The forum, a global industry and networking even in its third-year running, is organised by the Singapore Global Network – a division of the Economic Development Board – and the Government Technology Agency (GovTech).
Speed of digitalisation
PM Lee was asked about difficulties Singapore faces in realising its Smart Nation ambitions.
He said moving the country towards digitalisation involves moving all its legacy systems, which already have established ways of doing things.
There is wide consensus that digitalisation is an essential undertaking, he noted, but added that while the “will” to digital transform is present in Singapore, the lack of talent is a problem.
There is also the issue of keeping Singapore’s operations going as it embraces new technology, which is “very complicated”.
“Keeping a live operation going, and trying to change the past and update it without dropping the ball, is not easy to do at all,” he said.
At the same time, Singapore is putting in effort to make sure its digitalisation process is inclusive, he said, highlighting how vulnerable groups like hawkers and the elderly are getting help to board the digital train.
On Singapore’s approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, PM Lee said social norms in the Republic are not the same, for instance, as the Californian city San Francisco, which is very liberal.
But he noted that there are a range of attitudes even in the United States, citing Chicago in the state of Illinois and Durham in the state of North Carolina.
“We have LGBTQ people in Singapore. They live their lives, they are valued members of society,” he said.
“We welcome them, and we greatly appreciate their contributions. And there’s no reason why, if you are a member of this community, you should not fit in in Singapore.”
He noted however that in Singapore – a multi-racial, multi-religious society within South-east Asia – issues like homosexuality will be sensitive “for a long time to come”.
Acknowledging changing social attitudes, he said young people are more liberal compared to their seniors.
“So these things shift. But we have to give them time to shift and I think it is unwise to force it,” he added. “Because there will be a push back and you will end up with polarisation and be in a worse place than we are.”
Forum attendees asked PM Lee whether technological competition between US and China would pose any risks for Singapore – and whether Singapore’s talent would be forced to choose a side going forward.
He said this depended on US President-elect Joe Biden’s management of “deep-seated” contradictions between the two superpowers.
“While the tensions exist, we try our best to keep our links to both sides,” said PM Lee, referencing Chinese tech companies Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance along with their “FAANGs” counterparts from the US (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google).
Whether this remained possible down the road would depend on the US-China relationship possibly reaching a dynamic that PM Lee described as “I don’t fully trust you, you don’t fully trust me, but we do have to get along together and we do have to do business together, because we both live in the same world, and we both face the same global warming and the same healthcare Covid-type challenges”.
“Then I think there’s a path forward for Singapore and for other countries, but if the tensions continue to escalate then it is a very serious matter,” he noted, before pointing to comments made by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger earlier in the day at a separate forum.
“(Mr Kissinger) says it worries him that… for the first time, the US is confronting another country the same size as it. And you may end up in a confrontation like the first World War,” said PM Lee.
“These are very grave words, but it is true that it is the first time the US is meeting such an opponent. And the Chinese on their side know that it is a major challenge to deal with the US relationship.
“I hope that sober realisation will help both sides to come to a reasonable landing point or a workable relationship.”