Singapore has to resist divisive forces tearing at other countries: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with delegates and guests at the NTUC National Delegates' Conference at Orchid Country Club yesterday. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with delegates and guests at the NTUC National Delegates' Conference at Orchid Country Club yesterday. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

If nation is torn apart, it will be impossible to govern, make long-term plans, he says

In Hong Kong, the most vocal complaints arising out of the ongoing protests are political in nature and relate to how the "one country, two systems" policy is working out.

But underlying this is the sense that serious economic and social concerns have not been addressed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted yesterday at the NTUC National Delegates' Conference.

"Housing is very expensive. It is very difficult to start families and have children," he said. "The younger generation are not optimistic about their future, no matter how hard they study or work."

And although Singapore is in quite a different situation, the same deep angst and social division can arise here as it has in Hong Kong and other places, PM Lee warned at the conference held at Orchid Country Club.

In his speech, he pointed out that workers in many countries are left to fend for themselves when they lose their jobs, or feel left behind by progress because their own lives do not seem to be improving.

"The masses are angry that the elites in their country, their leaders, seem disconnected and seem to be only looking after themselves," PM Lee said. "Worse, the people feel they have been looked down upon."

It is this that has led to the growth of populist movements in Hong Kong and elsewhere, he said.

In the United States, President Donald Trump sensed this mood and won the 2016 election by championing this group of voters.

When French President Emmanuel Macron raised diesel taxes last year, it triggered violent and sustained demonstrations by the "Yellow Vests", who were largely people who felt left behind.

And in Britain, the Brexit campaign mobilised people who felt left out by globalisation.

"This campaign has exacerbated the fault lines and deeply divided the British people," PM Lee said. "It will take them many years - more than a generation - to come back and become one nation."

Singapore is not immune to the underlying divisive forces that are tearing at these other countries, and has to resist it better than them, he added.

 
 
 
 

"If it happens to us, like what is happening elsewhere, we will suffer the same consequences as the other countries - only worse, because we are that much more vulnerable," he said.

It will then become impossible to govern Singapore, to make and carry out difficult decisions, or to plan for the long term, he added.

"Nobody will think about Tuas 2028, or Singapore in 2050, or your grandchildren, because next week, next month, even next year, will seem so far away. Confidence in Singapore will be destroyed. Singapore will be finished."

It is therefore critical for Singapore to help its workers train for new roles, cope with rapid changes in their industries and remain employable, PM Lee said.

He gave the example of the new Tuas Port, which will be the world's largest fully automated terminal when completed in 2040.

Port operator PSA is experimenting with new technology such as unmanned automated guided vehicles and quay cranes with remote operators.

"Our port workers will have to learn these new skills, new routines, different jobs," he said. "Once they do this, they, too, can become more productive and share the efficiency gains."

PM Lee added that other industries are going through a similar transition. "It will not be easy. But we will walk with you every step of the way," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore has to resist divisive forces tearing at other countries: PM Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe