PM Lee addresses questions on productivity, democracy in Asia at Forbes annual CEO conference

SINGAPORE - Having wages in Singapore rise faster than productivity is manageable in the short-term, but this trend cannot carry on indefinitely, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday night.

In the long run, the economy's productivity must catch up - a goal Singapore is trying to achieve by stepping up education and mid-career training, and replacing unsuccessful businesses with more promising ones, he added at the opening night of the 14th annual Forbes Global CEO Conference at the Shangri-La Hotel.

For now, the more rapid increase in wages is "okay" because there is still demand for Singaporean workers as companies flock here to invest, Mr Lee said during a dialogue with media tycoon Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media.

"Singaporeans are in demand," he said. If "people want to come to Singapore and I happen to be a Singaporean, I enjoy a wage which I would not get if I were somewhere else in South-east Asia."

But this cannot continue to the point where people are paid millions for doing no work, Mr Lee added. "That sometimes happens in some places but I don't think it happens in Singapore," he said.

"Long-term productivity needs to go up... It's not magic, not easy but only way we can do it," he added.

Mr Lee was addressing worries that have surfaced recently that economic restructuring is not going to plan, as Singapore nears the mid-point of its 10-year productivity drive.

During a dialogue and question and answer session, Mr Lee also addressed other issues, including a question on the fate and future of popular democracy in this region.

Responding, he said that a country's success hinges on the values of its society and its leaders and the connection between the leaders and people.

While the Western media might paint popular democracy being as a good thing, politics and power structures function in different ways in Asia, he said.

"If you look at the countries in Asia, you will know these are complicated countries and they work in different ways. Even when you have elections, the power structure, the politics functions in different ways," he said, citing countries such as Thailand, India and China.

"If you look at Singapore, if you ask if that's a formula that will yield a good government and a successful country for the next 50 years, nobody can say. It depends on the people, it depends on the values of society, the values of the leaders, the connection between leaders and the population."

He also addressed other issues such as stability in the wider South-east Asian region and the threat posed by ISIS.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.