From PM Lee’s final major speech as the nation’s leader, this is what he wants you to remember for S’pore’s future


WE HAVE come far as a nation, but what does it take to keep Singapore working well in the years ahead?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out his insights — amassed from a lifetime serving the nation — in his final major speech as Singapore’s leader at the National Trades Union Congress’s (NTUC) May Day Rally this morning (May 1).

“I would worry if Singaporeans took the future lightly, and blithely assumed that we could simply cruise along, and all would be well. As a small and open country, we will inevitably be caught up by powerful external forces and geopolitical currents. And our diverse society makes us especially vulnerable to what happens around us,” he said.

All these are big, existential challenges, and three factors are imperative for tackling them: social cohesion, long-term planning as well as political stability and trust.

Social cohesion

Source: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore / YouTube

“Race, language, and religion — these are the traditional fault lines in our society,” said PM Lee. As Singaporeans, we “live and work together harmoniously as a multiracial and multireligious society based on justice and equality”, but “will always be subject to external forces that pull different segments of our population in different directions”, he added.

Other push-and-pull appeals also add to these deeply-felt ethnic roots and religious affinities: The “haves” and the “have-nots”, “Singaporean-born” and “naturalised” citizens, “Conservatives” and “liberals”, “Current” and “future” generations, said PM Lee.

“All these differences can be exploited politically, can pit Singaporeans one against another, and can divide and weaken us,” he warned.

The solution?

“Always, when dealing with controversial issues, we accept that we have differences, and try not to accentuate them. Instead, we foster compromise, strive to enlarge the common space, and establish the broadest consensus possible,” said PM Lee.

He referred to moving on the tudung issue for Malay-Muslim workers over the years, as well as repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code. These moves worked out practical compromises, acceptance of differences and were in step with the evolution of the shared Singaporean identity.  

“Never forget that whatever our differences, we are Singaporeans first and foremost.

Only thus can we survive and thrive in a contested and fractured world,” said PM Lee.

Long-term planning

Source: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore / YouTube

“Long-term planning. It’s a responsibility of every government in every country. Not just to deal with pressing, immediate problems, but also to have the vision and a sense of stewardship to peer beyond the horizon and plan far ahead. But most governments find this very hard to do. Many are consumed by immediate problems or political crises, and lack the support or the bandwidth to think further ahead. To put it in Singaporean language, ‘Where got time?’,” said PM Lee.

“But the PAP Government has always planned and acted for the long term, deliberately and systematically,” he continued. “Look where we are gathered today for May Day — in an Integrated Resort [IR] at Marina Bay.”

The PAP Government started thinking about reclaiming land in Marina Bay in the 1960s; they began the reclamation process proper in 1971. Decades later, in the mid-2000s, PM Lee made one of the first major decisions of his leadership: allowing Integrated Resorts (IRs) and casino gambling into Singapore on this new parcel of land.

“Today, we have not just the IRs, but also Gardens by the Bay, the Marina Barrage, a freshwater reservoir in the middle of the city, and an iconic skyline around the Bay. After half a century, today we have a Marina Bay that we can all be proud of,” said PM Lee.

But the Bay is not done developing. Neither is Singapore.

A new megaport is being developed in the west, at Tuas. In the east, Changi Terminal 5 is coming, as well as the Long Island for climate change protection as well as a new freshwater reservoir. The south will have a Greater Southern Waterfront where future generations can work, live and play together..

A decarbonised economy and net zero carbon emissions additionally figure into this future Singapore.   

These long-term projects meant to endure are acts of faith in Singapore’s future. They are in the spirit of our founding leader Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to never fear, to bring Singapore from mudflats to a metropolis — “This must forever be our mindset,” said PM Lee.

Political stability and trust

Source: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore / YouTube

Of course, long-term projects for the common good simply cannot happen without a stable political system.

“The PAP Government works hard to maintain the people’s trust and support. It shows, through words and through deeds, that it has the nation’s best interests at heart, and is improving your lives. And therefore at each election, 15 times in a row, the PAP has won a renewed mandate, fair and square, and continued to deliver results for Singaporeans,” said PM Lee.

Singapore’s two previous PMs, Mr Lee and Mr Goh Chok Tong built a well-functioning system which endures after them. PM Lee’s team have stewarded Singapore and safeguarded its future.

“Our successors must do the same,” said PM Lee. “Getting our politics right is absolutely crucial.  Please understand: we have succeeded, and Singapore has made exceptional economic and social gains, because our system is exceptional. Even if we just become ordinary, average, we will already be in serious trouble. Because we have no natural resources, no hinterland. 700 square kilometres is nothing.”

“If our politics becomes like other countries, we will end up worse than other countries. Not the same as them, but worse off. Graver still, if our system malfunctions. becomes beset by populism, tribalism, nativism. Or focused on short-term gains like some other countries — we will certainly be sunk,” continued PM Lee.

Singapore and Singaporeans need, then, to uphold an ethos of exceptionalism and maintaining political stability is crucial for this task.

The way forward

Source: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore / YouTube

PM Lee also wanted Singaporeans to know that it has been his great honour to serve the nation for 40 years.

“As I prepare to hand over Singapore in good order to my successor, I feel a sense of satisfaction and completeness. I have done my duty, and I’m very happy that I chose this path of public service all those many years ago,” he said.

“Most of all, I am humbled by and grateful for Singaporeans’ trust, confidence, and support

And to all of you, I say a big ‘Thank you!’,” he added.

PM Lee will continue supporting PM-designate Lawrence Wong after the leadership transfer.

“I have every confidence in Lawrence and his team. The 4G will have their hands full dealing with issues which will arise, and realising their Forward SG agenda,” he said.

“I ask all Singaporeans to rally behind them, and work together to make Singapore succeed for your sakes. That is our path forward.”