The delicate balance between "excessive oversight" and "government control" after the transition to the 4G leaders: Prime Minister Lee

The delicate balance between "excessive oversight" and "government control" after the transition to the 4G leaders: Prime Minister Lee

When the baton ultimately passes to the next generation of Singapore's leadership, there is a delicate balance between providing advice and exceeding one's authority, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday, November 8th.

Mr. Lee made his first public statement after announcing on Sunday that he would hand over leadership to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong by November 2024, ahead of the next general elections.

Speaking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum held in Singapore, Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait asked him about his plans after relinquishing power.

"It's a very delicate thing—to review but not to intrude. And to be able to give advice, useful nudging, and just the right wise word, rather than constrict the style of your successor.

"I am at the disposal of my successor," Mr. Lee said, reiterating his earlier comments. "I've already said whatever he wants me to do, I will do to help him succeed. So you will have to ask him what he's going to do with me."

He was asked about the possibility of becoming Senior Minister after passing the reins of leadership to Singapore's fourth-generation leadership.

He noted that both of his predecessors attended Cabinet meetings. Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong became Senior Ministers after stepping down as Prime Ministers in 1990 and 2004, respectively.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew remained in that position until 2004 when he was appointed Minister Mentor. He stepped down from that post in 2011 and passed away in 2015.

Mr. Goh was conferred the title of Honorary Senior Minister when he left the Cabinet in 2011. He remained a Member of Parliament until his retirement from politics in 2020.

"I chaired the Cabinet, and he was in the Cabinet. And it worked very well!" Mr. Lee said about working with his father, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr. Lee was also asked how he would like to be remembered.

"I think I just focus on my job," he said. "I don't like to sit and talk about what I used to do."

Responding to the question of whether his government is "drifting left" politically, offering more social programs, Mr. Lee said, "We are gingerly moving to a more comfortable place.

"When the economy is growing, and all boats are rising with the tide, we can afford it, and we have to be very strict about how we help those who are not quite catching up with us.

"You can tell them to run faster, work harder. Here's a bit more incentive... And that works very well, and we've been doing that for a very long time."

"But over time, as the race goes on, and as the field broadens, and somebody moves ahead, and somebody doesn't move as far, and then their children are not that far ahead—then you have to think, how are you going to pull this team together again?

"And when sometimes somebody, who has been doing well, circumstances change, and suddenly, the first become the last—what do you do?

"You say, 'That's the way the world is?' Or can I do something to help him get back into the race and make his contribution again?"

Mr. Lee said Singapore is "at the stage where we have to do more together, where we have to help each other, and where the government has to be there."

At the same time, Singapore has to "try very hard not to be the one solution for everything," he added.

He noted that Singapore likely has the smallest government among developed countries, with its expenditures making up less than 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

National spending currently accounts for 18 percent of the GDP, but the government expects it could exceed 20 percent of the GDP by 2030.

State spending remains "very tight," but the pressures of an aging society, higher healthcare costs, and increased social needs are pushing them towards an increase, said Mr. Lee.

The challenge is to fund such an increase "where it is needed without getting out of control," and "that means from time to time, you have to say the forbidden word 'taxes.'"

He pointed to the Singapore Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has increased from 7 to 8 percent this year and will rise to 9 percent in 2024.

Subsidies for the poorest two-thirds of Singapore's population will cushion the impact of the higher GST on households while putting the government in a "new place" in terms of tax revenues, he said.