PM Lee promises more open government but wants sincerity from opponents, too

October 21st, 2011

Edited extract from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech during the debate on the President’s Address, 20 October 2011. For a PDF of the full speech, click here.

It’s necessary and healthy for our politics to adapt to changes and to be up-to-date and in sync with the times because if you don’t adapt, it’s brittle and one day it would break. But we cannot assume that just because you are changing, you are moving forward. You could be going the wrong way, you could get into a dead end. We have to consciously find the right way forward to avoid problems which other countries have run into.

So how do we respond to this new political situation?

First, we have to take a much more open approach to government and to governance, the way we organise ourselves, the way we conduct our affairs. Welcome different views, reach out to diverse groups including critics, share more information with the public whether it’s information on population trends, employment figures or foreign workers – even on GIC investments we are publishing more information now than we used to do, whatever we can. Not everything can be disclosed. We don’t want to tell the world the overall size of our reserves, we cannot publish our defence plans, but wherever possible, we will disclose more rather than less. As we go forward, we will review the rules on what we are putting out and over time, we will do progressively more.

We need to engage citizens more in decisions affecting them, across a wide range. The Institute of Policy Studies put out a paper showing various projections of how Singapore’s population will grow or shrink over the next decade on certain different assumptions. It’s not a conclusive last word but it was a very helpful contribution to the public debate, it helped to educate people and make them understand what this is about. Over the next year we’ll put out more papers, get people to focus their minds and to understand that we actually face very serious trade-offs.

But a public debate is not a free-for-all and there are risks. The French had a debate on what it meant to be French because they wanted to close over some of the faultlines in their society between the Muslim immigrants and the non-Muslims but it took a nasty turn, it became a xenophobic discussion. While we debate sensitive issues, we have to be very careful not to let sensible, moderate, thoughtful views be drowned out by unthinking xenophobia.

We need to emphasise how our policies impact Singaporeans and are seen by Singaporeans. We are voted by citizens, our responsibility is to them, what we do must be for them. But government is complicated and very often, the link from the measures to the benefits are indirect and not obvious. So the result is anxiety, opposition, sometimes a lot of angst. We try hard to communicate, make speeches, have dialogues. We don’t always do it as well as we could. We need to communicate better; to listen, engage, explain, to be close and sense one another better.

If the policies are wrong or circumstances have changed, then say so and change the policies, we are on a new tack. But if the policies are not wrong and we have to persevere – and it’s the perceptions which are mistaken – then we have to have the courage of our convictions. We can be flexible on the implementation and details, but preserve the core principles, and work hard to persuade Singaporeans that we are doing the right thing.

Finally, we need to harness the power of the new media, to use it better to engage and connect with citizens, to manage it better to encourage responsible and constructive behaviour. We need to strengthen digital judgment: the good sense to know that what you saw on the website doesn’t mean it’s real just because it’s on the website.

The Internet is pulling us in different directions. The world is pulling us in different directions. So many opportunities in so many countries, so many exciting possibilities for different people to pursue. How do you pull everybody together so that we feel Singaporean together, that we are anchored – this is home truly, as the song says. We have to make maximum use of our schools, national service experience, our HDB communities, our National Day Parades – events, major developments which we share, things we go thorough together whether it’s Sars or economic crisis – so that we have shared reference points, shared memories and we feel one together. It’s a continuing effort.

The Government at the end of all this, in the new normal, in the new environment, still has a duty to run Singapore. Having heard all views, it has to decide: What we are going to do, this is the way we go. It’s what we were elected for, it’s what the electorate expects of us: produce results and to present our record to voters at the next election for them to judge whether they are satisfied.

The Government is one of our political institutions, Parliament is another, the Presidency is another. We need strong political institutions to have a good government to work well. So we look forward to joining issue with the opposition.

They declared they will be responsible and constructive. We will hold them to their word. Don’t just criticise what the Government does. Put up serious alternatives to be considered, argue your case, be scrutinised as you scrutinise us. Speak up for measures which may be necessary but are unpopular like immigration. Being principled doesn’t mean not being afraid to offend the Government, because the Government is not the emperor and doesn’t chop heads off. Being principled means not being afraid to tell unpalatable truths to Singaporeans because voters are the sovereign and they can vote against you.

But if you have conviction, if you believe in it and have passion, then persuade, persuade to follow you. Don’t lead from the rear. And that applies to PAP MPs too. Speak your minds, speak frankly, vigorously, passionately.

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