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S'pore has to balance competitiveness and caring for needy: PM Lee

Singapore will have to balance between maintaining its competitiveness and caring about the less well-off as it strives to reduce the income gap, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an interview with China's New Century magazine.

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore has to strike a balance between maintaining its competitiveness and caring about the less well-off as it strives to reduce the income gap.

He made the comment in an interview with China's New Century -- a magazine by Beijing-based media group Caixin -- which was published on Monday.

Mr Lee said there is a need to keep a balance between the yin, which he described as caring for one another, and the yang, which is the "competitive element that drives the society forward".

"If you go too much towards competitiveness, you lose that cohesion and sense of being Singaporeans together," Mr Lee said.

"If we go… the other way and say, well, we don't compete… I think we will all be losers."

He acknowledged that the competitive environment in Singapore is getting fiercer and conditions are getting more challenging for middle and lower-income groups in many societies.

Alluding to the concept of yin and yang, he said Singapore needs to do more to "tilt the balance towards the yin side" -- the element of care and concern for others.

This means greater help for the low-income groups as well as keeping society more open, so that the people who have talent can move up and will not be daunted by the gaps in incomes between the rich and poor, which is what Singapore has been doing, he added.

In reply to a question, Mr Lee acknowledged that while the income gap in Singapore is wider than most other countries, it was not as wide when compared to other cities.

But rather than bringing those in the higher income bracket down, he said it is important to focus on levelling-up the wider population.

He also said Singaporeans have to stay connected to the rest of the world, particularly the Asian region as it offers many opportunities.

Describing Singaporeans as hardworking and talented, he said: "I think the best way to make use of their talents and their abilities is not just to confine (them) within Singapore, but to connect to what's happening around us.

"So if a company sets up an operation in Singapore, it's not just for our market, but for the region.

"And if our people have abilities as managers and leaders, they can be managers and leaders not just in Singapore, but they can go out and there are many operations, many companies all over the region which will find a good Asian executive a very considerable asset."

Prime Minister Lee believes as society changes, so too will Singapore's political structure, as he cited how it has evolved over the years.

He said: "I think as we go forward, we will probably have to make further adjustments, surely, because our society will change.

"I believe that there will be a greater degree of competition, there will be a greater desire of Singaporeans to participate in the political process. And we ought to accommodate that, because it's good that Singaporeans care about the affairs of the country and which way Singapore is going.

"But whatever we change, we still want a system where you encourage good people to come forward -- you encourage voters to elect people who will represent their interests well, and you encourage the government to act in a way which will take the long-term interests of the country at heart.

"And that's not easy to do."

In a wide-ranging interview, he also spoke about the challenges that China should pay special attention to as well as Beijing's relations with Tokyo.

Domestically, he said, China needs to continue to restructure its economy so that it will not build up social tensions and it can continue to fulfil its full potential.

"I think you can grow 7 (or) 8 per cent for another 15, 20 years quite easily," Mr Lee said.

"But to be able to get the systems working, the reforms through, the vested interests overcome… and all these other problems which are unavoidable in a rapidly changing society, I think that is something which will keep your leaders very busy for a long time."

He noted that, internationally, China has become much more active in engaging its partners in pursuing and defending its interests.

Mr Lee said: "One of the major challenges for China is how to do this in a way that when you are defending your interests, at the same time, you can integrate smoothly and peacefully into the international order, because China will not be the most powerful country in the world.

"You probably will be the biggest economy in the world within a decade or two, depending on how you measure. But there are other very major and powerful and advanced economies, and China has to work with them and there will have to be give and take on both sides."

Turning to ASEAN, Mr Lee said the group's goal to achieve economic integration by 2015 will be a significant step forward for the region and will lead to more opportunities for its members to prosper together, as well as manage frictions when they arise.

On its implication for the region, Mr Lee said: "I think there should be more growth. There should be freer flow of capital. There would be freer flow of professionals and talent.

"There should be better transportation links, connectivity… more opportunities for business to get together and to prosper together.

"And we hope, therefore, more opportunities for us to manage frictions when they arise."

Mr Lee also expressed his hope that the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- which is an agreement set up to enhance trade and investment among several countries including Singapore, the United States, Australia and Japan -- will be completed this year.

He said: "I think they are trying very hard, and we ought to be able to close this year, because if we don't close this year, there is not much time left on the American political calendar to get it through Congress and to settle the matter."

He said that with the passing of time, loose ends get unravelled and there would be a setback.

"I think we are very close to completing it," he added. 

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