Singapore has strong chance of thriving in the next 50 years, says academic Chan Heng Chee

SINGAPORE - Singapore has a strong chance of surviving, and indeed thriving, well into the future even with the passing of its founding father Lee Kuan Yew, but bold policies are needed to tackle increasingly complex realities, according to Singapore academic and diplomat Chan Heng Chee.

"We have as strong a chance as any country after the departure of the giant of a leader, of continuing into the future," said Ms Chan at the 22nd Singapore General Hospital Lecture and Gala Dinner on Saturday.

She spoke of the late Mr Lee's emphasis on building institutions that would outlast himself, a strong civil service with good men and women who possessed integrity and competence.

Singapore and its leaders have weathered many tests, even when Mr Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 and took a back seat. For instance, in the 2008 economic crisis, Singapore policy makers came up with the Jobs Credit Scheme where the government funded 12 per cent of the first $2,500 of wages of employees. This helped many Singaporeans keep their jobs in the economic downturn, much to the envy of her American colleagues, Ms Chan said.

The health fraternity also pulled together in the 2003 Sars crisis. They continued to serve patients despite health threats to themselves, she said.

But moving forward, "bold ideas" as well as "delicate diplomacy" are needed to ensure Singapore thrives. Ms Chan raised the geopolitical challenge of adjusting to the New World Order, where Singapore would have to balance American and Chinese interests. Global terrorism like the recent Isis threat and cybercrime also cannot be taken lightly, she said.

Another challenge was Singapore's ageing population. Japan currently has 127 million people but by 2100, it is estimated to be left with 80 million people only. In Singapore, by 2030, one in five will be over 65. If Singapore continues to age rapidly, one of the challenges may be sustaining a vibrant economy with a small population, she said.

Immigration might be one solution, although it is not a popular one.

"Leaders have to handle the hot potato issue of ageing and immigration and accept the facts," she said.

A high-tech future where robots replace human jobs may also be a challenge, Ms Chan added. "If people lose their jobs we must look at how fast they can be retrained for new ones," she said. "We are going to find uncertainties but Singaporeans can count on a pragmatic good sense to prepare ourselves, individually and as a community.

"Future leadership will have to keep up with many citizen voices, listen to them and communicate and persuade them to go the journey of what is chosen."