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Aug 8, 2018

Singapore - City of Tomorrow

James Seah on a trishaw at T4,
Singapore Airport

National Geographic released a Singapore edition of the magazine - complete with an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - to commemorate Singapore's 53rd National Day.

Titled Singapore - City of Tomorrow, the complimentary magazine will be distributed 250,000.  The magazine is part of #WhatMakesSG, a partnership between National Geographic and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

The collaboration is aimed at celebrating "the passion driving Singapore's progress and how the city-state is taking steps to seize future opportunities".

Mr Lee shared his views on Singapore's future, and highlighted the importance of teamwork and collaboration in enabling Singapore's transformation to a city of the future.

In his exclusive interview with the magazine, Mr Lee shared his views on what he believes makes Singapore different, the country's future and the importance of teamwork.

"There are any number of cities in Asia which have three or four million people in them; probably dozens, many dozens.  Why are we different?  It's because of the way we have been able to make our people work together and to make the system work,"  Mr Lee said in the interview.

"It doesn't mean we're smarter than other people, I think we work as hard as others but we work together more effectively and so you produce something special," he added.

I collected a complimentary copy of the National Geographic special issue at Terminal 4, Singapore Airport on 7 August, 2018.

I am pleased to reproduce the interview with Prime Minister on this blog for the convenience of the readers and friends.


Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks exclusively with National Geographic about the island nation's future by Mark Eggleton.

When Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks about his sense of warmth.  A warmth for his people and importantly, his and the Government's role as stewards of the future.  Rather than suggesting the Government owns the present, he emphasises the importance of taking care of Singapore right now and ensuring it's handed on in good condition to future generations.  It's this genuine affection for his whole country which immediately strikes you.

In the days preceding the interview, Lee had invited a National Geographic photographer to tag along on his engagements - including a visit to a newly opened pre-school, a stroll in the city's Botanic Gardens, a walk around his constituency's hawker market, and even the home of his constituents.  What was surprising was how each visit quickly turned into something more.  Reason being is unlike many politicians who can look awkward with their constituents, Lee revelled in simply being out and about.  Generous with his time and happy to take endless smartphone selfies, he chatted and laughed with a range of people and families.

On the day we meet in his private office at Istana, Lee is dressed casually and keen for a relatively informal chat.  Outside, the serenity of the property's vast pristine gardens is only broken by the low thrum of a lawnmower.  A green sanctuary in the heart of the city, Istana is the official Presidential Palace as well as the Prime Minister's office, and its sense of peace had made its way inside where Lee is in an avuncular mood.

Sitting in his relatively austere office and responding to a remark that our interview might go slightly off-piste, Lee jokingly replies "we're not very good skiers" before outlining why he is excited for Singapore's future as a digital economy hub that continues to deliver outsize opportunities for its people.  He is keen to point out that government is a team and while he can give orders nothing can happen "unless I've got teamwork", which includes Government ministers as well as the civil service and the private sector.

What excites him the most is while Singapore is still a young country of just over 50 years of age, "we have the resources, the people trained and the organisation, to plan our next 50 years, and remake Singapore substantially.  Not all of it but step-by-step we can remake the economy, the whole (economic) landscape, the way we invest in our people and I hope our standing in the world.  That's a big job.  I'm 66 but my successors, they will have to carry it forward."

The Lion City is already well on its way to transforming itself into a thriving digital economy as it already has some of the most advanced digital infrastructure in the world.  Government services are all migrating online and Lee says there is a huge focus on ensuring the whole population understands the opportunities afforded by the digital economy.


"The young ones, they call them digital natives whereas old one like me, we're immigrants.  There's a lot we can do to make the internet easy and convenient for old people to use and we have all sorts of classes for them," Lee says.

Ensuring every generation is catered for starts back in primary school classrooms where the first four years of schooling focus on English, mother tongue, maths and science and the nature of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning is given top priority.  For Lee, who was the top mathematics undergraduate during his time at England's University of Cambridge, STEM skills are the key to the future and they're actively encourage in tertiary education.

"You don't have to become a master programmer, but you must at least have an idea of how computers and programming works.  Then it doesn't look like sheer magic to you and you will not be totally terrified by it when you are in a position of responsibility and you've got to make decisions."

Bearing in mind how the global economy is changing, Lee remains optimistic for the global economy and especially for Singapore, where he believes people will be able to adjust as automation and artificial intelligence fundamentally change the nature of work.  He suggests Singapore's value proposition is its geography and it can do quite a lot of things well and perhaps sufficiently better than elsewhere, such as being a financial services and data hub for the region as well as providing a strong regulatory and legal framework for business.

"In medical services, we have patients who come here from all over the region as well as from longer distances such as Russia.  I think if you are a first world-city with that concentration of talent, services and quality of life, people will want to live and work here."

As for Singapore's ever-evolving physical transformation, Lee speaks of moving the current military airbase at Paya Lebar in the central-eastern part of Singapore to Changi - freeing up an enormous amount of land for reuse and development.

"You can redevelop that land as a new township but most importantly all the surrounding areas, which is maybe one third of the island, has been developed in a height-constrained way.  Take the airbase out and you have completely different possibilities."

Lee also spoke of the current process of moving the port at Tanjong Pagar to the Tuas mega-port on the western edge of Singapore, which will free up "really prime land right in the middle of the city.  It's another opportunity for two-plus Marina Bays worth of redevelopment.


Beyond Singapore, Lee speaks of the country's role as ASEAN Chair this year and the two ideas chosen as themes for the chairmanship - Resilience and Innovation.  Both underline the opportunities and challenges countries in the region need to confront in a globalised digital economy.  Lee ways resilience means dealing with shocks and problems and dangers, while innovation means looking for new opportunities to work together and to grow.

"On resilience, we're talking about things like disaster relief and cybersecurity co-operation while on innovation, we're talking about a smart cities network.  We have 26 smart cities signed up and we hope we can work together.  We are chairman for a year, it's rotating chairmanship.  It doesn't mean we are the commander-in-chief, we are just the co-ordinator for this year.  What it means is we have to work together to make ASEAN relevant in the world.  Work together economically and work together when it comes to political and strategic issues."

Lee is a great believer in a networked future where nations work collaboratively and he envisions a world where talent connects globally.

"There are any number of cities in Asia which have three or four million people in them; probably dozens, many dozens.  Why are we different?  It's because of the way we have been able to make our people work together and to make the system work.  It doesn't mean we're smarter than other people, I think we work as hard as others but we work together more effectively and so you produce something special."



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