LEE KUAN YEW ON…Fate of Singapore in 100 years’ time

On Aug 22, 2012, I received a thank-you card from a Singaporean by the name of James Ow-Yeong Keen Hoy.

From his elegant, cursive handwriting, I guess he must at least be in his 50s. Young people these days prefer to type, and when they do write, they simply do not write as beautifully. 

He wrote: “My family is deeply grateful and has benefited from your magnificent leadership and solid contributions that have enabled our nation to achieve peace, happiness, progress, prosperity, solidarity and security all these good years. A big thank you!

“May we have the honour to sincerely wish you, Sir, peace and joy, wisdom and longevity and all the very best in the coming good years. And may our beloved country be blissfully and richly blessed and be mercifully safeguarded now and always. God bless.”

I quote at length from this card to highlight the enormity of the mindset shift, from an older generation, including this writer, his peers and his seniors, to a younger one that takes for granted Singapore’s affluence.

People like Mr Ow-Yeong have seen Singapore develop from the unsettling 1960s, when hardship and poverty were still the rule rather than the exception, to today’s vibrant and cosmopolitan Singapore, providing well-paying jobs to a highly educated population.

Many older Singaporeans also progressed from living in shanty huts to high-rise apartments with present-day conveniences and surrounded by safe neighbourhoods.

They have a good understanding of the nation’s imperatives – what it took for us to get here and what it would take to keep up our success – as well as its vulnerabilities.

The younger voters do not share those views. Having been born into a Singapore that had in many ways already arrived, they see all that is around them – a working system generating stability and wealth – and they ask: “Where is the miracle?”…

Even as things stand, we have regretfully shifted the system away from attracting the best talent through reductions to ministerial pay.

If I were a Cabinet minister at the time the change came up for discussion, I would have stood firm. But the younger generation of ministers decided to go with the trend.

It is true that no country in the world pays ministers as we do. But it is also true that no other island has developed like Singapore: sparkling, clean, safe, with no corruption and low crime rates.

You can walk the streets or jog at night. Women will not be mugged. Police do not take bribes, and if they are offered bribes, there are consequences for the ones offering.

None of this came about by coincidence. It took the construction of an ecosystem that requires highly paid ministers.

With every pay reduction, the sacrifice that a minister makes – giving up his profession or his banking job – becomes greater.

Some will eventually tell themselves: “I don’t mind doing this for half a term, 21/2 years, as a form of national service. But beyond that, it has to be: thanks but no thanks.”

The final outcome would be a revolving-door government, which will inevitably lack a deep understanding of the issues or the incentive to think about problems in a long-term manner.

Will Singapore be around in 100 years? I am not so sure. America, China, Britain, Australia – these countries will be around in 100 years. But Singapore was never a nation until recently.

An earlier generation of Singaporeans had to build this place from scratch – and what a fine job we have done.

When I led the country, I did what I could to consolidate our gains. So too did Goh Chok Tong.

And now, under Lee Hsien Loong and his team, the country will do well for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

But after that, the trajectory that we take will depend on the choices made by a younger generation of Singaporeans.

Whatever those choices are, I am absolutely sure that if Singapore gets a dumb government, we are done for. This country will sink into nothingness.

-The Straits Times Published on Aug 11, 2013