Must be the recent GE2015 RALLY SPEECHES… DPM Tharman is making so many of us crush on him, hehe! Even REUTERS published an article on how DPM Tharman’s our rising star. One of my besties dubbed him (alongside PM Lee) as our own political rock stars, hehe!
Anyway, I can see from the searches that visitors to my blog did… and there’s a bit of renewed interest in THAT ST GALLEN SYMPOSIUM INTERVIEW. Yeaps, people are searching for it…
I’ve decided to just put up a post with the full transcript that I’ve lifted from CONNEXION.SG. That’s a pretty interesting site with lotsa Singaporean contents in case you haven’t heard of it. Do check it out!
A Full Transcript of DPM Tharman’s Interview at the 45th St. Gallen Symposium
Sackur: Tharman, it’s a pleasure to have you here, and to be able to have a conversation with you. The St. Gallen theme, as you know, is all about size and scale, and about this notion that sometimes all of us, in different forms, political, economic, management, can learn a lot from small…and obviously Singapore is a small nation that has achieved extraordinary things. So, if one looks, as an overview, for the last 50 years, if you could define one thing that has been of paramount importance behind Singapore’s rise, what would it be?
Tharman: An attitude of mind. We took advantage of disadvantage, we converted permanent disadvantage into continuing advantage. That’s a very fundamental attitude of mind.
What is the disadvantage that we have? We were not a nation that was meant to be. It’s a diverse group of people coming out of colonial migration patterns, very different origins, very different belief systems and religions. We were small, no domestic market, decolonisation happened suddenly and the British withdrew their military forces quickly and it impacted a very large part of the economy. We are surrounded by much larger neighbours. To our south, about 50 times the size of Singapore, and at the very outset, objected to the formation of Singapore and Malaysia. We had every disadvantage you could think of for a nation, and we did not expect to survive. We were not expected to survive.
But that, to Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneer team of leaders, was converted to advantage because it forces you to realise that all you have is yourself. The world owes you nothing, your piece of granite rock, fortunately is granite by the way, not even a waterfall or mountains that allow you to have a little bit of hydroelectric power. Nothing. Just a group of people of different origins who were willing to work hard, and had to fend for themselves and make themselves relevant to the world. And that mindset, thinking of yourself as not having the advantage of size or history, and that you’ve got to create it for yourself, turns out to be a phenomenal advantage.
Sackur: So it’s an achievement of collective will. And I think back to the timing, the early 60s, there were a lot of Asian nations that were emerging at that time from colonialism…
Tharman: And also African and Caribbean…
Sackur: Of course, but if we just think about Asia and your experience within Asia, you have nations which I think economists would predicting would be truly powerhouse nations back then: Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma, Myanmar, all of these were tipped for the top, and yet, of course, we saw all of them in their different ways, really struggle in the post-independence period. So was it just that Singapore had the, maybe, it was size, that allowed you to find the collective will that the other larger nations could not forge?
Tharman: I think it’s a very difficult question, but let me put it this way. People think of Singapore as an economic success, that’s what sort of, you know, catches attention very easily, per capita GDP and so on, but what was really interesting and unique about Singapore was social strategy, and most especially the fact that we took advantage of diversity, different races different religions, and melded a nation where people were proud of being who they were, but were Singaporeans first and foremost.
Sackur: Was it melded from top down? We can’t get away from the figure of Lee Kuan Yew himself. It wasn’t there at the beginning.
Tharman: Not true.
Sackur: He imposed it.
Tharman: The natural workings of society would not have led to that happening. Not just in Singapore but anywhere in the world. The natural workings of society would have just as easily and more likely led to mistrust, discomfort, bigotry and what we see in abundance in many countries around the world today. The most intrusive social policy in Singapore has turned out to be the most important, and it has a level of intrusiveness that doesn’t come comfortably to the liberal mind.
Sackur: What is it?
Tharman: Housing estates. 85 per cent of Singapore lives in public housing. It’s not public housing that you are familiar with in the UK, it’s not like your council housing, because when it’s 85 per cent, it covers the lower income group, the middle income group, the upper middle income group, these are middle class housing estates. But every single block of flats, of apartments, and every single precinct, requires an ethnic balance. That’s intrusive. Because you’re constraining…
Sackur: It requires an ethnic balance in the sense that the government decides how many of each ethnic group…
Tharman: Once a particular ethnic group gets beyond a certain quota in that block or that precinct, the resale market has to adjust. You can’t just get more and more of the same people concentrating themselves in the same neighbourhood. And when it was first done, I don’t think we knew how important it was going to be.
Sackur: It sounds extraordinary…
Tharman: It was done because…and it was intrusive, but it turned out to be our greatest strength, because once people lived together, they’re not just walking the corridors every day, taking the same elevator up and down. Their kids go to the same kindergarten, they go to the same primary school, because all over the world, young kids go to school very near where they live. And they grow up together. The lessons coming out of Baltimore, the lessons coming out of France’s large cities, the lessons coming out of all our societies show that neighbourhoods matter, place matters, where you live matters. It matters much more than economists thought. It matters tremendously in the daily influences that shape your life, and the traps you fall into.
Sackur: But I dare say, and this where we get into a conversation about Singapore that isn’t, as you say, just about extraordinary growth rates and economic success, but is about the way in which the body politic works. To some of us sensitive flowers in the West, the authoritarianism which underpins that approach to managing a society feels uncomfortable to us.
Tharman: Yup. That’s a caricature. I mean, even The Economist, which is not exactly a cheerleader for Singapore, would say, as it just did in its editorial form of obituary when Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away, that Singapore has free, fair and regular elections. We are a parliamentary democracy, not in exactly the same mould as Britain or the United States certainly, but your parliamentary democracy and an elected government makes decision which it feels are in the best interests of the country today, and for the future. And we’re accountable for it.
Sackur: Yea, I mean, it’s a democracy of sorts, you don’t have a genuinely free, truly liberated press…
Tharman: Not in the British sense, no. (laughter from audience)
Sackur: We won’t want to take credit for the notion of a free press. It’s not a British idea…
Tharman: I didn’t mean it entirely as a compliment, (laughter from audience) but as a description. (applause from audience) But as a description.
Sackur: But you are missing Page 3 of The Sun newspaper, and that is a great loss. I agree. But actually, there is a serious point. When journals, respected and have a role to play, like, you know, Far East Economic Review, for years and years, are hounded by…
Tharman: No, the rules are very clear and simple. Singapore is an extremely open society, by virtue of the number of foreign publications that are circulated and there are well over 5,000; the fact that Singaporeans are, probably more than any other society, broadband penetrated; the fact that they are English-educated and have access to a whole world of information on the Internet. It’s an extremely open society; there’s no doubt about it.
We are unconventional in requiring, in our laws, that we have the right to reply when foreign publications publish something that we feel is false or misleading, we just have the right to reply. And publications, as you know very well, refuse to publish our reply, we impose restrictions on them that affect their advertising revenue. It’s unconventional, you might not agree with it, but the larger point is this: I think we all need some humility. We all need some humility on the ways that best advance a liberal order. Take Lord Griffith’s point this morning: a liberal order economically, socially and politically. We all need some liberty and some humility as to how we achieve that. Not just for today, but for tomorrow. How do you sustain it? How do you sustain it?
The most thoughtful of all observers, in the West, are of the view that you need some buffers, you need some margins of safety, and you need some compromises on some liberties in order to achieve others. And the freest possible media is not the only liberty we aspire to. I do think it’s a good idea, by the way, it appeals to my ideals, but it’s not the only liberty you aspire to. You do aspire to a liberty of being able to walk the streets freely, particularly if you’re a woman, or a child, at any time of the night; you aspire to the liberty of living in a city that’s not defined by its most disorderly elements; you aspire to the liberty of having an opportunity for education and a job regardless of your race or your social background; and you aspire to a liberty of practicing your own religion without fear of bigotry or discrimination. Those are very important liberties in many societies, and they are lacking in many societies.
Sackur: Well I think we’re getting into a very interesting area, because Singapore to me is the sort of body politic which we, in the West, struggle to define in a way, maybe because we have a slightly simplistic, binary approach to this. We either want…you know, we look at free societies like, I suppose, mine or Western European or the US models, we would say “free societies”. And then we would look at China, for example, and we’d say “a not free society”, you know, they have capitalism of sorts but they certainly don’t have democracy, and we’ll say “not free”, or dysfunctional, politically. You, sit in neither camp. As far as we’re concerned, we can’t really pigeonhole you.
But here’s a thought for you: Maybe your system is coming to a crossroads, or a turning point, because the digital age is changing things somewhat, the information flow and the top-down approach that your society has taken, perhaps, don’t fit so easily into a digital age. And I just wonder, when there are theories about the relationship between political economy and innovation, and long-term, sustainable economic success through innovation, whether Singapore is going to have to change, and whether the authoritarian model, if you don’t mind me using that word, is going to have to be reviewed and fundamentally adapted. What do you think?
Tharman: Lee Kuan Yew would never have expected that Singapore would remain what it is today forever. I don’t expect and I don’t think any of my colleagues in government would expect it to remain this way forever. It has to evolve.
We start with the cards we are dealt with. History shapes choices and the history I described briefly earlier on did shape choices. It shaped social choices, it shaped political choices. But we must never be trapped by our history. We have to keep evolving.
And it is a worthy ideal to aspire for a system where individuals are well-educated, are good judges for themselves of the information that they read on the internet or on the media and are able to make their own minds up. It is a worthy ideal to aspire towards but how do we do it in a way that is self-sustaining. If all forces are let loose, whether it is the media or anything else, that you are able to achieve the liberties that matter most to people – safety, freedom of belief, freedom to aspire in life and achieve what you want through hard work. That is a very important liberty.
Sackur: Simplistically put, is there going to be room for more individualism in Singapore in the future?
Tharman: If you look at Singapore today, compared to ten years ago, it’s a vastly different place. Singaporeans are educated, discerning, skeptical, and critical people. They know what’s what. There’s no doubt about it. And Singapore continues to evolve.
It’s a function of course of the fact that we had some success in education, it’s a function of the fact that, you say, is a digital world. It’s an open world. That’s no doubt about it. But let’s not think that we are all moving teleologically towards that destination that you now see in the United States or UK. We all have to evolve. And we all need some humility as to how we progress democracy.
Sackur: But will Singapore always be the kind of society where the government says, ultimately, you can’t live there because the quota for your particular ethnic grouping has already been reached, you’ve got to go and live there? Is it going to be that kind of society forever?
Tharman: That’s an imponderable. I think it will be naive to think that you can lift it and people will automatically gravitate towards diverse neighbourhoods and you won’t in fact get the reverse. Because if you look at the most advanced democracies, that’s exactly what’s happened. You have it in United States, France, Germany, and even in the United Kingdom.
In the United Kingdom, half of the Muslim population lives in your bottom 10 per cent of neighbourhoods. Did it happen because of some random chance? Or did it happen because that’s the natural workings of society?
We have to address these facts honestly and realise that human beings aren’t perfect; everyone has biases, discomforts, a sense of liking or distrust for each other. And there is a rule of government – an elected representative – to unify people. And it doesn’t happen through speeches.
It means you need mechanisms, you need instruments. They mustn’t be too constraining on individual choice, but you do need to constrain something.
And you end up a better society or don’t – that’s the test, not whether the government is right. You end up a society that people feel more comfortable in. That’s the real test. It’s easy to talk about Singapore but quite frankly, this is a challenge we all face.
Sackur: Absolutely, I know full well the sort of issues that come out of making an ethnically diverse nation work are extremely important to nations far beyond Singapore, not least my own. But it seems to me that you are now facing some of the problems that other nations have faced for quite a long time.
So let’s talk about a couple of specifics, one being immigration. It is a big issue in Singapore today. In fact, one could argue it is one of those issues that is prompting a new kind of active, passionate debate where opposition is actually coming out onto the streets, using the Internet in ways that haven’t been seen before. Because your government looks at demographics of Singapore and looks at the need to keep growth going and if your own people are not going to have many babies, you will have to manage continued immigration into the country.
By 2030, the plan was to turn a population of 5.3 million to 6.9 million. This drew an awful lot of opposition from native Singaporeans. So what are you going to do? You need the numbers but immigration, like in so many nations around the world, is now a hot and difficult political issue. What are you going to do?
Tharman: It’s a challenge that many countries face and small countries face more than others. Switzerland faces it in a very pointed way – another small country that not only needs people for the sake of numbers but its companies need talent and specialised skills to compete internationally. But we are a society. We are not just St. Gallen or Stuttgart or San Diego. We are a country. We are a nation. That means it has to be a nation that people feel is their own. It has got to have social mores and a tone that people feel is Singaporean. But with an openness that allows us to take advantage of the skills, expertise, track records and networks of foreign individuals. So staying open but remaining Singaporean at the core is what we have to achieve.
Sackur: Are you going to bring in this new 30 per cent of your population by 2030 or not?
Tharmun: One third of our workforce is foreign and we hope to keep it there as long as we can without letting it rise indefinitely. That is something we implement through labour market rules. We got levies; we got quotas and so on. But you can’t have a free-for-all. You can if you are one city in a larger country but we are a country by ourselves and we need a balance. Integrating the foreigners into our society is just as important as thinking about the numbers. You’ve got to integrate people as well as you can. Singaporeans have got to feel that “Yes this is my country but I’m proud to be working in a world-class team”.
Sackur: Another challenge you face is on the size of government. You’ve talked already with me about the investments made in housing for example. That’s going to increase and I know it is a huge part of the public budget. Education – British politicians in elections talk about our failing education and they say look at Singapore, and they cite your amazing exam records, numbers of skilled graduates and the way in which you scale up your people. So you invest huge amounts in education. If you look at the figures, your government is actually an advocate of massive state spending. That’s the way you run your country. Because you’ve got such a successful economy, you’ve managed to do it with budget surpluses until last year when you just fell into a deficit. I don’t know whether you are worried but looking forward, particularly if you mix demographics with the size of your government and the ambition of your government, you are going to run into real problems.
Tharman: I think we’re a very interesting case of a country that has low government spending, by the way, by most standards, as a percentage of GDP. Low taxes.
Sackur: As long as your GDP keeps climbing.
Tharman: Yes, but our starting point is not a bad one. We’ve got relatively low government spending and revenues, but we’re able to achieve the social outcomes that countries with much larger spending do. And how do we do it? I think one of the very important lessons of the last 50 years is that traditional concepts of welfare, social expenditure and government intervention have led to a weakening of private initiative and personal responsibility. Not because that was the intent. It was never the social democratic intent to weaken private initiative and family responsibility.
I mean, look at the Scandinavian countries. They used to be among the most hardworking countries in the world. The Swedes were incredibly hardworking, industrious people.
Sackur: You’re using the past tense, are you? The Swedes have become lazy? Or what’s happening?
Tharman: Present active tense. They’re a good society in many ways, and they’re willing to pay high taxes to keep their system going.
Sackur: Well, Swedes will get the chance to comment on this at a moment.
Tharman: But the point is, there are ways in which an active government can intervene to support social mobility, develop opportunities and take care of the old, which doesn’t undermine personal and family responsibility. And that’s the compact that we’re trying to achieve. And it’s almost a paradox.
Sackur: You mean you’re a bit more ruthless. Is that what you’re saying?
Tharman: No, we’re achieving a paradox of active government support for personal responsibility, rather than active government support to take over personal responsibility or community responsibility.
Sackur: Do you believe in the concept of a safety net?
Tharman: We believe in a concept of support for you taking up opportunities. So we don’t have unemployment.
Sackur: I believe in the sometimes simplicity of yes-or-no answers. What about this idea of a safety net? Does Singapore believe in the notion of a safety net for those who fall between the cracks of a successful economy?
Tharman: I believe in the notion of a trampoline.
Sackur: So people are just bouncing up and down in Singapore?
Tharman: No, it boils down to what policies you’re talking about. If you provide help for someone who is willing to study hard; if you provide help for someone who is willing to take up a job and work at it, and make life not so easy if you stay out of work; if you provide help for someone who wants to own a home – and we are very generous in our grants for home ownership, which is why we have 90 per cent home ownership and, among the low-income population, more than 80 per cent own their homes — it transforms culture.
It’s not just about transactions, it’s not just about the size of grants, it’s about keeping alive a culture where I feel proud that I own my home and I earn my own success through my job. I feel proud that I’m raising my family. And keeping that culture going is what keeps a society vibrant.
Sackur: (referring to an on-going online vote by the audience) After 50 years of growth and prosperity, Singapore will face the same structural challenges as the rest of the developed world. 71 per cent of you disagree, presumably you believe, as the Americans will say, “Singaporean exceptionalism”, which is an interesting idea, do you believe in Singapore exceptionalism?
Tharman: No, I don’t. I don’t at all. Very little of what Singapore does is invented in Singapore. Very little.
Our whole, to use the jargon “SOP”, you know, Standard Operating Procedure, whether it’s in Cabinet or Statutory Board or small public agencies, is “look at the rest of the world”. Try to get some ideas, some techniques, some methods, that have worked well and see how we can do it in Singapore, if possible, better.
Try to avoid the mistakes that have happened. So that’s an advantage of smallness, by the way – we never thought that we had it all in our minds. We never think today that we got it all worked out and this is a successful model and that’s it. We are never in a golden mean.
Sackur: Getting back to smallness, what you describe is fascinating the interventionism of the Singaporean government in the housing system for example, or in the education system. It’s been so successful but it’s so micro-managed. That couldn’t happen in a large country, could it?
Tharman: I think the thought experiment that’s more useful is what has happened in a large country and how could you have avoided it. How could you have avoided what happening in the banlieues? How could you have avoided what I described about your minority populations in Britain? How could you have avoided Baltimore? How could you have avoided Ferguson? It’s not rocket science. There are many thoughtful observers who point to what was happening decade after decade. And it’s not about left or right by the way, it’s not about democrats against republicans, or labour against conservative.
Sackur: It’s partly about centralisation of authority. In the United States, whether we are talking about policing or whether we are talking about education or housing, in the end Americans want their decisions to be taken at a much more local level by-and-large. You know there’s a fear of big government, and watching and intruding in people’s lives. Many decisions are taken not just at the state level, but at the municipal level, including things like policing. Whereas in Singapore, you guys are quite straight forward. You got an extraordinarily centralised city-nation-state and it is all run from one place – the centre.
Tharman: It is a city of course. And if you want to compare it, you can compare it to other American cities. St. Gallen by the way is larger than Singapore. And you have to ask what is the responsibility of elected representatives? If we believe in social inclusion, if we believe in opportunities for all, we have to accept it doesn’t happen automatically because of the invisible hand of the market or the invisible hand of society. It happens because you’ve got policies that seek to foster and encourage it. And what happened in the examples I’ve just cited is that you’ve got policies that went in the other direction. And they trap people. They trap people where they started. If you’re black, if you’re low income, you end up where you started. I may be over simplifying but that’s the tragic truth. And that comes out of 50 years of evidence. And we try to alleviate…
Sackur: And you think you’re the world’s perhaps greatest example of a meritocracy?
Tharman: No, I’ve never put it that way. I would simply say we’ve taken lessons from abroad, we tried to do what make sense in our circumstance and we’ve got to keep evolving our methods.
Sackur: You’ve got a problem. Singapore made its great strides in the 60s, 70s, 80s, when the rest of Asia, as we touched on earlier, many of these countries were under terrible misrule, misgovernment. Their economies were shot to pieces. And you guys, because you were extraordinarily, efficiently governed, could make great competitive strides. It’s a bit different now. Asia is full of tear away growth economies, obviously there’s China, but there are many others too.
Suddenly the idea of Singapore being the great tear away success of Asia in relation to all the others isn’t so true. And maybe foreign investment, for example, might begin to think you know what Singapore has gone as far as it can go, there are other places where we could put our money and see it bear fruit better than Singapore in the future. Are you worried about that?
Tharman: Well, Singapore wouldn’t be where it is today if it didn’t have to compete very hard against formidable competitors, They won’t always in Asia, they won’t always in the immediate neighbourhood, but it has always been about competition. And that’s how we moved up from one level, from highly labour-intensive low-skill low wage production to what is now high skill high wage enterprise. And it’s a constant race.
But don’t forget the intangibles. Don’t forget the intangibles.
There’s some advantage in being constant, in keeping to your promise, sticking to the contract and building confidence amongst every investor. That in 20 years’ time, 30 years’ time, the rules are not going to change.
Sackur: And being constant, does that mean that Lee Kuan Yew’s family will always be in charge?
Tharman: No, I think that will be most unusual. It’s a meritocracy. It will be most unusual if that was the case. Certainly, it’s not the way in which – I can’t speak on behalf of them – it’s not the way most Singaporeans would expect it to be. And certainly, you wouldn’t want it to be a situation like…
Sackur: I thought you are talking about the United States – either the Bushes or the Clintons.
I mean to be frank, if you look at parliamentarians below the age of 30 in India, every single one of them is a member of a political dynasty. Every single one of them. So, we believe in meritocracy, it’s hard work, sometimes it’s imperfect. There’s always advantage in family connections and wealth but we got to keep working against that.
Question and Answer Segment
Mexican participant: Mr Tharman he wants to control migration under a certain percentage. Competitiveness in Singapore is quite good in terms of the economy and a lot of companies are moving its headquarters to Singapore because of the advantages it represents to the companies. However, many of those companies are foreigners that means it will go over the certain percentage of migration. IF that affects the competiveness of Singapore, what will you address?
German ambassador: I was very impressed by your explanation of the ethnic coherence and the source of political and social stability residing in the fact that you have balanced quarters. Now, what I think one should factor in, from the point of view of my country, is the issue of migration. Not only the current situation of Northern Africans crossing the Mediterranean and asking for asylum. But I remember, please correct me if I’m wrong, that in Singapore if you’re a Filipino housemaid and you get pregnant you’ll get sent back home. So there is sort of an inherent, permanent limit to extension of ethnic diversity and thus maybe part of the explanation why you have such peace and quiet in your quarters.
Sackur: So two questions concerning migration. First one, given your determination to control immigration, could that run into a clash with your desire to see foreign companies headquarter in Singapore, to develop their operations in Singapore because one might run against the other.
Tharman: Well fundamentally, what we aim to achieve is to provide a strong incentive for companies to upgrade their operations to depend less on manpower. Period. Because a large part of the foreign work force in Singapore is unskilled to lower, mid-skilled foreigners. It’s not about entrepreneurs or scientists or engineers. Large part of it is labour. And we are behind Switzerland, we are behind the advanced segments of Germany, we are behind the advanced segments of the United States and Japan, in almost every industry with the regard to our potential to reduce manpower and to rely more on technology and machines. We still have some way to go to become really at the frontline of productivity and technology. And that’s our ambition. That’s the first strategy. It’s about upgrading industry so as to raise productivity.
But the second strategy that is very important is that when it comes to any form of talent, and we define in different ways it’s about track records, education, of course market salaries are very good indicator of talent, we’re an open society. But we encourage every company, Singapore or foreign-owned, to think hard about building the Singaporean core in your enterprise. We encourage that very strongly. We can’t leave it entirely to the market, but neither can you intrude too much in enterprise decisions because then you risk losing competitiveness. So far, I think we’ve managed this journey, we have to keep revisiting our methods and our rules every few years or so. But so far, we are managing the journey.
Sackur: And the ambassador’s point that you actually take draconian steps or have in the past, throwing out women who get pregnant?
Tharman: Foreign labour is here is Singapore on a contract under conditions that they have to meet. We are strict on applying the rules but the rules are known well in advance. The fundamental challenge Singapore faces is not about how we achieve harmony because we sort kick foreigners out when they get pregnant. That is a very, very small instance of people. Extremely small. The fundamental challenge is that we are ourselves a diverse society with quite different belief systems. And we think we can achieve a harmonious society through hard work, constant consultation and dialogue, and trust. That’s our fundamental challenge. We are ourselves a diverse society.
Indian participant: Well, since we are talking a lot about diversity in Singapore, I was just thinking India had largely a very similar time span. And if you look at the diversity, it had very similar endowment in terms of diversity in belief systems, diversity in populations, and in some ways similar colonial past. Given the same India however, has chosen to take a different route and a different approach to things. And some might say that there is a lot that India could perhaps learn from Singapore. A major difference being in the size and therefore perhaps in the agility and ability to enforce that Singapore has. So would you have some things that India could learn perhaps, or countries like India could learn from Singapore?
Sackur: In a nutshell, you’re a very small nation, India’s a bloody huge nation, but are there some universalities here that could apply across?
Tharman: Maybe a fairer comparison is to look at India compared to other large complex societies and China is a good example. India has the great advantage of a democracy which ultimately I think is the most sustainable political system that we know of. But it doesn’t have the advantage of accountability of elected representatives. China, in a curious way, despite not having a democracy in the political sense, has a very high sense of accountability on the part of its leaders. That isn’t so for all authoritarian regimes, but it is so for China, and they have created a culture of accountability. I think India can create a culture…
Sackur: Really? I’m slightly baffled.
Tharman: I think India can… We can come back to that if you want to.
Sackur: We don’t have time…
Tharman: I think India can create that culture. There’s no reason why democracy should not have the culture of accountability with it. It just means that middle-class voters especially, have to hold people accountable for what they promised, and to see it be delivered. And it can be done.
Sackur: Alright, we’re going to talk more about China and accountability over coffee. But we can’t do it now. Yes, sir?
Uganda participant: Does Singapore today consider itself a developed country in the Harry Truman sense of what developed and developing meant? And if so, will its current geo-political interests vis-à-vis dealing with the rest of the global south including Africa and Uganda.
Tharman: The word “developed” doesn’t figure very much in our parliaments, in our domestic debates or anything like that. Because as far as we are concerned, we just have to keep improving. We haven’t arrived, as I mentioned just now. I spoke about productivity and technology. I can talk about other things. I think the way in which European societies have developed respect for blue-collar workers, and accorded them a place in the workplace, in governance and in society, that exceeds most Asian countries. It’s something that we still have to aspire towards. There’re many things that have been achieved in the advanced countries that we still aspire towards. So I don’t know what the definition of “developed” is, it’s typically a some per capita income criteria in which case Singapore sort of…off on the charts.
Sackur: I think the question was whether Singapore now sees a priority in developing relationships with the emerging and poorer countries of the world, particularly Africa.
Tharman: We put focus most of our foreign assistance and relations on developing countries, in Latin America and Africa, and especially in Asia. And to go back to the question that was asked earlier, I think we have to be quite honest about the fact that there are going to be limits to which we can solve the immigration problem in Europe or anywhere else in the world of the same nature by simply addressing it when they finally come. We’ve got to help countries manage their problems where they are, and we have to take very seriously, the predicament and complexity of Africa, and do our utmost through multi-lateral institutions and bilaterally, to help them uplift themselves, solve problems at their source, not when they finally come.
Sackur: As I’m just literally two days ago back at Zimbabwe I would agree with that entirely. Now we got to end, I want two more questions but I want both from women cause I’ve failed to call upon women so far. We’ve got two women neatly lined up right next to each other, so two short, pithy questions from two females to finish.
China participant: I’ve never been to Singapore before, I hope one day I will. So I just ask a naïve question from a view of an outsider. I hope it’s not entirely irrelevant. I think it’s an exhorted idea to work harder and to have a decent life, but you mentioned something like you would actually make life harder for people who are not willing to work in Singapore, and this actually reminds me of something I saw earlier this year when I was in the US. I was actually touched by some of the freedom some of the people enjoy there. They could actually just have some unconventional and even chaotic years of their life. They could be like anti-establishment, they could just be different. But if your society works this way, won’t you deprive the freedom of people who just want to be wild and anti-establishment? At least for a period of time?
Sackur: That’s a totally great question. Let’s hear the other one as well.
Woman from Armenia: How did development start in Singapore? Is it thanks to the political will or it started from the bottom civil or economic level, and what is the level of democracy between the political rights and economic rights?
Sackur: Ok, let’s do that one first and then we get to the one that we all enjoyed.
Tharman: They are not unrelated.
Sackur: No, they are not unrelated. But give me your answer to the second lady first.
Tharman: In understanding the evolution of democracy in Singapore, you can’t avoid looking at history, how we started, and the circumstances that we were given, as a country that wasn’t meant to be. Democracy has evolved, it has strengthened, and I believe it has to strengthen further. But let’s not think that the way to strengthen it further is to simply leave everything without restraint. It hasn’t worked in the most advanced democracies, and it’s not going to work especially in a diverse Asian society.
Sackur: 80 of your 87 parliamentary seats are taken up by the ruling party, Lee Kuan Yew’s party. I mean, that’s not healthy is it really.
Tharman: It isn’t, if you look at Alberta since 1971 you’ve had the same party in power and today it controls 70 out of what, 85 or something like that? Canada, the thriving liberal democracy… Don’t hit too hard a government that works very hard to do what is in the interests of the people and has a good track record. Right? Don’t hit it too hard.
Sackur: Second question. In Singapore, there isn’t room to enjoy a few years of “wildness”? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the chance to kick back, think and smoke something interesting?
Tharman: There are two parts to that question. First, you’re free to be as wild and wanton and take time off and do what you like with your life. But you don’t have to get state assistance for doing so. That’s the point. The point is, how do you, with limited budget, whilst keeping tax revenues low, keeping spending low, how do you apply it most effectively? And I believe the best way to apply it. is to reward personal responsibility. I’ve got nothing against people taking time off. In fact, it’s not a bad way to live your life, to take some time off from time to time. You re-energise yourself, you think of new ideas, you might switch jobs. But the unfortunate fact of the last 50 years is that governments that give money without conditions, in other words, as long as you are unemployed you get it and you get it for an extended period, did not anticipate how it would change social culture. Unfortunately social culture changes, and it changes in response to incentives. And we don’t want that to happen in Singapore.
The more serious point though is that it is true, that developing Singapore into a more innovative society which is what its future has to be, this require a certain amount of free play of ideas at the level of the individual, groups of individuals and we have to allow for that. And I don’t think allow for that means we just mimic what the bay area of the United States is. We’re a different society, but we’ve got to evolve, we’ve got to give more free play to the individual and to individual choices. It may be right or wrong choices but people will learn with time.
Sackur: If I may say Sir, that is a very interesting answer and I just think your entire presentation has been fantastic. Apologies from me cause I made you all late for lunch. It is now lunchtime but ladies and gentlemen before we get to lunch, just please give the warmest of warm hands to Tharman Shanmgaratnam. Thank you.