Mon, 06 Mar 2000

BG Lee readies Singapore for the future challenges

SINGAPORE (JP): With a general election in a year or so, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is already being portrayed by the Singapore media as the next prime minister.

BG Lee, as the retired Army brigadier general is popularly called, is already comfortable with the designation, as is apparent in various recent media interviews, including one on Saturday with a group of visiting Indonesian journalists.

The son of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kwan Yew retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 1984 to begin his political career with the People's Action Party. He was elected member of parliament in 1984, 1988, 1991 and 1997.

He has been deputy prime minister to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong since 1990, with responsibilities including economic and civil matters, and since 1998, chairman of the Monetary Authorities of Singapore.

Following is an excerpt of the interview.

Are you likely to relax freedom of expression in Singapore?

You can say anything you like, you can publish anything you like, make any speech you like, write any book you like. There is nothing to stop you. What people will ask is, why is it then that you have legal cases when you get defamed. But freedom of expression has never extended to defame and to tell lies in any country.

In terms of the framework (freedom of expression), it is there. In terms of the actual practice, people are discussing a much wider range of issues now than they did 10 years ago. You read the newspapers, and you can look at the Internet chatside, newsgroups. There's nothing which is taboo or unmentionable. But if you talk rubbish or you say something that is untrue, then we will hold you to account. But that's when the debate takes place.

Wouldn't the Internet give Singaporeans more information than simply that provided by the Singaporean media?

In the past they were not getting information just limited to local sources, because the BBC has had an FM station here for many years. You can listen to the BBC if you don't believe in TCS or RCS. All the magazines circulate in Singapore, you can read the Economist, Times or Newsweek, Kompas, whatever, it's all available here. And people travel, half of Singaporeans leave their country every year. If you want to try and make them ignorant, that is not possible. I don't think we start off from the point of view that we have denied it. What we have now with the Internet, more than one third of households are connected, anybody can get anything he wants, whether all of that is useful or true information is another matter. But it's all there.

With Singaporeans getting exposed to all sorts of information, do you find the Internet a threat?

I don't think being exposed to information is a threat. Eventually people have to decide whom to trust, what to believe. If on a newsgroup somebody says something ridiculous and puts a pseudonym there, are you likely to believe that? But if it is published on a reputable website, that's different. Then there is somebody signed as a columnist, somebody is taking responsibility. I read it seriously because I know that this is a source which I can depend on. The Internet will not change. I look for news on the Internet. That's the first thing I read every morning. I don't go for soc.culture.Singapore to see who's put the latest blurb there because it is uninformative. I look for Channel News Asia or International Herald Tribune, or Bloomberg, or AsiaOne. It tells me something useful about what's going on in the world. I think a lot of people will do that.

How would you describe Singaporean values?

It's very difficult to crystallize a philosophy or a whole way of life which society takes many generations to develop. We made one effort some 10 to 15 years ago and we developed what we call "shared values" -- that puts society above self, family as a basic building block, consensus rather than contention and so on. We made five items and we put it down and called them shared values.

You're talking about the three different communities with an inherited set of cultures and customs and attitudes towards life, which have served them well for a long time and have evolved as times passed, from generation to generation. For the Chinese you call them Confucianism values, for the Malays they have their tradition and customs and adat, and for the Indians also. They are not all the same. They're different but they have these strands that tie their society together. We want to keep these, modify them because the situation changes into the next generation. At the same time there are certain national norms, ethos, by which Singaporeans accept as a way of doing things. We focus on meritocracy, we emphasize openness, we give everybody full equal opportunities.

Can you elaborate on the phrase Every Singaporean Matters?

We want everybody to give his best. It's the complement of meritocracy. Because our system says we go on merit, so at every level, you compete. And the best person goes up, the most capable, and you test him, if he's capable then we promote him.

We try to put the most capable person to each job. But if our people then conclude that only the few winners count, and there rest don't matter and are not valued, then a lot of people who are not winners or not top winners will lose interest and opt out and say "why, I don't matter to you, I'm not valued, I'm not a CEO, I'm not the best, so why do I want to participate?" But if you want to be able to operate the whole system, you can't just have a few hundred bosses, you must have the whole society engaged, involved, and feeling that they have some role to play.

We want our people to have that mind-set. To participate, you count. You may be just the typist or the clerk, but you have an idea on how to do your job better. Let's have the benefit of that. We're one society with so many individuals.

Singapore follows neither the capitalist nor the socialist system. What is your system?

We try to be an economy which is run on market principles, but at the same time there are certain social safety nets to make sure that all Singaporeans are looked after, to make sure that there's a sense of community and nationhood.

We don't guarantee any job, we don't fix prices, we run as many things as we can on market principles, many pieces of the government have been divided up, these ones we have to operate commercially, so our radio station and TV stations or our refuse collection, even agencies like the tax department have to operate autonomously so that they can be efficient.

But what we do do, in addition to individual competitions, is make sure that certain basics are provided for everybody: free education, and assistance for them to buy apartments.

So you start off with some chips. If you start off with no chips, then you can't join the game, then it's very difficult. Why should someone be part of this game? Our chips is that if you're a citizen, you can buy an apartment, it's not for free, but it's subsidized. And if you work hard, and the country grows, the value of the apartment will go up and your asset will appreciate.

You have a stake and you'll fight for it because there's a national service army and we have to defend Singapore and the soldiers must feel that they have something to work for, to defend. They're not soldiers for a living, they are soldiers because they're doing national service.

What is the main challenge for the Southeast Asia region?

If you look back, for 30 years with president Soeharto in Indonesia, we had a very stable region. Indonesia was a very major factor in this stability. He focused on economic development, established cordial relationships with the other countries in ASEAN. He enabled all the countries to focus on economic development and not on tension or conflict.

Now it's changed. You cannot go back. You're not going to have another Pak Harto. You're going to go forward. We hope that you (Indonesia) will stabilize and you will develop again on a steady growth path and will be able to establish that kind of relations with the rest of Southeast Asia so that the rest of us can grow. You are the single biggest factor here, your population the largest, and strategically you carry the most weight.

Has your political career been difficult or made easy by the fact that you're the son of prime minister Lee Kwan Yew?

It's a challenge. If somebody else came in, they would just be looked at on their own merits. When I came in, they would ask how I compare with my father. That's quite a difficult comparison to have made. I think after some time people get to know you and they assess you as yourself and they know whether you are standing on your own feet or not, or as a patung, they will check if there's a tape recorder inside somewhere which is playing out.

I think people know me, I've been in politics since 1984.

There's a certain mutual understanding and confidence. I know my electorate, they know what they can expect of me. And I've worked over the years in the defense and trade industry, now in the financial sector and the monetary authority, also as a deputy to Prime Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong, coordinate the ministers and sell his policies and present and refine his proposals. I think I made a reasonable contribution. If you look forward to what can I do, it depends on whether people have confidence in me and whether I have the support of the members of parliament and the population. If so, then it is my duty to do what is necessary.

It's not really a job interview. I would like this, these are my qualifications, here's my CV, please choose me. If you take it like that, then I think you will probably fail. To be a prime minister is more than a job, you to have see it as a responsibility, are you the best person to fill it. If so, then you'd better do it, if not you better let somebody else.

Do you talk politics with your father Lee Kwan Yew?

Sometimes we discuss politics. Openly. It cannot be on a kawan-kawan (conversational) basis because I'll have to maintain my relations with the rest of the Cabinet. So does he. If people think the two of us have something private being arranged, we would have great difficulty with the other ministers.

Among the ministers we have a smaller group in whom we have more intensive, informal discussions more frequently. The senior minister is one of them, I'm one of them, and then there are five or six others.

Do you get tips from Mr. Lee Kwan Yew?

I suppose he gives me some suggestions. He gives the other ministers suggestions too. But, how shall I put it: You can have Jack Nicklaus as your pro, but you may not win.

What preparations are you making as the future prime minister?

I'm just busy doing my job now. I have enough to do. I think we can worry about that in due course. (emb)