Torrent of raw information can undermine rational public debate



April 12th, 2008

Extract from Prime Minister Lee’s speech at the LSE Asia Forum, 11 April 2008.

The theme of this conference – knowledge – engages many of us in Asia. The whole continent is on the move today, because China and India have taken off. But Asian countries know that to sustain their growth and improve their people’s lives, the use and creation of knowledge are crucial. Hence many countries are seeking to educate their people, upgrade their economies, and create conditions for knowledge and innovation to flourish.

Today Asia continues to lag behind the West in the level of science, engineering, technology, all key fields of knowledge for economic development and human progress. But this is changing with schools, colleges, universities and research institutes sprouting across China and at a more measured pace also in India.

However, what the universities in China and India have not yet succeeded in doing is to create the environment of open inquiry and experimentation, conducive to, and indeed essential for, cutting-edge research and major breakthroughs. The intellectual ferment and exchange required to challenge great minds to do great things is not yet there. They are also weighed down by the legacy of academic hierarchies based on seniority rather than talent, unlike the best American universities. This is changing, but it will take time. Meanwhile we already see more researchers from Chinese and Indian institutions publishing papers in leading international academic journals.

Singapore’s Approach

As a small country with no natural resources, Singapore has long known that we have no choice but to make the mastery of knowledge our competitive advantage. We have been implicitly building a knowledge economy, long before this became a buzzword. From the late 70s, we realised we could not differentiate ourselves from our competitors or raise our standards of living by competing on cost alone. Hence we pursued several strategies to build up this knowledge edge.

First, we have invested heavily in our people through education. […]

Second, we have encouraged the free flow of information. This is the way to keep ourselves fully abreast of new developments and ideas, and to be ready to react promptly to a changing world. Singapore is fully plugged into the world, and wide open to the cross-currents of global interactions. Because English has been our working language, it gave us a tremendous advantage in the internet age. As an air and sea hub, we are linked up physically to the rest of the world, and as a telecommunications hub we are fully hooked up, whether wired or wireless, whether through the internet or cable TV. We still need to filter the flow of information, to maintain basic standards of decency, and preserve racial and religious harmony, but it is confined to a very minimum. All this is essential to nurture knowledge industries, whether it is financial services, interactive and digital media, or just-in-time manufacturing.

Third, we are stepping up our R&D efforts, from basic R&D to translational research to development work close to the end products and markets. […]

Fourth, the whole tenor of our society is geared towards welcoming new ideas, and adapting to change. Our ethos is cosmopolitan and pragmatic. Our society is meritocratic and egalitarian – everyone has a chance to learn and excel. We strive to operate rationally and flexibly, and to keep our sense of identity as an Asian society without being constrained by rigid social hierarchy or stifling political correctness. We respect the rule of law and intellectual property rights. We reward effort and work, encourage risk-taking, and embrace diversity.

Challenges Ahead

To stay competitive on the global stage, Asian countries have to keep on moving in this direction of knowledge, scientific excellence and innovation. But it will not always be a smooth journey. There will be difficulties to overcome along the way. Let me highlight three broad challenges.

The first challenge is to ensure that everyone in a society benefits from the knowledge economy. Overall the knowledge economy will be a boon for mankind, but individual workers will need the skills to do things which the computers and robotic tools cannot do.

Another challenge is the complete and instant exposure to an overwhelming torrent of information through the internet and online channels. This brings great economic benefits, and great potential for sharing and using knowledge, but it also causes people to respond to unfiltered, raw information or misinformation without the benefit of reflection time or informed interpretation. Furthermore, instant communication is not just about conveying information. Inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths will also gain currency through viral distribution. The online film “Fitna” which has offended Muslims worldwide is just the latest example of wrong-headedness, asserting the right to freedom of expression in democratic Holland while overlooking the costs, namely the stoking of hatred between devout Muslims and Christians. Terrorist groups are using the internet too, to find recruits, spread their extremist ideologies, and prepare attacks.

With satellite TV and the internet, events are also magnified across a global listening board. The world is now their stage. We see this in the protests that have erupted during the Olympic torch relay. The Olympics is China’s coming out party, to celebrate its progress and opening up to the world. They sent the Olympic torch overseas in what is described as a “journey of harmony”. But not surprisingly, China’s opponents see this as a golden opportunity to make their point. So as the torch travels the world, it has faced challenges at virtually every stop so far. Vivid TV images of demonstrators waving banners, scuffling with police, and making concerted assaults to snuff out the flame are beamed live around the world, achieving an asymmetrical prominence, and so influencing public opinion against China and the Games.

No protesting group truly expects that their public display of anger and outrage at China’s treatment of Tibetans or ethnic Han dissidents will change China’s policy when it affects its core security concerns. They know no government can give ground on any core issue under such public duress, whatever the merits of the arguments. So whatever the intentions of the demonstrators, the people of China believe they want to inflict maximum humiliation on China and the Chinese people more than the Chinese government. The outrage in China, especially among the young, can be read on the flooded internet bulletin boards, all carrying virulent anti-foreign sentiments. Pity they are in unintelligible Chinese ideographs. Were they in the English language, young Americans and Europeans would realise that these displays of contempt for China and things Chinese will have consequences in their lifetime, well beyond the Olympic Games.

In this new environment of raw, unprocessed information with instant worldwide impact, it will not be easy to keep the public debate on a high plane, especially on controversial issues where emotions rather than reason prevail. This will change the texture of societies everywhere. Societies will have to adapt and evolve defensive mechanisms and habits to thrive in these new circumstances. Amidst unceasing and bewildering changes, we will all the more need strong moral and social values that help us keep our bearings and hold our societies together.

Finally, fostering a sense of national identity will be a major challenge, especially for small and open societies like Singapore. Globalisation and the knowledge economy have created a single worldwide market for talent. In every field, the most able people are in demand worldwide, and are also highly mobile. The best musicians and sportspersons are already a global breed. But to do well, a country needs a core of its ablest citizens, those with both the intellectual and social acumen, to play leadership roles in the economy, the administration, and the political leadership. Without that central core to take the country forward, the society cannot perform to its full potential, and the citizens will suffer.


Despite these challenges, Asia’s transformation will continue. It will be powered by knowledge and ideas, and by billions of increasingly-skilled workers and entrepreneurs continually searching for new and better ways of doing things. The politics in Asian countries will inevitably change too. The outcome will not be determined by pressure from outside, but by the internal processes in these countries, which are old societies with deep cultures and long histories.

Not all Asian countries will effortlessly adapt to this new environment. But all will make the effort, several will excel, and many will eventually make the grade. Singapore will try its best to be among those who will succeed.

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