PM Lee Hsien Loong's Interview with Local Media – Section 1: Foreign Policy (May 2024)

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 10 May 2024

Edited transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's interview with local media ahead of the leadership transition. The interview was aired on 10 May 2024.


Tham Yuen-C (The Straits Times): PM, thank you for sitting with us today. You will soon hand over to DPM Lawrence Wong. So, we would like to take this opportunity to hear from you about your thoughts on how Singapore has transformed in the last 20 years, and also what kind of Singapore will the new PM be leading.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Looking forward to the handover. We have been preparing this for a very long time. Everything is ready and it will take place on the 15th of May.

ST: Maybe we can start with foreign policy. Foreign policy is all about keeping our little red dot safe and secure, and Singapore has had a steady foreign policy based on our national interest. But the world is changing, and Singapore is also changing. So, in your view, how has our foreign policy evolved, and also what has changed, and what has remained constant?

PM Lee: Well, both the world as well as Singapore has changed. The world, 20 years ago, we were still in a kind of post-Cold War environment, meaning the Americans were very dominant, globalisation, multilateralism. People talk about free trade; people talk about international division of labour. Thomas Friedman says the world is flat. And we were prospering in that environment.

Today, the world is not flat. Today, the great powers are at odds with one another. The Chinese, China is playing a much more dominant role; it has become very much stronger in the last 20 years and more prosperous. There are tremendous tensions which have arisen - Russia with the US, China and US, China and EU too. And we are dealing with a very troubled world. Confidence and free trade have also been shaken. First, they talk about fair trade. That means I do not want to be so free. Then, they talk about national security considerations, which are important. Resilience – what if you become hostile to me? What if there is Covid? That is important too. Then they talk about reshoring; bringing it back home. Do it at home. But that sounds protectionist. And they talk about friend shoring; I will do business with friends. Now, who is my friend? So, it is a very troubled external environment and we are sailing into it.

Domestically, we have changed. In 20 years, we have become more prosperous. I think our diplomacy has helped us to carve a spot in the world, people recognise us. There is a certain respect for us and that is good. At the same time, we are very much more connected to the world, in the sense that in the old days, foreign policy is foreign policy. And what is domestic? Well, Singaporeans will leave the foreign policy to the Government. But today you are so exposed. You have got the Internet, you have got social media, WhatsApp, TikTok, people travelling, all sorts of things coming in, and Singaporeans being influenced by videos, by memes, by messages. So, your foreign policy and domestic policy, domestic situation has been linked together. So, we have to adapt to that, and our foreign policy has to adapt to that.

What has not changed? We are still a little red dot, a bit redder, but still little. We are still in the middle of Southeast Asia, neighbours bigger than us, region prospering but troubled. We are still depending on an international rule of law, on international trade, on our sea lines of communications of being open, being able to talk to everyone in the world and do business and get our food and our supplies, and needing to protect our interests, where everybody is jostling with one another, and we are not the biggest person in the discussion. We have to hold our own, which takes quite a lot of doing and keeps MFA very busy.

ST: PM, you have talked about protecting our interests. I am just wondering when we say Singapore's national interests, it seems like different people seem to have different interpretations of it. Say during certain incidents, you know, there will be different segments of Singapore trying to push for the government to do this or to do that. So how do we get people on the same page, and is it time now for us to really interrogate what it means for something to be in Singapore's national interests?

PM Lee: This is a continuing debate. Everybody says, and it is quite obvious to accept, that your foreign policy must be based on your national interests. Then the question is, what is your national interest? And you have different ones, right? You have national interest in prospering, in safety and security, defending yourself, in being able to do business with other countries when you need to, in having sovereignty or independence to decide what you want to do.

You have national interests in specific things, for example, in access to airspace so that your aeroplanes can fly into Singapore and out of Singapore, or to be able to set your own path and decide whom you want to do business with and what you stand for in the world. What are your values? What are your ideals? It is not just bread and butter, and can you get your food or not. But, when you talk about multi-racialism, democracy, talk about integrity of our system, these are things – all of them are national interests, which one is more important?

And when you debate that, it is not debating one abstract principle, like sovereignty versus another abstract principle like the economy, and then how do I weigh them? Which one weighs a little bit more? But a specific issue comes up – there is a test— somebody probes your maritime boundary a little bit and on the other hand, he is offering to do business with you and trade green energy, for example. Do you get angry? Do you decide to overlook this and then I do business and I lump it? There is no formula answer. You have to look at each one, each situation, and then you have to judge. And in a big case, if you have to make a big decision and take a stand. Then the people will have a view and the Government will have to take that into account, and the Government hopefully will have its own considered view and will talk to the population, and we will discuss this. And we have done that. There have been times, for example, before I took over in 2004, you may have forgotten, but I made a trip to Taiwan as DPM and it caused a rumpus, and I had to state my position. So, my first National Day Rally, I had to spend time talking about not just foreign policy, but that trip to Taiwan and why I went and why it is important to us, and why Singapore's national interest required me to do that, and that it was necessary for me to do so, even though it caused a kerfuffle at that time.

And that is the sort of thing which happens. And during the last 20 years, there have been other occasions when we had incidents and occasions when we have been tested, and we have had to get people to understand what it is about. Sometimes (through) public channels, sometimes we have had to do it behind closed doors and then we can explain a bit more the background or what is it all about.

Hadi Saparin (Berita Harian): PM, in the context of how our foreign policy has evolved, in terms of our two closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, how have you managed relations over the past 20 years?

PM Lee: I think we have been lucky. Relations with both have been generally good. With Malaysia, I have worked with a succession of PMs, starting with Abdullah Badawi, and we have had good discussions. I met all of them and we have made progress with them as we went along (when) different issues came up. For example, with Abdullah Badawi, he was PM when the Pedra Branca judgment at the ICJ was published. And we discussed it, I talked to him, and we decided, we would both accept this and now we should move on and talk about the next stage – now the land is settled, what about the maritime borders? So we talked about maritime delimitation. We made progress. But of course, it takes time, and we are still discussing the maritime delimitation until today.

Then Najib, we did settle a very important matter, which was the POA land issue, the Malayan Railway land. And we did the land swap with them, which is why today you have the rail corridor, which a lot of people enjoy on weekends. If you go cycling there, you will know it was because we did a deal. When the old railway station at the Tanjong Pagar is done up again, which is soon going to be, you would enjoy that. That is part of the deal. You go to Marina South, Marina One, the development jointly between Khazanah and Temasek, that was part of the deal we gave them. I made Najib a generous offer to settle. He looked at it, he agreed. We went into the joint development. I think both sides are very happy, and both sides made money from the development. And there is another development too, Duo at Bugis, which was also part of it. It was a very important issue resolved with Najib, which had taken 20 years to get there. Now, it is Anwar Ibrahim. I have met him many times. Since very long time ago, even back in the 90s, so we know each other very well. We have been talking about significant cooperation; the RTS link in JB going to Woodlands is coming up, supposed to be done by end 2026. And I think a lot of Singaporeans are anxiously waiting for that to go and get their supper and their shopping in Johor Bahru and (for) Johoreans to come here to work.

We are talking about other issues, can be cooperative but also sensitive. Airspace, the maritime boundaries that I talked about just now, water;  these are things which need to be discussed. We have not settled them. So, there is work to be done by my successor.

With Indonesia, I coincided with two Indonesian Presidents. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Very soon after I was sworn in, I went to attend his swearing-in ceremony in Jakarta. It must have been my first or second overseas visit. And we have worked with him, and we signed three agreements on airspace, also on military training and on extradition. In fact, I remember vividly we went to Bali and had all the Ministers there and we settled the agreement. But it could not follow through, the politics was difficult. Then when Jokowi came in, he wanted to have another stab at it, and so did I. So, we decided to press the matter. I asked Teo Chee Hean to look after our side of it and negotiate. On his side, he had Luhut Pandjaitan in charge, together with Prabowo, because the defence part was very important. And happily, they settled it, and we signed it two years ago. It was ratified last year, and it has come into effect this year. So, it was settled. And next week I am going to Bogor, and I am meeting Jokowi, and I am going to say thank you very much, between you and me, we settled something which is a 25-year agreement, so we are on a good (long-term) basis that takes our two countries the next steps forward and cooperate together.

I think both will always be complicated relationships. Nearest neighbours, permanently nearest neighbours; you have to work together, and yet there are always so many places where you can easily have different perspectives or rub up against each other. And I think we both know that, and both try our best not to collide, because we can do many things together.

Melissa Manuel (Seithi): PM, would you like to share about U.S. and China next, keeping in mind that the Taiwan Straits crisis has been a long-standing point of contention as well.

PM Lee: US-China relations started off positive and there were issues but basically cooperative, but has now become very contentious. I remember one meeting quite early in my term where the Chinese Premier was there, and I cannot remember who was on the American side. And the discussion was on the US trade deficit with China. And the Americans official was complaining that how is it that there is an imbalance and that is not fair. And the Chinese Premier's response was, yes, we would like to buy more from America, please let me buy more high-tech products from you – supercomputers, maybe high-tech electronic machines, whatever. And of course, it was not so easy for Americans to do that, but it was that sort of a discussion. There are issues, but we are not hostile to each other. But today, there are issues, and they are trying very hard not to be hostile to each other, but it is a very tense relationship. Better now because after President Biden met President Xi Jinping in San Francisco last year, things have stabilised, and both sides are trying not to make provocative moves.

But the underlying tensions, the underlying contradiction between their national positions, national interests, I think is very deep and will be there for a long time. More than 10 years, maybe 20 years, maybe more. Fortunately for us, we have good relations with both. We have had good relations with China for quite a long time now, despite periodic kerfuffles. We have the Suzhou project. It is now celebrating the 30th anniversary this year. We have the Tianjin project that celebrated its 10th anniversary. And in the last 20 years when I was PM, we launched our third G-to-G project, which is in Chongqing, on connectivity. And that is doing promisingly. We have an FTA with China; we have upgraded the FTA with China. We have participated in cooperative projects which China has championed, like Belt and Road, Asia Industrial and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB). So, I think overall, our relationships with them are very warm, and I think they know that we would like to do more with them, and we are not against them.

At the same time they know that although we are ethnic Chinese mostly, we are different from them. And that is very important. So, if we can maintain the proper relationship and the relationship is based on national interests, and it cannot really be based on ethnic identity or, how shall we put it, you cannot say we have inherited, common ancestors, therefore we must have the same history.

With the US, we also have good relations. We do a lot with them. They invest here huge amounts, important projects, their banks are all here. With the Government, we do a lot; we cooperate on defence and security. In fact, we have a lot of troops which are training in the US, flying F-15s, F-16s, and Chinook helicopters. We do combined arms exercises in Fort Sill in Oklahoma. At any time, there are thousand plus Singaporean SAF personnel in the US. We are, I think the biggest, but certainly one of the biggest foreign contingents of military people in the US.

It is a very close relationship in that direction. They come here, we host them, we welcome them. Their ships and aircrafts visit. Two years ago, somebody spotted a strange bird parked at Changi Airport, and went on to the Internet and asked, what is this. (The person said) I think I know what this is, and it was a US Global Hawk. It was a long-range drone which was visiting and was parked at Changi, and somebody spotted it. So, both ways, it is a very rich relationship. And we would like it so, because fundamentally we believe that America has an important, constructive role to play in the region because the region needs to be an open one. We are friends with multiple major powers, and we would like them to be here constructively, helping with the security and the prosperity of the region. And the Americans are doing that. And therefore, because we are their friend, when they need a favour and ask us, sometimes we are able to do that.

For example, one day, we received a call to say, well, President Trump wants to meet President Kim, and do you think he can do that in Singapore? And we said “when?”, and they said next month. So, we scrambled, and we hosted it. We are just pouring tea for the occasion. But nevertheless, it shows that both sides found us acceptable, that we are not hostile to them, and they trusted us, trusted us not just on our policies, but trusted us to be able to put the thing together and to host it and make it all go off without a hitch.

Dawn Tan (CNA): PM let us speak a little bit about that trust.

PM Lee: Yes.

CNA: Because over the years, as you have described, you have addressed the fact that our foreign policy has had to align with our national interests to a great degree. But at the same time, the way that we are perceived overseas is the role. We do not have to be necessarily on the world stage, but we go out there to achieve something for Singapore as well. It has to resonate at home. So, we have been called a bridge between East and West. Sometimes people call us the voice of reason, as far as our foreign policy is concerned. Amid those hostilities that you described, what to you is the unique strength that we bring?

PM Lee: Well, people often say quite nice things about us. I would hesitate to adopt that and treat that as the way we describe ourselves. We are just trying to protect our interests, and the way to do that is to make friends and strike up relationships where we can make common cause with other countries, and therefore we have to be constructive when we go to the meeting. We have to master the issues, understand what this is about. If we can be helpful in putting up ideas which can bridge different positions and move a little bit closer towards an outcome, a landing place, we are very happy to do that.

We do that at many forums, in APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), for example, when we negotiated RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), I think we played a very active role because it was important to us. At the UN Climate Change Conferences, the climate change Minister, currently Grace Fu, plays a very active role. In one meeting, I think at Glasgow, they put her in charge of negotiating, I think, the carbon markets subgroup, which is one of the most vexed subjects on the agenda, but she went in as an honest broker. We want the system to work, and she helped to pull the perspectives together, and to reach a landing, reach an agreement. And that calls for the Minister to be on top of his or her job, but it also calls for a whole Singapore team in the Ministry and across the Government to be able to understand the positions, to have ideas which are useful, reconcile our internal position so that we do not have a big internal fight, instead of negotiating Singapore's interests with the other party. And then we work, we go there, we are prepared, and we talk. And I think we do have a bit of a reputation for that, and it is a good reputation. Sometimes, of course, people say, “Wow, you are so well prepared, I better be careful, am I really ready to talk to you or not." So that is a bit of a hurdle we have to cross. But I think it is better to be prepared than for people to say, “Let us go and see them, they have not done their homework and we will have a good time.”

CNA: It certainly is important to do one’s homework.

ST: PM, since we are near the handover now, do you think that people might try to test us where foreign policy is concerned because we will have new leaders, and of course, a lot of foreign policy is also about personal relationships.

PM Lee: I would not be surprised. People will want to see how the new leaders are, what their policy is, and what their personality is; His standing, his strength and support at home, and his ability to engage and to hold his own, and to be somebody to take seriously. I think DPM Wong is not completely new to this. He was my PPS a long time ago, and he went to many of these meetings with me, so he has seen me. As Minister, he has travelled with me too, from time to time. And on his own too, he has been making trips. He has been to America, recently he was in France, Germany. He met Scholz, he met Macron, and they talk to him, and they get a measure of him. And in the region, he has also met the ASEAN leaders, quite a few of them.

I think that the new team will be probed certainly. Tested, well, maybe gently, maybe issues will come, and people might push a little bit harder, or maybe not. But we must expect that some probing will come, and we must be ready to respond. Not in a harsh way, but quietly to stand our ground and let people know that you know, we may have had a changing of the guard, but the new guards are prepared, and the old guards are still, giving hopefully useful views to the new team on how to do it.

BH: PM, you spoke about being helpful and constructive in our foreign policy. How about in the context of ASEAN?

PM Lee: That is very important. ASEAN is the raft which we are connected to, which gives us the platform for members, including us. Timor-Leste is applying to join. It is really a cornerstone of Singapore's foreign policy. It works by consensus. We have a wide range of cooperation. Every year, they have about six or seven hundred meetings of different kinds, big and small. The leaders meet twice a year, sometimes once, but very intensively.

The habit of working together I think, has been very valuable in getting us to understand each other, what is possible for each other and where we can make common cause. Because it is consensus, the progress is often not as quick as we would like, but it is a very important platform for cooperation and also for wider cooperation with the wider region. Because there are ASEAN forums with our partner countries – America, China, Japan, Russia, India, Australia. So many of them and in different forums – you have the East Asia Summit, you have the ASEAN + 3, you have the ASEAN + 1s. Every time we have an ASEAN Summit, summit is in plural because there are so many of them. And it takes a lot of energy and time. But it is necessary diplomacy, and it is what we call in the jargon, ASEAN centrality. Meaning not really that ASEAN is the centre controlling everything, but ASEAN as the centre which provides a platform where many regional discussions can take place on economy, on security, on climate, even international cooperation. With that base, I think we make a contribution to people meeting one another, discussing matters and hopefully easing tensions which come up.

ASEAN benefits from a stable, secure region and ASEAN helps contribute to a stable and secure region. That is very important because it is key to Singapore, especially as a small country. It is something which we have enjoyed now for 30, 40 years. The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Cambodian War ended in 1990. It was 30 years ago. Since then, and even during a lot of that period, for most people in the region, life could carry on. You have peace, trade, investments and prosperity. You can plan your life and move forward.

Now, if you go forward 20 years or 30 years and ask yourself, can we be sure that for the next 20, 30years, we will have as stable a region, as secure a region, as conflict-free region, knowing that there are tensions between the big powers, knowing that rivalries are resulting in economic bifurcation, technological bifurcation, knowing the troubles and tensions in other parts of the world, which have an impact in our part of the world too. Are we absolutely sure that for the next 20 years, there would be no war? I think the answer is, we cannot be absolutely sure. It could happen, probably not, but things can go wrong. You could have an incident which escalates. You could have a miscalculation. People make a move thinking that the other side would not react. The other side reacts. The first party says, I have to react to the reaction, and then suddenly you find yourself in a new and unintended and dangerous situation. On a 20-year time frame, that is completely possible. I think on that time frame, countries have to secure their own security, their own resilience.

As the old President Suharto of Indonesia used to say, regional resilience is as important as national resilience. Regional resilience for Southeast Asia means ASEAN. We have to keep on building this up, contributing to it and playing our part, even though we are a very small member of ASEAN.

BH: But PM, how do we manage Myanmar and its impact on ASEAN?

PM Lee: Myanmar is an old problem. It first became a problem in 1990 when they had the coup. The military junta, the SLORC they call it – the State Law and Order Restoration Council– took over and internationally, they went into the dog house. ASEAN had to deal with that. How do you deal with that?

We decided that at that time, we would deal with it by engaging them and encouraging them to move towards democracy. It was patient work. It took a very long time. Finally, they held elections in 2010. 1990 to 2010 is 20 years of patient work because it is another country. It is their domestic politics, their domestic tensions, conflicts, difficulties and social conditions. You cannot go and solve it for them.

Even if you decided to go and be there and make it happen, you cannot make it happen. Because if you were there, you would face the same difficulties. And so happily in 2010, elections were held and Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counsellor. They were respectable again. We did business together as full members of ASEAN. It worked for some time and after a few years in 2021, there were new elections. The election outcomes were not acceptable and there was a coup. We now have a problem again. What do we do with that?

This time we said, you remain a member of ASEAN, but at the political level, it is best if you do not participate because you do not have a government which is recognised by all the ASEAN countries. If your civil servants want to attend, if your officials want to come, that is okay. But not, what we would call, your military leaders because we do not recognise them as government leaders.

Therefore, ASEAN has been able to carry on. We meet as ASEAN, always with one empty chair and the Myanmar flag down there. It is a form which has enabled us to continue to do business and to continue to meet our partners – the Europeans, the Japanese, the Americans – and not be held back by problems in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, we are trying to engage Myanmar, and we have special ministers and formed special little groups to go visit the parties in Myanmar. ASEAN settled on the formulation for its approach to Myanmar, which we call the Five-Point Consensus. And so there is diplomacy to try and nudge things in Myanmar to go in the right direction. But I think looking at the history and understanding the nature of the problem, we have to be patient. But fortunately, ASEAN is not held back. That is the matter which is being dealt with. But as I put it into context, Myanmar is an issue for ASEAN to manage. But really, for the long term, what is important for the region is war and peace, and what can ASEAN do to contribute to peace in the region?