PM: S'pore must balance identity and openness

He also stresses need for solidarity amid drive to become global city

British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) greeting Singaporea Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he arrives for a meeting at Downing Street in London on March 27, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW
British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) greeting Singaporea Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he arrives for a meeting at Downing Street in London on March 27, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

Singapore has learnt from London in its drive to become a global city, but as a city state with no hinterland, it also has to be sensitive to national identity and social solidarity, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

In a speech comparing the two cities, he noted that, like the British capital, the Republic is striving to be a global city, offering a high-quality living and cultural environment at the crossroads of the East and West.

"Like London, we too must manage the stresses and strains of being a global city," he said.

"But unlike London, we have no larger country which is our hinterland. Our city is our country. Hence, we must get the balance just right - between national identity and cosmopolitan openness, between free market competition and social solidarity," he said.

These remarks were in a speech he was due to deliver here last evening (early this morning in Singapore) at a ceremony in which he received the Freedom of the City award from London's Lord Mayor, Ms Fiona Woolf.

PM Lee was given the honour for his contributions to Singapore. His father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, received the award in 1982.

The title of his speech - A Tale Of Two Cities - was a nod to the book of the same name by Charles Dickens, one of London's greatest literary icons. Mr Lee paid tribute to the city's cultural heritage, which he first experienced in 1969 at the age of 17. "It was the swinging sixties and London was the capital of cool," he said.

He had a more "sober time" enjoying its plays, concerts, museums and art galleries and "spending hours browsing in the greatest bookshop in the world - Foyles".

While studying at Cambridge, he visited the city regularly as his late first wife Ming Yang was then a medical student at Middlesex Hospital. "Hence, London in the early 1970s held many happy memories for me," he said, while acknowledging that those were difficult years for Britain as it adjusted to its post-empire status.

He noted that with Britain's revival under prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors, London did especially well, attracting talent and capital from many countries. "London was cool again," said Mr Lee.

It responded faster than others to deregulate and liberalise its financial services to become a centre for world finance.

Singapore emulated its role in Europe, starting the Asian dollar market to service the region. As that strategy reached its limits by the late 1990s, it opened up its markets and accepted more risks, again using London as its model. But, he said: "We did not go as far as London did in letting go, which in hindsight was just as well."

Today, London is not just a financial hub, but also a global city for talent, innovation and culture. But both cities are at a crossroads, he said. London is trying to put things right after the global financial crisis and must find a new model "to remain a financial hub while avoiding the excesses of the past". Singapore too is making its way forward, pursuing economic growth based on productivity and innovation to uplift its people's lives, he said.

"We are sparing no effort to educate Singaporeans, both the young and those already working. We are addressing growing social needs, while maintaining our drive and elan," he said. "We strive to stay cohesive and united as we continue pursuing excellence, so that we can stay up there with London and other top cities in the world."

Mr Lee dedicated his Freedom award to Singaporeans who "have worked so hard to build our nation", giving special credit to the pioneer generation. The dinner was to be attended by London's senior business leaders, and Mr Lee's former Cambridge tutors. Earlier in the day, Mr Lee met Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. He is to give a talk at Chatham House today.

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