Transcript of PM Lee Hsien Loong's Q&A session at the 27th International Conference on the Future of Asia on Thursday, 26 May 2022. PM Lee was on a working visit to Japan from 24 to 27 May 2022.
Please scroll down for a Chinese translation of the Q&A session.
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Shigesaburo Okumura, Editor-in-chief of The Nikkei Asia (Moderator): As you mentioned during your presentation, this year is a future based year and the theme is redefining Asia’s role in divided world. That is a major theme for us. On the outset, I would like to ask you how Asia should face the powers – United States and China. I would like to ask your views on how Asia should get along with those two major powers.
As you mentioned in today's presentation, on Monday this week in the morning paper of Nikkei, your interview was carried and in that interview and also during your presentation, you mentioned was that you are going to join the IPEF. This was initiated by the United States President Biden. However, China’s application of membership to join the TPP, which the US withdrew from, is welcomed by you. “Far better” was the word that you used, that China should be integrated.
You joined the IPEF and you agreed to China’s joining of the TPP. For those who are critical about China, they say that perhaps that attitude is a bit lukewarm and should put more distance against China. There is also the view that they envy your independent posture in terms of diplomacy and the economy without siding with one or the other. You mentioned in your presentation that you prefer not to be forced to choose between the United States and China, (the choice) should not be imposed. I think that is the right opinion.
However, realistically, the United States (uses) the words either democracy or autocracies that is a bifurcation, a choice between the two. How is Singapore going to build relations with those two major powers in terms of economy, diplomacy and security? I would like to have your view on that.
PM Lee Hsien Loong: It is a very difficult balance, but it is something which we have tried to do for a long time, and I think many countries in Asia are also trying to do. You talk about Singapore supporting China joining the TPP, but at the same time we have joined the IPEF. Japan has joined the IPEF but Japan has also joined the RCEP – Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – in which China is a member. We think that is the better approach, that it is possible for countries to have relations with America, to have relations with China, and to work with both.
You may be closer to one than to the other. In the case of Japan, you have the US-Japan security partnership, your defence treaty with the US. We do not have a treaty with the US but we are a major security cooperation partner with the US. At the same time, we have a lot of cooperation with China. I think both sides understand that when we speak up, we speak up for Singapore, we are not speaking on behalf of the US or on behalf of China, but for Singapore. If from time to time we disagree with one party or the other, it is because Singapore's interests and principles are at stake. I think that is a sustainable basis on which to work.
You mentioned the US talking about democracies against autocracies as a frame for how they see the battle in Ukraine. We do not see it like that. We do not think that is helpful because if you take that view, then you are already defining China to be on the other side together with Russia, opposed to the United States. If you want to solve the Ukraine problem, and you do not want to worsen difficulties in the Asia Pacific region, then I do not think it is helpful right from the start to toss the US-China relationship into the mix, by saying this is democracies versus autocracies.
We see it, in Ukraine, as an issue of international rules, international law, the UN Charter, independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of nations, which should be inviolate, and which have been violated by Russia and therefore we have stood up to oppose it strongly. We have voted for the motion in the General Assembly in the UN, and we have also imposed certain sanctions targeted on Russia and its financial institutions in order to hinder them from pursuing the war in Ukraine. I think that is a principled position which many countries will be able to accept to varying degrees. I think it is a wiser way to deal with conflicts which are going to arise from time to time.
Okumura: Next question is about democracy. China, Russia, North Korea – this is one group. The division between two groups of nations is whether it is a democracy or autocracy. Now, you are celebrating the 57th anniversary of your founding in 1965. You achieved a great deal of economic development, your GDP capital is much higher than ours, good security, your streets are so clean, and you have high education background. All the Japanese want to work in Singapore. Personally, I really respect the leaders since 1965.
However, when it comes to politics, the one feature of Singapore’s politics is that the People's Action Party has always been so strong, and also the Prime Minister has a long duration of leadership. Do you think that you should maintain this type of mechanism in the future? President of the United States Biden held the Summit for Democracy but Singapore was not invited to the Summit for Democracy. Do you have any comments about the development of democracy in Singapore?
PM Lee: We do what works for Singapore. You admire our law and order, our growth, our efficient government, I thank you for your kind remarks. But I invite you to consider that perhaps it has something to do with the way our politics work. That the population of Singapore is united and cohesive, understands where its interests lie, and vote for MPs, parties and leaders who will look after the interests of the country and look after their well-being and their future. Because we have been able to deliver on this, therefore in successive elections, the PAP has been able to win a strong mandate from the population. Therefore, we have the opportunity to serve the people and to do better together with them. We hope that this will continue for as long as possible.
How it works out is impossible to say. Every generation, the environment is different, the values and the influences on the children growing up are different. They come up with different expectations, different aspirations, and it will express itself in the politics of the country. So, nobody can say how things will develop in two, three, four elections’ time. But for as long as we can, it is the responsibility of me and my team to govern Singapore well, to maintain the support of the population and to keep Singapore united and cohesive, so that in a dangerous world, we make sure that we are safe, and we can look after ourselves and have a future for our people.
Okumura: This is related to your long-term administration. As your successor, you designated Finance Minister Lawrence Wong. What was the decisive factor to choose him? In your case, 18 years have passed since you took office in August 2004. When you look back, what is your achievement, accomplishment and what do you have to ask the successor to continue to work on?
PM Lee: First of all, I did not choose my successor. He was chosen by his peers, by the younger Ministers and Cabinet. We had a process. They were individually polled for their views and overwhelmingly they supported Lawrence Wong to be their next leader, and I support that choice. I am sure they have good reasons and I have every confidence that Mr Lawrence Wong will do a good job.
It is not for me to give myself a report card. I have tried my best to make Singapore work and work well, and to improve the lives of the population, and to keep them safe and secure. At a very general level, that remains a task for my successors. But they will also have to respond to new aspirations, new expectations, deal with new problems in the world and continue to make Singapore grow and improve from what is already quite a high level.
You said that our per capita GDP is higher than Japan but that is because you have many outlining rural areas of Japan which are not the same as Tokyo. If you compare Singapore with Tokyo or Osaka, I do not think our per capita GDP is higher than the per capita in Tokyo or Osaka. There is room to grow yet, but it is every step higher, the oxygen is thinner, the demand is greater, the competition is fiercer. Yet we must never give up and you must keep on growing. That is my task and my successors’ task.
Okumura: When you yield your Prime Minister’s seat to Mr Lawrence Wong, what type of retirement are you planning? Are you going to be away from the politics completely or are you going to stay as a Senior Minister and try to support the new cabinet? What is your plan?
PM Lee: I am not planning my retirement. I am planning to make myself be in a position to step down and handover as Prime Minister to my successor, after which I see it as my responsibility to do my best to help him succeed, and to help Singapore continue to succeed. Whatever he thinks I am useful to him for, I shall be happy to fulfil.
Speaker: Today’s theme: Democracies versus autocracies, you should not use that framework, in your presentation, I agree with you in that point. What is democracy, how you define democracy, that was mentioned. For instance, in a conference in Alaska between Yang Jiechi and Antony Blinken, United States and China, each has its own democracy. So what is your democracy in Singapore? To make people happy is a very important part of democracy. What do you define Chinese democracy? That is my question.
PM Lee: You should ask Mr Yang Jiechi. I am not in a position to define democracy for other countries. Each country calls themselves democratic. I think even North Korea has the word democratic somewhere in its title. It is a word which can mean any number of things, but basically if I used that word, it means I am good. In Singapore, what we are looking for, is a system where the Government has legitimacy, it has the mandate of the people and is a system which elects a Government which is capable of delivering that mandate, serving the people well, and bringing the country forward.
If it works well and it works for us, we keep that. If there are aspects which need to be improved, we will adjust it, and amend it as we go along. Not re-inventing it from scratch because when you are talking about the political system of a country, it is like the operating system on a computer. If you suddenly change to a totally different operating system, and it does not fit your hardware, your computer will crash.
But if you have to update it, upgrade it, have a fix, have an improvement, keep it up to date, make it work better, that we constantly do. We really do not pay attention to who is inviting whom to what conference. My answer is not who attends a conference but ultimately, who is able to continue to make his country succeed.
Nancy Snow (Nikkei Asia): My name is Nancy Snow and I write for Nikkei Asia. I am also an educator. I have had the privilege of visiting Singapore. What strikes me about Singapore is its welcoming framework in terms of accepting the best and brightest from around the world. As somebody who has advocated very strongly for international education and international education exchange, could you address that in the context of security? So often when we think of security we think of bombs and bullets and devastation, but that which unites us is what we get from the power of education.
PM Lee: You raised a very important point. One of the things which can help us to bridge between countries is that we get to know one another and ideally to get to like one another, and education in a different country is a very powerful way of doing that. You learn something different; you see a different perspective on the world; you see a different way of organising a society. You pick up ideas but hopefully you do not get swept off your feet; so that you come back with a stimulus, but you do not come back totally brainwashed. You bring new ideas, bring it into your own system, and you transform your system.
During the Meiji restoration, that is what the Genro did. The first generation who went on a world tour. They spend two to three years, they wrote voluminous reports. They came back, they transformed the Japanese system. They ran the Japanese system for a whole generation and brought Japan into the modern world.
China also sent students to study around the world, including studying in Japan in the early 20th century and they went back with many ideas, and they talked about Mr Science and Mr Democracy, and there was a May 4 movement which was in 1919 in Beijing, which sparked off a tremendous modernisation drive. But the dynamics were different. In the end, China did not modernise the way Japan did. It took a more complicated route and started modernising when Deng Xiaoping did reform and opening up. At which point, China also sent many students around the world to study and many of whom came back with a tremendous desire to make things different in the world, to learn from the rest of the world.
Now, I am not sure whether at a different stage, they are still pursuing it with the same zeal. They may be less keen to go. The foreign countries may be less keen to welcome them. I think that is a loss. But unfortunately, these things happen.
For Singapore, we have always greatly valued foreign talent, international talent from all over the world, coming to Singapore to work, to generate their ideas, to make Singapore stand out in the world.
In the first place, we stood out because we attracted talent from all over Southeast Asia – from Malaysia, from Indonesia or the Dutch Indies in those days, from China, from India, even from further afield. They came to Singapore, they made Singapore their home, and they made Singapore what it is.
Now that Singapore is successful, if we want to continue to be successful, you must be able to attract talent the same way Silicon Valley can attract talent, or Tokyo attracts talent from all over Japan, or Shenzhen attracts talent from all over China, or London attracts talent from all over the world. We need that in the universities, we need that in the economy.
We need to do it right because if we say, we just opened our doors, anybody can come to Singapore, I have a problem. I only have three and a half million Singaporeans and there are several billion people in the region who may queue up to come. I cannot do that, I have to have some way to draw a line and choose who to come, but we are open to talent, and we see that as our future. I think the countries which see that kind of a future are more likely to do well in a very competitive and rapidly changing world. So, I completely agree with you and thank you for your question.
Sandhya Sriram: Good morning, this is Sandhya Sriram from Shiok Meats. I am a very proud Singapore resident. So honoured to meet you, Mr Prime Minister. I run a company that does high tech food manufacturing, so we are setting up our first manufacturing plant in Singapore. We work on meat and seafood using stem cells as a sustainable alternative food production. My question is, I think we all know that Singapore, you cannot expand manufacturing, it is extremely expensive also we do not have the space. I wanted to understand how Singapore is working with other countries to help companies like us expand our manufacturing to Asia and the global level.
PM Lee: First of all, we can grow our manufacturing. Space is a constraint, but we make the most of our space and we try to improve the usage of our space which is available in Singapore. We build taller, we make multi-storey factories. We take back land from factories which were established 40, 50 years ago which maybe are no longer a good fit for our economy, and if we can redevelop that land, that regenerates more land for the industry in Singapore.
We also are looking for industries which are more environmentally friendly, and do not have huge footprints or huge safety areas. So that you can put more of them in, and they fit in Singapore and can take advantage of our strengths, our connectivity, our technical capabilities, our standards of governance, our finance, all the strengths which Singapore have, and have manufacturing in Singapore.
There are companies still coming into Singapore, high tech companies which are doing that. At the same time, we are also working with our neighbours in Southeast Asia, with Malaysia, Indonesia, other countries in the region in order to have joint activities – maybe the headquarters is in Singapore, but the production, some of it is offshore. In the Riau islands in Indonesia, there are manufacturing companies, and their management and staff, some of them actually live in Singapore and they commute. Their families are in Singapore.
You talked about stem cells to make food. We have not stem cells but we have other high-tech agriculture, for example growing Barramundi, the fish, and we grow some of it in Singapore, but we do not have enough ocean, so we are also talking about growing Barramundi in Brunei, and we are exploring it with Australia. There are opportunities.
We are in the middle of a very exciting region. It is not quite as predictable as being in Europe, but as you can see even in Europe, not everything is predictable. There are many opportunities in Singapore, around us, in Malaysia, in Thailand, in Vietnam, in Indonesia, even Philippines, and we make the most, trying to work together with our neighbours so that we can exploit those opportunities.
That is why we think deglobalisation is not a good idea. You need to take precautions to make your supply chains more resilient. You may want to make sure that in a crisis – I need N95 masks, I can make masks, and not have to depend on a single source of foreign supply.
I do not want to make everything at home, otherwise I think I will starve to death. It is not possible. I think by cooperating with our neighbours, and by strengthening regional security as well as mutual interdependence economically, there is a good future for all of us in Asia.
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参与者提问: 今天的主题是“民主国家与独裁国家”，你发言的时候说我们不应该使用这个框架，我同意这个观点。什么是民主？如何定义民主？例如，在杨洁篪与美国国务卿布林肯（Antony Blinken）于阿拉斯加举行的会议上，美国和中国都有各自的民主。那么新加坡的民主是什么？让人民满意是民主非常重要的部分。你如何定义中国式的民主？
参与者提问: 我是南希·斯诺（Nancy Snow），为《日经亚洲》撰稿，也是一名教育工作者。我曾到访新加坡，新加坡给我的印象是有一个良好的框架，广纳全球最好和最优秀的人才。作为一个大力倡导国际教育和国际交流的领导者，你能谈谈安全这个课题吗？当我们想到安全时，往往会想到炸弹、子弹和毁坏，但使我们团结起来的是教育。
参与者提问: 早上好，我是Shiok Meats公司的桑迪亚·思利然（Sandhya Sriram）。我对自己是新加坡居民感到非常自豪。很荣幸与你见面，总理先生。我经营一家高科技食品制造公司，我们正在新加坡设立第一家制造厂。我们利用干细胞培植肉类和海鲜，作为一种可持续的替代食品生产。我的问题是，我想我们都知道，新加坡的成本高，而且空间有限，我们无法扩大制造业。我想了解新加坡如何与其他国家合作，协助像我们这样的企业把制造业扩展到亚洲和全球水平。
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