Singapore not immune to divisive, populist politics seen in the US: PM Lee

PM Lee arriving for a working dinner at the White House on March 31.
PM Lee arriving for a working dinner at the White House on March 31. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Singapore is not immune to the sort of divisive, populist politics currently taking place in the United States, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, adding that Singapore faces a lot of the same challenges and pressures of America and other developed economies. He made these points to the Singapore media at the end of his week-long working visit to the US,  which included his attendance at the fourth nuclear security summit in Washington DC from March 31 to April 1. 

Mr Lee said the mood on the ground in the US has soured against the political establishment because citizens no longer feel that current systems are addressing their issues.

“It’s because the population feels anxious, feels unsettled, feels angry and doesn’t feel that the existing political leadership and process is 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. 

“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 added.

 

The Prime Minister had raised concerns about the current political climate in the US during an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, saying it has put forward some of the most extreme menu of candidates he has seen in an American election.

Mr Lee  worried that the political mood might prompt the US to turn more insular and scupper critical initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement  which was signed in February this year by 12 countries, including Singapore.

The Singapore leader said he is now cautious about the prospects of the TPP.

“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 a really… a compromise – well, ‘I think it over carefully and this is the best thing to do – 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.”

During the interview with the Singapore media, Mr Lee also spoke about the threat of nuclear terrorism and Singapore's economic restructuring efforts. But he would not be drawn on when the by-election in Bukit Batok would take place.

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