June 25, 2017

Authors Posts by Chin Wee Lee

Chin Wee Lee


by Lee Chin Wee

IN A country where one man’s view of the world still authors the national narrative, it is grimly appropriate that one family’s feud has bitterly divided Singapore. Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s explosive public statement – tactically released while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was on family holiday – has been brushed aside as “airing dirty laundry” by pro-PAP supporters and simultaneously held aloft by PAP detractors as evidence of PM Lee’s alleged corruption.

It is easy to dismiss this saga as family drama writ large. And to some extent, I agree that too much ink has been spilt on the fate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s home at 38 Oxley Road. It’s too far removed from the concerns of most Singaporeans, and is something for the Lee family to settle privately in court. But the accusations are not regarding the house – the house is but context surrounding what Dr Lee and Mr Lee claim to be the “misuse of [PM Lee’s] position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda.”

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PM Lee stands accused of using his political power, vested upon him by a democratic majority to serve the public good, to resolve the personal matter of 38 Oxley Road. There are two claims in the statement that are of particular concern:

  1. That PM Lee used his position as Prime Minister of Singapore to obtain the Deed of Gift from Minister Lawrence Wong, then handed it to his personal lawyer for the purpose of personal gain; and
  2. That PM Lee supported the appointment of the current Attorney-General (A-G) of Singapore, Lucien Wong, for less-than-meritocratic reasons. It was revealed that Lucien Wong was PM Lee’s personal lawyer who was appointed as A-G soon after the family dispute over 38 Oxley Road began.

On (1), the Deed of Gift was a legal document executed between Dr Lee and Mr Lee with the National Heritage Board for the “donation and public exhibition of significant items from (their) parents’ home, with a stipulation that Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wish for the demolition of 38 Oxley Road be prominently displayed. It is alleged that PM Lee, acting as Prime Minister instead of a private citizen, tapped on Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong to obtain said Deed of Gift via political means (rather than appropriate legal channels as per a private citizen). PM Lee then allegedly passed on the Deed of Gift to personal lawyer Lucien Wong, without the knowledge of either Dr Lee and Mr Lee or the National Heritage Board.

This is a serious allegation, and if true, may constitute an abuse of power. It is effectively the same as if the Minister of Social and Family Development obtained legal documents pertaining to his own marriage without going through the proper channels as a private citizen – and then passing the documents on to his own divorce lawyer to gain an edge in the proceedings. The powers of political office should never be used to enrich the personal purse.

On (2), Dr Lee and Mr Lee claimed that soon after they donated the items to the National Heritage Board, they “soon received letters with spurious objections from Hsien Loong’s then personal lawyer, Lucien Wong. Lucien Wong was made Singapore’s Attorney-General in January 2017.” The insinuation here is that Attorney-General Lucien Wong’s appointment was made in a less-than-meritocratic manner; perhaps as a quid pro quo for the services provided to PM Lee as his personal lawyer. What may support this claim is that, at the time of appointment, Wong was the first A-G who had “no experience on the Bench, nor acted for the State in legal matters”. Moreover, while Wong is a top corporate lawyer, he had little criminal prosecutorial experience before he became A-G.

At this juncture, it is important to note that nothing concrete has yet been proven. PM Lee has denied all these allegations, particularly the “absurd claim” that he harbours political ambitions for his son. It is possible that everything which Dr Lee and Mr Lee have raised is completely baseless and defamatory. Which raises the question – why should we bother ourselves with what Dr Lee and Mr Lee have to say? Why should we give more weight to their words compared to the inane ramblings of some other private citizen?

I believe the answer lies with their previous track record of public service and their proximity to the centres of political influence in Singapore. They are familiar with government over-reach in the civil space, and are likelier to have access to insiders who can provide insight as to the (ab)use of executive power. In no way does this mean we should take their statement at face value. But we should evaluate their words with greater weight and charity, than that of the average Singaporean. It is for this same reason that former government insiders such as Philip Yeo should be taken seriously when he says that the top leaders in Singapore may be “infected with eunuch disease”, or ex-GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong alleges that the current CPF schemes are “inadequate”. Since this controversy is quickly developing into a “he said, she said” standstill, it stands to reason that the identities of the people involved in the issue (and hence the information they are privy to) should matter.

Make no mistake, Dr Lee and Mr Lee did not wake up one day and decide to become bleeding-heart liberals because they had a guilty pang in their hearts. This statement was triggered by the 38 Oxley Road home, something that both individuals have a personal interest in. It is this selfsame interest that led to them issuing a statement against their elder brother and subsequently fleeing Singapore. In the absence of such a problem, I have no doubt that both siblings would have remained quiet. But that is how most political revelations and challenges to the status quo occur: Because of how concentrated power is and how ossified the elites are, it is when the interests of a few formerly-powerful elites come into tension with the interests of those in charge that the most explosive conflicts occur. A good example of that happening right now is former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock’s stubborn refusal to back down from contesting for the Presidency – first at the ballot box, and later in court.

At this juncture, what is to be done? It is clear that Singapore is built on the principles of incorruptibility, governmental transparency, and the rule of law (instead of rule by law). And even if one disagrees with this, it is still important that we strive toward these ideals. But before we jump to any conclusions, one should understand that this story is still developing – what we need right now is more information and less recrimination. We need to demand of Dr Lee and Mr Lee, along with PM Lee, to provide more details as to their side of the story. In the days to come, whichever party is more forthcoming with information and less prone to character assassinating their opponents should be trusted more.

If there is some meat to the allegations (because as of now they are very unsubstantiated), then there should be an impartial inquiry conducted to ensure the impartial discharge of executive duties. At the very least, justice must be seen to have been done. If the allegations turn out to be baseless – either through the failure of Dr Lee and Mr Lee to provide convincing evidence or by PM Lee revealing sound legal and evidential backing for his actions – then legal action against Dr Lee and Mr Lee for defamation could be pursued.

It is tempting to take harshly partisan sides on this issue. But when something as complex and murky as a private affair is yanked into the public realm, some temperance is sorely needed. Here is to cooler and calmer heads prevailing in the weeks ahead.


Lee Chin Wee is a prospective undergraduate at Oxford University… And no, he’s not related to the famiLEE. This article originally appeared on his blog, BANALYSIS


Updated June 18: The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our articles on the issue:


  1. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it” (Jun 18)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  4. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  5. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  6. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  7. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  8. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  9. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  10. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  13. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  14. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  15. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)


Featured image by Jacklee from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

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by Lee Chin Wee

HE SHIVERED. Night duties were the worst.

You’d think the scariest part of working in a morgue would be having to see dead bodies; but no, seeing dead bodies was fine. Corpses don’t hurt anyone – they just lie there limply in the storage area, waiting for their last rites and send-off.

No, the scariest part is when you don’t see a dead body when it’s supposed to be there. Because then, you have to figure out where it went – which means walking through deserted hospital corridors illuminated by fluorescent light, accompanied only by the gentle whirring of the air-conditioning.

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At that exact moment, the lights decided to flicker – briefly, but enough to make his hair stand on end. Stop scaring yourself, he thought. Already hard having to do extra duties after the break-in, now you still want to scared this scared that.

The North Koreans had to be mad. First, they used a chemical weapon to kill one of their people in broad daylight. Then, they claim that he died of a heart attack when everyone knows that’s rubbish. Then, they drive their embassy cars straight into the morgue and refuse to leave! What did they expect, that the Malaysian government would invite them in for teh and give them the body? Ridiculous.

That was a terrible day to be on guard duty, though.

He thinks that the North Koreans behaved like children. When they realised that standing outside the entrance and complaining to the duty officer wasn’t going to get them anywhere, they tried to distract the guards. He remembered how two North Koreans tried to distract the front desk guards by throwing a fit, then sending a third member round the back to find another entrance. Luckily, he just so happened to be taking a smoke break at that spot – the intruder had barely taken three steps towards the back door before he was ushered back to the carpark.

And don’t even start with the attempted break-in. He wasn’t on duty that night, but he’d heard from a friend that it was a complete farce. Three people dressed in all-black (possibly the three North Koreans who’d parked their cars outside the morgue) were caught on CCTV prying open the front gate and forcing their way into the morgue.

And here’s the kicker: After going through so much trouble to retrieve the body (and creating so much more work for hospital security), the North Koreans still dared to claim that the dead person isn’t Kim Jong Nam! He smirked. How can, when the hospital has done so many DNA and forensic tests?

There even were rumours that Kim’s son would be arriving in KL to identify and claim the corpse. The rumours were first spread a few weeks ago, but no one at the hospital has heard anything since. Perhaps it’s for the better – another assassination at the airport and yet another high-value North Korean dead body ending up in the mortuary would be a very bad idea.

Particularly now, with the media speculating that the Malaysian government was negotiating with the North Koreans to send the body back to their country. That would be a massive relief – hell, he’d pay for the transport fees himself if it meant not having to work overtime almost every day.

But will Malaysia agree to hand the corpse over? He recalled the Health Minister recently saying that the government would allow only Kim’s family members to claim his body. But the Minister also said, “the next of kin have not come forward to provide assistance on how the body is to be treated”.

But then, two days ago, Hassan was asked to drive Kim’s body from the hospital to the nearby funeral parlour. How come? No one said anything, but the staff suspected that preparation was being made to send it back to the North Koreans. But then Hassan received orders to transport the body back to the morgue.

Typical lah, our government. Left hand don’t know what the right hand is doing. If he had to do another month of additional night duty, he’d kill someone – just not a North Korean.

He smirked. Sometimes humour helped make time pass faster. Suddenly, his phone beeped – a short, sharp sound that cut straight through the uneasy silence in the morgue. He turned the screen on. The WhatsApp message was from Hassan: Bro, I kena driver duty again. Dis time they wan me to bring body bk to funeral parlour, den the news say that we returning the body to NK so they give us bk our people trapped there.

One dead body in exchange for nine Malaysians that the North Koreans were detaining illegally in their country? Seems very unfair, but it wasn’t his business to interfere in this kind of thing. If luck would have it, this might even be his last week doing extra night duty. Dreams do come true after all.

At that precise moment, the lights flickered again, then turned off. It seemed that power trips had a dark sense of humour.


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by Lee Chin Wee

SINGAPORE’S got talent – or so it seems, pipping Silicon Valley for top spot in the “talent” category in the Global Startup Ecosystem Report and Ranking by Startup Genome released last week (Mar 14).

That Singapore has snatched the top billing shows a changing startup environment here. Startup Genome, a research team which specialises in analysing the global startup landscape, said that Silicon Valley has “lost the edge… five to fifteen years ago” when it “enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on very experienced back-end engineers”.

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What does it mean to be top at “talent”?

How proud can Singapore be of this accolade? Does this mean Ayer Rajah Crescent is poised to be the next San Francisco Bay Area? Not quite.

Although we’ve achieved a top ranking for startup talent, it’s important to understand how this was assessed. “Talent” was evaluated using three criteria: 1. Access; 2. Cost; and 3. Quality of Talent.

Singapore was ranked third best in the world when it came to the accessibility of talent. It is easy for local startup founders to hire experienced engineers, and “obtain a visa for hires from abroad”. It is no surprise that Singapore did well on this metric – even in light of opposition to immigration; the political leadership wants to maintain a reasonably liberal immigration policy. This makes migrant talent far more accessible, compared to other countries.

Singapore was also ranked fourth best in the world for the cost of talent. This refers to “engineer salaries”, which is fairly straightforward: For comparison, the mean annual salary for a software engineer in Singapore is $49,381 whereas an equivalent software engineer in the United States would earn $80,745.

The only other startup ecosystems where talent was cheaper than in Singapore were Bangalore, Shanghai and Beijing. Unlike these cities, however, the cost of living in Singapore is far higher. According to the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2017 conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore is the most expensive country to live in as an expatriate – for the fourth year running.

Why is engineering talent in Singapore so cheap? One reason is that startups employ cheaper local engineers or foreign talent because the more expensive local engineers (who command higher wages) are based overseas, or work for established companies back home. Mr Chia Zhe Min, 23, an NUS engineering student, shared that “the really talented and adventurous Singaporeans” tend to go to Silicon Valley due to the “more interesting and vibrant startup culture, and the higher pay.”

Mr Agrim Singh, 24, an SUTD graduate, agreed: “Singaporeans prefer to play it safe, and large companies provide a stable wage and contract benefits that (local) startups may be unable to match.” With startup ecosystems in Silicon Valley and Toronto offering far more competitive pay packages, few home-grown top engineers stay. And when they do, they work for large multi-nationals such as Google.

Many local engineers are also lured into mid-career switches, moving into more lucrative jobs in banking or consultancy. Mr Edwin Khew, President of the Institution of Engineers Singapore, said in an ST report last year: “Engineers, due to their versatile skill sets and problem-solving abilities, continue to be highly sought after by sectors such as business and finance.”

Foreign-born engineers, who are willing to accept lower wages, then take the place of local engineers in Singapore. This depresses wages, which in turn affects the number of promising students who want to study engineering in the first place.

In a Facebook post (which has since been made private) cited by media platform Tech in Asia, Mr Lam Keong Yeoh, former chief economist for the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), blames Singapore’s overly-loose immigration policy: “We have been far too liberal in importing cheaper regional engineers and IT staff for over two decades. This has bid down the real wages and working conditions of such professions such that the return on investing in such a tertiary education and career is unattractive to locals.”

This explains why Singapore was placed 10th for the quality of talent. Even though we have easily accessible and affordable talent, it is questionable whether the startup employees here can rival their peers in America or Canada. If you could earn more and work alongside the best engineers in the business by going to Silicon Valley, why wouldn’t you?

It is important to note that Singapore only beat out Silicon Valley on talent because Silicon Valley ranked 20th on cost, while Singapore ranked fourth.

On the metrics of accessibility and quality of talent, Silicon Valley still topped the world. If the G truly wants our startup talent to be world-class, then we may end up slipping down the rankings – because the quality of talent is directly tied to the wages they can command.


Modified from the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.


Singapore: A world-class startup ecosystem?

Even if one were to accept that Singapore is a world-leader for startup talent, Singapore still fell two places to finish overall 12th in the global startup ecosystem rankings. Singapore ranked behind ecosystems such as Tel Aviv (6th) and Silicon Valley (1st).

The new inclusions of Beijing (2nd) and Shanghai (8th) in this year’s report are a sign that other cities in Asia have no problems catching up with, and surpassing Singapore in the startup scene.


Modified from the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

Of the top 20 startup ecosystems, Singapore was dead last for startup experience. The report defined this as “the pool of knowledge and networks that startups can draw on”. As a relatively new player, Singapore lags behind other cities in the number of unicorns (startups valued at over US$1 billion) produced.

We also have the fewest experienced entrepreneurs. It was noted that startup founders based in Singapore were the “youngest in the world”, with a median age of 28 years.

For now, it remains to be seen whether nascent companies can replicate the success of homegrown startups like Lazada, which was sold for US$1 billion in 2016. As the G continues to invest in startups via the Startup SG umbrella, the hope is that it will only be a matter of time before the startup scene here matures. But how much time can Singapore afford in the frenetic race of global tech and entrepreneurship?

We need to look behind the headlines. Is startup talent in Singapore cheaper than that in Silicon Valley? Of course. Is it better than that in Silicon Valley? Hardly.

Is this the Singapore brand we want to present to the world?


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by Lee Chin Wee

FEELING down recently? According to the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations (UN) on Monday (Mar 21), you may not be alone: Singapore has been ranked the world’s 26th happiest country, down four places from 22nd last year.

Respondents from each country were asked to evaluate the quality of their current lives on a scale of zero to 10. The figures from 2014 to 2016 were then averaged, to obtain a mean happiness score. Singapore’s score of 6.572 puts us one place higher than the South European nation of Malta (6.527), and one place lower than Mexico (6.578).

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While Singapore has indeed slipped down the happiness rankings, this doesn’t tell the full story. We remain the happiest country in all of Asia, with next-best Asian countries Thailand and Taiwan coming in 32nd and 33rd place respectively. Among other developed Asian economies, Japan ranked 51st while South Korea placed 56th.

So, relative to our regional counterparts, Singapore isn’t doing too badly. But should that be the only thing which counts? Why can’t we match up to our Nordic counterparts who consistently top the happiness rankings?

The answer lies in the way the UN calculates the happiness index. Each country’s score is derived from its own citizens’ perception of happiness, rather than objective metrics which measure for quality of life. A country with a comparatively worse education and healthcare system could perform better than its neighbours, so long as its citizens perceive their lives to be happy.


Modified from the UN World Happiness Report 2017

Take the chart above as an example. Singapore ranks below Mexico and Argentina on the index, yet a large portion of our happiness score can be attributed to positive standard of living indicators: Happiness can be explained by Singapore’s high GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, healthy life expectancy, and low levels of government corruption.

Where we lose out to Mexico and Argentina, though, is the grey bar labelled “Dystopia (1.85) + residual”. The figure for “Dystopia (1.85)” is a constant across all countries due to the UN’s methodology when compiling the report, and can be ignored.

The component called “residual” is where it gets interesting. It “measures the extent to which life evaluations are higher or lower than predicted by (the UN’s) equation (earlier in the report). The residuals are as likely to be negative as positive.” In other words, it shows the difference between what the UN predicts a country’s happiness score should be based on available data, and what the actual happiness score is when residents are surveyed.

Singapore’s “residual” is low, and might even be negative (no breakdown was provided in the report). This indicates that our unhappiness is not the cause of endemic corruption or government failure, but rather based on residents’ perception of life in Singapore. The difference is even starker when we compare Singapore to the top-ranking country, Norway:


Modified from the UN World Happiness Report 2017

Singaporeans are actually happier than Norwegians, if we only consider the six quantifiable components the UN listed: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruptions. Where we lose out considerably is on our “residual” – Singaporeans just don’t feel happy.

I’m not saying we should ignore how people feel. The survey results could well mean that the G has failed to account for the non-quantifiable components of a happy life, such as our stress levels and non-career aspirations.

All I’m saying is that our ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report isn’t so bad. By all objective metrics, Singapore residents are richer, healthier, and less corrupt than our international counterparts (even more so when compared within Southeast Asia).

Our poor score in the “residual” component will serve as a reminder to the G that an obsession with Key Performance Indicators isn’t enough; sometimes there is a need to also focus on the softer aspects of life. Trade-offs between our pace of life and our GDP per capita may have to be made. Home is, after all, where the heart is.


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by Lee Chin Wee

The North Korean saga in Malaysia is still playing out 33 days after the murder of a Kim family member. This is part two of our murder mystery novel.


MALAYSIA’S top cop wrung his hands. How many times did he have to say that the body lying in the morgue is Kim Jong Nam?

Heck, even if he isn’t to be trusted, just read the news. When every single media outlet from the New York Times to the Yonhap News Agency is saying the same damn thing… Yet those North Koreans have the gall to say otherwise. How would they know? They’re in Pyongyang. Did they think he didn’t know how to verify the identity of a corpse??

Back in the office from yet another media conference, the Inspector-General settled down to yet another cup of kopi. What was he to do about the two pesky North Koreans from the embassy? The jokers had tried to force their way into the KL morgue, much to the consternation of the security guards. How in the world was he going to interview them about the murder if they refuse to leave the compound? Or the 1,000 North Koreans still working in Malaysia – what if they’re sleeper agents who will now come out of the woodwork? Hopefully not, because the foreign ministry just issued a directive barring 315 of them from leaving Malaysia…

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The situation was deteriorating, and fast. For heavens’ sake, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein even spoke to the media the week before about the possibility of war with North Korea. War! With a rogue nation armed to the teeth with nuclear and conventional weapons? Not the wisest of ideas.

The Inspector-General shook his head. He knew that the visa arrangement should never have been agreed to. North Korean elites are always trouble, let alone the first-born son of Kim Jong-il. He groaned. And what of the 11 Malaysians held hostage in Pyongyang? The foreign ministry had better act soon, or else a complete diplomatic crisis would be on the cards. These North Koreans are barbarians!

He burped as he briefly entertained the idea of sending in a SWAT team. The foreign affairs minister would throw a fit, but how dare the suspects hide in their embassy? The sheer gall of planning a murder on Malaysian soil, using chemical weapons in an airport waiting area, and then fleeing back to the embassy where police couldn’t reach them. His blood boiled. To hell with diplomatic immunity.

What a bloody mess. It was barely a month since the murder happened, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

The Inspector-General recalled how he’d been interrupted from his lunch break on Feb 13, with the call that someone had collapsed in the KL International Airport. He was incredulous at first, irritated that someone would bother him over a routine case of heart attack. But as the investigations proceeded apace, it soon became clear that this was much more than an open-and-shut case.

It seemed as if answers only begot more questions. How did the North Koreans manage to smuggle VX toxin into Malaysia? Why in the world was Kim murdered? Was the North Korean government involved? If they were, what was their degree of involvement? Were his murderers really tricked into killing him, as they claimed?

He sank back into his chair. Even the days managing security for the Bersih protests and the 2014 General Elections didn’t compare to this. Strange, wasn’t it. It was easier to make sure 100,000 protesters didn’t come to blows with the opposition, compared to investigating the murder of a single man.

His secretary rapped on his door, derailing his train of thought. “Uh Sir? Media here again. For the three o’clock update, they’ll need you in the press briefing room soon.”

I’m really not paid enough for this. Sighing, he made his way to the briefing room. The media is just going to ask the usual questions, I’ll give the usual answers, they’ll demand more answers as usual, and I’ll tell them that the case is still ongoing – as usual. Why do we even bother with this charade?

The press update, as expected, was more of the same. Yes, the body is Kim Jong Nam’s. Yes, he died of acute respiratory and heart failure. No, cause of death cannot yet be confirmed. Yes, we suspect it’s some sort of nerve agent. Yes, a group of individuals tried to break into the KL morgue last week; no, we can’t tell you who they are, but we know who is responsible.

“Inspector-General, Sir, how do you respond to the North Korean ambassador’s remarks that the ‘Malaysian police investigation cannot be trusted’?”

“The ambassador is entitled to his opinion. But my men are professional and competent, and it is disappointing to see their work being criticised when the North Koreans have given us nothing but trouble so far.” He rolled his eyes. He’d be glad to see the back of the ambassador – the man was mouthing off about the investigations almost every day.

Worst of all, he still had no idea what to do with the body. It’s got to end up somewhere, maybe buried six feet under or put in a deep freezer where the North Koreans can’t steal it. Why doesn’t his son just come and take the damn thing with him back to Macau? Or… maybe he shouldn’t.

One dead body is more than enough, thank you very much.


This article is part of a series on the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam. Read the other piece here:

  1. Fact Fiction: A North Korean murder mystery


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by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:

Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.


Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.


The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.


Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.


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by Lee Chin Wee

THE Labour Market Report 2016 released today (Mar 15) revealed that the annual average resident unemployment rate rose to 3.0% in 2016, after holding steady at 2.8% for the last four years. This is the highest figure since 2010, where the resident unemployment rate was 3.1%.

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Compared to data from 2015, residents aged 30 – 39 (2.3% unemployed, up from 1.9%), and 50 & over (2.7% unemployed, up from 2.4%) were particularly affected, while those aged 29 & below saw the unemployment rate decrease from 5.1% to 5.0%.


Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower


Part of the high unemployment rate can be explained by seasonal and frictional unemployment due to the cyclical nature of the global economy. Singapore tends to be buffeted by forces outside our control. The manufacturing sector, for instance, shed 15,500 jobs in 2016 because of flagging global demand for products. This figure would have been far worse, had it not been for the manufacturing sector unexpectedly expanding by 6.4% in Q4 2016. Plunging oil prices have also badly affected the offshore marine industry, with retrenchments picking up in 2015-16. One would expect unemployment figures to improve as the global economy recovers.

However, the unemployment rate can also be attributed to structural unemployment: As Singapore adjusts to the disruptive impacts of new technology on traditional businesses, people’s skills no longer match up to market demand. Singapore’s continued economic transformation, therefore, may lead to underskilled or wrongly-skilled workers left by the wayside. As firms reorganise and restructure to become manpower-lean, longstanding jobs like accounting and secretarial work may be cut, while new business interests – financial technologies, for instance – are developed.

There are now 17,000 long-term resident unemployed (refers to those unemployed for more than 25 weeks), compared to 12,700 in 2015. This figure is the highest since 2009, when the 2008 Financial Crisis led to thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs.


Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower


Most worryingly, the long-term unemployment rate for degree holders rose to 1.0% in 2016, the highest since 2004. Does this mean that more university graduates now hold paper qualifications that are ill-suited for the modern economy? Possibly. A bachelor’s degree in programming or software engineering received 10 years ago, for instance, may bear little relevance to the sought-after skills of today. Without a constant push for skills upgrading and on-the-job training, many graduates will find themselves either underemployed, or out of work.

As the economy becomes more complex, the need for specialised skills has soared. This has challenged the traditional view that higher education guarantees a stable career, as demand for specialised skills can change overnight with the introduction of new technology or sudden industry transformation. Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) formed 75% of all residents made redundant in 4Q 2016 – a disproportionate figure.

Statistics seem to suggest that there is a growing mismatch between employee skills and job requirements; especially at white-collar managerial and technical levels. And even when tertiary-level education does meet market demand, the rapidly-evolving jobs landscape means that employees must be willing to continually upgrade themselves. Given this context, policies to help workers gain new skills or encourage businesses to leverage new technology are extremely important.

Whether Singapore will be able to bounce back stronger from this period of slowing growth and higher unemployment depends on how well we can react to technological disruption. If our workers and businesses do not stay ahead of the curve, one should be prepared for more grim news ahead.


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by Lee Chin Wee 

BUCKLE in, because public transport fares are likely to rise. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan hinted as much during his Ministry’s Committee of Supply debates last week (Mar 8). Addressing Parliament, he said that the Public Transport Council (PTC) was reviewing the current fare formula, which is due to expire later this year.

In December last year, the PTC had revised fares downward due to lower energy prices. However, Mr Khaw noted that “the PTC cannot always bring good news, sometimes they have to adjust fares upwards. And when they do, I hope commuters will be understanding.”

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Many Singaporeans, especially those in lower income brackets, will soon be feeling the pinch. A month ago, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a 30 per cent hike in water prices – the first time water prices have risen in 17 years. It also comes on the heels of increased Service & Conservancy charges in 15 PAP-managed town councils, and higher parking charges at public car parks across the island.

Of course, every fee increase must be evaluated based on its own merits. It is not enough to say that the cost of living has gone up – in the case of public transport fares, any increase should be measured against real wage growth in Singapore and the trend pattern of public transport operating costs.


Is it expensive to keep trains and buses running?

To obtain a better understanding of public transport operating costs, we studied SMRT’s annual reports from FY2011 – 2016 as a case study.  Of particular interest were the rail/light rail and bus businesses. We isolated the annual figures for operating revenue and operating profit in these areas.



Operating profit for core public transport services is not high; in fact, it is a negligible portion of SMRT’s overall profit. In 2016, SMRT recorded an operating profit of $138.5 million. Out of this sum, only $13.3 million was from the rail/light rail and bus businesses – barely 9.6 per cent of total profits. The other 90.4 per cent can be attributed to SMRT’s other business interests, such as advertising and property rental. For instance, SMRT owns Kallang Wave Mall.

Not only is operating profit already low, it is decreasing due to operating costs rising at a marginally faster rate than operating revenue. Why might this be the case? Because in recent years, SMRT has been investing in renewal works for key infrastructure, and the acquisition of operating assets. For instance, from August 2013 to December 2016, 188,000 timber sleepers were replaced with more durable concrete sleepers. To prevent further power faults, SMRT is also replacing the third rail system which supplies electricity to trains. The cost of financing these projects is not directly passed on to the consumer, as fare prices are set by the PTC.


Can Singaporeans afford a fare hike?

When fares rise, consumers end up shouldering more of the operating costs. The key question is, can Singaporeans afford it? In comparison to other countries, our public transport fares are very affordable. A 2016 study by UniSIM showed that, for a 10km train ride, Singapore’s train fare was the sixth lowest out of 35 major world cities. It costs a commuter SGD$1.33 to travel 10km on train, whereas the global average (after Purchasing Power Parity adjustment) is around SGD$2.30.

Tracking real wage growth against changes in public transport fares, it also appears that public transport fares are reasonable. Since 2011, real wage growth has broadly kept pace or surpassed increases in fares. This, however, does not account for the period of 2012 – 2013, where fare changes were temporarily suspended as the PTC reviewed its pricing structure.



Should public transport fares be going up?

Someone’s got to pay for the cost of running our trains and buses. When SMRT was still a publicly listed company, there were three parties who could do this: (1) the consumer of public transport, who pays through fares; (2) the G, who pays through taxpayer monies; and (3) the retail investor, who buys SMRT stock. Since SMRT was acquired by Temasek Holdings, we are now left with options (1) and (2).

Clearly, consumers of public transport are also taxpayers. But not all taxpayers are consumers of public transport. Hence, when the G subsidises operating costs, people who are under-consuming public transport will be cross-subsidising those who use public transport frequently. Some view this as good, because those who under-consume public transport tend to be rich anyway, and their taxpayer dollars should be used to make sure others can have cheap MRT rides. Others view this as bad, because people should contribute based on how much of a service they consume.

Another point of view is that SMRT and other transport operators should use their profits from more profitable business sectors to cross-subsidise rail and bus services. The argument here is that instead of raising fares, transport operators should be willing to take losses on its core business (that is effectively a public service) in exchange for making large profits on advertising, overseas consulting, and retail business. However, there is a limitation to this model – transport operators only have secondary interests in these other business areas, and cannot sustain such an internal cross-subsidy if operating costs continue to mount.

Regardless of what one believes, everyone would agree that high operating costs for public transport are unavoidable if we want to ensure our trains and buses become more reliable and less fault-prone. And even if public transport fares were held steady, taxpayers would still feel the pinch – either directly in the form of higher taxes, or indirectly as money that would otherwise have gone to other G services is now used to subsidise public transport.

Come this April, though, when the PTC convenes to announce changes to fares, I’ll still be hoping that my daily MRT rides get cheaper. One can dream, right?


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by Lee Chin Wee

DURING the Committee of Supply debates on Mar 6, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say clarified that if you work in the gig economy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a freelancer.

Mr Lim explained that there is “no official definition of the gig economy”. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), he said, instead uses the term “platform economy” to refer to workers who use online platforms such as Uber and Airbnb to find “short-term, piecemeal jobs”.

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So who is, and isn’t, protected by labour laws?

Not all gig economy (or platform economy) workers are freelancers. An employee of a transport company who uses Grab to find customers, for example, can be considered a gig economy worker but is not a freelancer. These workers are entitled to labour law protections, such as mandatory minimum leave days.

Hence, in terms of labour protections, it does not matter whether you use an online platform to find work or use more traditional avenues like taxi company rental. What does matter is your contract status – if you are a freelancer, you have entered a contract for service while if you are a contracted employee, you have entered a contract of service.

As employees are, in theory, subject to an asymmetric employer-employee relationship, a greater scope of labour laws applies to them. In contrast, freelancers are considered to be self-employed and are therefore not legally entitled to statutory protections and benefits accorded to employees. The legal rights and obligations of freelancers are largely dependent on the terms and conditions of the contract they enter into with their hirers.

What are the differences between freelancers and employees?

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website sums up the differences in this convenient table:


Contract of ServiceContract for Service
Has an employer-employee relationshipHas a client-contractor type of relationship
Employee does business for the employerContractor carries out business on their own account
May be covered under the Employment ActNot covered by the Employment Act
Includes terms of employment such as working hours, leave benefits, etc.Statutory benefits do not apply


  1. Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions: Freelancers earning an annual Net Trade Income (NTI) of more than $6,000 need to contribute to Medisave. There is no legal obligation to contribute to the Ordinary or Special Accounts, but freelancers can do so on a voluntary basis. Comparatively, employees are entitled to monthly employer CPF contributions and also are obliged to pay into their CPF accounts themselves.
    • The median Medisave balances of self-employed persons was $21,700 in 2014, compared to $14,300 five years ago. This is still lower than the median Medisave balances of employees, which was $27,700 in 2014.
  2. Employment Act: Freelancers are generally not covered by the Employment Act. This means they do not get paid public holiday entitlements (min. 11 days per year), sick leave (min. 14 days of paid outpatient leave and 60 days of paid hospitalisation leave per year), paid annual leave (min. 7 days per year), timely payslips (monthly salary within 7 days, overtime pay within 14 days), etc. Freelancers must instead seek recourse through the Small Claims Tribunal or Subordinate Courts instead.
  3. Work Injury Compensation Act: Freelancers are generally not covered by the Work Injury Compensation Act. This means, if they get injured while performing a task or job, their client does not have to pay the legally stipulated amounts corresponding to the work injury. Freelancers must instead seek recourse through a civil suit.
  4. Union Membership: Freelancers can still be NTUC members. This means they enjoy membership benefits such as subsidised skills retraining workshops run by NTUC partners and rebates on grocery shopping at NTUC FairPrice. However, the Trade Union Act, along with the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Dispute Act, does not apply to freelancers. NTUC will not engage in collective negotiation or mediation on behalf of freelancers, as there is no traditional employee-employer relationship.

What is the problem?

Some will no doubt argue that freelance workers in the gig economy were not coerced into taking up these jobs. The lack of labour protections, the argument goes, is not a problem as one is not subject to the same employee-employer relationship that is characteristic of contracted full-time work.

In the particular instance of companies like Uber, the question is whether the driver-Uber relationship is that of a freelancer-client or employee-employer. Uber drivers do exhibit many employee-like characteristics such as working for only one contractor, and have “fixed” working arrangements – not contractually, but in terms of the minimum hours or peak periods one must work to remain marginally profitable. It is arguable that these workers are freelancers in name but employees in substance.

The legal lacuna created by Uber has given rise to a number of lawsuits filed against the company in other countries. The claimants argue that Uber misclassifies drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees.

In 2013, 385,000 current and former drivers in California and Massachusetts launched a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging that Uber was legally obligated to give them employee pay and benefits. Uber settled for a $84 million ($100 million if the company goes public) payout, to be distributed to drivers based on how many miles they had driven. More recently, the London Central Employment Tribunal ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as employees, earn at least the national minimum wage and get paid vacations. Uber appealed, and the case is still ongoing.

Moreover, recent Ministry of Manpower statistics show that out of the 200,000 freelancers in Singapore, 19 per cent do not consider freelancing their preferred choice. This means that, in some cases, the gig economy is substituting rather than complementing the traditional economy.

In other words, someone working as a contract employee of a private transport company may have little choice but to drive an Uber: In today’s slowing economy, either he keeps his existing labour protections and takes a pay cut, or he potentially earns more by joining the gig economy but loses his employee benefits.

A further problem is that freelancers do not pay into their CPF Ordinary or Special Accounts. As the number of gig economy freelancers grows due to the proliferation of online platforms that disrupt traditional industries, the G will have to deal with increasing retirement insecurity among older workers. What this means for national savings and government investments remains to be seen.


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by Lee Chin Wee

Singapore and the United States


MP VIKRAM Nair asked what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) position was on US-China relations, while MP Low Thia Khiang asked what Singapore could do if the US and China didn’t get along.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan agreed that US-China relations are the “key bilateral relationship” that will affect “peace, prosperity, and security in our region”. He noted that competition between the US and China is “inevitable”, but also noted that “never before have two (large) powers been so interdependent, intertwined economically”.

Responding to Mr Low, Mr Balakrishnan said that Singapore wants to be part of a “common circle of friends”, and develop “win-win relationships” with both countries. However, he also admitted that Singapore “has no say” over the US-China relationship, and should “avoid choosing sides for as long as possible”. He said Singapore should remain an “honest broker” who says “the same thing” to both the US and China.

MP Cedric Foo wanted to know how “the new Trump Administration and its America First foreign policy” would affect Singapore, which “relies heavily on open and free trade”. He also asked if Singapore would be working even closer with the United States for “mutual benefit”.

Mr Balakrishnan was “confident” that Singapore will be able to develop a “win-win partnership with the United States”. He pointed to how Singapore-US relations were “strong and enduring over the past 51 years”, and have persisted through “five Republican and four Democratic administrations”.

Mr Balakrishnan argued that the “strategic imperatives that underpin America’s involvement in the region remain unchanged”. He also said that “new areas of convergence” were emerging to supplement existing mutual interests, pointing to a 2016 memorandum of understanding regarding cyber security that Singapore signed with the US.

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Singapore and China

SG - China

MP Cedric Foo noted that despite “the strong political, economic, and social ties” between Singapore and China, there would invariably be “occasional differences” between the two countries. He asked how Singapore plans to manage these differences moving forward.

Mr Balakrishnan argued that Singapore-China relations are “fundamentally strong”, and cautioned against “overreaction”. Noting that differences are “not unusual even amongst close friends”, he said that “our shared interests far outweigh these differences. Singapore will not allow differences to derail longstanding co-operation.”

MP Sun Xueling cited a quote by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, where he described the Singapore-China relationship as an “all-round cooperative partnership progressing with the times.” She asked how the G interpreted these remarks and wanted an update on Singapore-China relations.

Replying, Mr Balakrishnan said: “Singapore has long been a steadfast friend of China. I would describe our bilateral relationship with China as ‘in good working order’.”

Mr Balakrishnan used the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative and the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership as examples of joint projects between Singapore and China that bring the two nations closer together. He said the “high frequency of interactions at senior leadership level has conferred a high degree of resilience and strategic trust in our relationship.”


Singapore and Malaysia

SG - Malaysia

In light of Malaysia’s application to the International Court of Justice to re-open the Pedra Branca case, MP Amrin Amin wanted to know if it “has affected the overall tenor of our relationship.”

MP Baey Yam Keng had a similar question, asking the minister to “elaborate on Singapore’s response to Malaysia’s application, and whether this case (would) affect bilateral relations with Malaysia?”

Mr Balakrishnan replied that “our relationship with Malaysia is as good as it ever has been”, as evidenced by the landmark agreement over the Singapore-KL high-speed rail. He also revealed that Singapore is trying to reach an agreement with Johor over a Singapore-JB rapid transit system.

Regarding the Pedra Branca case, he said that it reflects both Singapore and Malaysia’s willingness to resolve differences “amicably, and according to international law”. He assured Parliament that “Singapore is committed to resolving this issue amicably” and that “relations with Malaysia are good, and will remain good”.

Singaporeans, he said, “should not be disconcerted by these developments”, because “even with the best diplomatic efforts, one can only expect other states to act in their own self-interest”.


Singapore and Indonesia

SG - Indo

MP Amrin Amin wanted to know what some of the recent highlights of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia were, and also the Minister’s assessment of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia.

Mr Balakrishnan replied that Singapore-Indonesia relations were “strong”. He pointed to a successful leaders retreat between PM Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Semarang last November, and said that “Singapore was Indonesia’s top foreign investor in 2016”.

MP Chia Shi-Lu, noting that Singapore and Indonesia will be celebrating their 50th anniversary of bilateral relations this year, asked: “I would like to (know) whether there are plans for Golden Jubilee celebrations with Indonesia.”

Said Mr Balakrishnan: “Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi announced the start of official celebrations (for the Golden Jubilee) last month during her visit to Singapore.” More details will be unveiled by the MFA soon.


Singapore and ASEAN


MP Low Thia Khiang asked: “What is the status of ASEAN integration? Has the South China Sea issue effectively blocked any progress towards integration? Are the Philippines really embracing China, and if so, what are the implications for ASEAN unity, given that the Philippines is ASEAN chair this year?”

Replying, Mr Balakrishnan admitted that ASEAN’s cohesion and unity have been “tested by difficult issues, not just last year, but many times before”.

But he pointed out that “(Singapore) upgraded the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015” and “facilitated the successful and substantive ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit in 2016”. He promised that Singapore will “work closely” with the Philippines to ensure a successful ASEAN chairmanship, and also lay the groundwork for Singapore’s own ASEAN chairmanship in 2018.

MP Liang Eng Hwa queried what Singapore was doing “to maintain strong links with our fellow ASEAN countries.” He also asked: As the ASEAN chair in 2018, how can Singapore help to advance economic integration within ASEAN, and with its key partners?”

The minister said that Singapore would “explore ways to help ASEAN ride the technological wave of the fourth industrial revolution”. He added that Singapore would “continue to partner with organisations like the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to help our businesses maximise the economic opportunities that ASEAN presents.”

However, he cautioned: “the events unfolding in the European Union are a salutary reminder (for ASEAN) to not reprise their problems.” ASEAN “must be pragmatic and practical in maintaining (the) pace and scale of economic integration”, or risk falling apart.


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