Interview with Lee Hsien Loong: Two decades as Prime Minister of Singapore | Part 1 - Foreign policy, economy

We pulled out the highlights from Lee Hsien Loong's recent exit interview after two decades as Prime Minister of Singapore. Transcription and light editing by Anthropic's Claude, curation by Yiren Lu :-)


I think the concerns which people have about foreigners, about dilution, about values, about social impact, these are not unreasonable concerns, because we are a society, we are a country. It's not just a city. London, you have the whole of Great Britain, so London, you don't have to mobilize an army and go and fight. There is a whole population which is outside of London, and London is cosmopolitan, diverse. It can have a majority of foreigners. It's still the capital of Great Britain.
But Singapore, the city, is the country, so the city itself, the cohesion must be there, the sense of the values must be there, the sense of identity must be there. The way Singapore works, there's a certain way we have socialized with one another. We are Singaporeans together. As the song goes, when you bring in foreigners, in some ways you enrich that. In many ways you enrich that. They bring talent, they bring experience, they bring a different perspective on things, but at the same time, you dilute that, at least temporarily, because they don't have the same background.
You can come from China, but you are not the Singaporean Chinese. You can come from India, but you are not the Singaporean Indian. And there's a difference between a Singaporean Chinese and a Chinese Chinese and a Singaporean Indian and an Indian Indian. And I told one foreign leader this once, and he looked at me in puzzlement and he turned to his interpreter and said, what is this? Chinese, Chinese, Indian, Indian? I don't know what his interpreter said, but I gave him a further elaboration just in case the interpreter didn't convey my meaning, but you know what I mean.

Full Transcript

Interviewer 1: PM, thank you for sitting with us today. You'll soon hand over to DPM Lawrence Wong. So we would like to take this opportunity to hear from you about your thoughts on how Singapore has transformed in the last 20 years. And also, what kind of Singapore will the new PM be leading?

Lee Hsien Loong: Looking forward to the handover, we've been preparing this for a very long time. Everything is ready and it will take place on the 15th of May.

Interviewer 1: Yeah, so maybe we can start with foreign policy. You know, foreign policy is all about keeping our little red dot safe and secure. And Singapore has had a steady foreign policy based on our national interests. But the world is changing and Singapore is also changing. So in your view, how has our foreign policy evolved and also what has changed and what has remained constant?

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, both the world as well as Singapore have changed. The world 20 years ago, we were still in a kind of post-Cold War environment, meaning the Americans were very dominant. Globalization, multilateralism, people talked about free trade, people talked about international division of labour. Thomas Friedman says the world is flat and we were prospering in that environment.

Today, the world is not flat. Today the great powers are at odds with one another. China is playing a much more dominant role. It's become very much stronger in the last 20 years and more prosperous. There are tremendous tensions which have arisen - Russia with the US, China and US, China and EU too. And we are dealing with a very troubled world.

Confidence in free trade has also been shaken. People now talk about fair trade first. That means "I don't want to be so free". Then they talk about national security considerations, which are important - resilience, what if you become hostile to me, what if there's Covid. That's important too. Then they talk about reshoring, bringing it back home, do it at home. But that sounds protectionist. And you talk about friend-shoring - "I will do business with friends". Now who is my friend?

So it's a very troubled external environment and we are sailing into it. Domestically, we've changed in 20 years. We've become more prosperous. I think our diplomacy has helped us to carve a spot in the world. People recognize us. I think there's a certain respect for us - that's good.

At the same time, we are very much more connected to the world in the sense that in the old days, foreign policy is foreign policy. And what's domestic? Well, Singaporeans will leave the foreign policy to the government. But today you are so exposed. You've got the Internet, you've got social media, you've got WhatsApp, you've got TikTok, you've got people travelling and you've got all sorts of things coming in and Singaporeans being influenced by videos, by memes, by messages. So your foreign policy and domestic policy and domestic situation have been linked together. So we have to adapt to that. And our foreign policy has to adapt to that.

What has not changed? We are still a little red dot, a bit redder, but still little. We are still in the middle of Southeast Asia, neighbors bigger than us, region prospering but troubled. We are still depending on an international rule of law, on international trade, on our sea lines of communications being open, being able to talk to everyone in the world and do business and get our food and our supplies and needing to protect our interests, where everybody is jostling with one another and we are not the biggest person in the discussion and we have to hold our own, which takes quite a lot of doing and keeps MFA very busy.

Interviewer 1: PM I'm just wondering, when we say Singapore's national interest, it seems like different people seem to have different interpretations of it. So how do we get people on the same page? And is it time now for us to really interrogate what it means for something to be in Singapore's national interest?

Lee Hsien Loong: This is a continuing debate. Everybody says, and it is obvious to accept, that your foreign policy must be based on your national interest. Then the question is, what is your national interest? And you have different ones, right?

You have national interest in prospering, in safety and security, defending yourself, in being able to do business with other countries when you need to, in having sovereignty or independence to decide what you want to do. You have national interest in specific things. For example, in access to airspace so that your airplanes can fly or airplanes can fly into Singapore and out of Singapore, or to be able to set your own path and decide whom you want to do business with and what you stand for in the world. What are your values? What are your ideals? It's not just bread and butter and can you get your food or not? But when you talk about multiracialism, democracy, talk about integrity of our system, these are things, all of them are national interests.

Which one is more important? And when you debate that, it's not debating one abstract principle like sovereignty versus another abstract principle like the economy. How do I weigh them? Which one weighs a little bit more? But a specific issue comes up. There's a test. Somebody probes your maritime boundary a little bit. On the other hand, he's offering to do business with you and trade green energy, for example. Do you get angry? Do you decide to overlook this? And then I do business and I lump it. There's no formula answer. You have to look at each situation and then you have to judge.

And in a big case, if you have to make a big decision and take a stand, then the people will have a view and the government will have to take that into account and the government hopefully will have its own considered view and will talk to the population and we will discuss this and we have done that.

I mean, there have been times, for example, before I took over in 2004, you may have forgotten, but I made a trip to Taiwan as TPM and it caused a rumpus and I had to state my position. My first National Day Rally, I had to spend time talking about not just foreign policy but that trip to Taiwan and why I went and why it's important to us and why Singapore's national interest required me to do that and that it was necessary for me to do so even though it caused a kerfuffle at that time.

And that's the sort of thing which happens. And during the last 20 years, heaven knows, there have been other occasions and we have had incidents and occasions when we've been tested and we've had to get people to understand what it's about. Sometimes public channels, sometimes we've had to do it behind closed doors and then we can explain a bit more the background and what's it all about.

Interviewer 2: In the context of how our foreign policy has evolved, in terms of our two closest neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, how have you managed relations over the past 20 years?

Lee Hsien Loong: I think we have been lucky. Relations with both have been generally good. With Malaysia, I've worked with a succession of PMs, starting with Abdullah Badawi and we've had good discussions. I mean, I met all of them and we've made progress with them as we went along.

Different issues came up, for example, with Abdullah Badawi. He was PM when the Pedra Branca judgment at the ICJ was published and we discussed. I talked to him and we decided, yes, we will both accept this and now we should move on and talk about the next stage, which is now the land is settled. What about the maritime borders? We talk about maritime delimitation and so we made progress, but of course it takes time and we are still discussing the maritime delimitation until today.

Then, Najib, we settled a very important matter, which was the POA land issue, the Malayan Railways land and we did the land swap with them, which is why today you have the Rail Corridor, which a lot of people enjoy on weekends. If you go cycling there, you know it's because we did a deal. When the old railway station at Tanjong Pagar is done up again, which is soon going to be, you enjoy that. That's part of the deal.

You go to Marina South, I think it's called Marina One, the development jointly between Khazanah and Temasek. That was part of the deal we gave them. I made Najib a generous offer to settle. He looked at it, he agreed. We went into the joint development. I think both sides are very happy and both sides made money from the development. And there's another development too, in Dhoby Ghaut at Bugis, which was also part of it. So it was a very important issue resolved with Najib, which had taken 20 years to get there.

Now it's Anwar Ibrahim. I've met him many times since very long time ago, even back in the nineties. So we know each other very well. We've been talking about significant cooperation. The RTS link in JB going to Woodlands is coming up, supposed to be done by end 2026. And I think a lot of Singaporeans are anxiously waiting for that to go and get their supper and their shopping in Johor and Johoreans will come here to work.

We are talking about other issues, can be cooperative but also sensitive - airspace, the maritime boundaries I talked about just now, water. These are things which need to be discussed. We haven't settled them, so there's work to be done by my successor.

With Indonesia, I coincided with two Indonesian presidents. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, do you all know? Very soon after I saw him, I went to attend his swearing-in ceremony in Jakarta. I think it must have been my first or second overseas visit. And we worked with him and we signed three agreements on airspace, also on military training and on extradition.

In fact, we went, I remember vividly, we went to Bali, had all the ministers there and we settled the agreement, but it couldn't follow through. The politics was difficult. Then when Jokowi came in, he wanted to have another stab at it, and so did I. So we decided to press the matter. I asked Teo Chee Hean to look after our side of it and negotiate. On his side, he had a man called Luhut Pandjaitan in charge, together with Prabowo, because the defense part was very important and happily they settled it. We signed it two years ago. It was ratified last year and it has come into effect this year. So it's settled.

So we are on a good basis to take our two countries the next step forward and cooperate together. I think both will always be complicated relationships. Nearest neighbors permanently. Nearest neighbors have to work together, and yet there are always so many places where you can easily have different perspectives or rub up against each other. And I think if we both know that and both try our best not to collide, we can do many things together.

Interviewer 3: PM, would you like to share about US and China next? Keeping in mind that the Taiwan Straits crisis has been a longstanding point of contention as well.

Lee Hsien Loong: US-China relations started off positive and there were issues, but basically cooperative, but have now become very contentious. I remember one meeting quite early in my term where the Chinese Premier was there and the discussion was on the US trade deficit with China, and the American official was complaining that, how is it? There's an imbalance and it's not fair.

And the Chinese Premier's response was, yes, we would like to buy more from America. Please let me buy more high-tech products from you - supercomputers, I don't know, maybe high-tech electronic machines, whatever. And of course it was not so easy for Americans to do that, but it was that sort of a discussion. There are issues, but we are not hostile to each other.

But today there are issues and they are trying very hard not to be hostile to each other. But it is a very tense relationship. Better now, because after Biden met President Xi Jinping in San Francisco last year, things have stabilized and both sides are trying not to take provocative moves. But the underlying tensions, the underlying contradiction between the national positions, national interests, I think, is very deep and will be there for a long time. More than ten years, maybe 20 years, maybe more.

Fortunately for us, we have good relations with both. We've had good relations with China for quite a long time now, despite periodic kerfuffles. We have the Suzhou project. It's celebrating the 30th anniversary. We have the Tianjin project that celebrated its 10th anniversary. And in the last 20 years, when I was PM, we launched a third G-to-G project, which is in Chongqing on connectivity, and that is doing promisingly.

We have an FTA with China. We've upgraded the FTA with China. We've participated in cooperative projects which China has championed, Belt and Road. We joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB. So I think overall, our relationships with them are very warm, and I think they know that we would like to do more with them and we are not against them.

At the same time, they know, I think, that although we are ethnic Chinese, mostly we are different from them, and that's very important. So we can maintain the proper relationship. And the relationship is based on national interests, and it can't really be based on ethnic identity or, how shall we put it, inherited.
You can't say we are the common ancestors, therefore we must have the same history. With the US, we also have good relations. We do a lot with them. They invest here, huge amounts, important projects. The banks are all here with the government. We do a lot. We cooperate on defense and security.
In fact, we have a lot of troops which are training in the US, flying F-15s, flying F-16s, flying Chinook helicopters. We do combined arms exercises in Fort Sill in Oklahoma. At any time, there are thousand plus Singaporean SAF personnel in the US. We are, I think, the biggest, but certainly one of the biggest foreign contingents of military people in the US.

So it's a very close relationship that direction. They come here, we host them, we welcome them. Their ships visit, navy ships visit, their aircraft visit. Two years ago, somebody spotted a strange bird parked at Changi Airport, and it went onto the Internet and asked, what is this? I think I know what this is. And it was a US Global Hawk. It was a drone, a long-range drone, which was visiting and was parked at Changi. And somebody spotted it.

Both ways, it's a very rich relationship and we would like it. So, because fundamentally, we believe that America has an important, constructive role to play in the region, because the region needs to be an open one. We are friends with multiple major powers and we would like them to be here constructively, helping with the security and the prosperity of the region. And the Americans are doing that. And therefore, because we are their friend, when they need a favor and ask us, sometimes we are able to do that.

For example, one day we received a call to say, well, President Trump wants to meet President Kim, and do you think he can do that in Singapore? And we said, when? And they said, next month. So we scrambled and we hosted it. We are just pouring tea for the occasion. But nevertheless, it shows that both sides found us acceptable, that we are not hostile to them. And they trusted us, trusted us not just on our policies, but trusted us to be able to put the thing together and to host it and make it all go off without a hitch.

Interviewer 4: PM let's speak a little bit about that trust. Yes, because over the years, as you've described, you've addressed the fact that our foreign policy has had to align with our national interests to a great degree. So we've been called a bridge between East and West. Sometimes people call us the voice of reason as far as our foreign policy is concerned, amid those hostilities that you described, what to you is the unique strength that we bring?

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, people often say quite nice things about us. I would hesitate to adopt that and treat that as the way we describe ourselves. We are just trying to be protecting our interests and the way to do that is to make friends and strike up relationships where we can make common cause with other countries. And therefore we have to be constructive. When we go to the meeting, we have to master the issues, understand what this is about. If we can be helpful in putting up ideas which can bridge different positions and move a little bit closer towards an outcome, a landing place, we're very happy to do that.

We do that at many forums. In APEC, for example, when we negotiated RCEP, I think we played a very active role because it was important to us. At the UN climate change conferences, the climate change minister currently Grace Fu plays a very active role. One meeting, I think at Glasgow, they put her in charge of negotiating the carbon markets subgroup, which is one of the most vexed subjects on the agenda. But she went in as an honest broker. We want the system to work and she helped to pull the perspectives together and to reach a landing, reach an agreement.

And that calls for the minister to be on top of his or her job. But it also calls for a whole Singapore team in the ministry and across the government to be able to understand the positions, to have ideas which are useful, reconcile our internal position so that we don't have a big internal fight instead of negotiating Singapore's interest with the other party. And then we work, we go there, we are prepared and we talk. And I think we do have a bit of a reputation for that and it's a good reputation.

Sometimes, of course, people say, wow, we are so well prepared, I better be careful. Am I really ready to talk to you or not? So that's a bit of a hurdle we have to cross. But I think it's better to be prepared than for people to say, let's go and see them. They haven't done their homework and we'll have a good time.

Interviewer 2: PM, you spoke about being helpful and constructive in our foreign policy. How about in the context of ASEAN?

Lee Hsien Loong: That's very important. ASEAN is the raft which we are connected to, which gives us a platform in many bigger forums. It's got ten members, including us. Timor-Leste is applying to join. It's really a cornerstone of Singapore's foreign policy.

It works by consensus. We have a wide range of cooperation. Every year they have, I do not know, 6700 meetings of different kinds, big and small. The leaders meet twice a year, sometimes once, but very intensively. And the habit of working together, I think has been very valuable in getting us to understand what is possible for each other and where we can make common cause.

Because it's consensus, the progress is often not as quick as we'd like, but it's a very important platform for cooperation and also for wider cooperation with the wider region because there are ASEAN forums with our partner countries - America, China, Japan, Russia, India, Australia, so many of them. And in different forums. You have the East Asia Summit, you have the ASEAN Plus Three, you have the ASEAN Plus Ones.

Every time we have an ASEAN summit, summit is in plural because there are so many of them and it takes a lot of energy and time, but it's necessary diplomacy and it's what we call, in the jargon, ASEAN Centrality. Meaning not really that ASEAN is the center controlling everything. But ASEAN is a center which provides a platform where many regional discussions can take place on economy, on security, on the climate, even international cooperation.

And with that base, I think we make a contribution to people meeting one another, discussing matters and hopefully to easing tensions which come up. ASEAN benefits from a stable, secure region and ASEAN, I think helps contribute to a stable and secure region. And that's very important because it's key to Singapore, especially as a small country.

And it's something which we have enjoyed now for 30, 40 years. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Cambodian war ended was about 1990, 30 years ago. And since then, and even during a lot of that period, for most people in the region, life could carry on and you have peace and trade and investments and prosperity and you can plan your life and move forward.

Now if you go forward 20 years or 30 years and ask yourself, can we be sure that for the next 20-30 years we will have as stable a region, as secure a region, as conflict-free a region? Knowing that there are tensions between the big powers, knowing that rivalries are resulting in economic bifurcation, technological bifurcation, knowing the troubles and the tensions in other parts of the world which have an impact in our part of the world too, are we absolutely sure that for the next 20 years there will be no war?

And I think the answer is we can't be absolutely sure. It could happen. Probably not. But things can go wrong. You could have an incident which escalates, you could have a miscalculation. People make a move thinking that the other side won't react, the other side reacts. The first party says, I have to react to the reaction, and then suddenly you find yourself in a new and unintended and dangerous situation. And on a 20-year timeframe, that's completely possible.

And I think on that timeframe, countries have to secure their own security, their own resilience. But as the old President Suharto of Indonesia used to say, regional resilience is as important as national resilience. And regional resilience for Southeast Asia means ASEAN. So we have to keep on building this up, contributing to it and playing our part, even though we are a very small member of ASEAN.

Interviewer 2: But PM, how do we manage Myanmar and its impact on ASEAN?

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, Myanmar is a problem. Myanmar is an old problem. It first became a problem in 1990 when they had the coup and the military junta, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took over. And basically internationally, they went into the doghouse and ASEAN had to deal with that.

And how do you deal with that? Well, we decided at that time that we would deal with it by engaging them and encouraging them to move towards democracy. It was patient work. It took a very long time. Finally, finally they held elections. Was it 2010? So 1990 to 2010 is 20 years of patient work because it's another country. Their domestic politics, their domestic tensions and conflicts and difficulties and social conditions. And you can't go and solve it for them. And even if you decided to go and be there and make it happen, you can't make it happen, because if you were there, you would face the same difficulties.

And so, happily, 2010 elections were held. Then Aung San Suu Kyi became, I think she called herself State Counsellor or something. And they were respectable again. And we did business together as full members of ASEAN.

Well, it worked for some time. And after a few years, in 2021, there were new elections. And then the election outcome was not acceptable and there was a coup. And we now have a problem again.

So what do we do with that this time? We've said, well, you remain a member of ASEAN, but at the political level, really, it's best if you don't participate, because you don't have a government which is recognized by all of the ASEAN countries. If your civil servants want to attend, if your officials want to come, that's okay, but not your really what we would call your military leaders, because we don't recognize them as government leaders.

So therefore, ASEAN has been able to carry on. We meet as ASEAN, always with one empty chair and a Myanmar flag down there. Well, it's a form which has enabled us to continue to do business and to continue to meet our partners - Europeans, the Japanese, the Americans - and not be held back by problems with Myanmar.

Meanwhile, we are trying to engage Myanmar and we've got the ministers form special little groups and go and visit the parties in Myanmar. And ASEAN settled on a formulation for its approach to Myanmar, which we call the Five-Point Consensus. And so there is diplomacy to try and nudge things in Myanmar to go in the right direction.

But I think looking at the history and understanding the nature of the problem, I think we have to be patient. But fortunately, ASEAN is not held back. So that's a matter which is being dealt with. But as I put it in context, Myanmar is an issue for ASEAN to manage. But really for the long term, what is important for the region is war and peace and what can ASEAN do to contribute to peace in the region?

Interviewer 1: PM since we are near the handover now, do you think that people might try to test us where foreign policy is concerned because we will have new leaders and of course, a lot of foreign policy is also about personal relationships.

Lee Hsien Loong: I wouldn't be surprised. People will want to see how the new leaders are, what their policy is and what the personality is, his standing, his strength of support at home, and his ability to engage and to hold his own, to be somebody you take seriously.

DPM Lawrence is not completely new to this. He was my Principal Private Secretary a long time ago and he went to many of these meetings with me. So he's seen me as minister. He's travelled with me too from time to time, and on his own too. He's been making trips. He's been to America recently. He was in France, Germany. He met Scholz, he met Macron, and they talked to him and they get the measure of him. And in the region he's also met the ASEAN leaders, quite a few of them.

So I think that the new team will be probed, certainly tested well, maybe gently, maybe issues will come and people might push a little bit harder, or maybe not. But we must expect that some probing will come and we must be ready to respond, not in a harsh way, but quietly to stand our ground and let people know that, you know, we may have had a changing of the guard, but the new guards are prepared and the old guards are still giving hopefully useful views to the new team on how to do it.

Interviewer 4: PM, let's move on to talking about the economy now.

Lee Hsien Loong: Yes.

Interviewer 4: So managing the competing demands of continuing our economic growth, as well as having these political considerations vis-a-vis foreign talent, and the fact that here in Singapore there are continually anxieties among some Singaporeans about this - the government is having to reassure Singaporeans about it. How have you managed to approach this in a way that supported the principles that you have?

Lee Hsien Loong: Yes. We have to do our best to generate political space for us in order to feel our way forward and go as far as politically can be supported. Let me explain what I mean.

I think the concerns which people have about foreigners, about dilution, about values, about social impact, these are not unreasonable concerns, because we are a society, we are a country. It's not just a city. London, you have the whole of Great Britain, so London, you don't have to mobilize an army and go and fight. There is a whole population which is outside of London, and London is cosmopolitan, diverse. It can have a majority of foreigners. It's still the capital of Great Britain.
But Singapore, the city, is the country, so the city itself, the cohesion must be there, the sense of the values must be there, the sense of identity must be there. The way Singapore works, there's a certain way we have socialized with one another. We are Singaporeans together. As the song goes, when you bring in foreigners, in some ways you enrich that. In many ways you enrich that. They bring talent, they bring experience, they bring a different perspective on things, but at the same time, you dilute that, at least temporarily, because they don't have the same background.
You can come from China, but you are not the Singaporean Chinese. You can come from India, but you are not the Singaporean Indian. And there's a difference between a Singaporean Chinese and a Chinese Chinese and a Singaporean Indian and an Indian Indian. And I told one foreign leader this once, and he looked at me in puzzlement and he turned to his interpreter and said, what is this? Chinese, Chinese, Indian, Indian? I don't know what his interpreter said, but I gave him a further elaboration just in case the interpreter didn't convey my meaning, but you know what I mean.

And it's a real concern. On the other hand, we need the economy to grow. We need talent to develop new things in Singapore, to stand out in the world. And you can never have enough talent. We need bodies, because there are jobs which there are no Singaporeans available to do, like construction, and there are also other jobs where there are Singaporeans available to do, but you won't have enough, and you need more. And if I can have 10% or 20% more engineers or technicians or healthcare workers, I can do a lot more things. You can say I'll be more productive, but I can't take away 10% of people and become 10% smarter and faster, just on my own. So I do need the bodies.

So how do I reconcile these two? If you look at a country like UAE, their answer is, well, I just bring in as many as I want. I have oil. I use the oil basically to take care of my resident population and I run the economy and everything is done by, practically everything is done by people who come from all over the world. But Singapore cannot run like that.

So we've got to keep on bringing in talent, keep on bringing in numbers, but in a controlled way, which is good for our economy, which complements Singaporean workers and professionals, rather than puts them out of a job, and at the same time, which doesn't dilute my social norms and morals and the way Singapore works and cause frictions and conflict within Singapore.

And you have to judge that. It's partly making sure you have enough infrastructure. That's the physical part of it. You have a big population. Where do the foreign workers go? They need entertainment on weekends. It's partly educating the people who come here that this is Singapore. Please respect Singapore norms and some things you can do in your home country. Please have a care and don't do them like that here. And they may not become Singaporean straight away, but you know that you are a guest and well be a good guest.

On the other side, it is also on our part getting Singaporeans to understand how important it is for them to come in, for them to be here and being able to make accommodations and make that effort to reach out with your hands and say, welcome, I'm your neighbor, I'm a Singaporean. If you need any help, please let me know and let me show you around, and then hopefully you won't bump into so many things as you go around Singapore and break them.

Interviewer 4: You're right, PM, the need for foreign talent is not unique to Singapore. It occurs around the world. Do you think that there may ever come a time when we need to calibrate the way that we think about this? Even as we keep these principles of our open economy alive?

Lee Hsien Loong: We have been calibrating it already. I mean, you cannot go on and just open your doors and anybody who wants to come can come. Millions want to come, literally, and we'll be swamped.

So we have to manage it at the low end. We've got foreign worker quotas, we've got foreign worker levies, a very complex system. And you manage by numbers at the top end. We haven't managed by numbers, but we manage by qualifications and what sort of jobs you are doing. And so we have the Employment Pass mechanisms and we adjust the salary threshold and we adjust that progressively so that it's comparable to Singapore salaries and they come in at the appropriate level.

And even that is not quite enough. So last year or the year before, we introduced a COMPASS system for EP holders. So there's a point system. What is your industry? What is your qualification? The particular company you're in? Does it have a good diversification of foreign employees or not? So it's not a company where 90% of the people have come from a single source. And hopefully we will have a more diversified and more easily integrated foreign population and therefore we can accommodate a few more.

We just have to see how it's working, how it works. It's just started, so we'll take a bit of time to know. I'm sure we'll continue refining it, but we have to keep on doing these things and adjusting as we go along. That's why I said feel our way forward. You can't be on autopilot.

Interviewer 3: Okay. PM, I would like to ask about the youngsters in Singapore. How can they actually build confidence that they are actually doing better than the previous generations, especially so when they are less likely to actually do upgrading?

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, my starting point is, as an old man, I envy the young men and women because you are enjoying advantages and opportunities which never existed in my generation.

We've built Singapore, we've built the education system, we've educated you, we've given you perspectives on the world, opportunities to travel. If you go to university, practically everybody who goes to NUS or SMU or SUTD has an externship, an overseas attachment somewhere during his university course. And about 40%, 50% nearly of Singaporeans now go to autonomous universities. AUs in my generation, it was like about 3-4% went to universities in Singapore.

You grow up learning to swipe the iPad before you learn to speak - may not be a good thing, but you have the opportunity to be exposed to the technology, to use the technology, to connect to the world, to be more productive, and to do all kinds of jobs which my generation never heard of.

Esports trainer, you can make a living. You are sitting there playing with your fingers and mouth in a super special chair with a big screen, and you can make a living. So is that a worse life than the previous generation? I don't think so.

What is true is that the previous generation came from Third World to First. We took them there on the journey - started poor, progressed rapidly year by year, ended up many not poor, most not poor, some many well off and some very, very successful. So that's an exhilarating journey. And you start off with a three-room flat, you end up in an executive apartment or maybe you maybe even upgraded to private property.

So this generation, you have a four-room flat or five-room flat or maybe condo. You're not starting at the same very low level, but you're starting at a higher level and a higher quality of accommodation as well as life. And can you bring it higher? Answer is yes, it won't improve as fast as before, but you came very fast from here to here and you're not going back down, you're going up from here slower.

But if we work at it, we can continue moving upwards. I would feel very disappointed if a young person were pessimistic about his opportunities in life and wish he had been born earlier. I wish I had been born later. You must argue you are a young person.

Interviewer 3: Well, fair enough. Actually, I do stand with what you say.

Interviewer 1: How do you think the government can convince young people that, you know, instead of looking at all these financial gains? Because I think a lot of the times, as you said, it's looking at other people, you know, starting with a three-room flat and then ending up in a bungalow and they are thinking that that's never going to happen to me. And because of that, they almost feel like, oh, I'm not doing as well as the previous generation. How would you convince them?

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, I think if you talk about quality of living, very many in the old generation were living five or six or ten in a rental flat. Nobody does that today.

There were many who went from rental flat to executive flat, some even to private property. Not so few. Can everybody make that journey from where you are now? If you move into a new flat in Bidadari or Tengah, probably not everybody can do that. That's only in terms of the area of the house you live in.

In terms of the quality of the life in your home, the amenities, the connections, the social environment in the neighborhood which we have built up, I think you can have a very high quality of life in Singapore and comparable to, if not better than in nearly any other major city, any other major city in the world.

What we don't have is what other major cities in bigger countries can do, and that is if you are working in Manhattan in New York, maybe you can go upstate and out of Manhattan on the weekend and go to some other place with a bit more space and then you can decompress. And same if you are living in London or in Sydney.

And in Singapore, well, you can't go. There's no upstate Singapore because all of Singapore is pretty developed. But our neighboring countries are not very far away and many Singaporeans travel. That's why there are long traffic jams on the weekend on the Causeway.

Interviewer 2: You don't decompress and you go through a jam.

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, the RTS link will make things better, I'm told. What people do is they expect a jam. They download their Netflix movies and then they sit there and watch the movies.

Interviewer 1: Waiting to clear CIQ. And PM on economic wellbeing, you know, since you spoke about young people, what about older people? I mean, you yourself worked way past retirement age and Singapore is also moving towards raising retirement age. Yet anecdotally, you hear from some old people, you know, that it's quite hard for them to find a job, or if they've lost their job at around 50, not even old yet, maybe young seniors, they're not able to find a job that easily, something that pays them well enough, or they have to maybe downgrade a little bit. So how are we going to help these people? And even as we raise retirement age, what are the opportunities actually for more mature workers?

Lee Hsien Loong: I think it's an anxiety for many Singaporeans, actually. Statistically, your chances of working as an old person in Singapore are very good, because if you look at our employment rates, not unemployment rates, but employment rates by age, the older workers in the fifties and the sixties, even to the late sixties are high, are rising and are actually good compared to many other developed economies.

So many people are working well into their sixties now and sometimes into their seventies, like me, and actually happy to have that work because it gives you something to do. It's purposeful. It's not just earning the money, but I wake up in the morning, there's something I want to do in life.

So the economy needs workers. We are short of workers. Older workers are valued and we should make the best use of them. And it's not just a numbers thing, because you also have to adapt the job so that older workers can do the jobs. You also have to train the workers so that as they grow older, they can do the jobs which are available for them.

They may have to change careers because the industry has changed and the old job does not exist anymore. And then they have to go to a reconfigured job or even change industries. And it happens.

I mean, in the finance industry, for example, you used to have bank tellers. They sit there, they come, they smile, they chop your bank book, and then you do the transaction. But now everybody is on ATMs. So what do you do with the bank tellers?

And the banks have been training them by the hundreds, sometimes the thousands, to go and do other jobs and redeploy them within the system and not just say, sorry, I don't need tellers anymore. Here's a gratuity, off you go.

Some of them, for example, go and become customer service officers. You need them because ATMs are good, but you want a personal touch. And if the ATM frustrates you and you press the help button, you want somebody smiling there, and not just "if you don't know how to press this button, press two". And then you are dealing with a robotic voice and you get very frustrated. They are there, her face comes up, smiles, says, "How can I help you?" as a real person. And talks you through it.

So there are new jobs, but the pressure will, the change will continue. AI has come. Next time you see a face, maybe it's synthetic, maybe it's a real person, and then the real person will be free to do something else. And we will work very hard to make sure that he or she can do something else.

We've got SkillsFuture, we've got SkillsSG as an organization which is pursuing this nationally, so that we put a lot of effort into this and we get workers to take it seriously.

One of the small hongbaos in the big budget was a $4,000 SkillsFuture grant, which everybody 40 and above received and can use for some significant training course. It's not such a small amount of money, but it's a token of how seriously we take it and how much we want you to go and improve yourself and improve your opportunities during your time.

Interviewer 4: As prime minister, the idea of changing our mindsets, as far as that upskilling is concerned, that has become more entrenched. How much progress do you think you've seen over the last 20 years in that regard?

Lee Hsien Loong: Well, I think people understand it. There are a lot of schemes, there are quite a lot of programs, and many people have been making use of this.

I think the unions certainly have got the message. The rank and file varies, but when you have a downturn, I think people feel a cold shiver, they take fright and take it more seriously. When conditions improve and things look better, the fear is a bit less and maybe they relax a little bit.

But I think with things changing so fast, we can't afford to relax, so we have to push hard. One of the things that unions did, Ng Chee Meng's initiative at NTUC a couple of years ago, was to start introducing CTCs - Company Training Committees.

In companies, the company works with the union or worker representatives to discuss what is the upgrading which would be useful to the company and how to adapt the jobs. And you can work together to keep on making this training and upgrading be productive because it's quite easy for you to go for a course and then you get a piece of paper and the paper doesn't really help you in your job. That's not what we want.

So with the CTCs, we thought it was a good idea. The government backed it with some financial support, I think $100 million, and it's been going very well. I think the companies are getting the spirit of it now. They've seen it work in other firms, and so they're prepared to do it.

And I met some unionists recently before May Day, preparing for May Day, and one of them told me, the scheme is working very well. We're using up the government grant. Can you help us a little bit more? So I said, well, if you can get it to work, the money is not the problem. The challenge is to get the mindset changed and the training executed and the workers' jobs and livelihoods protected and enhanced. And I think we are doing that.

Interviewer 1: PM, have you had a chance to use your SkillsFuture credits?

Lee Hsien Loong: Not yet. One day I will do that. I will go on a photography course, or maybe I will go on a course on how to appear on TV and be interviewed and look relaxed.

I think there are people who will go and attend a course and they decide they like it, and then they go deeper into it, and then they turn into a photographer or a videographer. Some of them turn into social influencers. That's another career which never existed before.

Interviewer 4: PM, can we just talk a little bit about the fact that you've been such a vocal advocate for globalization? The headlines keep telling us the world is becoming more fragmented economically, that globalization is a bad word now. You've said you don't believe that is so. Singapore still needs to stay open. It still needs to have those multilateral rules-based trade relations. But we are seeing these sort of networks starting to evolve, right? Smaller sort of groupings evolve. Can we still stay relevant in that environment?

Lee Hsien Loong: We have to. We have no choice. I mean, other people can say reshoring. What do I reshore to Singapore? I'm making chips for the world. And if I make all the chips here, first of all, I need the components and all the supporting industries, which I don't have. Secondly, if I make a million chips a month, who's going to use them in Singapore? It doesn't make sense.

And if I'm going to reshore and feed myself, well, I have resilience requirements and we have an ambition to say 30 by 30 - 30% of nutrition is generated in Singapore by 2030. Maybe I can make 20-30 by 30. But if you want 100 by 30, what am I going to eat? I'll be back to planting ubi kayu, tapioca, which is what people did during the war. So it's not possible.

So we have to be out there promoting freer trade, promoting inter-cooperation, willingness to be interdependent, willingness to develop the networks of trade and investment and trust and finance to work together.

We used to do it on multilateral scale at WTO. We were very active. WTO negotiations have 100 plus countries now, nearly 200. And you can't really discuss all with all 100 plus participating in a conversation. So you form groups.

And one of the key groups used to be called the Green Room. When I was trade minister long ago, and the Green Room had maybe 20-30 countries, there was no particular reason Singapore would have been entitled to be there. But because our representatives were active and we pushed and people found us valuable to help the conversation, so we were able to be there and participate in the Green Room discussions and shape, or at least help to shape the outcomes of the discussions.

WTO is now paralyzed because many countries are all doing their own thing. Everybody pays lip service and then they do their own thing. And that's very sad. We have to work in other forums, and they are smaller forums, but we will work them.

We have the TPP, we were very active, and in the end, we nearly got it all the way there to the finish line. Then the Americans couldn't participate, opted out. But the Japanese, under Prime Minister Abe, rallied the rest of us, and eleven countries got it over. We got the CPTPP. It's a great achievement.

Remember, that started as a P4, which Singapore was part of, because the P4 was Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, Brunei. And we started this little FTA, very little or relatively little trade between us and so far away on different corners of the world. But we had a dream one day others will join in and it'll grow into something substantial. And that was a nucleus around which eventually CPTPP came.

So there are things like that which we can do. We are doing that in new fields. For example, e-economy. We are talking about data, you are talking about e-commerce, you are talking about rules for data storage, for sharing information governance, data security. And so you need a new age kind of agreement.

And we've got digital economy agreements. We have one with Britain, we have one with Australia, we have a multilateral one, which we call the DEPA - Digital Economy Partnership Agreement - with New Zealand, with Chile. Three of us. And there's a queue to come in and one or two countries which are quite advanced in their queue and will be joining soon.

So I think we have to keep on being active, smaller scale platforms, but to us, these are all the more important.