THE INTELLIGENT SINGAPOREAN

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PM’s Rally Speech – The Digital Age

Posted by inspir3d on August 21, 2006

This part of PM Lee’s rally speech is probably the most relevant to the blogosphere. The entire speech can be found here

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The Digital Age – reaping the benefits, managing risks

Besides the population issue, another thing which is happening to us right now and is going to have a big impact on us is the digital age. The new technologies, the Internet, handphones, PDAs, all kinds of things which beep, which vibrate, which communicate, which connect us to cyberspace, not in heaven but somewhere on earth. It’s a completely different world. We haven’t talked about it but you just think back one generation how things have changed.

When I was in university, away three years, came back once. I telephoned home three times, once a year to report results. Very big event, very difficult to set up, cost a lot of money. You speak for three minutes, you put down the phone. Now, families communicate across the world as if they were side by side. I met one mother who told me, “My daughter is in London, teenager, every night she gets home she will SMS me to tell me she has got home safely.” I met another father, this one a grassroots leader in West Coast with Iswaran, his son is in Florida, grown up, married, but every day he will talk to his son video camera, MSN, Microsoft Networks, almost free. It’s instantly. If he’s on the other side of the world, you will call him. If he is two tables away from you, you will also telephone call him.

So we’ve changed. How we think and concentrate has changed. When I used to study or when I work now, still, I turn off the music, I go to a quiet place, I open one file, I focus on one major thing because then you bring all your powers to bear and you made the right decision. Now, children are multi-tasking, at least they tell me they are multi-tasking. I watch mine, I’m sure you watch yours too, homework open, music, earphones, Internet chat, game. And I’m told you are not only surfing but multi-surfing because if you surf one site, it’s boring, three or four at once, any time you can just flick. And any information in the world, just google it. I asked them, what is an encyclopaedia, they will say “Google it”. So attention spans have gotten shorter. When you are bored, just switch. It’s a different way of thinking, a different approach to life. How we get to know one another, how we establish trust and links with one another has changed. The older generation worked face to face. Mr Lim Kim San always used to say he hates e-mail, because you can’t feel the person. You call the person, sit in front of you, you talk to him, you exchange views with him, you get the sense what’s going on, what he really thinks and then you can make a decision. E-mail, back and forth, it will lead to misunderstanding.

But now young people they are making friends on the Internet. They never meet one another, exchange photographs on MySpace. What is MySpace? It’s a place where you paste your photographs and the photographs can make friends with each other. And I’m told some young people even get married on the Internet! I don’t recommend it.

So it’s a different world, but it’s one in which I think Singaporeans will do well. Our people take very easily to IT. It’s opened up many opportunities for us, for our economy, lots of jobs which S’poreans can do and broader benefits for the whole economy. Without IT, PSA would be out of business. Without IT we wouldn’t be a banking hub. Without IT, Changi Airport wouldn’t be able to be a first-class airport. But with IT, we make the most of our talents and our brains. And with IT we also become connected as a more participative society if we make the effort.

And we have come a long way exploiting IT, making it a pervasive part of our lives. Singaporeans have done lots and lots of things online. So if you go into cyberspace, you will find S’pore in many places. I trawled a few which I’d like to share with you. Let me start with food which is nearest to S’poreans’ hearts. This is a food website called Chubby Hubby. Very popular, lots of food, lots of dishes, lots of interesting places to eat.

But the web is not just for individuals and for blogs. It’s also for communities to gather, for people to share interests to work to get to, to exchange with one another, to pursue their passions together. So the next picture shows you one such website. It’s Club Snap. It’s photograph, photography website for enthusiasts to critique one another’s work, to organise activities and to share and display their successes. Very popular.

Young and old now go onto the Internet. The young, even children, have blogs and some of the blogs are quite good. This one is a blog by a little girl called Li Ying done together with her father and obviously they are very proud of what they have been done and proud of the family. And there are many other such.

Old people also put up blogs. This one is called bullockcartwater, ngau che sui. So writing about the neighbourhood, festivals, foods, the people, the activities, the place, the ties that bind us to S’pore. In this case, Chinatown.

The next slide you may have seen: TalkingCock.com. If you want humour, you go there. Some of the jokes are not bad. Not all of them.

The next slide is not so funny but very popular: Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore. Got a tax question, ask Iras, because two- thirds of Singaporeans pay their income tax on this website.

So across the board, whether it’s entertainment, whether it’s culture, whether it’s personal interest, whether it’s community, whether it’s govt, we are there. And we’re determined to take full advantage of all the digital opportunities which are opening up. We are building the infrastructure in S’pore. The Infocom Development Authority plan to wire up the whole country so there is wired and wireless, fully connected. Wired so all the homes, all the offices eventually will have fibre to the home. That means very high-speed connections and all the public places will be wireless, any time, anywhere, any one. So you can just go on, start up your laptop or your PDA or Skype and can communicate. So we will be fully into the cyberworld.

We are preparing our young for this new age. We made IT, the Internet, an integral part of our school life. Many experiments go on, some have gone even further than others. You look at the polytechnics. Republic Poly has done something special. Every student has a notebook, the whole campus is WIFI, wireless connected. You hand up your tutorials electronically. You do the homework on your notebook, you pass up online. At 11 o’clock at night, if you haven’t passed up your homework, the site logs off, too late. You are done for.

So we are completely prepared for this. And we are going to include every Singaporean in this, whether you are poor or not, whether you are young or old, you will be part of this.

So we’ve got all sorts of schemes to help low income families with school-going children to own PCs, to access the Internet, to be able to do their homework, their projects, same as their peers. So nobody is left out. We cannot have a digital divide splitting Singaporeans, those who know and have computers from those who don’t know and don’t have.

And older people are one of those groups who need extra help connecting up to computers so we will work with them in the community centres. We’ve got centres called CitizenConnect, we’ve got Internet access for the old folks and for those who are not so familiar we have helpers to help them and to make them comfortable we have helpers with a little bit of grey hair so that you would understand their problem and will be able to communicate with them and get them to be comfortable.

So with the digital age, I think we are going to move ahead. But we also must know some of the problems which digital age will bring. It will change the texture of our society because it will also create new problems which need to be managed. We have more information, faster information but at the same time, not necessarily more accurate information. There will be half-truths and untruths which will circulate and you won’t know which is which readily. And there will be good views but also bad views, extremist views which will divide our society. And the terrorist groups, the Jihadis groups, they are on the Internet recruiting, spreading their message, preparing attacks and we have to know this.

And apart from specific bad things, we’ll also have a new phenomenon that we are in so many places on the Internet that you have to make an effort to come back and be in the same place together, all of us Singaporeans together.

We used to say broadcasting, that means you put out the channels, TV station or TV programme, everybody watches, broad segments of the population. Now they say narrow casting. I have this special interest, in frisbees or whatever it is, I aim for this group of the audience. That group has a different interest. He’s watching a different channel. This group, the third group, another channel. So if you’ve got cable TV, you may have 100 channels. We are all in different places and to bring us all together, to celebrate National Day or watch the parade, we need to make an extra effort to come together, to be a nation.

So these are new challenges and our society has to adapt to them. We’ve got to learn and practise new habits, especially the young people. First of all, be sceptical. Don’t believe everything you see, not everything which is published is true, know what is right or wrong and be restrained. Don’t over-react. You see something, you get excited, you work up your friends, your friends work you up, all of a sudden, you’ve gone and got aroused, done something, tomorrow you’ll regret it.

And we’ve got to protect ourselves from the bad things on the Internet, the negatives. The laws still apply and if somebody publishes his racist ideas in a blog, we will track him down and we will take him to task according to the law as we have done.

So our society has to evolve, our media have to evolve. The mainstream media, television, newspapers, radio, they are under siege. They worry that all the eyeballs will go somewhere else and they have to find ways to hold these eyeballs to keep making sure that they are relevant and they can fulfil their role which they have an important role to play. So they have to adapt but they have to remain objective, maintain a high quality newspaper and if you read something in the Straits Times or on CNA, you must know that it’s real. It’s quite different from reading this, say, on Talkingcock.com. You know which is the serious place and which one is that one, well, for fun. Inform, educate, entertain but play a constructive role in a new way in Singapore.

The Government has to adapt to the digital age. First of all, we need to find leaders who are of that age group, and that’s what we have been doing, that’s why in this election we fielded a lot of people who are below 40 years old and we call them the P65 generation. And they are reaching out to the young generation, understanding the young, being in tune with them, same wavelength, knowing how they react, how to move and motivate this group. But this is P65. By the next election, P65 will not be so old, we better be P70 or maybe P75. But we have to move with the times and have a Gen B with that generation.

We still need to get our message across. We will use the new media … multimedia, podcasts, vodcasts, all these things which you get in the Internet or somebody sends to you by e-mail. I think our ministries and our agencies have to experiment, have to try it out. We are trying it out in other countries. In America, I told you about MySpace where you post your pictures. The US Marine Corps have a picture in MySpace. They are making friends, hoping to get recruits. I think the Singapore Armed Forces maybe should also have, Singapore Police Force too in MySpace. Maybe the PAP should be in MySpace because this is one of the mediums you are reaching out to.

The multinationals are using blogs to communicate. Companies like Microsoft have staff who have blogs. Their politicians, instead of sending out newsletters, they are spending time recording podcasts, putting podcasts on their website. So download, their supporters will download, will listen, will get their message.

So we have to update, we have to try these out and we have to move with the times. And when our laws have to change, like our laws governing podcasts during elections or our laws on political videos, these are things which we have to update as we go along.

So we have to adapt our message and our approach. We can’t just do the old way, just issue statements and rebuttals. I mean there’s a standard form. You know, you said this, I say this, you are wrong here, this is what it should be. So therefore you just bang. I think we have to use all ways to get our message across, art, humour, wit, get our point across, and be able to laugh at ourselves because if we can’t laugh at ourselves when you are standing on a pedestal, somebody is going to knock you down.

So, last year, for the rally I showed two little clips, in a very small way putting my toe into the water … Tau Gay Not Enough and Tau Gay Never Enough. That’s a harmless form of the new media. But in fact we have some serious decisions to make because we have to decide how far to go, what tone to set. And it’s not just all fun and games. I give you an example. You put out a funny podcast, you talk about bak chor mee. I will say mee siam mai harm. Then we compete. Then what will I do? I will hire Jack Neo to be my National Day Rally adviser. It’ll be a fun time, we will enjoy thoroughly, go home totally entertained. But is this the way to deal with serious issues? And the problem is it won’t stop with fun and games. You’ll go to distortions, you’ll go to half-truths, you’ll go to untruths. The tone of the debate will go down. Eventually, you race to the bottom.

You look at what has happened in other countries where the media are unrestrained, where they have just gone and let go: Philippines, Taiwan. So much creative energy goes into political entertainment that even some of their own people who are more thoughtful sit back and worry and say, is this really the way for our society to go. So there was one commentary recently from somebody who’s talked about Taiwan. There’s a Taiwanese TV programme called quan ming ruan jiang. That means the whole of the citizenry talks rubbish. It’s a very funny programme. It’s on cable, a lot of S’poreans watch it. So this commentary said quan ming ruan jing is fine. And now they have quan ming cai jiang. That means we just open up and talk. But what about quan ming hao hao jiang? In other words, all of the people sincerely sit down seriously discuss serious problems. How do you get that message through? And that is the message which we want to keep.

We have got to keep government serious and responsible. We can’t govern based on jokes, we can’t govern based on sound-bites, or distortions. You have to have debates which will add reason, which will add enlightenment, which will come to a conclusion, and not just end up in angry words and name calling. Or if you take the Taiwanese Parliament where they throw things at each other and even the women are part of the battle.

Yes it’s good to be passionate, to care enough about what’s happening in the country, to want to fight for what you believe in. Not just say something, better still do something. But passion and emotions must also be balanced by logic, thinking, calmness and wisdom. There is no point just working people up running down our institutions because at the end you make our problems harder, not easier to solve. It leads nowhere. We have to debate. If we didn’t have a debate, I think we will come to the wrong conclusion. But you must have debate to work out solutions for the larger good and for the longer term.

Singapore is changing and we must change. Some things are changing quickly, other things take a little bit longer. There are a few things which we should not change, which are fundamental to us, like our integrity, caring for others, our sense of being special and unique and our passion for S’pore. That cannot change. But other things have to change. Sometimes it takes time. I think we have to work at it, plug at it and continue to find our way forward. By all means, if you think the govt is doing something wrong, criticise us, criticise the government, criticise the leaders. But be prepared to stand by your criticisms, to back up what you say and let’s argue it out. If the government disagrees, then we have to respond. If you criticise the govt, and the govt doesn’t respond, then the govt hasn’t taken you seriously, No. 1, doesn’t deserve to be here, No. 2, because if we don’t respond, untruths will be repeated and will be believed and eventually will be treated as facts and the govt and the leaders will lose the respect of the population and the moral authority to govern. So we argue, sometimes we argue fiercely. But we should not take that as a sign that we are not open. Openness doesn’t mean just lovey-dovey. Openness means being prepared to be candid, to be direct, and to discuss very serious things very seriously.

So I give you the example of mr brown’s column in Today. Some of you may have read it, some of you may not. But it hit out wildly at the government and in a very mocking and dismissive sort of tone.

So Mica replied. How can you not replied? And some S’poreans feel we were too harsh, we should have been gentler, or maybe just even accepted it. It is just niceness. He didn’t mean us any harm.

Well, my view is like this. mr brown is very talented man. In fact he is Mr Lee Kim Mun. If you listen to his podcasts, they are hilarious. And he is entitled to his views, and entitled to express them. But when he takes on the government and makes serious accusations, as he did in this case because he said the government suppressed information before the elections which was awkward and only let it out afterwards, then the government has to respond, firstly to set the record straight and secondly to signal that this is really not the way to carry on a public debate on national issues and especially not in the mainstream media.

So we are moving forward. I would say whatever the risks in this new world, whatever the uncertainties, we have to press on, move ahead, open up. You cannot freeze in the headlights, take fright and just stop in your tracks. You will be run over. We have to keep on moving forward, open up and this basic approach cannot change.

We don’t have all the answers. We don’t know what all the risks are. We are feeling our way forward step by step. As Deng Xiaopeng used to say, mo zua she ze kua he, looking for one stone at a time as you cross the river. So we will take it step by step in an orderly way. We don’t expect everybody to agree all the time. In fact if we all agree all the time, something must be wrong with us. So you don’t want everybody to be singing the same note but at least we should be in the same room and if we are playing music, then you should be playing jazz and improvising and it should be, we’re each saying different things but it blends together and it’s a Singapore tone, Singapore tune and Singapore moves forward. And that’s the way we should be in the digital age.

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