From The Straits Times Archives

A look back at past NUSS lectures and key issues covered

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a selfie with members of the audience after giving a speech at the National University of Singapore Society. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a selfie with members of the audience after giving a speech at the National University of Singapore Society. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) lecture on Friday evening at the University Cultural Centre.

In his speech, he said that for Singapore to get ahead as it approaches its half-century mark, it should focus on three principles: look outwards, be good-hearted but hard-headed about policies and be confident of the future by remembering what it achieved in the past.

The lecture series and dialogue, which began in 1991, has seen several local politicians take the podium.

Here is a look back at some of the past NUSS lectures and the topics covered then:

1. 1991: Then-Acting Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo

Mr Yeo delivered the inaugural lecture on June 20, 1991, and spoke on how a lively civic society was needed to develop a soul for Singapore. Without a soul, he said, Singapore would merely be a hotel where people come and go without emotional attachment.

There is hence a need for a whole array of civic organisation to anchor Singaporeans, as individuals and as families, to the country. These organisations must be created broadly around five major activities: religion, education, local government, Total Defence and culture, he said. More significantly, Mr Yeo pointed out that for civic institutions to grow, “the state must withdraw a little and provide more space for local initiative”.

He added: “This means taking the initiative, running around, raising money - which is never pleasant - and suffering all manner of inefficiencies to get a job done. We all know that the politics in civic organisations can sometimes be very petty and very complicated. But when the job is finally done, the satisfaction is sweet precisely because everyone contributed to the final product.”

Mr Yeo closed by saying: “When Singaporeans in their little platoons struggle to make life better for themselves and for their fellow countrymen, they develop the affections and traditions which make our hotel a home. Then it will not matter so much whether they live in Singapore or overseas. We will then be able, in the next century, to take our place as one of the more remarkable communities on the Pacific Rim.”

2. 2000: Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong

On Nov 4, 2000, Mr Goh noted that the year 2007 will be a watershed year in Singapore's political history - a new team of leaders will be in charge of the country. The problem: finding and persuading young, able Singaporeans to come forward to form that team.

Mr Goh also painted a picture of a more uncertain world, where political coalitions are shifting and national security threatened by new and unconventional forces. Against this backdrop, Singapore must work to strengthen its political leadership and institutions to sustain its prosperity

He also made an impassioned plea at the end of the hour-long session: Don’t just pack up and leave if you think the Government is wrong in the way it governs Singapore - stay and make it right.

3. 2005: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

On March 19, 2005, Mr Lee gave a speech to NUSS to commemorate its 50th anniversary. That was his first speech in the lecture series as prime minister. In an hour-long dialogue following the speech, he touched on the gambling issue when members of the audience voiced their concerns about the "creeping encroachment of gaming" if Singapore went ahead with plans to build a casino.

PM Lee said that the Government would pour in more resources to tackle severe gambling addictions and to manage the social costs.

The other issues raised during the session ranged from how to prevent further stratification in Singapore to getting more locals to serve in politics, and allowing foreigners to be considered as part of the Singapore elite.

On the elite, he defined them as "a core group of people who occupy key positions of power and influence, and set the direction for the whole society and country".

He said Singapore's future depended on renewing and enlarging their numbers, and ensuring they continue to see themselves as being responsible for the whole society.

4. 2009: Former PM Lee Kuan Yew

In his speech on March 20, 2009, Mr Lee covered a range of topics including babies, women and foreigners. Alluding to the dearth of babies, he asked if the lifestyle choice of more people remaining single was good for society: "33 per cent of Singapore men don’t marry. I don’t know why. They are happy with singlehood. They are happy with relationships. Relationships carry no burden. Is that good for society? I don’t think so."

He added that without new citizens and permanent residents, "we are going to be the last of the Mohicans... we will disappear".

He even called out on his daughter, who is still single. "It’s a choice she has made. It’s a choice 30 per cent of our women are making, so who am I to complain except that society lives with the consequences of it."

Fortunately, he said, Singapore's standard of living is high enough to attract foreigners. But he acknowledged that the influx of foreigners also brings with it a set of problems. "We got to make this breakthrough internally. If we don’t make the 2.1 (population replacement ratio), we will always be dependent. In 30 to 50 years’ time, the Chinese cities will offer conditions as good as Singapore," he said.

On the issue of an alternative to the People's Action Party (PAP) and talent needed in Government, he said: "If you have capable people, I’m not worried. Integrity is crucial. Ability, experience and willingness to do things for the people."

"Can we arrange a two-party system so the alternative is as good as the PAP? We have to scour the whole country to find the quality we now have. We are drawing our talent from 3.2 million people. Every year. Let’s say we produce, out of our 30,000 babies born, 1,000 outstanding people. Are all of them going to make good? You need character, commitment, drive and you need an ability to connect with people. It’s a very tough job."