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Singapore has many key attributes that few others can speak of: PM

The Republic has a First World system in a complicated part of the world

London

WHEN asked during a dialogue to describe Singapore's USP - or unique selling point - to the world, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the country as having many key attributes that few others can speak of.

"(Ours is) a First World system in a very complicated, non-First World part of the world," he said at an hour-long talk held at Chatham House in London yesterday.

Chatham House is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation where the famed Chatham House Rule - which facilitates free speech and confidentiality at meetings - first originated.

Speaking to a 250-strong audience that included diplomats, academics, business leaders and senior civil servants, Mr Lee said Singapore is a stable place where things function and the society is a cohesive one. The population is well-educated and the government is both incorrupt and efficient, he said during the lively dialogue moderated by British politician Malcolm Rifkind.

"We deliver on what we promise and we try to head in a consistent direction over a long period of time. So if you come to Singapore and you want to do business, you can count on what we promise you. What you see is what you get, and that's not bad," said Mr Lee.

The issue of corruption - or the lack of it - in Singapore was one that cropped up a number of times at the dialogue as Mr Rifkind highlighted the country's global reputation for being clean when it comes to governance.

Mr Lee noted that while the values in the system are "fairly well entrenched", he acknowledged the fact that "nothing is ever irreversible".

"The expectations from the public are there, so if something is not quite right, you can be sure that someone will sound the alarm. In this day and age, there's no possibility of these things being kept secret for too long."

He stressed that while there are mechanisms to investigate suspicions of corruption, everything boils down to having good people at the helm who are "capable, honest and resolute" that will operate the system and keep it clean, even when it is politically inconvenient to do so.

Reflecting on how the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) won the first elections back in 1959, Mr Lee described how crucial that first victory was at that time.

"You must win the first time, because by the second time the system may well have gone corrupt," said Mr Lee, the PAP's secretary-general, as he praised the country's founding leaders for having the resolve and purpose to keep the system clean and implement strong laws to prevent corruption.

Asked if it is "healthy" for a single party to be in power for over half-a-century, as the PAP has done, Mr Lee admitted that there are some advantages because of Singapore's small size.

"You want a system where there's continuity and change within that continuity. For a small country, discontinuous change is disruptive and could be dangerous," he warned. "Luckily for us, we've been able to keep the system renewed."

Whether the present government can continue to maintain the position of trust, confidence and dominance in the system over the long term would depend on how the current leaders perform as well as build on the previous generation's success.

On a related note, Mr Lee downplayed Mr Rifkind's suggestion that Singapore's Opposition, having won 40 per cent of the popular vote at the last general election in 2011, is "not a long way away" from taking power.

"I don't think you can draw straight lines like that. In politics, things never progress in a linear fashion. In the end, people in Singapore will have to decide what kind of government they want and who they want to run the government," he said.

At the last election, Mr Lee said that the Opposition did not stand with the aim of running the government. That, he claimed, was "part of the factor" why the Opposition managed to garner 40 per cent of the votes.

"The odd thing going on is that, in Singapore, people actually know that the government generally is doing the right thing, but they would like somebody to be there to put a bit more chilli on the government's tail."