“We Can't Be the Nanny”
An interview with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
L.W.: Why is it smart to slow down the economy?
L.H.L: We are accepting a lower growth because we can't just expand our workforce without limit and constraint.
L.W.: Is that popular with the population?
L.H.L: The population feels the physical pressure of the foreigners coming and working here, some [of whom] are prepared to work longer hours or accept less. I don't think everybody fully appreciates the consequences of slower growth, which are very serious. You need growth to have the resources to build the infrastructure, housing, to uphold the standard of living.
L.W.: In the last election, your party lost some seats. You will have to manage a [political] transition with a younger generation, which expects more.
L.H.L: It's a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different. ... We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics.
L.W.: Is that hard for you?
L.H.L: It is a major change, of course, which we hope we will be able to navigate safely over a period of time and not suddenly.
L.W.: To make [government] more transparent and open to social media?
L.H.L: It's completely open to social media. Previously, everything was orderly and predictable. Now there are many more voices, views and interests ... and the outcome is a lot more difficult to predict, and the reactions are more difficult to judge.
L.W.: You grew up as the son of the most famous man in this country.
L.H.L: I did not choose my father, but I am proud of him.
L.W.: You decided recently to allow gambling in Singapore. Has it been a boost for the economy?
L.H.L: For a long time, we fought in principle against casinos. Finally, we were persuaded it's big business and if we were not in it, someone else would be. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to shield our people from gambling. We can't be the nanny.
L.W.: Economically it's worked out very well.
L.H.L: Very well. The social impact—we'll have to wait a few years to see.
L.W.: Are you worried that the United States has such a huge fiscal imbalance?
L.H.L: To fix it, you don't actually have to do very drastic things. If you could make an adjustment on health care, if you had a gasoline tax—that would make a big difference.
Your problem is in the short term, you don't really want to shut down your spending and crash the economy. But in the long term, you don't want to keep on spending and then go bankrupt.
L.W.: Is nationalism in China and Japan a real problem for the region?
L.H.L: I think it's a real factor, in China particularly. It is growing because the young generation, who have not experienced either the war or the Cultural Revolution, but have grown up at a time of stability and affluence, have the most nationalistic view of China's role in the world. So how they play their cards when they come to positions of responsibility will make a difference.
L.W.: Does the PLA [People's Liberation Army] have a lot of say in China today?
L.H.L: I'm sure they have an influence, but some very well-informed analysts believe the [Communist] Party is firmly in control of the government. I think on certain issues, the PLA will have a lot of say and will probably be doing their own thing. When it comes to territorial issues, I would imagine that this is handled at the top level.
L.W.: What's your assessment of the new Chinese leadership?
L.H.L: They are all able people. We have met quite a number of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee. They are tested. They have played many different roles in China, and I think they want the country to grow. I think they have got in [President] Xi Jinping a leader to take it to the next step forward.
L.W.: Which is where?
L.H.L: They have to make the economy continue to grow and yet [make] significant economic reforms. They have to adapt to a society that is rapidly changing with social media and the growing middle class. ... And they've got to find their way in the world and realize they are now more powerful than they used to be.
L.W.: What are the key issues for Singapore itself?
L.H.L: We have to negotiate a major change in our phase of development, from a rapidly changing phase to slower growth. We have to negotiate a change in generations, to a new generation that is growing up with the Internet and Facebook and has access to the whole world and is seeing opportunities all over the whole world.
L.W.: Do you still enjoy your job?
L.H.L: It's never a boring job.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.