The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at Singapore at 50 – 3 July 2015

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Singapore at 50 Conference held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on 3 July 2015.


It is now over 40 years since I first came to Singapore as a young Banker, and frequent visits since then have kept me abreast of the remarkable way in which it has developed.

It has been an extraordinary evolution since independence, and especially since Singapore broke free of its relationship with Malaysia.

It is sad that Lee Kuan Yew – such a magisterial figure in your history – is not here for your 50th Anniversary, but I’m delighted to share a platform with his successor – my good friend and colleague of many years, Goh Chok Tong.

In this session we are looking at some of the new challenges faced by democratic governments. In the brief time available to us, I can only skim over the surface, but I hope to say enough to provoke debate.

First, some context. We live in a new age, in which electors demand openness, freedom of information, and a swift response to public concerns. They are not remotely passive; they react swiftly and sharply to policies they dislike – sometimes even when they know those very policies are in the long-term interests of the country.

This points up a structural change – in politics and government. As individuals become more assertive, it is far more difficult for the political parties that form governments to obtain – and then retain – support.

Partisan allegiance to political philosophies is fading in many countries and, as unquestioning philosophical support falls away, governments must rely on popular and successful policies to retain support.

In principle, this is excellent – thoroughly democratic – but it has a downside: success may take a long time, and holding on to public affection can drive government to short-term policies. This is the antithesis of what Singapore has always done – and an unwelcome trend.
An even bigger problem is that market forces are becoming more powerful and national governments less so. This is the effect of a truly global market. Globalisation has implications for domestic governments.

If a country is to compete in our global economy, external rules and regulations may have to be adopted; every nation’s currency becomes more sensitive to events – sometimes events on the far side of the world; inward investment must be attracted in the face of global competition; the price of essentials to everyday life – food, energy – may rise or fall as a result of external factors. All this is unsettling.

And international agreements can demand unpopular action in a Nation State – on climate change, for example. Singapore illustrates this: as a low lying island State, Singapore needs sensible policies on global warming from nearby States: notably China, India and Indonesia. But such policies are often unpopular in those countries.

We could all extend this list in our world of inter-dependence. The plain truth is that – more now than in the past – governments are not in control of events – but are driven by them. Sometimes, election promises – made in good faith – have to be abandoned for reasons outside any national government’s control.

All this can make for an uncomfortable democratic legitimacy. And it will not get any easier in the future.

These dilemmas arise from a world changing faster than we have known. They leave governments struggling to keep up with new challenges – both domestically and in the wider world. They are expected to understand events, then analyse, and respond to them, but with the 24 hour professional media – they are rarely given much time to do so.

This dilemma is more difficult for democracy than autocracy. Autocracy can make decisions and implement them speedily. Democracy is slow, often painstaking, because it has to obtain consensus and agreement.

This may be less efficient management, but it is what the majority of public opinion demands. In the longer-term, democracy – the imposition of public will – is bound to prevail in any country that has fair elections.

It is 25 years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee set out an idea at Cern that developed into the World Wide Web: it has changed our world.

Moreover, it is largely uncontrolled by government – and, probably, uncontrollable in a free society.

The Web continues to develop in a manner that is bound to influence and change government. It is casting a light on how people think and what they do in their professional and personal lives. We know more about one another – our fears, our hopes, our quirks – than ever before.

The Web influences behaviour – for good or ill. It can offer truth or lies. It affects what people do. It might encourage some to take up charity work – or seduce others to become suicide bombers for an extremist sect, as it recently has a boy from Dewsbury in England.

It can post, as one foolish man has done, security information that puts governments at risk and lives in peril. Almost nothing is off limits.

People react to peer pressure, and the Web enhances that pressure.

We can’t dis-invent the Web – nor should we wish to do so: it is a magnificent invention. The question for government is: can its misuse be controlled, and can it be used to improve the quality of life?

I believe it can – but controlling misuse begs the question: what is misuse? It can’t be misuse simply by embarrassing governments – but it must be misuse where it aids illegality and crime: governments cannot ignore that.

The plain truth is that social media has added a new dimension to the opportunities and pitfalls of government. It can either help or hinder. It can help because a direct form of communication can aid government in understanding public needs and attitudes and responding to them.

This is a valuable tool that governments have barely begun to explore – let alone implement. They should do so.

But it has a negative side, too. Social media can whip up opposition to decisions that are demonstrably necessary – but may be unpopular in the short-term: it is a medium that can force democratic politicians into an ill-thought-out response, or one that is, frankly, wrong.
It can put enormous pressure on governments for an early decision, and pre-frame public attitudes before facts are fully explored – or explained. This is a truly negative development for good governance.

We saw the power of social media in the Arab Spring. It supported and encouraged uprisings that brought down autocratic governments and dismissed long-term despots but – in the absence of order – left behind chaos that continues to destabilise countries across the Middle East.
Good government requires tolerance and understanding by Governors and Governed alike and, at the moment, that is not available in many countries. As it settles down – it is, at present, in its infancy – social media can enhance tolerance or inspire chaos: hopefully, it will be the former.

And, of course, it has highlighted the growing problem of terrorism which poses some acute dilemmas for democratic governments.

Last year, there were over 13,000 terrorist attacks around the world – mostly in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. No other region had more than 1,000 incidents – but many countries were affected, and yet more will be.

As this happens, it will create a friction between measures to protect the citizen – and measures to uphold civil rights. There is a delicate balance here.

Secondary problems arise also for countries with no domestic terrorist threat – most obviously the problems of displaced persons and massive migration. No country dare be complacent.

To many people in Singapore, the problems of the Middle East, of Syria and Iraq, may seem far away, but the ugly truth is that they are influencing jihadist groups worldwide.

Nationals from the Philippines and Indonesia appear to be fighting in the Middle East. There are Maoist insurgents in Sri Lanka and jihadis in Pakistan and India. There are Muslim militants in Southern Thailand. The point is simple: no country is immune.

Even Singapore – although serious counter-terrorism plans are in place – has had impressionable youths radicalised by Islamic State.

A big question lies in front of government: how can they harness each aspect of modern technology – to improve governance and make life easier for the citizen.

Some answers are obvious: technology and digital tools can target and deliver services better. They can improve access to services, ensure better traffic control and parking, be better informed on shortcomings to be corrected.

All this is already being implemented in many parts of the world. “Smart” cities surely lie ahead – with digital advances enhancing urban living, using energy efficiently and engaging more actively with citizens. The scope here is obviously long-term – but almost infinite.

One aspect of modern technology – cheap and easy communications – is already affecting human behaviour. I come from the age of the quill pen – but even I have come across Google Hangouts, Skype, Facetime, which can bring people together from every part of the world: on one level, this is a benevolent development that increases familiarity and can reduce or remove tensions.

This is excellent – but again has risks attached to it: it can also be used to oppose, to frustrate, to magnify difficulties – all of which can complicate the exercise of government. And it can – indeed, is – being used to radicalise young minds.

But I am optimistic that long-term advantages can outweigh short-term problems. Governments can use technology – and especially the Internet – to improve governance. The technological uses are frankly too wide and pervasive to mention here – except to note that they exist and are increasingly being implemented across the world.

In nearly every aspect of our lives, technology can improve both business efficiency and services, although we have not yet remotely explored all the options.

But we do know that the internet and social media is a valuable tool to obtain clarity about what electorates need and want.

It can improve education enormously, and thus national economic well-being. The scope here – for young and old alike – is huge. The best lecturers – and minds – in the world can be available to everyone.

This raises a mischievous question: in fifty years’ time, will we need universities? I hope so – believe so – but know others who take a different view!

The internet can disseminate and receive information. “We didn’t know” – as an excuse for inaction by government or individuals – is on its way to becoming obsolete.

It can cherry pick best practice from across the world.

And, as it extracts information, it can spot trends – to plan policy for the future.

One worry for government is whether social media can undermine or diminish them. The answer to that is that it can – and will – unless and until government becomes sufficiently familiar with it to regard it as an ally and not as a threat. Then it can – and, I believe, will – be a worthwhile ally.

Let me summarise: in brief, social media will change the nature of government in ways we have not yet begun to realise. On the credit side, the information tools at its command will give government the ability and knowledge to target its policies more accurately, more inexpensively and more productively. It can help deliver better and more efficient government.

Conversely, government will be under greater pressure to succeed, to be in touch, to reflect the public will. I suspect the impact of all these changes will be to make government more complex, and the public more demanding.

One last question arises: why has Singapore – a small island State – been so successful in a world of many nations of greater size and with more resources?

There are many reasons. But, at their heart, it is because Singapore has always judged what is in Singapore’s interest and acted with determination to implement it.

Singapore looks to the future more rigorously than any nation I know. She has leveraged every opportunity to remain ahead of the curve: this conference illustrates that perfectly: each session celebrating fifty years of independence is geared to look to the future.

That is why Singapore has succeeded in the past; and – I believe – why you will continue to succeed in the future.