Divisive politics could grip Singapore too: PM Lee

PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

People here may feel disenfranchised, like in US, if pressures not addressed, says PM

The divisive, populist politics that has gripped the United States and other parts of the world of late could become a Singapore problem too, if people start tofeel similarly disenfranchised, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking to the Singapore media as he wrapped up a week-long working visit to the US, Mr Lee said the mood on the ground in America has soured against the political establishment because citizens no longer feel that current systems are addressing their needs.

"It's because the population feels anxious, feels unsettled, feels angry and doesn't feel that the existing political leadership and process are articulating or addressing those emotions," Mr Lee explained.

"They may be emotional; they may not actually be helping to solve the predicament they are in, but there are real concerns which people have and which the governments have got to try and solve."

Singapore, he said, is not immune to such pressures.

DOING WHAT WE NEED TO DO

All the developed countries, America, the Europeans are going through a period of very poor productivity performance. And they are not sure why, they are not sure what to do about it. We are doing all the things which the economists say ought to be done in order to fix it. We haven't seen the results yet but we are doing what we believe are the right things.

In America, there are things which they need to do which they are not able to do, for example, invest in their education system and upgrade it across the board, all the schools... They need to invest in infrastructure but that's not possible to do because it means government money and there's gridlock in Congress, you can't spend the money.

So they are stuck. We are not stuck, we are doing what we need to do. I think it's an act of faith but I think eventually it will show results. ''

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on Singapore's efforts to restructure the economy and boost productivity.

"These are pressures which build up and they could build up in Singapore because, as a developed economy, we face some of the same challenges as they do.

"And if we are unable to address that, people will feel like there is no other avenue to have their concerns seen to, and their feelings spoken for. Then I think we can have a problem," Mr Lee said.

The Prime Minister had similarly raised concerns about the political climate in the US during an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal editorial board.

He said the presidential campaign thus far had put forward the most "extreme menu of choices" he has seen in a US election, and expressed worries that the country could retreat from its leadership position in the world.

He said he is now cautious about the prospects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which was signed in February this year by 12 countries, including Singapore.

"What is very clear is that the mood in America is very troubled. That's why you have candidates expressing very extreme views, because it's not really a solution… it's just that 'I'm very angry, I'm hitting out and I want satisfaction'," Mr Lee said, in reference to some of the rhetoric in the US presidential campaign.

"In that mood, I think it's not easy to make a case why a complicated agreement 1,000 pages long is good for America.

"It's much easier for people to raise anxieties and negatives, and sour the public support."

Mr Lee said it is now unlikely the deal will even be put up for ratification by the US Congress before the presidential election in November, leaving a two-month window in the lame-duck session that follows to get it passed.

"But it's a very short period of time, the congressmen have not focused on this and you will have to make a very big decision as a lame-duck Congress. It's not easy," he said.

When questions turned to Singapore's politics and the upcoming Bukit Batok by-election, Mr Lee would not be drawn on when the polls might be.

"When it happens, you will know," he said with a smile.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'PM: Divisive politics could grip S'pore too'. Print Edition | Subscribe