Singapore must avoid deep divide in society as seen in US and Britain, says PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks to the Singapore media after the Apec summit.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks to the Singapore media after the Apec summit. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

LIMA (Peru) - The deep social divides laid bare by the recent US presidential election and the Brexit referendum must be avoided in Singapore by developing a sense of identity and togetherness, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Nov 21, Monday morning Singapore time).

"There is no magic formula... The Government must have policies which generally will be working for people," he told Singapore reporters as he wrapped up a five-day trip to Peru to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit.

Mr Lee noted that in the United States, the Democrats are found in large numbers in cities and both coasts of the country, while Republicans populate the Midwest and the heartland. In the case of Brexit, there was a split between London and the rest of the country, as well as a divide along education and income levels.

Such social divides cannot be allowed to widen in Singapore as rebuilding bridges will be very difficult, he said.

Businessman Donald Trump won the recent US presidential election by appealing to voters in the Rust Belt states such as Michigan and Ohio who felt they had lost their jobs in the once powerful industrial sector because of globalisation.

In June, the British people voted to leave the European Union, in part due to anxiety over immigration. Last week, academic Gillian Koh described Singapore's 2011 General Election as a "mini-Brexit vote" as immigration was a hot-button issue during that election.

 
 

Asked about that comparison, Mr Lee said "there's massive difference in scale" between Brexit and the US elections and what happened in Singapore.

"The changes induced by globalisation, the Rust Belt problems, the uncertainty of jobs, these are real problems which people feel. You have to address them, you have to make people not only deal with the problems but make people feel that their concerns have been heard and have been attended to," he said.

Also, leaders must get people to understand that certain issues, such as technological and economic changes, "are not something which the Government can wish away or which are a result of the wrong set of policies".

Mr Lee pointed out that in Singapore, there is a lot of focus on equipping people with the right skills to do well, through the education system and the SkillsFuture initiative to encourage lifelong learning.

At the same time, the Government has put in place schemes such as Workfare and the Pioneer Generation package "to make sure that everybody feels fairly treated and if you're not doing so well on your own, well you get an extra leg up".

"Which makes everybody know that if you're in Singapore, not everybody is equally well off, but even if you're not well off, you're not badly off," he said.