In the published transcript of the SG50+ Conference interview between a CNN journalist and Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister made a number of responses that seems to suggest he is not prepared for an open-ended interview with journalists from the West. CNN journalist Dr Zakaira would be often found asking questions and elaborating on his questions with several statements, but the Prime Minister would either just give a one-liner response that averts and dodges the essence of the question, or, answer illogically without explanation:

1) Multi-party Liberal Democratic system

Dr Zakaria: But let me ask a question in a different way. Every other advanced industrial economy that has crossed a certain per capita GDP, where the money, where the income has been earned, not derived from natural resources, has transitioned to a multi-party liberal democratic system. Singapore is quite liberally the only exception in the world. Why is that?

PM:  We are a multi-party liberal democratic system, the outcome is not what you would like to see, but that’s what Singaporean voters have decided.

2) Singapore rank poorly in freedom because the freedom rankers are biased

Dr Zakaria:  No, we can debate this. But if you look freedom houses rankings, you look at almost any independent…

PM Lee:  They don’t like us, fair enough, doesn’t mean we are in the wrong.

3) Taiwan, Israel and South are politically unstable

Dr Zakaria: That’s not the point.  The point is, I would argue you should take it as compliment, but explain to me why. Why is it that Singapore has been able to achieve this extraordinary circumstance where it has not on several key political dimensions, transitioned the way that Taiwan has, South Korea has…”

PM:  Well it is a fundamental question because if you look at the countries which you have cited and also Israel, which I mentioned, they have all made a transition and not always as smooth and happy one.  But the dispensation which prevailed when they first became independent, has not lasted.  Israel from 1948 till 50 years later, the Labour Party was no longer the government, even the Likud was not stably the government; unstable coalition system. Taiwanese, after 50 years are not in a completely satisfactory situation either.  Korea after many years of semi-military rule, now has elections, but a lot uncertainties in their government.  I’ve written congratulatory and valedictory letters to many Korean Prime Ministers.  I have just signed another one.

Screenshot from YouTube
Screenshot from YouTube

4) Singapore is an aristocracy

Dr Zakaria:  But I think that there is a very strenuous effort.  You spend six hours like yesterday in court trying to do this, to instill a culture of respect and isn’t it exactly the opposite of what you need for your economic future?

PM:   I think you must have a balance.  We want people who stand up. We don’t want people who scrape and bow.  But if you don’t have a certain, natural aristocracy in the system, people who are respected because they have earned that. We level everything down to the lowest common denominator, then I think the society will lose out.


5)  Illogical response to opening up freedom of speech

Dr Zakaria:  Well I would argue my own humble opinion you should have ignored it and look at what people call Barack Obama on the Internet.  It would make your blood curdle. But tell me about this balance.  Younger Singaporeans are growing up in what is actually a very open media culture, particularly when you look at the Internet.  They’re growing up much more autonomous, they are growing up with a much stronger sense of individual identity. And they grow up, let’s face it in an age of an enormous peace and prosperity of compared to your generation and your father’s generation.  Aren’t you going to have to accommodate to that reality?

PM:  I think the politics will change. It’s a new generation, they have different aspirations, different interests.  You look at the causes which they adopt, some are religious, some are green causes, some are social causes, all sorts of things.  So they have passions, they are pursuing them. And we have to find…they have to find leaders who will be able to marshal enough of them to form a core, to lead the country and a majority of them, to support the system, which will work.  If you are right, and anarchy will lead to spectacular enlightenment, then we are lucky.

6) Young people can go if they are frustrated with Singapore

Dr Zakaria: But, do you worry about the fact that they may get frustrated, they may leave Singapore, they may…

PM: I think that we are in an environment where people have choices.  I just made a speech earlier this week[2], pointing out that whereas in 1960s, our backs were to the wall and you either make a nation or perish.  Today is not so stark, because if you don’t quite succeed, well a lot places will take you.  We all speak English, we all are educated. Amongst the young generation, probably about half have a university degree of some sort or other.  Many doors are open.  So we can only keep this place together as long as people want to stay here and I think that is a challenge.  You want to stay here if you can develop your own aspirations, your own ambitions and careers if you want to bring up a family here, and if you believe that here it is your home. If you believe that, you will make this place work.  If you don’t believe that, well you can be off to New York, maybe one day host a talk show. Many possibilities.

7) I can sue people for defamation because of Good English British Laws

PM: Yes, every society has limits.  One of the limits is you can say anything you like, you can discuss anything you like.  You can’t defame anybody you like.  And if you do, there are legal remedies which we have inherited from the British.  In fact, from the English. Good English law.  It’s right and proper that there should be ways for a defamation to be examined, determined whether it’s true or false and if it’s false, that there should be proper damages and redress.  And I think that’s necessary. If you can’t redress defamation, how can I clear my name when somebody defames me?

8) PM will resign within 10 years

Alain Vandenborre from Belgum:  Thank you. I think I just want to say to one of your points that I have achieved in my own little way things in Singapore that I would never have achieved in my country of origin because there was not the system of support here.  I think this nation is blessed to have a leader like yourself and my question is are you prepared to stay put for another ten years because I think we need that?

PM:  I strongly prefer not to.  This is a job which needs a young man, people with energy, people who will be there and can connect with young people and will fight the battles with the young people, not for five or ten years, but for 20, 30 , 40 years to come and you need somebody of that generation.


You may view the original transcript here. Here is the video playlist of the interview: