What keeps PM Lee up at night, the websites he visits, and his hopes for start-ups

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at Camp Sequoia on Feb 24, 2017. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - At a dialogue organised by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital here on Friday (Feb 24), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also fielded questions on such issues as what keeps him awake at night, the websites he monitors, and his hopes for the future.

The session was part of Camp Sequoia, Sequoia Capital India's annual technology summit, and brought together over 100 leading innovators and disruptors from more than 10 countries across the Asia-Pacific.

Here are edited extracts of Mr Lee's replies.

Q: What is your view of the current state of start-ups in Singapore and where do you see this headed in the next three to five years? What is your favourite interview question when you are hiring Ministers?

PM: Firstly, I think the start-up scene has livened up. There are young people in Singapore who are trying things. There are also a fair number of young people who have gone into the Valley in California, who have been caught by the bug and the enthusiasm and are not only working in tech companies but come out and are doing their own start-ups in Silicon Valley. That is a very good sign, we would like more to do that. In fact, that is one of the recommendations from the Committee on the Future Economy report, to set up a Global Innovation Network where our young people can go anywhere - whether in the region, Southeast Asia, India, China, or America, Israel, Europe - be immersed in the environment, find out what the exciting things are and be inspired to start their own things. I think that more will do it; not everybody will succeed.

As of now, I suspect that the technical content of the start-ups vary and some meet new market needs, some really are putting up traditional businesses. But that will sort itself out. The problem is not lack of resources from the Government. Really what is needed is the talent, the drive. And we just have to get out of the way and enable you to do that.

As for questions which we ask potential officeholders or potential Members of Parliament, I have done many of these interviews. We ask what they read so we get some sense of what their interests are. We ask what they have been doing outside of their work so we see whether they have an interest in social issues, whether they have an interest in helping people. We ask what policy issues they care about and have a view on and would like the Government to change. That is usually the question which they find the hardest to answer because they are not sure whether to tell us that we are dead wrong on something or other. But if they give us a good answer, we give them very high marks.

Q: What are you afraid of? What keeps you up at night?

PM: Well, some of the things which keep you up at night, you cannot do anything about. We spent a lot of time worrying about the United States presidential election.

There are other things which can go bump in the night because we are in uncharted waters. There is a major change of direction in the US. Other powers will react and how does that interaction work out? If it is a rebalancing, that is manageable. If it is destabilization, you do not know what the consequences are. That is one big global uncertainty.

Within the region, we also watch very carefully the trends and our neighbouring countries. Whether they are focused on regional cooperation and integration, or whether their focus is on economic nationalism - like the mood in the US and the developed countries - and are therefore turning more inwards. We monitor this. It can happen. Because when you are a small country like Singapore, you know that you have no choice. When you are a big country, two, three hundred million people, you feel that you can strike a different balance. And if you strike a different balance, you cannot calculate all the consequences. Everybody says the right thing. If you interview world leaders, everybody will say they are for free trade. But what they mean by it and what they do when they say they are pro-free trade, you have to watch and see. That keeps us up.

We also have to watch our own domestic population trends, our demographic trends. That worries us a great deal and again it is something with no easy solution. We can do certain things but you cannot drastically change it. Our birth rate is too low. The average fertility is 1.3 per female. It has to be 2.1 to just replace ourselves. We can top up to a certain extent with new citizens, with permanent residents from overseas. But you must have a core which is transmitted from generation to generation, and transmitted by birth. It cannot all be somebody naturalized. Otherwise the essence of the country somehow disappears.

That is something which we are still working with. We are doing all the things which seem sensible to do. Tax credits, tax incentives, cash bonuses, pre-school facilities, infant care facilities, paternity leave, more paternity leave, houses.

Q: I think people would be interested in hearing you describe your favourite websites and the favourite applications that you use, and what you yourself do on the Internet.

PM: I have on my desktop the news websites open: BBC, New York Times, Straits Times, Channel News Asia. They are there all the time. Because of that, I do not watch the television news anymore. If you want to see the snippet, it is there all the time. I have Facebook open and Instagram, because I have accounts. I track what is happening to my posts, what people are saying, and whether we have to respond to it or not. It is quite useful because without those, I would not reach out to significant segments of the population, here and overseas. It is also fun, if you do not become addicted to it.

What other websites do I go to? I look at a page called Astronomy Picture of the Day. Some of you may know of that. Every day there is a picture, a nebula, a supernova, the sun, rings of Saturn, something like that. I sometimes look at blogs by mathematicians to track what they are doing. I follow Terry Tao's [Terrence Tao Chi-Shen] blog. He covers all sorts of things. Usually I get lost after the first two paragraphs of his post but it is interesting to know what he is working on. He is the chap who proved that you can have as long a series of primes in arithmetic progression as you like. In other words, you can have ten primes which are in arithmetic progression or one hundred or one thousand. It is something which people were looking for many, many years. He has done many other things.

I look at photography websites because I take pictures. You pick up ideas looking at what people do, how they take the pictures. Some hints, some sense of what you are looking for and how you analyse a scene. Now when I look at pictures, you do not just say it is very pretty. You figure out where his leading lines are, where his focuses are, whether he put it on the one-third line or not and all sorts of technical things. It is like wine, oenophiles drinking wine and activating the brains instead of just the taste buds. But it is fun.

I use the applications which match these things. I use Kindle. I read mostly on Kindle now because it is much more convenient than carrying a book, although it does not get absorbed as well as with a physical book. With a physical book you have a sense of where you are, how far to go, where they fit together. You can flip back, you can side-line. You can sort of do that in the Kindle, not the same, but overall the convenience makes it worthwhile.

I have lots of other apps but I use them less often. Google Earth, from time to time. iTunes, not very often. I tried Spotify. I signed on and from inertia, I left it on for about two years and I was paying them $10 a month. I will tolerate the advertisements every 20 minutes if I decide to listen to them again. That is where I am.

Q: While all of us here come from all walks of life, from different parts of the world, one thing we share in common is that we are all dreamers and we all work every day and we work very hard to achieve these dreams. I would love to understand from you, what you want to see more from us.

PM: I hope you succeed in your dreams to change the world. You do not know who will succeed. It may be to a greater or lesser degree but collectively the ferment, the effervescence, the ingenuity and brilliance which has gone into the tech scene has already made a big change in the world. Some of it, a lot, for the better, and the downsides, we are having to learn to live with. I think the way has to be forward and not backwards. We can have driverless vehicles. We need driverless vehicles. It will make a difference to human beings, to the human condition. If we can have personalised medicine, I think we should go for personalised medicine, and we will be able to treat human beings better and improve their lives. To go the other way is completely a dead end.

I went to Cuba once. I was a student at the Kennedy School in Harvard on the Mason Program and we had to vote where to go for Easter break in order to learn about economic development. I voted for Mexico but I was out-voted. The students in 1980 believed that in Cuba there was some magic about economic development. We went there, we spent a week. They lectured us, they brought their planners, their officials. They were not unintelligent people but they were operating that system. And one of them told me something which left an indelible impression. He said, "If ever somebody invents a machine which will save manpower and then become more efficient and I do not need all these people whom I am hiring, then I will take him and the machine and throw him into the deep blue sea". That was their philosophy of creating jobs and spreading well-being amongst the population. It was a total dead end.

I went to buy an ice-cream in the park. I queued up five times. First, you get a coupon. Then, you present the coupon. Then, they prepared the ice-cream. Then, when the ice-cream is ready you go somewhere else and you pay. After that, you come back and you collect the ice-cream. They were putting this philosophy into action - or inaction. Look where it has led them. In the end, you have no choice. You have to open up. And I think for humankind too, the way forward is with technology. Use it, master it, and make life better for people.

Q: Asian society is known to have a lot of mistrust amongst people and that is coming from different racial backgrounds. Singapore has achieved a great amount of trust among citizens and therefore the economic progress is natural. What advice would you give to businesses to tap into learning how to create trust and make commerce easier to do, for a mistrusting society, let us say India, where every transaction has a lot of mistrust behind it?

PM: I do not know what the solution is. Technology, to work in a situation where you do not have trust, I can imagine that. All the sharing economy apps, the Uber, the Lyft, the Airbnb, you establish mutual rankings, assessments, and then you more or less know whether the other person is reliable or not. That sort of thing, you can do. To change your society, that is much harder.

You say that in Singapore, we have growth because we have trust. But it also works the other way around. We have trust because the growth has benefited most people and people accept that this is something which is for them. It is going to be harder now because the growth will be slower and we have to convince people, let us work together, at least we get this 2-3 percent growth, it is good by any international standard.

If you did not work together and you were at odds and you split - either regionally, like in India, with race and religion and caste, and geography on top of that, or in America, between the coasts and the centre, between the red and the blue states - I think Singapore would become a very unhappy and much, much less successful place. It is our responsibility as a government to have policies which will not let that happen.

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