Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Singapore economy grew by 3.5% in 2017, says PM Lee Hsien Loong in 2018 New Year Message

PM Lee credits productivity growth and global upswing for strong performance in 2017
Plans to mark 200th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore in 2019
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2018

Singapore's economy grew by 3.5 per cent in 2017 - more than double the initial forecast - and incomes rose across the board, especially for low-and middle-income earners, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

In his traditional New Year message, he noted that Singapore benefited from the global economic upswing. But more fundamentally, the better-than-expected growth was because Singapore's productivity - long a challenge for the country - has grown.

"Singaporeans are upgrading and learning new skills, while businesses are innovating and adopting new technology. That is how we will stay competitive and ready for the future," PM Lee said.

Singapore is finishing the year stronger than it started, and "we are ushering in 2018 with confidence and strength", he added.

In the past five years, productivity growth has languished at between minus 0.2 per cent and 1 per cent despite efforts to help firms and workers upgrade. Last year, it shot up to between 3 per cent and 3.5 per cent, due to an improving global economy and a tightening of the inflow of foreign workers, said analysts.

Looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, PM Lee announced plans to mark the 200th anniversary of 1819, when Stamford Raffles set foot on the island. Singapore marked 50 years of independence in 2015 but "the Singapore Story began way before 1965", he said. "We must understand truly how far back our history reaches, and how complex it is."

The history goes back at least 700 years. Singapore was a maritime emporium in the 14th century, though it declined in later centuries.

"We should commemorate this bicentennial appropriately, just as we marked the 150th anniversary in 1969. It is an important milestone for Singapore; an occasion for us to reflect on how our nation came into being, how we have come this far since, and how we can go forward together," he said.

With observers expecting firmer clues this year on who Singapore's fourth prime minister would be - especially with an imminent Cabinet reshuffle - PM Lee said younger ministers will play a bigger role in policymaking. Parliament will be prorogued after the Budget before a new session opens in May. The opening will see the President's Address laying out the Government's agenda for the rest of the term.

PM Lee said "this will bear the imprint of the fourth-generation leadership, who are taking on greater responsibilities, and putting forth their ideas for Singapore".

The home front will also see an upgrade of industries and workers' skills, improvements to healthcare, work to raise rail reliability and big infrastructure projects such as the Tuas Megaport, the High Speed Rail link to Malaysia and Changi Airport's Terminal 5.

These domestic priorities are essential investments for the future, which "will stretch way beyond this term of government", he said. "We have to plan well ahead for them."

Looking back on 2017, PM Lee said the year began with uncertainty at home and abroad. The economic mood was muted and there were worries about security and terrorism. "But Singaporeans pressed on, undaunted," he said. "We dealt with the urgent concerns, but we looked beyond immediate problems and did not settle for quick fixes."

He noted milestones such as the SGSecure campaign, which raised awareness of the terrorist threat, and changes to enable a reserved presidential election, which he described as "one significant step to strengthen our racial harmony".

Singapore also reaffirmed its strong ties with major powers China and the US, and deepened cooperation with immediate neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia.

The external environment remains uncertain, with tensions over North Korea and elections due in Malaysia and Indonesia.

And as ASEAN chair this year, Singapore "hopes to take the group forward with... chairmanship themes of 'resilience' and 'innovation' ".

Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration in 2019

Singapore to mark 200th anniversary of Raffles' arrival
It will be an occasion to understand island's complex history stretching back 700 years
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2018

The Singapore Story did not begin in 1965, the year of independence. Instead, it stretches back 700 years, telling a tale of ebb and flow.

One major turning point was in 1819 when Stamford Raffles landed here, setting the island on a different trajectory, noted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Year message yesterday.

"Because of Raffles, Singapore became a British colony, a free port and a modern city," he said.

He announced plans for Singapore to mark the 200th anniversary of 1819, calling on Singaporeans to "understand truly how far back our history reaches, and how complex it is".

Even before Raffles' arrival on St John's Island on Jan 28 that year, Singapore had a rich history, harking back to the 14th century when it was a maritime emporium.

Migrants from China, India and other regions later formed families and communities, "turning an emporium into a home, and eventually a country".

While the SG50 celebrations in 2015 had paid tribute to the pioneer generation, there are groups older than independent Singapore that have contributed to its foundations, added PM Lee.

He cited anniversary celebrations he attended in recent months: the 100th anniversaries of the Singapore Malayalee Association, Masjid Khalid and his alma mater Nanyang Girls' High School, and the 150th anniversary of Thong Chai Medical Institution.

"Each has contributed to the Singapore Story... Without this history, we could not have made the SG50 journey from Third World to First," PM Lee said.

The bicentennial commemoration will debunk the conventional narrative that Singapore had been only a backward fishing village before its transformation into a developed country today, say historians.

Organisers of the commemorative activities also said the commemoration will not take on a "rose-tinted, celebratory" sheen or perpetuate a "great man" narrative of history since the arrival of colonial powers on the island.

Instead, it will be a reflective attempt to understand the "full essence and complexity" of events in Singapore's 700-year history, Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong, who sits on the Singapore bicentennial advisory panel, said at a press briefing last week.

Mr Gene Tan, executive director of the newly created Singapore Bicentennial Office in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), added that the bicentennial, which wants to be "responsible to history", will not shy away from addressing elements in history that may not always be positive.

This includes acknowledging the "squalor and segregation" that existed under colonial rule, and the 1915 Sepoy Mutiny, which saw over 400 Indian soldiers rise against the British during World War I.

Plans for the bicentennial will be overseen by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo, with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat advising.

The bicentennial will also pay homage to ground-up organisations that reflect the "organic effervescence" of the story of how Singapore came to be.

To that end, the bicentennial office will engage them throughout this year, to plan for how stories of various groups' historical roles can be told. The PMO declined to disclose its budget for the bicentennial activities but said it will be on a smaller scale than that for SG50.

Professor Tan Tai Yong said the commemorative activities will reflect evidence of Singapore's long history that could even pre-date the 14th century. This runs counter to popular belief that "Raffles landed in Singapore, founded modern Singapore and (it was only then that) our history started".

It is important to debunk the notion that Singapore had existed merely as a sleepy fishing village before Raffles arrived, said Mr Yatiman Yusof, Singapore's non-resident High Commissioner to Kenya, who is also on the bicentennial advisory panel.

"Singapore was a well-known trading centre (in the centuries before that), and Raffles' arrival propelled it into a more energetic and attractive place for business," he added.

* ESM Goh Chok Tong says settling 4G leadership an urgent challenge, hopes next PM can be designated 'before 2018 ends'
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor and Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 2 Jan 2018

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has sketched out what he hopes would be a timeline for the formal designation of the next prime minister - the first time a senior figure from the People's Action Party has done so.

According to this timeline, Singaporeans could know who their next leader is before the year is over.

Writing in a Facebook post on the last day of 2017, Mr Goh said that the issue of the fourth-generation (4G) leadership is "one urgent challenge I would like to see settled".

He added: "Every succession is different, but one thing remains the same: Each cohort will have to pick one amongst themselves to lead, and support him.

"I hope the current cohort will do so in six to nine months' time. Then PM (Lee Hsien Loong) can formally designate their choice as his potential successor before 2018 ends."

PM Lee has said that he hopes to hand over the reins of government to the next leader by the time he is 70, in 2022.

Observers say having Mr Goh weigh in shows the issue is of utmost urgency.

Political observer Mustafa Izzuddin, noting that Mr Goh "is speaking from wisdom and experience", said this could well mean the identity of the next prime minister would be made known this year, "sooner rather than later".

There have only been two prime minister successions since Singapore's Independence, and Mr Goh was involved in both.

In 1990, he took over as prime minister from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. In 2004, he handed over the role to the current Prime Minister - PM Lee.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan agreed that the timeline should not drag on beyond this year, as the designated successor has to earn the trust and respect of Singaporeans and other stakeholders and "you can't hothouse and rush this process".

"Furthermore, the uncertainty can also undermine the 4G leadership's internal cohesion as the tacit quest to be first among equals will raise the stakes of competition if the process becomes long-drawn," he added.

Meanwhile, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat said that PM Lee's successor would need time to "settle into" the post of deputy prime minister.

He added that before taking on the top job, PM Lee himself was deputy prime minister for 14 years, while Mr Goh spent five years as first deputy prime minister.

This means that the next prime minister will have the shortest run-up phase.

Observers have said that there are just three Cabinet ministers left in the race to be the next prime minister - Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, labour chief and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

The appointment of one of these three as deputy prime minister or first deputy prime minister could happen during the major Cabinet reshuffle that PM Lee has said will take place this year.

Associate Professor Tan said that an announcement late in the year would "allow for a final appraisal of the front runners by their peers".

Mr Goh had written in his post about the task that the 4G leadership faces, noting that "whoever is chosen, the team will have to work together, bring in others, and gel to form a cohesive fourth-generation Cabinet".

"They must write a new inspiring chapter for Singapore, be courageous to make difficult decisions, stand tall with integrity, and earn the respect and trust of Singaporeans and the world at large," he added.

"This is my wish for the new year - a Singapore in good hands, a Singapore that all of us build together."


Singapore's 4G team addresses leadership succession issue, will pick a leader among themselves "in good time"
Ong Ye Kung says he has someone in mind but observers say he is still one of 3 front runners
By Tham Yuen-C and Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2018

In their first joint comment on the issue of succession, the ruling People's Action Party's fourth-generation leadership team members said they would pick a leader among themselves "in good time".

The 16 office-holders were responding yesterday to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's call on Sunday for the team to do so in six to nine months.

One of those in the running to become Singapore's fourth prime minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, told The Straits Times that he has already made his choice of whom he thought should lead, but added that it would be inappropriate to put oneself forward.

In an interview earlier this week, the Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) said: "I am shaping up in my mind someone who can be the leader among us.''

The 48-year-old declined to name the person he has in mind, but when asked if ministers can nominate themselves, replied: "That doesn't sound like it is in the right spirit."

As to how he decided on the person he intends to support, Mr Ong said he considered the person's conviction and ability to drive long-term, important policy, as well as public and party support for the person.

Observers said that Mr Ong is still in the race despite his comments, as the others in his cohort could pick him. It is too early to rule out any of the three front runners, they added.

Apart from Mr Ong, the two other ministers tipped to be in contention for the job are Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56, and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, 48.

Both declined to comment when contacted earlier this week.

Yesterday, the 4G team issued a statement saying they are aware that the question is an urgent one.

"Political stability has been the hallmark of Singapore and smooth leadership succession has instilled confidence amongst Singaporeans and our friends around the world.

"The younger ministers are keenly aware leadership succession is a pressing issue and that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong intends to step down after the next general election. We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team and will settle on a leader from amongst us in good time."

The statement was signed in alphabetical order by the group, including the three front runners. It gives for the first time an indication of those in the cohort that will decide the next prime minister.

The statement came as interest in Singapore's political leadership succession was piqued by ESM Goh's Facebook post on New Year's Eve. Mr Goh said he hopes PM Lee can formally designate his potential successor before the year's end.

It is the first time a senior figure from the PAP has publicly stated a timeline. Some party insiders believe Mr Goh's timeframe is partly a bid to pressure the younger leaders to come to a consensus. PM Lee has said he intends to hand over the reins of government to a successor by the time he turns 70, in 2022.

This means the next prime minister will have the shortest run-up phase. PM Lee was deputy prime minister for 14 years, while Mr Goh spent five years as first deputy prime minister.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo told The Straits Times earlier this week that there is "nothing unexpected" about Mr Goh's comment.

She said the process of choosing a new PM has not changed, with the fourth-generation ministers choosing one among them to lead.

"It is a tested process, it has worked well for us. It ensures there is a strong team in place, so I think that is indeed what will happen."

She added that Singaporeans have to wait until after Parliament opens in May with a President's Address, for further developments on the leadership succession front.

Mr Lee has said he will prorogue Parliament this year.

"The President is making her inaugural address, we have to give due respect to the importance of the occasion," said Mrs Teo.

Selection process for fourth PM may have echoes of 1984
Choice of Singapore's fourth PM not as obvious as previous successions, say past and present PAP politicians
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2018

In 1984, the decision was made over coffee, orange juice and chocolate cake after dinner at then Finance Minister Tony Tan's home in Bukit Timah. The group settled on Mr Goh Chok Tong "fairly quickly".

In 2004, it was a powwow over a lunch hosted by then Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng at the Istana. The meeting was short because "the choice was clear": Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

This time, it will not be as easy. Current and former People's Action Party (PAP) politicians say the choice of Singapore's fourth PM is not as obvious.

Mr S. Dhanabalan, a core PAP leader from the second generation who helped select Mr Goh as PM, told The Straits Times: "With this generation, there are no clear markers to say, this person should be the leader. There are a few who can do it. It is difficult to say who would be the best candidate."

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said: "The runway is too short and the fourth-generation leaders have not shown very clear achievements to convince their colleagues."

This will be Singapore's third change of top leadership. Mr Goh took over from founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1990. PM Lee succeeded Mr Goh in 2004.

Many believe the current race has narrowed to three contenders: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung. In accordance with past practices, the leader will be selected by those of his generation, to be "first among peers".

A call by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh on Sunday, for the new leader to be designated before 2018 is over, has injected a sense of urgency into the process, prompting a statement from fourth-generation ministers that they will settle on a leader "in good time".

It was signed by 16 men and women who meet regularly to discuss issues including the succession, said a party source. The Straits Times understands that as of now, no date for a gathering to settle the question has been set.

Observers say the process this time is closer to that in 1984 rather than 2004, on two fronts.

First, the discussion at which the 4G team should settle on their leader could precede the Cabinet reshuffle - which PM Lee had said would take place this year - when the person is made deputy prime minister.

In 1985, Mr Goh was made First DPM a few days after that fateful meeting. He and his team was then tasked with day-to-day running of the state, though the official handover was five years later.

Based on ESM Goh's timeframe for the current process, there is not enough time to do it the other way round, as was done in PM Lee's case, said Mr Dhanabalan. Mr Lee was made DPM 14 years before the 2004 lunch at the Istana. Three months later, he was PM.

Recalling that meal, Mr Lim Boon Heng, who was Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, told The Straits Times: "It was a short meeting because the choice was clear. As DPM under Mr Goh, Mr Lee Hsien Loong was doing a lot of heavy lifting."

During the lunch, someone put forward Mr Lee's name for PM, and "the rest of us agreed". On what the considerations were, he said: "What is important is ability, clear motivation to do what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans, not for personal glory."

A second present-day parallel to 1984 is that there is more fluidity on the question of who the leader could be.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew favoured Dr Tan, but the latter "made it clear he would not want to be leader", said Mr Dhanabalan, describing what happened at Dr Tan's house.

"The next obvious candidate was Chok Tong. When the others said he was the best candidate, he accepted it. He was not aggressive in wanting to be the leader. He was responding to a need, rather than looking for a leadership role."

Today, whoever becomes the next PM will face a similar challenge to what Mr Goh did, said Mr Dhanabalan.

"There was a big difference in communication skills between LKY and Goh Chok Tong, but what is remarkable is that Chok Tong was able to establish excellent rapport with the public... through his own way of communicating.

"The transition from Lee Hsien Loong to the next PM will have a similar kind of gap, since Hsien Loong, in terms of eloquence, is more like his father than Chok Tong."

And so, when the next PM is identified, Singaporeans should give him the benefit of the doubt, he said, adding: "If there is any lapse in communication, they should not take it too seriously."

The years as DPM will be important in getting the public to warm up to him, just as they did to Mr Goh in the five years before he became PM, he said.

Mr Dhanabalan, who was foreign minister, revealed that he had even asked Mr Lee Kuan Yew to consider leaving Singapore for up to a year on a sabbatical with a university or think-tank during the transition period from 1985 to 1990 - to leave no room for doubt that Mr Goh was the man in charge.

The elder Lee declined. "His reason was that his wife would find it very difficult to be away from the grandchildren."

Given that today's situation seems even less clear-cut, one question is what will happen if there is a difference in opinions within the team on who their leader should be.

One way, said Mr Dhanabalan, is they could look to the present leadership to gain some indication as to who they think is a good candidate. "That will be helpful."

Veteran PAP backbencher Charles Chong said that while there may be uncertainty in the eyes of the public, "the inner circle would know much more than the public", and it would be clearer to them.

A second way is for the issue to be discussed within a broader circle of PAP MPs. Such a parliamentary caucus was introduced in 2004, when the PM-designate was confirmed by them.

Looking ahead, the next PM could have a more challenging time, given a livelier political environment, said those interviewed.

Mr Singh said he should be able to make tough decisions and shun populist policies. Mr Chong stressed intellectual ability and communication skills: "Sometimes, very good policies end up making a lot of people angry when communicated wrongly."

16 'younger ministers' sign statement
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2018

The line-up of Singapore's fourth-generation leadership became clear yesterday when 16 "younger ministers" issued a joint statement saying they are working closely together as a team to pick a leader.

It is the first time this team has explicitly identified itself.

The 16 names represent the next generation of political leaders who will carry the baton for the ruling People's Action Party, a party insider familiar with Cabinet procedures told The Straits Times.

The statement is also meant to clearly indicate that the decision of selecting the next prime minister lies in the hands of these ministers, said the source who declined to be identified.

The 16 names are listed in alphabetical order in the statement, and all are ranked senior minister of state or above.

There were some noticeable names missing, such as Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport Lam Pin Min, 48, and Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, 52.

Some will wonder why, but their omission is unclear as yet. The source declined to comment on those who were not on the list.

Institute of Policy Studies' deputy director Gillian Koh said the statement sends the message that there is a "strong, attractive group of younger leaders with different talents, skills and qualities" in place, even if one were to remove the third-generation leaders from the Cabinet as a thought experiment.

The party source said that age is not a deciding factor for inclusion in this informal group of younger ministers.

Neither is the selection dependent on rank - ministers of state are also called to participate in the group's discussion on succession.

They do not meet regularly to discuss matters of succession as this younger caucus - as a subset of all Cabinet members - is not a formalised one.

When matters of the next prime minister are discussed, consensus can be easily reached because they function as a "cohesive group", the source said.

"The dynamic is not dissimilar to any other groups when it comes to picking a leader. Everyone roughly knows who among them will be the one," the source said.

He added that the statement was a clear response to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's earlier comment that the next prime minister needs to be identified by this year.

Political observer Mustafa Izzuddin said "the time is ripe" for the next leadership team led by a PM-designate to be made known to Singaporeans, adding that the selection of the next prime minister has traditionally been an internal matter that is seldom made public.

Setting out a timeline may be ESM Goh's way of putting pressure on the fourth-generation leaders, said former MP Inderjit Singh.

"As an elder statesman who was concerned about leadership transition in the past, he is the best person to raise the alarm if he feels things are not moving as desired," he said.

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