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After LKY, Singapore is at the crossroads

24 Mar After LKY, Singapore is at the crossroads

Mr. Lee left behind a strong foundation for S’pore, says SIIA Chairman Simon Tay in this interview with CNBC.

CNBC spoke to Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) over the phone from Yangon on 24 March 2015. Prof. Tay was in Myanmar to host the ASEAN-Myanmar Forum co-organised by the SIIA in partnership with the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and IE Singapore. The full interview is available on A transcript of selected excerpts is below.

Prof. Tay: Singapore certainly is at a crossroads. At the last election, there was a relatively poor showing for the PAP, even though they had just about 60% of the popular vote.

Singapore’s economy has done so well that the per capita income is at the top of the league in the world. But, the future growth is always going to be there in a global economy that isn’t doing well.

I think the key point is to say that Mr Lee has left a strong foundation, while his passing is mourned by Singaporeans, even here in Yangon, it will be a record that he has left a solid bunch of institutions, a rule of law, a party that still has the vast majority and an economy that has gone from, in his own words, a third world to first.

Q. Simon, talk to us a little bit about the younger generation. Are you sensing a bit of a generational divide especially after the 2011 elections? And what does the current administration have to do to try to win the younger generation back?

Prof. Tay: I think it’s always going to be tough to work with people who didn’t know Singapore before it was really successful. I’m in my 50s, and I grew up in a Singapore which had villages with people sharing stand pipes. For that generation and those older, we know how much has been achieved. But for people – just like in China, those born only in the good times, they may take that for granted. But, even among these, while some people vote for the opposition, I would say almost everyone respects Mr Lee and what he has managed to do.

Q. Singapore is trying to maintain their competitive edge and increase productivity, and at the same time also to appease the general public and narrow that income gap become rich and poor. Do you expect an acceleration or a re-emphasis of these policies as we move closer to the general election?

Prof. Tay: I think Singapore has always done what works. The PAP particularly has prided itself on pragmatism, which is a DNA Mr Lee has left in the ruling party. They started off as socialists, they moved to privatise things and become much more efficient than many countries elsewhere. And so, globally now we see these concerns of inequity and inequality, and having to take care of the underbelly of society. And Singapore, while generally people have done well, there are these pockets. So, the government in the last budget, has moved this direction. But the key part of the last budget is the work of the current Prime Minister, the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Mr Lee, though influential, his passing will not affect the policies of Singapore.

Q. If you look at the legacy Mr Lee has left – it’s an incredible one, lifting Singapore from poverty to first world status – he didn’t do it with a model of pure western democracy, he had his own version of it. But is there a case to make…that perhaps we have moved to the evolution of policies and political development in SEA that there comes a time that we might not get more visionary leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, and that the country has already built itself to a more stable level and we just sort of need more management of where they’ve got to.

Prof. Tay: I don’t know whether that is all we need – the world today faces so many global problems, and Mr Lee had his finger on a lot of them. And to the end his views about US and China – which is the biggest question facing the globe today – really his views are being sought by both America and by China. I think that is the type of legacy he will leave – that Singapore is not just a country plugged into the world economy but thinks about some of these global issues. And so, when we look at the region, we hope Jokowi in Indonesia, and Modi in India, will also be “outside” leaders and take the country in the right direction. The world does need a strong leadership. The question mark is whether or not we can get it.