Dialogue with DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Asia Future Summit 2023

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 4 October 2023

Transcript of the dialogue with Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat on “Reflecting on LKY’s Contributions to the Development of Asia and Global Relations” at the Asia Future Summit on 4 October 2023.


Lee Huay Leng, Editor-In-Chief, Chinese Media Group at SPH Media: 大家刚才也提到说李先生说话时非常直率,不仅是对澳洲,其实李先生在很多场合都有它的特色,包括对中国,他到中国访问,特别是在80年代的时候。那个时候,甚至是中国的领导人,他们也知道李先生的风格是这样。中国的媒体其实还形容过李先生是‘中国的诤友’。特别是王副总理在担任李先生的首席私人秘书,观察他在更中国、美国的领袖交流时,他们能接受他直率的看法以及他扮演一个诤友的角色。在现在的世界里,是否还能在现在的世界外交环境下容得下这样的诤友?嘉宾可以选择使用英语或华语回答。

DPM Heng Swee Keat: You asked the most difficult question. But let me let me take a step back. I’m sure John and Mr. Ma would have their viewpoints. I will say that the reason why Mr Lee’s views have been so well regarded is that he really speaks his mind, and he has a very strategic worldview. He’s not looking at just at immediate concerns, immediate issues, but what is in each country’s long-term interest. And number two, how in the pursuit of this long-term interest countries can also find a common space to work together. This is why he is always very concerned when people react to short term political pressure, short term political issues.

Sometimes, you react in a certain way and you will get brownie points from the electorate. But that is not how he feels that a country should be governed in the long run, because at the end, what matters is whether your people achieve a better life. So in that regard, he is very clear-minded about why certain things need to be done. And in many instances, you’ll find people who are so immersed in a situation that they sometimes lose objectivity. Mr Lee is a very good objective third party observer with a very, very clear mind. He would say, actually, the long-term interests of you, this country or this place should be this, or in that direction. And I think there’s also a lot of trust because he’s not saying it to please anybody, he is saying it with a view to finding a solution that is of value to both parties. And I think that’s why his views have been very well regarded.

One specific example I could think of, which I mentioned earlier in my speech, was the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by American fighter planes; it was quite a ruckus. And at that time, the ASEAN Regional Forum was held in Singapore, and both Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan asked to meet Mr Lee. I sat in for both meetings, and had the two parties exchanged notes, they would have found that what Mr. Lee said to each of them were the same, but from a very different perspective. In fact, specifically in 1999, the Chinese were seeking to enter the Word Trade Organisation (WTO), they were in a very intensive negotiations with the US on entering the WTO. Mr Lee’s advice to Foreign Minister Tang was that the longer-term interests of China was to gain entry into the WTO, which would support this reform and opening up, and the development of the Chinese economy. If you fritter your resources and start fighting over this particular incident, you are going to be on the wrong path. Accept the American explanation that it was accidental and calm your domestic population; that’s how you can make progress. And to Secretary Albright his point was: is it better for China in a longer term to be a member of WTO, to be a member of a multilateral system where the multilateral rules apply to countries big and small and be a part of it? Or is it better for China to continue with its current path and seek its own space? Because Ching will need to develop and it is not something that countries can just seek to stop; otherwise it will find other ways and then you end up making an enemy of China. So, what was remarkable I think, is that he has a clear view of what the solution should be in handling this relationship. And in that particular moment, how do you resist taking short-term measures that which may be popular with the people, but which may actually harm each country’s long-term interest? So, by taking that strategic view of the country’s long-term interest, and how countries can work together, I think he was very persuasive to both parties. I remember one of the parties, when I sent them down in the lift, telling their staff “I want the notes of this meeting verbatim”, that what he (Mr Lee) said made a lot of sense. So, I think that that will be my take on why he has been so well accepted, even though he never minced his words. 

Danny Quah, Dean of LKYSPP: My question builds on what DPM Heng tells us about the Belgrade incident where the calculation that Lee Kuan Yew presented to both sides hinged on the right weighting of short-term gains and long-term advances in well-being. Where do you think this balance between short-term and long-term now sits in US-China relations and how would that thinking help us get through this difficult period?

DPM Heng: Well, I would agree with all that Mr Howard has said. I will just add two things. One is that I think the world needs to realise that we are at a very tense and dangerous moment. Professor Graham Allison at the Harvard University has written a very interesting book called “Destined for War”. He has studied World War I, World War II, and even way back to the war between Sparta and Athens, about how conflicts happen. And his study showed that nobody, including the antagonists, or the ones who started the war, ever wanted the war to happen. Instead, it is some accidents that will happen along the way, which then trigger a whole set of responses. So I think it's very important first and foremost for us to pay attention and for academics and other thought leaders to warn about the consequences of this because I think this will set humanity back for a long time, if two superpowers with nuclear capabilities clash. And if we cannot come to some agreement, some restraint, it can be a very dangerous situation. And second, when I look at some of these conflicts which have started, quite a lot of it originated in economic adjustments. Economic adjustments are very, very difficult to make for many countries. Even in a tiny economy like Singapore, we have been trying very hard in the last seven, eight years to transform the economy, because globalisation will bring enormous pressure on all our workers.

But there is a major change that's going on in the global economy, which I think we're not paying enough attention to, which is the progress of science and technology. In fact, the recent interest over ChatGPT and the future of AI and so on, is capitalising a lot of discussion about the future of jobs and skills. There are even talks about whether we should have a universal basic income. But it is an indication of the extent of disruption to people's lives. Globalisation has benefited most parts of the American population; they are getting far cheaper goods and services. But the ones who are affected by globalisation, who are negatively impacted, will find it difficult to cope. Moreover, the world is going through a period of significant demographic changes. The developed world, the part of the world that has developed faster than all the others, is finding their population declining and aging, which puts enormous pressure on them. Thus the tendency to play up anti-globalisation sentiments, to project the erstwhile trading partner as an enemy of your jobs and enemy of the country. It is a very appealing argument, but also a very misguided and dangerous one. So it's important for all of us to help our people cope with these changes. And at the same time, help people to understand these major structural forces that are changing the global economy and in turn, affecting lives and livelihoods everywhere. 

John Howard, former PM of Australia: On China's long term relation with the world.

DPM Heng:  I agree with what Mr Howard just said. You know, we are talking about Mr Lee and Mr Lee’s views about how countries interact with one another. I think he has been very clear that sometimes countries seek to mould another country in their own image. But every country will have its own history, culture and development. And that many of these good ideas as Mr Ma said, if you think that is the best, it will take time because it is a contest of ideas - is it a much better system, a much better way? I would think this is something that the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is constantly grappling with – what is the system of governance that will be best for that country at that particular point in time? Even among democratic countries,  there are significant differences in how democracy is practised. There are significant differences in the way the government is formed, different policy initiatives are mediated and presented to the electorate, and so on. So, I think in the face of all these major challenges around us, I think there is room for us to look at different ways in which different governance systemd can best serve the people. I think what we need to focus on in terms of country-to-country relations, is where is the common space for which we can work and advance together, and not to make a clone of another country, because imposing our values and our system of doing things may cause more discord and reduce the space for cooperation. 

Han Yong Hong, Associate Editor, Lianhe Zaobao: So Mr Lee Kuan Yew is a visionary leader and he accurately predicted China's rise during the Cultural Revolution (文革) or just right after that, which is very remarkable. And then he spoke a lot about international affairs and issues. And now he's passed away for quite a few years and with the state of the situation in the world now, the state of US- China relations and China. What are some of the things that you think still falls within his prediction? And what are those that he actually mis-predicted? 

DPM Heng: I don’t think Mr Lee’s view about China's rise and progress have been misplaced. Let me share an episode. When Mr Lee embarked on the Suzhou Industrial Park project, there were some officials within our public service who were very concerned about accelerating China's growth, because this could create a lot of competition for Singapore. Mr Lee's view was whether you do it or not, China will continue to make progress. If you look at the trajectory of China’s reform and opening up, you just can't hold down their progress. They want to make progress, and they want to make changes. So it is better for us to use this time to better understand what is happening and so that we ourselves can make adjustments and make progress. So I think he has been very clear that countries around the world must all want to seek better lives for their people. Political leaders around the world will promise the electorate “if you elect me, your life will be better”; that is present in every election around the world. But even if we don't have elections, many governments’ legitimacy rests on whether they have improved lives for their people. So what that means is that the adjustments will need to be made by all countries, big or small. And in fact, the smaller you are like Singapore, the harder you have to work at making those adjustments. Because every little change around the world has a big effect on us. Now, the other thing, which I think his view has not changed is that it is possible for America and China and, in fact, countries around the world to co-exist peacefully. What is important is for each to look for areas of common interest; even as you compete, you need to look for areas in which you can collaborate. 

His view has always been that it's not a zero-sum game. I think a reason why he had that view is because he went through a very tumultuous period in global history. He wrote in his memoirs that he sang four different national anthems in his life - from “God Save the Queen”, to the Japanese national anthem, to the Malaysian anthem during the merger and finally the Singapore national anthem.

There will be all these major changes but at the end of the day, war has not resolved issues. Professor Graham Allison, whom I mentioned earlier, did a very extensive interview with Mr. Lee before he wrote the book “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World”. Many of the views expressed by Mr. Lee during the interview are still very relevant. So I think in terms of global relations, it is important to have global peace and development for all countries, particularly for a small country like Singapore. of course, countries are going to have major contests and competition, it's a part of relations between countries. That bigger country will want a bigger say is also a reality that we have to accept. the question is, how do you craft global norms for everyone to abide by, and serves the long-term interests of all? 

Gillian Koh, Deputy Director (Research), LKYSPP: If Mr Lee Kuan Yew was still around, what would he say about the continuing value of ASEAN? You mentioned just now that we all accept that broad global, peaceful environment is good for everyone. And all countries desire that, but bring that closer to the region that we exist. Would your take on his view be that the commitment is there among our Southeast Asian neighbours? And what are then the trade-offs that may need to be made in order to hang together more tightly and ensure that we continue to be a peaceful environment within the Southeast Asian in a patch of the world in the midst of this great power rivalry? Thank you. 

DPM Heng: Thanks, Gillian. I am not sure that I will be able to answer what Mr Lee would say today . It's a very hard question. All that I can say is that if I were to extrapolate, Mr. Lee believed in cooperation with all countries, big or small. That is why we have always a very strong proponent of multilateralism and rule of law, and of the United Nations and the global rules that govern many of our interactions with other countries.

I also mentioned in my remarks earlier, that what bought Singapore space to develop, is robust relations with our neighbours, in particular with President Soeharto. Mr Lee had a remarkable relationship with President Soeharto.

Our founding Foreign Minister, Mr. Rajaratnam was a very strong proponent of ASEAN cooperation and eventually ASEAN integration. I would say that the results speak for themselves. When I was an official at the Ministry of Trade & Industry, I was involved in many of the negotiations on ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, and related FTAs.

What impressed me most during that period, was that the among the senior officials across the 10 ASEAN states, there was a very strong commitment to growing ASEAN together. In fact, I still remember one of my counterparts said: “when we negotiate, we must be more ambitious. “ He said that we as officials must present our views and go for the maximum and it is for the politicians to exercise their prerogative to say no to what we have proposed. But if you and I don't stretch the envelope, and stretch the frontiers of development, then we are not going to achieve the outcome that we think should be achieved.

So I think over time, as ASEAN members work more closely together, you'll find that we built a closer rapport and understanding among the ASEAN states. Now, whether that has achieved results, I will say, indeed. One of the things which then-Minister for Trade & Industry George Yeo did, was to not only bring the ASEAN member states together to form the ASEAN economic community, but also to forge free trade agreements as an ASEAN bloc with many countries, including with China, which has enhanced regional growth and competitiveness.

So I believe that ASEAN integration has strengthened every ASEAN member state, whether in trade with economic development, or whether in the political space. I'm very glad that ASEAN holds the position of wanting to remain as a neutral place, and retain the ability to interact with countries around the world, whether it's with the US or with China. And I think that trusted neutrality, where we welcome different parties to work closely together with us without taking sides, is an important aspect. And when the 10 Member States hold this position, it is a lot more powerful and more effective than one or two Member States taking their own position.

So I would say I'm optimistic and would urge ASEAN member states to work more closely together.

I’m not sure if these would have been Mr Lee’s exact views, but I was extrapolating from my observation of his interactions, and from his efforts to make friends for Singapore. I believe that the willingness to define common interests and enlarge our common space, have been very important parts of Mr Lee’s thinking.