Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's closing dialogue at the Asia Future Summit 2023 on 5 October 2023.
Wong Wei Kong, Editor-in-chief of SPH Media Trust's English/Malay/Tamil Group: Just following up on your opening remarks, I think it is clear that the China-US relationship will be one defining factor on how the world would look like going forward. And looking at the domestic factors now in both countries, China and the US, and looking at what is happening on the global stage as well, how do you see that relationship developing over the years?
PM Lee Hsien Loong: It is the most consequential relationship in the world. It is one which concerns us and every other country in the world a great deal. The trends are worrying. Each country sees the other as an adversary, at least a strategic challenger. From the American point of view, it is a new country growing, possibly exceeding, and aiming to supplant it. From the Chinese point of view, they are a country which is developing and progressing, and they see the US wanting to hold them back and restrain them. And neither trusts the other, therefore each has to take precautions against the other.
But in the process of taking precautions, you create further doubts and suspicions, and counter reactions, and things can get worse. And the domestic mood in each country is also difficult. In America, it is complicated by election politics, which always heats the temperature up; but it goes beyond election politics — it is a broad national sense that this is a challenger unlike anything which they have met before, as Graham Allison said. And on China's side, there is a concern that the world and the Americans are trying to suppress them, hold them down, although the Americans solemnly assure them that this is not so.
And so there is potential for problems, Taiwan is one of them, but all the other issues between them are difficult to handle. The saving grace is that I think both sides do not want conflict, even though neither side is yet ready to make significant accommodation and compromise. There is contact, they are talking — I think Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, is talking to the Chinese, Wang Yi, at a high level. And maybe, quite likely, President Xi and President Biden will meet in APEC and have a further conversation as they did last year in Bali. But this is a relationship which needs to be managed by both sides because if it goes wrong, it is disastrous for both sides and also for the world.
Moderator: And thinking that closer to home, I think we have seen the arrival of China as a Pacific power when for many years, it was just the US. How do you see this changing the relationship China will have with countries in Asia and in ASEAN?
PM Lee: China has become a very big factor in all our perspectives. It is our biggest trading partner for nearly every Asian country, including all the US allies — the Koreans, the Japanese, the Australians. It is an economic player, it is a strategic presence, and it is a growing strength in the region and a great opportunity for the countries in the region to cooperate with, to trade with, to invest in and to do business.
But at the same time, every country in Asia wants to keep its links with the rest of the world, with America, with Europe, and they want this to be a region which is open, because you would like to have more than one best friend. As the Mexicans sometimes say: America is our best friend, whether we like it or not. And that is a reality. I mean, that is the way the world is. And in Asia, China is a very good friend; America has been a friend for a long time. And the question is: is it possible for countries in Asia to develop that relationship and keep both, even though some may be closer to China and their stance, some may be US allies, some may be friends of the US and have a lot of security and other cooperation with the US; but they want to keep that relationship with China because they accept that China is going to be a major partner, major player, it is not going to disappear. And we have to learn to live with it and China really will benefit if it is able to co-prosper with the countries around it.
So it depends on how China plays its cards and how deftly it is able to grow its influence without making other countries feel that they have been squeezed, pressured or coerced. And it depends on the countries in Asia developing their relationships with China but at the same time maintaining links with the rest of the region or with the rest of the world. I think they want to do that. I say that because they do not take identical positions as the US does. To the US, China is a strategic competitor, and they want to make sure they win. To Asian countries, we are not competing with China. They are 1,400 million people; we are just 6 million in Singapore. Even Indonesia is 250 million. India is bigger, but India is in a different strategic position. And so we accept that this is the way the region is, let us try to make the region work. And I think if that is the attitude, and if there is that sensitivity and consciousness on both sides, it can be made to work.
The Americans have been a major force in Asia since at least the Second World War. It is now nearly coming on 80 years. And they remain welcomed. I mean there are times when people talk about the Ugly Americans. But given that it is 80 years — two and a half generations, three generations — actually the Americans have been dominant in this region, while giving countries space to grow, to develop, to compete with one another peacefully and not to be held down or squatted upon. And that is why they are still welcomed after so many years. And if the Chinese can achieve something like that, I think the region can prosper.
Moderator: Maybe I can ask one question on a topic that we discussed quite a lot the past two days and that is climate change. And one will think that climate change will be one issue that could unify the world and bring countries together on how to respond to it. But in actual fact, I think we have seen a lot of competition, disputes, self-interest instead. How do you think countries can come together to work on this issue and what are the situations they should avoid if we are to respond effectively?
PM Lee: It is a very complex problem, and it is a very serious problem. It is existential. Mankind is tampering with a global ecosystem and climate in ways with consequences we are completely unable to predict, and you can easily tip it out of balance and create within a few lifetimes, a completely different climate and environment, where living will be harder, growing food will be harder. Existing will be under threat and therefore, with huge people migrations, movements, political instability and conflict. And so you have to address it.
And I would say there are three buckets of issues which you have to deal with, and different kinds of difficulty. One where you can cooperate — you need technology to solve climate change. You need to work out markets to deal with carbon trading. You need to work out infrastructure, so that you can trade green energy. You need electricity grids, you need your infrastructure within your economy to be changed. The Europeans are talking about changing from heaters to heat pumps. I mean, sounds simple, but they are talking about trillions and trillions of dollars of investments. It is not so easy to do, but these are areas where we naturally need to work together. And if we want to trade carbon, we have to work out the rules. If we want to export or import electricity, we have to work together and build a grid. I think these are areas which are cooperative.
Then you have the question: how do we cut back our carbon emissions? And we all have to cut back our carbon emissions. I think the scientists are quite clear — we have to go to net zero. How soon can we do it? How can we do that? And here, there is a bit of a game of chicken. If you do not do it, why should I do it? And I am not going to do it, you better move first, because otherwise, you may cause the system to tip over. And here we all want the result to come down. We all know what we have to do to do our part. But it is also easier to do my part if you are doing your part, then I can justify to my people “Well, everybody else is abiding by the rules, we have to, otherwise we will be a pariah.” That is harder, but I think in principle that can be done.
The third, which is the hardest part, is who owes whom what. Because there is a question of historic responsibility. Most of the carbon in the air was put there by the countries which are now OECD countries, the developed countries. Most of the developing countries did not put the stuff into the air. So now you want us all to cut back but you created three quarters of this problem. So you owe me. That is the way the argument goes. But the counter argument is: if we now all do not cut back, we are all going to be stuck. So who owes whom? Doesn't count. And furthermore, the historical track record of countries paying another country vast sums of money does not always lead to happy outcomes. So who owes whom is going to be a very vexed argument when it is not settled.
And then you also have the question of people who say I have got a trillion dollars of oil in the ground, or gas, and you have to pay me money not to pump it out. Because otherwise, I am going to be poor again. And I can understand that argument. But if you took that to the logical conclusion I think we are going to have a complete gridlock. So that is going to be very difficult. If you asked me where we should not go, I think we should not go there, but I am afraid you cannot avoid dealing with those issues.
Moderator: Thank you PM for that. Now we will take questions from the floor. There are two microphones at both sides of the room. So do come up and ask your question. And before you do, please identify yourself and the organisation that you represent for the benefit of everyone in the audience. We will take the questions as a group, so let us have two or three questions on the same topic, and then PM can answer them together. Can we have the first two or three questions on geopolitics following PM’s opening address.
Danny Quah: My name is Danny Quah. I am Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Thank you, Prime Minister, for spending this time with us. I wanted to pick up on two things that you mentioned on geopolitics. The first is how the US-China relation is the most consequential one in the world. The second is how third countries want to keep things open and Asian countries should feel they have agency strengthening multilateralism, making the right choices. Paradoxically, we are in a situation where the lesser powers need to help the great powers resolve their differences. What do you think is the most effective thing that third countries and Asian countries need to do at this point to pour oil on the water, on the disruptive water of US China relations? Thank you very much.
Moderator: May we have the second question please?
Zhu Feng, Professor from Nanjing University: Now, Mr Prime Minister, thanks for your great presentation and your speech. I think it is very illuminating. I am Zhu Feng, a professor from Nanjing University. My question is this: yes, given some sort of existing threat, so China and US relations is harder to detangle in the coming years. As you mentioned, keep bilateral relations manageable and peaceful and controllable, not just for two people’s interest but also for entire region and the world. My question is I think next month, it is quite likely that there will be a APEC Summit meeting and Chinese top leader also will probably meet their American counterpart — it is a second Xi-Biden non-virtual meeting. So my question is: based on your wisdom, if you were to talk to President Biden, what will the Chinese leaders supposed to speak at? Thank you.
PM Lee: Sorry, you want me to advise President Biden or President Xi?
Zhu Feng, Professor from Nanjing University: I prefer you to advise the Chinese President. Thank you.
Moderator: PM, would you like to take these two questions?
PM Lee: What can third countries do to help? I think what I suggested we should do in Asia will be helpful, and that is third countries may be lined up close to America or close to China, but you want to do business with China, and you do want to maintain stable and constructive relations with China. And we can do that which does not only depend on the third country, but also depends on China's part. Then I think you have a less tense situation. China does not feel the whole world is ganging up against them — which I do not think is true, but I think there is a perspective in China — and America knows that it got issues to deal with, between it and China. And it has got friends who will join it when you have to deal with particular problems, trade issues or whatever. But this is a bilateral problem, and you are not having a global coalition line up against somebody whom you consider to be on the wrong side. I think that is one very important part of it.
I think the other significant thing, which depends on attitudes of the countries in the world, is Taiwan. Because One China is the basis on which nearly every country in the world recognises the PRC, and has informal, unofficial relations with Taiwan. And I think that has to remain the fundamental basis on which the relationships are maintained and the status quo is justified. If we start thinking of Taiwan as an analogue of Ukraine — a member of the United Nations, which is Ukraine — an independent sovereign country and one which therefore deserves to be defended because it is on the good side and the others are on the wrong side — China is on the wrong side — I think you are changing a very fundamental basis of the international understanding, and it will have very dangerous consequences. And if countries can make that very clear, I think that is helpful. Sometimes it is not so clear, and especially with a new generation and with the media, it becomes not a question of One China, but a question of democracy versus autocracy. And I think going that way is dangerous.
Thirdly, I think what third countries can do is when there are issues between it and China or it and the US, to stand up and to address them, talk about them, work on them. Whether it is the South China Sea, whether it is Senkaku/Diaoyudao Islands, whether it is copyright, intellectual property issues, whether it is cyber security. These are things which are real problems, they have to be acknowledged, they have to be discussed, and they have to be worked out as the principles of coexistence say, equality and mutual respect; and in deed as well as in word.
And I say this, I mean the items I list, are mostly to do with relations with China because China is a factor which is changing in the world. It is a country which is growing, it is a country which is occupying more space, stretching out, growing its influence, and accommodating that influence is the most important thing which the world must do, and that calls for cooperation between China and the rest of the world.
On the APEC meeting between Xi and Biden, I think they are old friends. They know each other for a very long time. They have spent a lot of time together — many days traveling in America, traveling in China. And I think they know what the problem is with one another. I do not think I am in a position to advise President Xi what to say — he knows what the challenges are. The difficulty is to reach an understanding with the American President, which acknowledges their differences, but takes the edge off and takes the temperature down. At least avoid missteps and miscalculations and misunderstandings so that we can let the temperatures cool, maybe let some time pass, get past the election seasons. Then we can pick up the relation and go forward again.
We all know what election seasons are like. You have to say all sorts of things to get elected in a hot contest. You try to say things you will not regret later. But sometimes these things happen, and you have to try and minimise the consequences of that. And at the same time, you have got to show goodwill and understanding of how things appear to the other side, to countries which find that the world has changed, that what used to be a small economy is now not so small, and maybe even bigger than you.
And therefore, it is not going to be so easy to accommodate (China) into the global system, and therefore (China) has to make its own concessions, its own accommodations, so that it is possible for a very difficult transition to take place peacefully. And that is something which I think intellectually Chinese leaders understand; in practice making it happen and making it be appreciated and understood — that is a big challenge.
Moderator: Maybe we can have the next two or three questions on an issue which has been talked about quite a lot during these two days and that is climate change. And if we can have questions from the floor, on that topic, and PM can take it together. No? Maybe I can ask one question then. And this is when we talk about climate change, how can a small country like Singapore play its part when actually it cannot make that much of an impact by itself?
PM Lee: Well, we are an insignificant part of global emissions like 0.11% . So even if we all stopped breathing, it would not save the world. That is the reality, and yet, we all have to do our part and we all have to chip in both to reduce emissions, and also to work on solutions. And solutions include agreements, include rules, include negotiations at UNFCCC and we are participating actively in that.
One of the areas which we are co-chairing and working on is developing carbon markets and what are the rules we should apply to carbon markets. And you may have noticed that Minister Grace Fu speaking just yesterday announced how we are making rules for ourselves, what will be respectable carbon markets which you can trust and which will be meaningful and not just greenwashing. So we are participating in that way in the international effort.
I think it is the least we can do. We can make a contribution. But of course, it depends on many countries coming along. And unfortunately, the reality is the biggest countries — or perhaps I should not say the biggest countries — the biggest emitters are very big. And they have to make very big adjustments, and I hope that they will because unless they do, the problem cannot be solved.
Wanyang, City University of Hong Kong: Apologies to the moderator that I do not have a question on climate change. I have a question on CPTPP. So the Prime Minister alluded to the importance of RCEP. China is a member of the RCEP but not yet one of the CPTPP but to many people’s surprise, China has applied to join the CPTPP. But given the geopolitical rivalry contestation you alluded to and also China’s domestic economic structure, how likely do you see a possible and successful Chinese membership in the CPTPP in the near future? Thanks.
PM Lee: I think it is not so surprising that the Chinese applied to join the CPTPP. When first the CPTPP was conceived, the Chinese were very suspicious. They thought this was meant to set very high standards and therefore shape the ground rules against them. And maybe there was some element of that in some of the members of the CPTPP. But as they studied it, and they understood better what it involved, I think they came to the conclusion that there may be advantage for them to be in the CPTPP and to influence the process. And I think that they must have had some contacts with the CPTPP members including the United States at that time, and been encouraged that the door was not completely shut on them. And when America at the last moment said, “No I am not going to join,” and Mr Trump left it practically on the first day he became President, the Chinese had put their hands up and said, “May I join?”
And in principle, we cannot say no, because if you meet the standards, if you are able to comply with all the requirements of the CPTPP, then it is something we have to consider very, very seriously. But the decision is made by consensus, you have to settle with each of the countries, and in the end, there has to be a consensus of all of the countries that this is something which they want to see happen and then it can happen.
So I think it will take some time. There are issues with Australia which is in the process of being resolved. There will be issues with other countries which may take longer. But I think in the end, the consensus will not just depend on the economic arguments, it will depend also on geopolitical and strategic considerations. That is the reality. The pity of it is that this concept – the TPP – which was meant to bring the two sides of the Pacific together, in the end succeeded not in full measure, but maybe in three-quarters measure because we were able to carry it through. But we are there missing one very important original party, the United States. And I think it will be some time before the constellations shift and it is possible to talk about the US joining such a free trade agreement. That is the reality and that is where we are now.
Moderator: Thank you PM. More questions from the floor please?
Harry: My name is Harry and I run an SME and now my own charity. I would like to bring the question nearer home if I may. In 2016, nine of our vehicles, the Terrex, were held up in Hong Kong. And at that point in time, China said that, “You either have diplomatic relations with either one of us, Taiwan or China.”
In today’s scenario, it could happen again, with a more aggressive China in the South China Sea or even with Taiwan again. So two questions here. One is that how do we handle this in today’s context, given a more aggressive China and secondly, is that are our 4G leaders ready to handle this from a diplomatic perspective? Thank you.
PM Lee: Well, first of all the Terrex incident did not involve China. We had a shipment of vehicles it passed through Hong Kong. The Hong Kong customs authorities impounded the vehicles. They said requirements, declarations had not been properly done. So we dealt with the Hong Kong authorities and eventually the Hong Kong authorities released the vehicles and we took them home. But we were dealing with Hong Kong on the merits of the case. So what you described, never happened.
Secondly, I do not know what will happen if it occurs today. I am sure we will deal with it with as much attention and sensitivity as we did and propriety as we did in 2016 but I very much hope it does not happen.
Thirdly, every leader of Singapore and every Minister in Singapore and Ministers as a team need to be able to hold Singapore’s place in the world and friendly relationships as well as dealing with problems which arise from time to time. And these are things which we have been working on in Cabinet. The Ministers are involved in the decisions, they participate in them and I am confident that when they take over, they will be ready, they will be well supported, and they will grow in experience and stature with time in the job.
Asad Latif: I am Asad Latif from The Straits Times. Prime Minister, what I am going to ask is kind of – you set the tone for that in your last few sentences. There was a speaker this morning who described Singapore as the best governed country on Earth. My question is this: since this conference is about the centenary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, would you like to throw your mind back a bit and describe how Mr Lee managed to set in motion this best governed country on Earth, when the international situation was so dire, and therefore today, as the 4G prepares to take over, how do you think this very disturbing international situation will mould it? Do you think this is where Mr Lee’s thoughts should almost perhaps become biblical in dealing with very nasty secular times? Thank you.
PM Lee: Well as Mr Lee used to say, it was good that things turned out this way. I am not sure I would like to do it again because I may not be lucky the second time. And there is a lot of contingency in what happened. We worked very hard, we made sure we maximised our chances, but we had lucky breaks along the way, and fortunately we were able to make the most of them.
We tried very hard to avoid being an independent country — we did not believe it was viable. We went into Malaysia, that turned out to be non-viable, and we were thrown out. We had to make a living for ourselves. It was an indelible experience, which I think girded that generation of Singaporeans to take life very seriously and to determine to make a success of it. Fortunately for Singapore, at that time, the left-wing opposition party which had 13, 14 seats in Parliament decided to declare this a sham independence. That it was not a real country and to boycott Parliament and abandon the field to the PAP. The PAP expanded, took over, won all the seats in Parliament, and for about 15, 16 years we were in absolute control and were able to focus on development, on growth, on nation building, on building leadership, on taking the country forward, undistracted by politics. And we were able to continue that trend, even into the 1980s, 1990s, 2020s now, with a very high degree of national consensus on what the country needs to do.
And we have been fortunate — we have built up high quality civil service and maintained high standards in the public service and the politics and we have kept our system clean; and therefore got into a virtuous cycle where you show results, people trust you, that trust is critical, you can produce more results. You still have to win elections, and therefore you have to keep your feet on the ground and make sure that you perform and you cannot start to lord it over people. You are there to serve.
But we have got that virtuous cycle and we are in a garden of Eden state. It is one of those things which depends on the path we got here and that is why we are here. And if you leave this, you are not going to come back in again. And our job is to try very hard to make people understand that and to work together to keep it going for as long as we can.
So it is not a magic formula, it is not something you can just pick up and put in a different country. We were lucky. We now have this tremendous asset and we are in a difficult environment now and we have to make the most of it to make Singapore succeed in a very changed world. Policies have to change and keep up to date with the times. When we were growing rapidly, we could afford to say we focus on education, healthcare, housing. The rest of it, all the comforts of welfare and social support, we cannot afford that and we need people to be focused on working, doing their best for themselves.
It worked because the jobs were there, if you are prepared to work, you can do it. Now, the jobs are still there. If you are prepared to work, you need to have the right skills to do it. And yesterday's skills may not be the same as tomorrow’s skills. And how do I help you go from yesterday to tomorrow? And how do I make you make that transition and not end up a loser in a country where other people are winning? And you have a divided and very unhappy society. It means we have to intervene with social support, we have to intervene with training, education for adults, we have to help things happen. Which in the past, we could say the economy will take care of it, we just focus on providing the preconditions. The world changed, the policies have to change.
Yesterday, somebody asked Teo Chee Hean what would Mr Lee say or do if he were here today. And he recounted how he asked a visitor and the visitor said, “What would Deng Xiaoping do?” and the answer was Deng Xiaoping would do exactly what we are doing today. But we are not so lucky. When we look at the problems in a new situation, we asked ourselves: what would Mr Lee do today? Doesn't mean what he did previously and how do I do that now; but in this new world, if he had this experience, and were confronted with this situation with the same ideals, the same objectives, the same drive to make Singapore succeed, what is the best thing to do? And unfortunately, Mr Lee cannot provide that answer. We have to think of that answer, and we have to make it work.
Gracelyn, Ngee Ann Polytechnic: Hello, I am Gracelyn from Ngee Ann Poly. My question is related to social sustainability. So even though we are trying to refresh the social compact, many students, especially those in ASEAN countries, still opt for careers that are more stable or “mainstream”, rather than what they are truly passionate about. And as a result, many of them start experiencing burnout sometime during their career as they realise that they are doing something that they are not very passionate about. Hence we are seeing many youths taking gap years and switching between careers and just feeling very conflicted between societal expectations and what they truly want. So I wanted to ask what are your views and/or advice to youths on this issue. Thank you.
PM Lee: I think we would like young people to do things which they want to do. But I would like young people to know that whatever you do, there will be a lot of hard work. And there will be a lot of times when you will find it is not exciting, not thrilling, not top of the world. But you have to persevere and press on. And then eventually at the end of it, you look back and say, well, overall, I chose the right course. To become a concert pianist, you must play a lot of scales. It is very boring. And you have to be drilled and practise. And you cannot help that. Maybe one day you can just infuse AI into your brain and your fingers will know what to do. But life is like that. It is good to strike out on a different path. It is good if you have a passion doing social work or you want to work with a particular disadvantaged group or you have talent for the arts. You work at it, you go that direction. But we also have to be practical about it and apply ourselves, and as you grow up, gradually you will get a better sense of knowing what you want to do.
A gap year is not a bad thing. To my generation, it is a luxury. Nobody in my generation ever talked about a gap year, we did not know what it was. But nowadays, I read about people doing it and it is quite normal. Well, it is good that you have this opportunity. Take it, see the world, learn a bit more and round yourself up. Grow up in new directions. And therefore be more prepared to play a role to contribute and to make a difference over what I hope will be a long and productive lifetime.
Fu Fang Jie, SMU Professor: My name is Fu Fang Jie and I am a professor from SMU, local university here. So just now, Prime Minister offered excellent advice for both Chinese and American leaders. But you also mentioned that Taiwan factor is an important factor lying between the relations of these two great nations. And according to the polls, the majority of the Taiwanese people seems to want to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, we know there is an election soon to be next year. I have two related questions. One is: how do you think the so-called status quo is sustainable in the long run? Number two, what kind of excellent advice would you offer to the leaders, the next leaders of the Taiwanese people? Thank you.
PM Lee: I explained just now what the status quo depends on — it depends on the concept of One China. In Taiwan, in more recent times, the idea is the 1992 Consensus. What exactly it is is open to discussion, but it is called the 1992 consensus and it worked. And it is no longer the basis on which Cross-Strait relations are being conducted. And how to find a way forward from that is a challenge. I think my advice is not to the Taiwanese leaders, but I would say all parties dealing with this Cross-Strait situation would have to be very, very careful not to edge closer and closer to a dangerous situation, which can lead to a misunderstanding or mishap.
You may remember in 2001, soon after George W. Bush became president, there was an EP-3 incident. An EP-3 was flying off the coast of southern China. It collided with a PRC fighter jet. The PRC fighter jet crashed, the pilot presumed drowned. The EP-3 was crippled, landed in Hainan Island – US EP-3. It took several weeks of very difficult discussions and delicate diplomacy to get over that, to have a form of words for the US to say they regret what happened and to get their aeroplane and their serviceman back. Could such an incident happen today? Yes. Can it be resolved as readily? Not at all clear. It may spiral off in any number of directions. So the dangers are there. Each little step you take, and I would say each time somebody makes a little move, the other side makes another little move. And there are three parties in this — the US, China and Taiwan. Each is reacting to the other and it is a dynamic which no single party is fully controlling. And you have to try your best not to let it go out of control. You may think you are safe. You take a half-step wrong, and you may find yourself on a cliff. But I think Mr Ma Ying-jeou knows much more about this than me.
Ma Ying-jeou, former Taiwan President: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity. Because just a while ago, you talk about mainland China-Taiwan Cross-Strait relations. I think this is a good opportunity for me to let you know, I think it is very important to make the two sides of Taiwan Strait to meet, to dialogue and to try to find out the solution. Actually Singapore twice played the meeting place of the two sides, once in 1993 with Wang Daohan and Koo Chen-fu. In 2015, Xi Jinping and myself also in Singapore. Now it is a very crucial time to the two sides. If Taiwan and mainland China could work out something, I think the collision between China and US may be avoided. That is why I am here calling the countries involved to encourage Taiwan and mainland China to have a dialogue on how to resolve the situation. And I hope for those of you who are concerned about the situation, not just Asia, but also the world to encourage Taiwan and mainland China to meet, to have a dialogue and to try to find out a solution. I think this is a very good opportunity to do this job. So for those of you who attend this conference, please join me to call for this dialogue. Thank you very much.
PM Lee: I think dialogue is essential; and I believe that the two sides are talking. But from dialogue you must move if not to meeting of minds, at least to a mutual understanding of each other's positions and some understanding of how to take positive steps forward. We were very happy on two occasions to play host in Singapore. If the circumstances dictate further meetings in future, we will be very happy to be the party sitting there providing the room and pouring the tea.
Gillian Koh, Deputy Director (Research), LKYSPP: Thank you moderator. Good afternoon, Prime Minister, feel so privileged to be in this room to listen to you discuss your politics and how third countries and certainly Singapore should posture itself, what policies it should take. My question is this: what is the extent to which you think Singaporeans grasp what you are sharing, that they understand this? Is it to a satisfactory level or do you feel that that understanding needs to be better propagated? If so, I would like to ask you Prime Minister, a second question, which is the extent to which you think you and the government are able to influence that understanding or sentiment versus the extent to which they are receiving influence from other sources and whether those sources are helpful, be they explicit, upfront or covert? What are your anxieties about Singaporean's grasp of international relations? Thank you, Prime Minister.
Masafumi Ishii, former Japanese ambassador to Indonesia: Thank you Prime Minister. My name is Masafumi Ishii, I am a retired Japanese diplomat, my last posting being an Ambassador of Japan to Indonesia. I have two quick questions. First question is, can you talk a little bit more about India? What kind of role you expect, or you want to see India play in the region? Second question, can you share with us your vision of the future of ASEAN and what should be done to reach that vision? Thank you.
PM Lee: First, Gillian’s question. I think Singaporeans are exposed to the international news more than citizens of nearly any other country. We are living in a very open society, people who travel overseas a lot, so we see the world; but I do not know if it is top of the mind because we have many other things to think about day to day — bringing up our families, making sure that you can deal with the cost of living, all the personal and professional concerns which everybody except diplomats have. So we do need to have a general understanding amongst the population that the country is taking the right foreign policy stance, and as I said in my opening remarks, it is important that you have domestic support for the stance you take internationally, because otherwise it becomes not sustainable.
And I think in Singapore there is domestic support for the positions we take. For example, on Ukraine, where we took a very strong stand, and we did straw polls and it showed that Singaporeans understand that you have to stand up, because sovereignty is at stake, because the fundamental principles of the UN Charter are at stake, and if we do not speak up on this clearly, regardless of who it is against whom, because of the principles, one day if it happens to us, nobody will speak up for us. So I think in their own ways, Singaporeans do understand what is what.
Of course, they are also exposed to many other sources of information and disinformation. Some come on WhatsApp, some come on Telegram, some come in different languages, and they have some influence. And we have to go out and counter them and we have been working very hard to make sure that we put out correct messages and make sure people understand when you read something, you have a sense: where is it coming from, what is he trying to want to make you think? And that is a ceaseless task. We keep on working at it.
We have a phrase called POFMA. It has become a verb, I can POFMA you. Those who are from overseas, you will find out what it is. It is not a laughing matter, it is a serious requirement to make sure that when untruths are published online, there is a way for the untruth to be flagged, and people know that these are not facts, these are assertions which are strongly disputed and in the government’s view, false. So we will keep on trying to work at that. But it is not possible for us to have a great firewall and to keep out information or misinformation from the rest of the world. We are open to it. We are English-speaking and also bilingual. And therefore, we have to deal with this. As Deng Xiaoping says, when you open the windows, the fresh air comes in, but so do the flies and the mosquitoes.
Now, the question of India’s role. I think India aspires to play a major role in the region. They chaired G20 extremely actively, they mobilised what is now called the Global South and articulated concerns for the developing countries in Africa and Latin America, in the South Pacific, and Caribbean. It is growing rapidly, its population is young, it has the potential to be a major active player in the world. And one which will make its own calculations. It is not just going to be a participant in the Quad and therefore go along with the consensus of other countries. It has its own calculations, its own strategic interests, and it will make its own calculations and they are skilful at doing this.
But their GDP is small, they are one-fifth of China’s GDP, their international trade is not huge, it is one-fifth of China’s international trade. So their external reach is not quite the same, but if they sustain growth, which we hope they will, I think their heft will grow and we hope that it will be deployed to a constructive purpose for the region. We have always felt that India has a major contribution to make to Asia. So people talk about the Indo-Pacific now. But you may not know, we have in ASEAN what we call the East Asia Summit, and despite the name, India is part of the East Asia Summit. It is not in East Asia, it is only in the Summit. But it is in the Summit for a strategic reason because we felt that India within this region has a role to play, and one day, it will grow into that role.
The vision for ASEAN — ASEAN has a formal Vision, if you look up the ASEAN website, you will find the ASEAN Vision for 2045, which sets out all the things we want to do. But essentially, we would like a group of countries which are able to overcome their bilateral difficulties to make common cause, cooperate economically, integrate regionally, and make their voice heard at international fora — whether it is a trade negotiation, whether it is at the UN, whether you are talking about climate change, to have a view which people will pay attention to, which individually we will not be able to do. We will not be able to do that on all issues, on some strategic issues, there will be very different perspectives — certainly on the South China Sea, between countries which have claims like the Philippines or Vietnam, and countries which do not even have a literal shoreline on the South China Sea like Myanmar. There will be very different views and so it will be harder to make a consensus, but to the extent possible, we will try very hard to make ASEAN work, and I think all of the ASEAN members want to make it work and find it valuable. I think that is the test of whether it has been a success.
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