When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in as Singapore’s third Prime Minister in 2004, he said that this was a generational change for Singapore, “a shift to the post-independence generation in post-Cold War world”.
His inaugural address as the nation’s new prime minister hit all the expected high points from moving the nation forward, adapting to inevitable changes and taking a calculated risk to build a stronger economy. He also promised to create a more open and inclusive nation.
Mr Lee said, “We may be a small island but we are a global city linked to the whole world, offering exciting opportunities and experiences. We are an open, multiracial and cosmopolitan society.”
His speech touched on investing in the youth to enable them to “to think independently, to explore with confidence, and to pursue their passions”. He spoke of nurturing Singapore’s youth to be ‘stout-hearted, upright adults’ and providing education that will open doors for them full of hope and opportunities.
He also asserted that Singaporeans “should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different.”
“We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate, so as understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions, and open up new spaces.”
Mr Lee ended his swearing-in speech with a call for Singapore to be more open and inclusive. “Let us be a dynamic city that is open and inclusive, a meritocratic society that is compassionate and caring, and confident people with clear minds and warm hearts.”
Later that year in his first National Day Rally address in 2004 as Prime Minister, Mr Lee echoed similar sentiments and values, emphasising the need for the government to encourage participation and debate. Again, he talked about creating an open society that is more inclusive.
Noting how the country has opened up over the years, he says more can be done.
“We’ve got the Speakers’ Corner. We’ve allowed a lot more discussion. If you read the newspapers, what the newspapers write, the columnists, the Forum Page writers, the degree of debate is much more than we used to have, or in Parliament. But I think we can go further,” he said.
For this to work, he said there was a need for an “honest and capable government” with leaders than can be trusted and relied upon. He also called for an open society that is welcoming of talent and diverse views while also being cohesive with a sense of common purpose.
“We should be a community where every citizen counts, where everyone can develop his human potential to the full and everyone participates in building and repairing and upgrading this shared home which is Singapore.”
Another significant speech the PM made on the merits of an open society that encouraged debate was one he made just before taking on the office of Prime Minister. At the Harvard Club of Singapore’s 35th Anniversary Dinner in January 2004, a few months before PM Lee took the oath of office and when he was still Deputy Prime Minister, he delivered a speech on civic society.
In his speech, Mr Lee said that the government would be guided by the community in terms of morality and decency issues. He also encouraged civic partnership through debates. Though he also warned that that criticism that undermines the government’s stand would be rebutted.
Still, Mr Lee was clear that it is important for a society to have space enough to have discussions and debates on pivotal issues. He noted, “Had we pre-defined all the parameters for discussion, civil society would have lost the spark and autonomy that allows fresh areas to be explored, limits to be redefined, and both Government and civic groups to develop a certain responsiveness to each other and move society forward by engaging each other.”
He continued, “Over two decades we have raised the level of engagement between the government and the people, opened up more space for civic groups and alternative views, and matured as a society. All in all, our civic society has come a long way.”
So in the 15 years since PM Lee took on the role as leader of Singapore, has he actually fulfilled any of his promises?
In terms of having a society that is open and inclusive with the confidence to engage in robust debate, Singapore has likely fallen short, especially if you take into account the World Press Freedom Index. Singapore has been ranked 151 out of 179 on the World Press Freedom Index of 2018 and 2019.
This year also saw the introduction of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) which Reporters Without Borders say – and many experts agree – gives the government an almost entirely free hand to control content circulating online. “This proposed anti-fake news law would, in reality, be a horrifying tool for censoring and intimidating online media outlets and Internet users.”
From another angle, Singapore is also way below on the Oxfam Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index. According to the 2018 report, Singapore is in the bottom 10 of countries in the world on this front due to harmful tax practices and low public social spending as well as no equal pay or non-discrimination laws, and a lack of a universal minimum wage.
One bright spot here is Singapore’s 3rd place rank on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 by Transparency International which measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. Though this ranking should be taken with a grain of salt as even the report concluded that “most countries are failing to make serious inroads against corruption”. Specifically, of the top seven countries, Singapore was one of the worse in terms of enforcement against foreign bribery.
Now, one promise that PM Lee apparently kept was something he said in his May 2006 about fixing political opposition.
Specifically, he said “Right now we have Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong and Steve Chia. We can deal with them. Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 Opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”
Over the years, we have seen how opposition have been grilled in parliament, its town council being reprimanded for the tiniest of issues in Parliament and in media. Not to mention how false allegations were thrown during the General Election by the ruling party about the surplus of the town council with no repercussion.
As PM Lee hand over his position to his successor after the next General Election, which other promises that he made since his swearing-in, can we expect him to keep?