CNN Interview with PM Lee Hsien Loong

CNN Interview with PM Lee Hsien Loong

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 11 June 2018

PM Lee Hsien Loong was interviewed by CNN’s Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour for AMANPOUR on 11 June 2018.


Ms Christiane Amanpour for CNN: Prime Minister Lee, welcome to the programme.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Hello!

CNN: How important is it for Singapore to be hosting this summit?

PM Lee: We are the host, we are the tea and coffee pourers. We do not participate in the summit, we do not have an influence on what is discussed or the outcome, but we hope that by providing a venue which is neutral, which is agreeable to both sides, we enable a productive summit to take place which will turn around the negative trend of events in Korea over the last few months and set Korea on to a new and positive trajectory – for them and for the world.

CNN: What does it mean for you to host this in terms of the security of this area? You are quite far – ten hours by plane from the Korean Peninsula.

PM Lee: Fewer by missile.

CNN: I like the way you put it – fewer by missile. Have you felt that you have lived under the shadow of this threat?

PM Lee: No, our concern is not that we are going to be targeted – we are not participants in the Korean tensions. But if there are tensions in Northeast Asia on the Korean Peninsula, it is going to destabilise the region and Southeast Asia is not going to be let off scot-free, nor the world. I think if this meeting can have a constructive outcome, and we can have contributed something to that, I think it is a duty we should do.

CNN: Let me ask you for a little bit of vital colour, about the main participants, that will be Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, whom you have met.

PM Lee: Only once – yesterday.

CNN: Exactly, I would like to ask you, what did you take away from that meeting? What did he say to you about this moment, about a potential shift in the North Korea’s trajectory?

PM Lee: He is a confident, young leader. He came, and he said thank you for hosting and we hope that it will be a historic occasion. I think he wants to go on to a new path. What he is prepared to deal, and how the agreement can be worked out – well that is a complicated matter. I think he has an intention to do something, and that is why he is meeting Donald Trump.

CNN: He is quoted to say that this was being arranged like a family affair. He seemed to be really complimentary. He said that this could be Singapore cementing itself in the history of peace and prosperity.

PM Lee: Well, he was being generous in his opening remarks. We are just the host. It is an opportunity for the two sides to meet, we provide a safe place, we ensure that the security is arranged, we make sure that the world can be here. We hope that in this environment, they will have a sense of the way the region is, the potential for the prosperity, stability and security in the region, in Asia, and what that can mean for the world. And therefore a sense of the responsibility they have – the two sides – to come to some kind of a constructive outcome.

CNN: What about President Trump, you met with him after he landed, a few hours after you met Kim Jong Un. It is not the first time you have met with President Trump.

PM Lee: I have met him before. I gave him lunch today.

CNN: I think everybody around the world has been quite stumped by the rhetoric, the tweets, the whole atmosphere around the G7 Summit, about how he behaved to his allies, about the name-calling on Twitter afterwards. Which Trump were you prepared to meet and which Trump did you meet for lunch?

PM Lee: I think it is the same Donald Trump whom I have met on previous occasions. He speaks his mind, he has his take – he has his very firmly-held views on trade, on the way America is being taken advantage of, and the way he wants to make America great again.  I understand that that is what he stood for, that is why he was elected President.

CNN: Do you think America is being taken advantage of?

PM Lee: I will take a different perspective. I think America deliberately took a very generous approach at the time where it was a very dominant player in the international scene, much more dominant than it is today, decades after the war. They took a generous approach with the Marshall Plan in Europe, with their maintenance of the Pax Americana in the Asia Pacific, in order to allow other countries to prosper so that America could benefit from a stable and prosperous world, and not be back in the 1930s which led to the 1940s which led to a lot of blood that was spilled by Americans. That formula worked for America, and has worked until now. Today, America has a much smaller share of the world economy. New players – the Chinese, their economy, by some measures, same size as America’s, by others may be half the size; the Indians are coming up, Asia’s rapidly emerging economies are coming up. So some Americans are asking themselves: Do I still have to carry this burden for the world? Why can’t I just calculate for myself? Is it sensible for me to make all these services, sacrifices, what some scholars call ‘global public goods’ between nations, to uphold the system so that everybody can benefit from it. This is a legitimate question, how you want to rebalance the benefits and how America can gain more. But to abandon the whole system, and say, I am now going to go, win-lose, item by item, and I want to win every single match but I really do not have the overall view of the global game. That is a very different kind of world which America will find themselves in, if it goes that way, over several terms of the presidency.

CNN: Did you express that to the President?

PM Lee: Well, I think he knows our position. He has his views. I think he has heard that from many people. I did not feel that it was my place to try and shift him dramatically.

CNN: And yet what the President does, what America does, can dramatically shift your region. Just on denuclearisation. What did he say to you about what he expects to come out of this one-day Summit, one-day meeting. He said he will know in a few minutes if Kim Jong Un is serious, if there is a deal to be made.

PM Lee: He did not say very much because his officials are still negotiating what is to come out from the meeting. But I think he is hoping for a positive outcome and the key thing is he needs to assess whether Mr Kim is serious or not. If he is serious, I think something can be worked out. If it is not worked out immediately, we come back again and at some point, you will be able to reach a consensus or reach some kind of an agreement, if not immediately. But if you assess that the other side is not serious, well then you don’t have a basis to start. That is an assessment which I think both sides will have to make of the other.

CNN: It depends on what each side is serious about obviously. Each side has their priorities.

PM Lee: Of course the objectives may not be the same, but are they serious about wanting some kind of a deal. If so, then are they prepared to have give-and-take, to put something on the table, to ask for something in return? Eventually you will get something and the other side will get something. And you also have to think about the people who are not at the table but watching anxiously – the Chinese, Japanese and the Russians. Something can be worked out if you really want to come to an outcome. If you do not want an outcome, you just want a photo opportunity and then you go home and either you beat your chest and you declare victory on an empty document, or you go home and say the other guy, you cannot do business with him and that is why this path leads to a dead end. You do something totally different which it is not so benign.

CNN: You are talking about a military option.

PM Lee: That is a different model, it could be military option. There are a lot of things you do, short of a military option. Many sanctions which have been applied over the last few years and months.

CNN: You said that a lot of the key players in the region also have their agendas on the table. In short, since you have great relations with all these people in this region, what does China want?


PM Lee: I think China would like the Korean Peninsula to be denuclearised. I think they are anxious about the North Korean’s nuclear capability because it can lead to escalation which is not within their control. You could have escalation in terms of tensions and conflicts. You could have escalations in terms of the South Koreans thinking that they too should have such capabilities, which they have indeed on previous occasions thought so.

CNN: An arms race.

PM Lee: Not just an arms race – nuclearisation by other countries. The South Koreans going nuclear, the Japanese can go nuclear. In fact, their Cabinet Secretary is on record saying that their Constitution does not prevent them from working on nuclear weapons. That may not stop there. The Taiwanese have nuclear-powered plants and they have thoughts too. It is very destabilising even if you confine yourself to East Asia. If you look beyond that, to the Middle East, and what it could mean for Middle Easterners there, watching this happening, watching the precedents which are being set. I think it can be very troublesome for the world.

CNN: Given that the United States, the big powers, and Iran, came to an arms control agreement in 2015 and the President of the United States has pulled the US out of it, which may kill the deal because of the sanction, etc. How risky is that?

PM Lee: I am not an expert in this. When you go in, you can have a lot of arguments – we want to do this, we do not want to do this but one way or the other, Mr Obama decided together with the Chinese, the Russians and the Europeans. He did it in a way which did not get congressional sanction. He did not need a congressional sanction. So it is a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It is not quite a treaty, which means it can be undone without congressional sanction. But having made this move and gone in, a fact has been created. You are now in a new situation. If you undo it, can you go back to status quo ante? Or will you be in a new situation, different from where we were before? I do not think it is easy to go back to status quo ante because the sanctions, the United Nations (UN) impositions, the consensus which was built up internationally, it is not there anymore to go back to the status quo.

CNN: What you are saying is that President Trump who wants to put more pressure on Iran by pulling the US out will find he won’t be able to.

PM Lee: He may be able to. If you read what his officials say, they say, “Well, we are powerful, we are the United States, and we will do it to banks who do business with America and companies which do business using banks in America and they will all have to pay attention.” You might be able to have considerable influence this way, on this issue. But if on many issues, the US is going in alone, that is a different kind of world which the US will be facing. And you are very powerful but I think your influence will be less than if you went in together with the others.

CNN: But what about China? There is an ongoing fisticuffs, if you would like. These verbal fisticuffs – threats of tariffs and counter-tariffs with China. Chinese Foreign Ministry said about all the flip-flopping, “In international relations, every time you change your face and turn your back, it is another loss and squandering for your country’s credibility.” So talking about the US and its credibility. It is about as far as Chinese have come in putting some colour on what is going on. What is your assessment of what is happening and the health of this region and the health of the global economy as a result of this?

PM Lee: I think there are different layers to this problem. Donald Trump’s starting point is that he has a big trade deficit with the Chinese, between the US and China. That is a very bad thing. He wants to fix that. He wants the Chinese to open up and buy more from America. If you are spending more than you are producing, that means you will have a trade deficit. If you are spending less than you are producing, that means you will save money and will run a trade surplus. So America is spending more than you are producing. Why are you able to do that? Because you are the most powerful country in the world, and everybody else wants to own US dollars. So it gives you an exorbitant privilege, as somebody called it. You have to look at it at a more fundamental level. Why is America running an overall imbalance? And it is not mainly because of trade restrictions. That is one problem. But there is another layer to this, which is, that China entered the WTO in 2001, and it was negotiated in the years before, at a time when it was 4 plus per cent of the world’s GDP. Today, it is 15 per cent of the world’s GDP. So what was agreed then with a quite small player, is now in effect with a very big player. And what was politically wearable then may or may not be politically wearable now. Furthermore, China, 20 years ago, was at a different level of development from where China is today. So, the protections and privileges which they felt they needed then, and may have been helpful to them then, may not really be necessary for them now. The right strategy for them, either from their own perspective, because their economy needs to be opened up and be competitive, or from international perspective, because it has to be politically acceptable wherever the other participants are from, that balance has shifted. And therefore, there is a case to say – let’s talk, let’s work out a new basis. But, I think when you talk over trade issues like this, it is much better to talk in a multilateral framework, and there is a WTO, there is a basis on many countries will come together, to work in accordance with international rules, rules which give space for all countries big and small to operate under the same frame, which may not be the case if America just goes to China. Which is why people say, elephants fight, the grass suffers, and when they make love, it is disastrous.

CNN: Again, that is another nice saying of yours.

PM Lee: Others have said it before.

CNN: Let me ask you. It catches Singapore in the middle of it, doesn’t it? I mean, you have to balance your relations with United States and China. How difficult does it get for Singapore, when the US and China have increasing difficulties?

PM Lee: We have to be on our toes. We are friends with both. We would like to continue to be friends with both. It is easiest for us to do that when the two have good relations. When the two have tensions between them, then there is a feeling that you are either with me or against me. Well, then it becomes harder but we will keep on trying.

CNN: The Economist cover this week shows President Trump riding a wrecking ball and they put in demolition man and the wrecking ball happens to be the planet Earth. How concerned are you, at this point, right now that campaign pledges are being translated into policy, that protectionism is being implemented, the go it alone is being implemented by the United States. The president does not seem to agree with the notion of the global institution or global order as we know it.

PM Lee: Well, it is a very radical stance for the US Administration to take. But it is not just the President’s perspective. It is the perspective of a significant number of people in America who have elected him. It may or may not be numerically the majority, but they are not negligible, and in the American political system, they have expressed their view and this administration is carrying them out. Why is there such a view? There are many possible explanations. One of them is that these are people who have felt the existing system was not working for them and that the existing elites in America were not serving them. And they do want the system remade. They don’t quite know how; they are not sure what is wrong; but the status quo is no good. So there needs to be change.

CNN: Over the weekend, Paul Krugman and others have said that this idea of these massive trade imbalances, trade deficits – this idea always haunts the United States. This idea that America, the piggy bank of the world, is being robbed, is not actually in accordance with economic facts and financial facts.

PM Lee: That is so, but it is a problem when you have people who think, who believe this, who have this perspective on the world and the country has to have policies which are domestically sustainable. If it is not domestically sustainable, you have a problem.

CNN: What if these policies that the President wants to deliver for his own voters break the rest of the world? That is what I am trying to get at, Demolition Man.

PM Lee: The rest of the world watch what the US do, and how the US go, with great concern. It affects us; we have no vote. That is the way the things are.

CNN: That is pretty blunt. How do you try to convince the rest of the world – have you seen what happened at G7? All these other leaders trying to do maths, the facts and the figures, the policies, not just the politics.

PM Lee: I think this is something which has to play out within the American body politic. I mean there are Americans who think otherwise, there are many Congressmen, Senators who believe otherwise, even Republicans. [Senator] John McCain is not the only one who has a very different view of the world. It has to play out within the American political system. Yours is a system which has elaborate checks and balances. It is meant to be able to correct itself and prevent policy from being taken to unwise extremes.

CNN: How are they doing so far do you think?

PM Lee: I think it takes time. It has been one and a half years. The President has his agenda. He is carrying out his agenda. Mid-terms are coming this year, that will be one sign, and then further electoral tests will come down the road.

CNN: So I do want to ask you, because we are in an era of popular pushback. We see it all over the world. We saw it in the Arab Spring, we saw it in the populist ways which we have just been discussing, whether it is United States, whether it is Brexit, whether it is around Europe or elsewhere. You do have a pretty strict internal logic to Singapore. You have made a little bit of liberalisation in terms of some areas of free speech and others, but not dramatic political plurality. Where do you think Singapore is going? Do you see any flexibility in the future? Can you open up more?

PM Lee: I think when you say “strict internal logic”, it is rather a loaded term. Because what you really mean is: why are we so repressive? The answer is we are not. Why is the political scene like that? Because that is the way Singaporeans have voted and it is an outcome of the elections. When does it change? It changes when the Singaporean electorate decides that this Government is not serving their interests, ceases to support this PAP team, and perhaps hopefully supports another team which will serve them better. And then it will be a different scene. It is not that we are clamping down and preventing other people from contesting elections. In the last election, every single seat was contested. If you look at the popular vote, we had 70 percent of the popular vote. So I don’t think you can say it is because…

CNN: There is not a whole lot of tolerance for freedom of speech or public protest.

PM Lee: You can say anything you want. You can ask me anything you want…

CNN: Last autumn you prosecuted an activist Jolovan Wham for holding public activity without a permit, including one that included the famous Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. So again, these are political, cultural, democratic questions.

PM Lee: No, there are arrangements. There is a Speakers’ Corner – actually it is an enormous speakers’ field – anytime you feel you want to relieve your soul of some important thought, you can go there and spout forth. But if you insist on going places you are not supposed to do this, then the rules will have to apply. You want to put stuff up on the Internet, you can publish anything you want. The blogs are there; they exist in multiples. You are still subject to the laws of sedition, libel and contempt, but you say what you want. And people do say whatever they want. If you research what is written, you will see that actually there is quite a lively discussion.

CNN: You may laugh, you may not laugh. But when I came here, when I told people I was coming here, they wanted to know whether you still got very strict chewing gum and spitting rules. They remember the American who was very heavily penalised for chewing gum.

PM Lee: Yes, we caned him. He was not heavily penalised for chewing gum.

CNN: He was caned?

PM Lee: Michael Fay was not [caned] for chewing gum. Michael Fay went around vandalising vehicles, scratching vehicles and causing a lot of damage. And he was caned for that. You do not get caned for chewing gum.

CNN: Finally, how did it come about? Did you get a phone call? How was Singapore chosen for this Summit?

PM Lee: I do not know how the decision was made. We know that they were looking at possibilities and they sounded us out. We said, well, if you think we can be a good venue, we are prepared to step up, and we will be helpful. Then we did not hear anything more for a while. After some time, they narrowed it down and eventually they said, “Yes, we would like to come to Singapore,” which I presumed both sides said, “Yes, we would like to come to Singapore” because this is a joint decision. So we started preparing. Then the Summit was off, but we did not call off our preparations, and the Summit is on again, and we think we will be prepared by the time it happens.

CNN: Prime Minister Lee, thank you so much for joining us.

PM Lee: Thank you very much.