PM Lee reveals what he does online -- which includes visiting astronomy and photography sites

The Straits Times
27 February 2017

At a dialogue organised by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital here on Friday (Feb 24), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also fielded questions on such issues as what keeps him awake at night, the websites he monitors, and his hopes for the future.

The session was part of Camp Sequoia, Sequoia Capital India's annual technology summit, and brought together over 100 leading innovators and disruptors from more than 10 countries across the Asia-Pacific.

Here are edited extracts of Mr Lee's replies.

Q: What is your view of the current state of start-ups in Singapore and where do you see this headed in the next three to five years? What is your favourite interview question when you are hiring Ministers?

PM: Firstly, I think the start-up scene has livened up. There are young people in Singapore who are trying things. There are also a fair number of young people who have gone into the Valley in California, who have been caught by the bug and the enthusiasm and are not only working in tech companies but come out and are doing their own start-ups in Silicon Valley. That is a very good sign, we would like more to do that. In fact, that is one of the recommendations from the Committee on the Future Economy report, to set up a Global Innovation Network where our young people can go anywhere - whether in the region, Southeast Asia, India, China, or America, Israel, Europe - be immersed in the environment, find out what the exciting things are and be inspired to start their own things. I think that more will do it; not everybody will succeed.

As of now, I suspect that the technical content of the start-ups vary and some meet new market needs, some really are putting up traditional businesses. But that will sort itself out. The problem is not lack of resources from the Government. Really what is needed is the talent, the drive. And we just have to get out of the way and enable you to do that.

As for questions which we ask potential officeholders or potential Members of Parliament, I have done many of these interviews. We ask what they read so we get some sense of what their interests are. We ask what they have been doing outside of their work so we see whether they have an interest in social issues, whether they have an interest in helping people. We ask what policy issues they care about and have a view on and would like the Government to change. That is usually the question which they find the hardest to answer because they are not sure whether to tell us that we are dead wrong on something or other. But if they give us a good answer, we give them very high marks.

Q: What are you afraid of? What keeps you up at night?

PM: Well, some of the things which keep you up at night, you cannot do anything about. We spent a lot of time worrying about the United States presidential election.

There are other things which can go bump in the night because we are in uncharted waters. There is a major change of direction in the US. Other powers will react and how does that interaction work out? If it is a rebalancing, that is manageable. If it is destabilization, you do not know what the consequences are. That is one big global uncertainty.

Within the region, we also watch very carefully the trends and our neighbouring countries. Whether they are focused on regional cooperation and integration, or whether their focus is on economic nationalism - like the mood in the US and the developed countries - and are therefore turning more inwards. We monitor this. It can happen. Because when you are a small country like Singapore, you know that you have no choice. When you are a big country, two, three hundred million people, you feel that you can strike a different balance. And if you strike a different balance, you cannot calculate all the consequences. Everybody says the right thing. If you interview world leaders, everybody will say they are for free trade. But what they mean by it and what they do when they say they are pro-free trade, you have to watch and see. That keeps us up.

We also have to watch our own domestic population trends, our demographic trends. That worries us a great deal and again it is something with no easy solution. We can do certain things but you cannot drastically change it. Our birth rate is too low. The average fertility is 1.3 per female. It has to be 2.1 to just replace ourselves. We can top up to a certain extent with new citizens, with permanent residents from overseas. But you must have a core which is transmitted from generation to generation, and transmitted by birth. It cannot all be somebody naturalized. Otherwise the essence of the country somehow disappears.

That is something which we are still working with. We are doing all the things which seem sensible to do. Tax credits, tax incentives, cash bonuses, pre-school facilities, infant care facilities, paternity leave, more paternity leave, houses.

Q: I think people would be interested in hearing you describe your favourite websites and the favourite applications that you use, and what you yourself do on the Internet.

PM: I have on my desktop the news websites open: BBC, New York Times, Straits Times, Channel News Asia. They are there all the time. Because of that, I do not watch the television news anymore. If you want to see the snippet, it is there all the time. I have Facebook open and Instagram, because I have accounts. I track what is happening to my posts, what people are saying, and whether we have to respond to it or not. It is quite useful because without those, I would not reach out to significant segments of the population, here and overseas. It is also fun, if you do not become addicted to it.

What other websites do I go to? I look at a page called Astronomy Picture of the Day. Some of you may know of that. Every day there is a picture, a nebula, a supernova, the sun, rings of Saturn, something like that. I sometimes look at blogs by mathematicians to track what they are doing. I follow Terry Tao's [Terrence Tao Chi-Shen] blog. He covers all sorts of things. Usually I get lost after the first two paragraphs of his post but it is interesting to know what he is working on. He is the chap who proved that you can have as long a series of primes in arithmetic progression as you like. In other words, you can have ten primes which are in arithmetic progression or one hundred or one thousand. It is something which people were looking for many, many years. He has done many other things.

I look at photography websites because I take pictures. You pick up ideas looking at what people do, how they take the pictures. Some hints, some sense of what you are looking for and how you analyse a scene. Now when I look at pictures, you do not just say it is very pretty. You figure out where his leading lines are, where his focuses are, whether he put it on the one-third line or not and all sorts of technical things. It is like wine, oenophiles drinking wine and activating the brains instead of just the taste buds. But it is fun.

I use the applications which match these things. I use Kindle. I read mostly on Kindle now because it is much more convenient than carrying a book, although it does not get absorbed as well as with a physical book. With a physical book you have a sense of where you are, how far to go, where they fit together. You can flip back, you can side-line. You can sort of do that in the Kindle, not the same, but overall the convenience makes it worthwhile.

I have lots of other apps but I use them less often. Google Earth, from time to time. iTunes, not very often. I tried Spotify. I signed on and from inertia, I left it on for about two years and I was paying them $10 a month. I will tolerate the advertisements every 20 minutes if I decide to listen to them again. That is where I am.

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