Leaders must have strong mandate to navigate external environment, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking during the PAP65 Awards and Convention on Nov 10, 2019. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Singapore's political leaders need to have the full backing of the people for the country to stay on a strong footing in an increasingly uncertain external environment, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 10).

This is why the next general election will be critical for the People's Action Party (PAP), said Mr Lee in a speech at the party's convention.

"It is high stakes, not masak-masak," he added, using the Malay phrase to describe children playing house. "Others will be watching us closely to see if the PAP wins a strong mandate, especially at a time of leadership transition."

"We must convince Singaporeans to give us a strong mandate. Not just to return a PAP government, but also to secure Singapore for the long term."

Mr Lee, who is secretary-general of the PAP, highlighted issues such as tensions between China and the United States, bilateral relations with Singapore's closest neighbours, and the erosion of trust in political leaders all over the world.

At present, neither the US nor China has pressed Singapore hard. But Mr Lee said he expects the pressure to grow, especially on issues that matter to each of the big powers.

But Singapore has its own "principled position" on issues, which do not always align with either country's interests, he said.

"From time to time, we will have to do or say something that one or the other of them will frown upon. Then we just have to steel ourselves and do it, and be prepared for the reaction."

Doing so is the only way to preserve Singapore's credibility and independence, he added.

Relations with Singapore's closest regional neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, are good. But Mr Lee added that difficult issues involving important national interests lie beneath the surface.

For Malaysia, these are water and airspace arrangements, while with Indonesia they involve issues of airspace and Singapore's military training in the South China Sea.

Rather than politicising the issue, Singapore's approach is to discuss matters calmly, "government to government, behind closed doors", to find a win-win situation that secures the country's long-term interests, he said.

"Managing these external issues will not be easy. We will need a capable government," Mr Lee said. "Leaders who are tactful but firm, who can negotiate skilfully to defuse bilateral issues, and who are confident that they have the full backing of the people."

He stressed that strong domestic support is crucial, adding: "The unity of Singaporeans is our first line of defence."

Mr Lee pointed out that in places such as Chile and Hong Kong, politics has broken down and trust in leaders has eroded.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, which Mr Lee was to attend in Chile later this week, was abruptly cancelled after violent protests broke out over issues such as public transport fares, healthcare, education and pensions.

And in Hong Kong, demonstrations and riots have been ongoing for months - not just over unhappiness with their government but also about social and economic problems.

Singapore has had quite a different experience, Mr Lee said, adding: "The PAP is humbled to enjoy the people's trust."

But he stressed that the country is not immune to these global pressures, which can overwhelm it. "And the consequences, if it happens to us, will be worse than for other countries, may even be irreparable, because we are so small and so vulnerable," he said.

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