Lee Hsien Loong's 10 years as PM: It has been a challenging decade, says Siew Kum Hong

Q: How would you characterise Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 10 years at the helm, in a word or a phrase?

A: Challenging. I think the world has possibly changed as much in the last 10 years, as it did in the 25 years when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of an independent Singapore.

But unlike 1965-1990, a number of the changes in the last 10 years had the effect of weakening the Government's control over Singapore, such as globalisation and the rise of the Internet and social media, which made PM's job that much harder.

Q: Of all the things that have happened in the past decade, what do you consider PM's three greatest achievements?

A: 1. The rebound from the Global Financial Crisis. 

2. The transformation of Singapore into a global cosmopolitan city. Today, there really is a global buzz about Singapore, and we do have mindshare with the world's elite.
When I speak to people overseas, they are definitely familiar with Singapore and they generally speak positively about us as an attractive place to do business or one of the must-visit places in Asia. Notably, this increased familiarity seems to span all levels, from more senior business people to regular people.

No doubt there is some variation depending on the worldview of the person in question -- business people tend to be more upbeat than activist types. But I had quite a pleasant surprise in San Francisco a couple of weeks back, when somebody remarked that he listed Singapore as one of the 4 great Asian cities he wanted to visit.

3. The post-General Election 2011 moves to strengthen the social safety net.

Q: What about the three greatest disappointments?

A: 1. The stratification of society with diminished social mobility, accompanied by (or leading to) the widening income gap.

2. The failure to anticipate the problems from accelerated immigration.

3. The inability to truly transform the PAP after GE2011, despite the shifts in social policy post-GE2011.
In the immediate aftermath of GE2011, I for one (but I believe this is widely shared) had hoped to see a more fundamental transformation in the PAP. I had hoped for a shift to a more open, consultative and responsive approach that is more in tune with today's realities and that, in my view, will set the PAP on a firm and stable footing for future decades.

There was some initial rhetoric from the PAP about reflection and change, and we've had the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and we've seen the very welcome moves to strengthen the social security net.

But three years later, it's become clear, from incidents like the Population White Paper and the new Media Development Authority licensing regime, the top-down/command-and-control approach remains very much alive in the PAP. Meanwhile, at least to outsiders, the OSC has more or less fizzled out and does not seem to have led to foundational changes in governance.

Q: What do you see as challenges for the PM in the next 5 to 10 years?

A: Succession planning. Maintaining Singapore's openness to global talent, while managing Singaporeans' resistance to more immigration.

Re-establishing effective social mobility. Related to social mobility, is closing the income gap -- this is politically critical, but unfortunately may be impossible to achieve and likely to be of a lower priority than the maintenance of strong growth.