SINGAPORE - THE present may be all-consuming. But to get ahead as it approaches its half-century mark, Singapore should focus on three principles: look outwards, be good-hearted but hard-headed about policies and be confident of the future by remembering what it achieved in the past.
These were the three themes that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spelt out in a major speech this evening to the National University of Singapore Society, the alumni club of NUS graduates.
"We are at an inflexion point, changing gears, changing pace," he said in a speech titled "Singapore in Transition - the Next Phase."
"We need not only to navigate the eddies and currents from moment to moment, but we need to keep in mind basic principles which will help us maintain our momentum," he told an audience of over 1,000 alumni and guests.
KEEP LOOKING OUTWARDS
On his first theme of the need to look outwards, Mr Lee noted that Singaporeans had been concentrating on what is happening at home - and understandably so given the urgent issues of housing, public transport and medical care. But even as strategic policy shifts are being made for longer-term trends, such as to population and the economy, he said:
"But perhaps because we are so focused on these issues, I fear Singaporeans are not paying enough attention to what is happening outside of Singapore."
Doing so is important because it will give Singaporeans a broader view on these policies. It will also help them recognise that what happens outside will have an impact on their lives, whether they are political changes in other countries or technological advances that can affect business and jobs.
"Unless we understand what is happening, we cannot anticipate or respond properly to events."
He added: "We cannot afford to navel-gaze and ignore what is happening outside."
ACT WITH HEAD AND HEART
On the theme of being hard-headed but good-hearted, Mr Lee focused his remarks on the need for the economy to grow if all the good-hearted policies are to be sustainable.
"Without resources, good intentions mean nothing. We must still grow the economy, as it is the only way our people can have a good life. A rich society is not necessarily a happy society, but impoverished societies are seldom happy.
"We must not go pell-mell for growth regardless of social, human or environmental costs, nor are we doing so.
"But I worry when people say we can afford to take it easy on growth, and talk airily about more important things in life. They don't understand what their well-being depends on.
"They are essentially telling others: "I am well off enough, you should be satisfied with what you have too, even if you are poor."
The PM spent some time examining the population policy as one which required both heart and head.
The heart comes in, among other things, to ensure that Singapore's identity is retained, and ensure
immigration is at a pace people can adapt to and having babies as a personal decision rather than because of a bonus. The head matters too, because hard facts such as an ageing population and declining fertility cannot be wished away and hence the need for foreigners to help Singapore cope.
"On the overall population policy, we are paying attention to both the emotional and practical aspects of population. Heart: giving weight to how comfortable people are with the pace of immigration, encouraging new arrivals to adapt to the norms of our society. Head: keeping inflows moderate and sustainable," he said.
REMEMBER THE PAST, BE CONFIDENT OF THE FUTURE
On the third theme of turning to the past to guide Singaporeans in being confident about the future, Mr Lee said: "Even as we focus on the present, we must look forward to and have confidence in our future.
"And perhaps less obviously, we must also know and understand the past. Unless we understand our past, we will fail to understand what Singapore's success depends on; why Singapore works the way it does."
The ultimate danger is to be "unjustifiably pessimistic about our future prospects."
What Singapore has achieved is "a function of our history and our Southeast Asian context: how we became independent, and how the Pioneer Generation responded to the critical challenge of building a nation from nothing."
"We are stable and peaceful now, but our society experienced upheavals and riots - communal riots, the ferocious battle against the Communists."
Similarly, Singapore is friends with Malaysia and Indonesia today, despite its difficulties with both, the former during the years of merger, and with the bigger neighbour, during Confrontation.
Singapore's 50th anniversary is an apt occasion to remember the country's history but also a time to look ahead to the next 50 years.
The celebrations, he said, were a time to to set new goals for the next 50 years; to see and be excited by all the opportunities opening up; to appreciate our strengths are capabilities, and not just the uncertainties and difficulties; to give back to the society, so that we strengthen a fair and just society in Singapore.
While it is understandable for young people to be anxious about the future, he urged them to look at how far the country has come and the new opportunities that are opening up.
Concluding, he said: "I urge all of us to look outwards not just inwards, act with both our heads and our hearts, take heart from the past and be confident of the future.
"That is the way to move ahead together, and create a brighter future for Singapore."
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked the audience at the NUSS lecture this evening if they knew who the current Thai Prime Minister is, and if they knew what the ISIS stands for. Test yourself in the quiz below: