Singapore could see a non-Chinese PM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked by Time magazine whether a non-Chinese could be prime minister, and whether Singapore's development experience could be emulated by others. Here are edited extracts of the exchange.

PM Lee at a dialogue session at the Future China Global Forum at Shangri-La Hotel on July 21, 2015.
PM Lee at a dialogue session at the Future China Global Forum at Shangri-La Hotel on July 21, 2015. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Time: You talked about the diversity of Singapore; of course, as you have said, it is a majority ethnic Chinese society. Can you see a future in which a non-Chinese could be prime minister?

PM Lee: It could be, it depends on the person. You must have the right person - you must have the politics worked out, you must be able to connect both with the Chinese as well as the non-Chinese population. With the new generation, I think chances are better.

Even today, if you go to the constituencies, most of the time, you would be speaking some Chinese. In your markets, certainly, with the old folks, certainly. Even with the younger ones, a significant proportion of them would be more comfortable speaking in Mandarin because that's their home conversational language.

I have young people who write to me in Chinese. I am quite surprised. So on the ground, if you cannot communicate in Mandarin and if they feel you cannot communicate in Mandarin, that's a minus.

Now, I don't make that many Mandarin speeches, but people know that I speak it and when they meet me, they spontaneously address me in Mandarin, I respond in Mandarin. Sometimes, they address me in dialect, I try my best to understand. That's the ground reality.

Time: Do you think this Singapore approach (to development) should be and can be emulated by other countries?

PM Lee: The political situations are very different; the economic situations are very different. What we can do in Singapore may not be doable elsewhere.

Some things you know you need - you want efficient government, you want clean government, you want to do away with corruption, you must educate your people. They are not such secrets, not so special to Singapore. But how you can do it is very difficult and very different.

For example, we have worked very hard to bring together our government, our unions and our employers. We call it a tripartite relationship.

It's a bit of an ungainly term, but it means something valuable to us. We bargain, we discuss, but in the end, there is a significant amount of give-and-take and mutual confidence and trust built up... So we have the trust to move forward and when we say we want to unionise a company, it's not a hostile move, it's actually a positive move, it's helpful.

I give you one example: casino company Las Vegas Sands. They are not unionised anywhere in the world.

They resisted being unionised here, but the workers were organised. In the end we said: In Singapore, the unions are different. You must understand that here we work together and many companies are unionised, including American ones, and there is a cooperative relationship. They have become unionised and I think it will work out.

We are different. Could you do that elsewhere?

Some unionists come to visit us and we show them what we are going to do and they say: Well, when our government behaves like your government, we will behave like your unions. So that will take some time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore could see a non-Chinese PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe