that was dependent on the state of the economy. It is now strong, and hence, there is a need for construction.

He also reiterated the need for society to integrate such that foreigners adapt to Singapore norms, and Singaporeans are open to them "in order to help ourselves prosper".

Integration has to happen in activities on the ground, as well as public messaging, he said, adding that intemperate language on the Internet that hits out at foreigners in a dismissive way does a lot of harm to Singapore.

"This is going to be work in progress for some time to come but we have to persevere."

Mr Lee left Paris for Warsaw, the capital of Poland, yesterday.

In the next two days, he will meet Polish leaders and also visit the port city of Gdansk.

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