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HomesingaporeDelicate balance between 'over-watching' and 'overbearing' after handover to 4G leaders: PM...

Delicate balance between 'over-watching' and 'overbearing' after handover to 4G leaders: PM Lee

SINGAPORE: When the baton is eventually passed to the next generation of Singapore’s leadership, there is a fine line between providing counsel and overstepping one’s mark, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Nov 8).

Mr Lee made his first public remarks since announcing on Sunday that he would hand over leadership to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong by November 2024, before the next General Election.

Speaking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum held in Singapore, he was asked by Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait about his plans after the handover.

“It’s a very delicate thing to be over-watching, but not overbearing. And to be able to give advice and a helpful nudge, and just the right wise word, and not cramp the style of your successor.

“I am at the disposal of my successor,” said Mr Lee, echoing previous comments. “I’ve already said whatever he wants me to do, I will do to help him succeed. So you have to ask him what he will be doing with me.”

Mr Lee was asked about the possibility of becoming Senior Minister after handing over the reins to Singapore’s fourth generation leadership.

He noted that both his predecessors were in the room during his Cabinet meetings. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong became senior ministers after stepping down as prime ministers in 1990 and 2004 respectively.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew stayed in that position until 2004, when he was appointed Minister Mentor. He relinquished that post in 2011 and died in 2015. 

Mr Goh was given the honorary title of Emeritus Senior Minister when he left the Cabinet in 2011. He remained a Member of Parliament until his retirement from politics in 2020.

“I was running the Cabinet meeting and he was in the Cabinet room. And it worked quite well!” said Mr Lee of working with his father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Lee was also asked about how he would like to be remembered.

“I think I just focus on doing my job,” he said. “I’m not into the point where I sit down and talk about what I used to do.”

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SOCIAL PROGRAMMES

Responding to whether his government has been “drifting to the left” politically, with more social programmes, Mr Lee said: “We have been sailing carefully to a more comfortable place.

“When the economy is growing and all boats are lifted by the tide, we can afford to be and we need to be very rigorous in how we help those who are not quite catching up.

“You can tell them run faster, work harder. Here’s a bit more incentive … And mostly it works very well, and we did that for a very long time.

“But over time, as the race goes on, and as the field spreads out, and some are further forward, and some are not quite so far, and then their kids are not so far ahead – you have to think, how are you going to hold this team together?

“And when sometimes, somebody who’s doing perfectly well, the world changes on him and suddenly, the first shall be last – well, what do you do?

“Do you say that’s just the way the world is? Or is there something I can do to help him get back into the race again, and be contributing again?”

Mr Lee said Singapore is “in a phase where we have to do more together, where we have to help each other, and the government has to be there”.

At the same time, Singapore has to “try very hard to avoid the government being the sole solution to all problems”.

He added that Singapore is likely the smallest government among developed countries, with expenditure at under 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

National spending currently stands at 18 per cent of GDP, but the government expects that it could exceed 20 per cent of GDP by 2030.

Government expenditure has been kept “very lean”, but the pressures of an ageing society, higher healthcare costs and more social needs are pushing it up, said Mr Lee.

He said the challenge is funding that increase “where necessary, without just blowing up out of control”, and “that means from time to time uttering the forbidden word, taxes”.

He pointed to Singapore’s goods and services tax (GST), which rose from 7 per cent to 8 per cent this year, and will rise to 9 per cent in 2024.

Subsidies to the lower two-thirds of Singapore’s population will defer the impact of higher GST on households, while putting the government in a “new place” in terms of tax revenues, he said.

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ISRAEL-HAMAS AND GEOPOLITICS

Mr Lee also answered questions about the Israel-Hamas war and US-China rivalry in the wide-ranging interview.

He reiterated Singapore’s principled position that national borders are inviolate, countries have the right of self-defence, and the killing of innocent civilians is against international humanitarian law.

Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct 7 was “a horrendous terrorist attack on an enormous scale. So we fully understand how the Israelis feel about it and why they have reacted the way they have done”, he said.

“But what has happened since then in Gaza, as a consequence of Israeli operations, is an enormous human tragedy.”

Singapore has tried to express that “whatever the rights and wrongs, you must pay attention to the humanitarian considerations” in its statements on the conflict, he said.

“We have to exhort the Israelis and everybody else to abide by international norms and to have a consideration for innocent civilians.”

He reiterated Singapore’s support for a two-state solution. While difficult to achieve, Mr Lee said the alternative, a one-state outcome, would result in a “cycle of mutual destruction for generations to come”.

On US-China relations, Mr Lee said the upcoming summit between the two presidents, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, is “a necessary step in this difficult moment in the relationship”.

“You need the meeting to head in the right direction, but you do not expect a meeting to make everything sweetness and light again. It’s not possible.”

He described entrenched views in the US that China is a grave threat, and a strong consensus in China that the US is out to block it, and that it should protect itself instead of trying to co-exist.

“So when you have such views on both sides, even to want to think about stretching out and talking about a more constructive future is difficult,” he said.

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