Singapore's political leaders will need the full backing of the people for the country to stay on a strong footing, as they manage an increasingly uncertain external environment, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.
This is why the next general election is so critical, he said in a speech at the People's Action Party (PAP) convention at the Singapore Expo.
"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."
PM Lee, who is the PAP's secretary-general, 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 very hard to side with them. But PM Lee said he expects the pressure to increase as tensions between both powers grow - especially on issues that matter dearly to them.
He noted that Singapore has its own "principled position" on issues that do not always align with either country's interests.
"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.
BALANCING U.S. AND CHINA
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.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on tensions between China and the United States.
Closer to home, PM Lee said relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are good. But he cautioned 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 or clashing with its neighbours, 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," PM 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."
Strong domestic support is crucial in conducting foreign policy, he stressed. "The unity of Singaporeans is our first line of defence."
PM Lee pointed out that in places such as Chile and Hong Kong, politics has broken down and trust in leaders has eroded.
Chile abruptly cancelled the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which PM Lee was to have attended later this week, after violent protests broke out over issues such as public transport fares, healthcare, education and pensions.
In Hong Kong, demonstrations and riots have been ongoing for months - not just over unhappiness with the government there but also over social and economic problems.
Singapore has had quite a different experience, PM 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 if it happens to us, the consequences will be worse than for other countries, may even be irreparable, because we are so small and so vulnerable," he said.