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Party Convention 2013: Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong

07 Dec 2013 16 min read

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Comrades and friends, the theme of today’s Convention is “Our New Way Forward: A Call to Action”. Singapore is at an important juncture, and so is the PAP, and we must forge a new way forward together, towards a brighter future.


We are at an inflection point. Our society is more diverse, our economy is more mature, our political landscape is more contested. So in this year’s National Day Rally, I set out our new overall approach. The State and the community playing bigger roles than before. Government doing more too. Sharing the fruits of progress with all citizens, strengthening safety nets to give people peace of mind and keeping paths upwards open to all. We are transforming Singapore to create better opportunities for our children and our grandchildren, whether it is housing, whether it is new train lines, new Changi Airport. These are bold ideas, but they are only possible with the PAP!

The PAP plays a very special role in Singapore – providing good leadership; creating new possibilities; being a responsive and responsible government, solving peoples’ needs; tackling our challenges; implementing policies which are sustainable and which will succeed in the long term. And giving people hope and confidence. Move forward with us; we will get there together. And that’s why Singaporeans have entrusted PAP with the responsibility to lead the country, time after time, since 1959. And by working together with the people, we have transformed Singapore from Third World to First. I don’t say and I would not claim that we are in paradise. But I think compared to other countries, we are not doing badly, even compared to the Scandinavian countries. We know we can do better. Let’s go for it and show the world what we can do.

The PAP has got to continue offering Singaporeans the leadership to implement plans and take Singapore forward. Because all these good things will not happen on their own. It needs a good government, capable leaders, and the support of our people. Only the PAP can provide this leadership – even the opposition says, ‘don’t worry the PAP will take care of everything, quite safe!’. Therefore the PAP has to be quite clear in our direction and our agenda. What is it which we stand for, what is it which we seek to achieve.

Our Constitution sets it out in Article II. If you look up the website you will find the Constitution there and I will just quote a few phrases to you.

“To safeguard the freedom, and advance the well-being, of Singaporeans”

“To build a multiracial society, fair, just and tolerant to all”

“To build a dynamic society which is disciplined and self-reliant, … and which also has compassion for the aged, the sick and handicapped, and the less fortunate”

“To provide equal opportunities for all Singaporeans”

We also say what we want to do in the Party Pledge. You saw it on the screen just now: “To build a vibrant, just and equal society, through achieving excellence by all, so that every citizen, regardless of race, language or religion, can enjoy a full and happy life”. I think we can all agree these are the right things to do. They have been for many years and are still the right things to do. And I think in 20 years’ time when you hold a party convention, I think these ideas will still be at the core of what we want to do. But what do these ideas mean tangibly, concretely in this day and age. The Constitution and the Pledge go back to the 1980s. 30 years ago, almost, how do we realise these ideas in the 21st Century? What do they mean today? So we have to interpret these goals in this new phase and with a new generation.


So to prepare for this Convention, we conducted many engagement sessions with our Party members. We wanted to hear members’ views on what they aspire to, what we all aspire to and how our Party can evolve. So the PAP Policy Forum, the Women’s Wing, the Young PAP, they took the initiative. They organised many sessions and many of the CEC members participated. I like to thank all the members who participated. For sharing your thoughts and for contributing your ideas on how to make the Party stronger.

So together, arising and emerging from this process of discussion, we drafted a resolution to define the PAP’s course in this new phase. You have a copy of it with you. And if you just run your eyes through it, you know what the key thrusts are: Strengthening our Singaporean identity; creating opportunities for all Singaporeans; upholding an open and compassionate meritocracy; building a fair and just society; developing a democracy of deeds; and being a responsive and responsible government. These are the big ideas which we stand for, and if you look into the paragraphs, it explains what these ideas mean in this day and age. And this is how we are interpreting our ideals to suit our age.

So let me pick up several of these, not all of them but just three, four of them to explain how we are doing this.


First of all, creating opportunities for all, in an open and compassionate meritocracy. I have spoken about these issues often, but I know these issues are close to peoples’ hearts, so I have had to come back to them again, to explain what has changed, and what remains constant. We always stand for opportunities and we have stood for meritocracy. But now we are at a higher level of development. Income distributions have widened and our society is more settled. Social mobility is harder to maintain. It is not so easy for people to move up from the bottom. And people are more uncertain and anxious about the future because they see the changes in the world, they see the winds blowing, and they ask ‘will the typhoon come to Singapore, and if so, do I have a shelter? I must not be alone’. We can’t grow Singapore just by expanding our economy anymore. We have to do it by changing our approach, by upgrading in terms of quality, in terms of productivity, in terms of performance and where we stand in comparison to others.

So how do we do that? How do we create opportunities? By producing quality growth, upgrading our industries, helping our companies and SMEs, to become more productive. Mastering new capabilities like 3D printing for all our people. But also transforming our physical environment so as to create more possibilities for the future. The URA Masterplan, we have just published a new Masterplan, shows how we can do this. To build a better Singapore, even though we have limited space. You may not have a lot of spare space in Singapore but what we have, we haven’t fully developed; what we haven’t optimally used before, we redevelop them, we replan them. We can produce in Singapore, something much better than we have today.

We can use the space much more imaginatively. Reclaim a bit more from the sea for important infrastructure, a seaport in Tuas, an airport in Changi, we can do that. We redevelop our existing plots of land. We can do a lot better with what you have now. The Southern Waterfront City, once the port moves to Tuas, that would be a whole new city coming up. Paya Lebar: one day Paya Lebar Airbase goes to Changi, Paya Lebar, all the areas around Paya Lebar, Pasir Ris, Marine Parade, so many possibilities will open up, because the airspace would be freed up and can be developed. The land can be redeveloped.

So we work a Masterplan to address long-term problems. We work a Masterplan so that in the long-term and not so immediate long-term, our immediate problems will also be solved, like transport. Because we have a comprehensive train and road network, we have offices and homes put closer together, you don’t have to travel so far, you don’t have to go from Bedok all the way to Tuas to work. If you are living in Bedok, there will be jobs in Tampines, Marine Parade, and Pasir Ris. If you are working in Tuas, there will more homes in Jurong, distances can be closer. So we are incorporating what Singaporeans would like to see, quality living in the neighbourhoods, accessible to everybody of all income levels; green spaces, blue waters, even in an urban environment. Sports facilities, spaces where you can develop interests and hobbies. And so with imagination, we can pass on to our children a better Singapore than that which we received from our parents.

But at the same time, as we create these opportunities, we will build an open and compassionate meritocracy. Maximise equality of opportunity, while moderating inequality of outcomes. What do I mean?

Maximise equality of opportunity. We will continue to invest in every Singaporean. Make sure their success does not depend on your social background, or family circumstances. By helping those who are born with less get to a good starting point. We will provide diverse pathways of success, treat all with dignity and respect, whether it is white collar, blue collar, any colour, any collar. Thereby we can keep our society open and mobile, and enable our people to rise. That means maximising equality of opportunities.

We are doing this with some success. I mentioned in my Chinese speech just now the PISA results which show not only overall we were doing well in reading, in maths and in science but also, that our weaker students were doing better than before, much better than before and much better than weak students in other countries. And I think that is the direction we want to go. So when I listen to the speakers just now, Comrade Benjamin Tay talking about his brother-in-law who went from a neighbourhood school to now a postgraduate in Stanford, on a scholarship. Or Comrade Khartini, talking about how she herself, from a very ordinary background, has been able to do well, to study, to make a career and to be proud of the system and now to be participating back. I think that is what we want to achieve when we talk about an open and compassionate meritocracy.

At same time, of course, having got to the top, we want more people to be like Benjamin and Khartini to give back. Help those who are struggling, make sure that others can also come along. The government cannot do this alone because the successful people have to feel a sense of responsibility to help their fellow Singaporeans, and make sure that the system which worked for them, will work for many others. And that is what we want to do as one way to reflect our democratic socialist ideals, which the party will always stand and defend.


Let me take another point which is in the Resolution and expand a bit on what we are talking about, a fair and equal society. What does fair and equal mean in this new phase? First, rewarding individuals fairly for their efforts. It doesn’t mean no work same pay. It means you work, you get rewarded. You try hard, we will recognise your efforts. You try hard and do well, and then of course, the rewards will be more. But we will develop the culture of mutual support and inclusiveness, strengthen our social safety nets and make sure that we bring along the vulnerable groups with us when we move forward. And we will take special care of the elderly so that they can age with dignity.


One initiative which will help all of us but especially the elderly will be Medishield-Life. Because it will give assurance that we can all meet our healthcare needs. Universal coverage, everybody is in. Lifetime coverage even beyond 90 years old, I suppose theoretically even beyond 100 years. And better protection against very large bills. We are working out details, MOH is working this out with the public and industry. There are consultations going on. We have Mr Bobby Chin, who is leading the committee who is doing this consultation, and I think we can work out a good scheme. It will cost more. I notice from the first consultation some of the feedback was ‘who is is going to pay?’. I think we all have to pay more, coverage is better, premiums will go up, higher than the current MediShield premiums. But it will be affordable, government will help and I think this is something which we can afford and which we should do. And in the process of looking after medical care, and old people, I think we will especially look after the Pioneer Generation.

Pioneer Generation Package

It is one important aspect of our 人情, our human sense of obligation, to take care of the generation who brought us here. They worked hard to build this Singapore. They created this First World city, and many of them are our party activists who have sacrificed so much for our nation, paved the way for the Party’s success, and continue to serve tirelessly. Some 50 years of service and still attending party conventions. Not just to receive awards, but to come and participate in this discussion. A number of them are with us today, and we thank them.

So our Pioneer Generation Package will recognise our pioneers’ special contribution to Singa¬pore, and especially focus on their medical needs, and as I said just now in Chinese, good news we can say more than once, we will be ready to announce more details in a few months, hopefully by the Budget in February.

PAP Seniors Group (PAP.SG)

So in Singapore, our seniors are a growing group, with much to contribute, but also new needs which needs to be seen to. And it is our Party’s duty to understand them, tap their experience and wisdom, to come up with new ideas to address these needs, and to speak up for the elderly, just as we speak up for the young through the YP, for women, through the Women’s Wing and other segments of the population. I know that the Women’s Wing discussed this extensively at their pre-Convention session. We heard Comrade Chan Hui Min just now, explain some of the ideas they had and some of the proposals they want to put forward. So I think having considered their views, we should do what they proposed to do. In other words, we have the Women’s Wing, we have the Young PAP, we should have a group dedicated to ageing issues. We spent some time thinking about a suitable name for this group, and we have decided to call it the PAP Seniors Group, PAP.SG.

This is an interest group, not a group of old people. It is a group which will champion elderly causes, active ageing, for example. It will work on issues which affect the lives of our elderly, their quality of life, their care and security; which will work with PCF to pilot new solutions to eldercare needs; and which will engage senior party activists, so we can use their experience to mentor younger officers. So just now Comrade Benjamin Joshua said ‘don’t write us off’. Don’t worry, we will not write you off, we will sign you up. And there is a lot of work for you to do for many years to come.

We have put together a good team to do this. The EXCO is getting formed and will comprise a cross-section of members reflecting our social makeup, needs and aspirations. Those who are elderly and those who are not so elderly but have an interest in ageing issues, all those who can contribute. We have identified the Chairman or I should say the Chairperson who would be the Speaker, Halimah Yacob. I should also like to say that I am very happy that Comrade Goh Chok Tong has agreed to be the Adviser. So PAP.SG has a full agenda, so please give them your full support.


The third idea which I would like to talk a bit more about which is in the Resolution is strengthening our Singaporean identity. We put it as a first item in this Resolution because it is that important. The PAP has always championed multi-racialism and a Singaporean Singapore. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said years ago, “This is not a country that belongs to any single community; it belongs to all of us.” Therefore PAP Governments year after year, term after term, have implemented policies to make sure that we have equal opportunities and foster integration among our communities.

We use English as the common working language, we keep our HDB blocks and precincts multi-racial communities, we have prevented ethnic enclaves from forming. We have created GRCs, we have established a Presidential Councils for Minority Rights and for Racial Harmony. We have outlawed actions or words that may incite racial sensitivities. We believe in a Singaporean Singapore. That is why after many years of nation building, we have strengthened our Singapore identity, and we have grown closer as one people, but I will never reach the point when I don’t have to mention a Singaporean Singapore in a Party Resolution like this. Because race and religion remain very powerful forces, not just in our society but in any human society. The sense of racial and religious identity has not weakened in Singapore. Religious consciousness is now stronger than before. You don’t see it month by month, year by year, but if you look back 10, 20 years, it is true amongst all groups, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, all groups. People feel strongly about their religion. They take it very seriously and so there is always a tension between expanding our common spaces which all of us share and growing our separate community spaces, that which is our own, which is most intimately ours.

In many countries, but also in Singapore, each community wants more of its requirements to be institutionalised and recognised and to stretch the limits a bit further. And so you find that in Singapore too. For example, the Chinese, I think many Chinese-educated from the community would like to see more SAP schools, they like to see more Mandarin used in more public signs and in train announcements. Amongst the Malay/Muslim community, I think that many who would like to see women being allowed to wear hijabs in more workplaces specially with uniforms, they like more government help for madrasahs. The Indian group have their concerns and wishes too – to use more Tamil in public signs, like at the airport, to give other Indian languages besides Tamil more support and status. So each group has wishes that things would be more their way. And where possible, in fact, we want to allow people to live their own lives and accommodate their desires. And we all have to make adjustments and accommodations from time to time, as our society changes. The situation is never static, it is a dynamic situation, it evolves on the progress side as well as on the difficulties side. But we adjust as we go along, but as we adjust, we must always keep Singapore a home where all races can live in peace and harmony.

We are united because collectively we have decided to come together as one nation. We have not forced people to conform to one culture. We have given every group extensive freedom to practice their own religions and to keep our cultures alive. But at the same time, we need to compromise, to give and take, to get along with one another. And therefore to maintain the common space that we all share. Because otherwise we will weaken Singapore. I am happy to live my own life. You are happy to live your own life. Once in a while we may meet one another, otherwise we are in our separate circles. I think that is not what we mean by social cohesion. And then the next step will come, each community will look at what the other is getting, ‘he has got more and I would like some to’, ‘how come he can have and I cannot have’. I think we will end up weakened, more fractious, we will end up with problems the other countries have: racial tensions, ethnic strife, communal politics. I think we are not in paradise, but in a good position. We must try to stay in a good position on this very important subject for a long time to come. The PAP will not let us fall from this position of harmony, social cohesion and integration because we have sacrificed too much as a nation and have worked too hard to build a Singaporean Singapore. We must keep it a Singaporean Singapore.


The last point I would like to pick up from the Resolution concerns developing a Democracy of Deeds. What does it mean? It means what our party name says – People’s Action Party, we believe in action more than words. We must always work hard for the people, and uphold the spirit of service – to Singaporeans, and to our nation. We must always get our policies right, and govern Singa¬pore well.

We serve because we believe that our cause is right, is just. We are doing the right thing. I look in the mirror in the morning, and yes, I am doing the right thing and I am proud of what I am trying to do. I know we have a special responsibility, all of us have a special responsibility to Singapore. We know we are trying to create a better tomorrow for Singaporeans and for our children.

We don’t do this alone; you don’t all have to wear whites to be in this cause. We take an inclusive approach. We partner civic groups to pursue common interests whether it is conservation, environment, animal welfare, there are different interests out there, as long as it is compatible, and helps to strengthen our society, we work with you and make common cause together. We are a broad church within the party, we form a broad coalition in the Singapore social landscape. We are encouraging residents to come forward to tackle problems too. That is how we build a democracy of deeds, together.

Our activists embody this spirit of doing and serving. I mentioned a couple in my Chinese speech and there are many others. Yesterday night, we had awards. One of the commendation award winner was Lim How Kim from Jalan Kayu. He’s served for almost 20 years. When Serangoon North was still a new town, he lobbied hard for facilities like hawker centres and schools to serve residents and the residents fondly call him “Uncle Lim” on grassroots events and house visits. And so last night after many years of work, we gave him a small token, one Commendation Medal, and he richly deserves it. There are many others. Aunty Clara Roberts from Marine Parade who single-handedly raised three kids, taking on several jobs. After receiving many acts of kindness she decided to pay it forward, join the Party and serve. 37 years have passed! Because we knew we had people like her in our ranks, we decided to create a new medal for this group of activists, the Dedicated Service Medal, and that is what Aunty Clara got last night. We have another one, Madam Prabha Chandran Seth from Thomson. She is the Chairman of IAEC. One year, her husband passed away, she was organising grassroots events, the event was in the process of being organised, she said ‘let’s press on, life goes on and we would have wanted to do this’. She could not let her residents down. She is still serving, a good woman and that is what we are looking for.


So we need service, we need dedication and we need passion. We also need to fight for what we believe in and make sure that the right result prevails. We are in a contested environment, ‘new normal’ people say. It is a more contested political environment and we have to state clearly what we stand for, as we have done in the Resolution today. We have to convince Singaporeans that our cause is right. We have to rebut untruths and correct half-truths, especially online. We must engage other groups – not just to vote for us, but to be part of our broader coalition. We have to counter opposition moves. Never give up – they may throw stones at you, they may attack you, work against you, but we stand firm, we are the PAP, we are proud of what we are doing, we are doing right. Stand firm, whatever the difficulties never give up. That is the way we got here, that was Comrade Lee Kuan Yew’s attitude – no matter what happens we will pull through together. Because ultimately, that is what the future of Singapore depends on.

It is a responsibility of all of you but also especially of our MPs and our ministers. And we have good MPs. Old ones, some serve many years and new ones, 22 came in last General Election. And I think the new MPs have done well. Worked hard, improved their residents’ lives, established themselves with voters and I think they are learning how to defend themselves, and score points. You don’t always have to charge, but you must know how to take the needle to pop. Make sure you are established and you are not number two, and I think by the next General Election, they will be completely ready to defend their seats. The new office holders have also made significant contributions. They plunged in at the deep end.

I think the new ministers have mastered their responsibilities, gained confidence in presenting and defending policies, learned to make decisions. It is easy to decide how to hand out good things, it is not so easy when there are tough decisions to make, or spikey crises to handle. We also have to learn how to deal with critics and opposition – in Parliament, on the ground, and in also cyberspace. The new ministers are taking on more responsibilities and I hope they will be contributing to Singa¬pore for many years to come. So I ask you to back them, cheer them on, help them to do well because they are our team, and if they win, Singa¬pore wins also. In the next election, we will reinforce our team with more good men and women so just now, Comrade Khartini says “Kow Bei Kow Bu” (Hokkien for ‘complain vigorously’), so if you are unhappy about something by all means let off steam at home and “Kow Bei Kow Bu”, but don’t stop there. Join the PAP, fight for what you believe in, change what is not good and help the “Zhenghu” (‘Government’) so that there is less need for other people to “Kow Bei Kow Bu”.


The PAP has been a crucial part in Singapore’s history and Singapore’s success, Singapore’s political landscape. You cannot imagine what Singapore’s landscape will be like without the PAP, maybe you can. You look at the countries without the PAP and you ask yourself do you want to be some of them, and I think we know the answer. Next year we celebrate the PAP’s 60th anniversary and the year after that we have Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, 50th Anniversary of independence. I think we should celebrate these milestones properly. Give thanks for what we have done and take pride in what we have accomplished together. Rededicate ourselves to our core purpose: To continue taking Singapore forward and improving Singaporeans’ lives.

As Singapore changes, the PAP must also change. Adapt to a new generation and new aspirations. Keep abreast of changes in the world around us, navigate a course for the future, if there is no path, open a path which we can move forward. I am confident we can do it, as we have many times before and the Resolution we are adopting will guide us on the next stage of our journey.

So I call on members and Singaporeans to join me on this exciting journey. Act as one, lead with conviction, serve with honour. Together, our new way forward!

This speech was delivered by PM Lee Hsien Loong, Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party, on December 8, 2013 at Kallang Theatre.