Remarks by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Q&A segment during the joint press conference with Rwanda President Paul Kagame at Urugwiro Village on 27 June 2022. PM Lee was on a working visit to Rwanda.
You can watch the Q&A segment here.
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The Straits Times: PM, you have spent quite a few days in Rwanda and we see that you have been around visiting several places. Could you please share with us, what potential you see for Rwanda and Africa, and what kind of role Singapore could play to develop such potential?
PM Lee Hsien Loong: I have only visited Rwanda and in Rwanda, I only visited Kigali. But from all that I have read about Rwanda and about Africa, it is a continent on the move, it is an enormous continent, it has a huge population, it is very diverse, that countries have huge range of economic situations and political environments. And in that complexity, there are multiple bright spots and Rwanda is one of them.
I have spent these last few days in Rwanda, I have had a chance to go around. Yesterday, I went down to the market to walk around. I went and visited a wetlands sanctuary for grey crown cranes. And I met Singaporeans who are living and working in Africa and many of them in Kigali now for some years. So, I have a feel of the place, a little bit. It is tightly run, it is on the move, it is anxious to get ahead. It has had a traumatic pass in the genocide. I visited the Genocide Memorial for Kigali this morning and it is determined to pick itself up beyond that, to reconcile the hurt and to move forward and see hope for the future.
It is a country with a young population, their median age is 22. Our median age in Singapore is 40-plus. We were also with a median age at about 22, some decades ago, in our early years of nation building, and I get the sense of the same desire to make progress to succeed and to make a better future for the people. And when a population feels like that, and is on the move and has a leadership and a government which is organising it and setting the direction and making things happen – there are opportunities, for themselves and for their partners. And we are very happy that they see in Singapore and in East Asia, a potentially useful partner.
We cooperate with them, and we can do more. G to G, we have the Singapore Cooperation Program, I just talked about the Singapore - Africa Partnership Package, which we are launching. In the non-government sector, our companies are increasingly in Africa and East Africa. And as I describe, our young people are here, chasing their dreams, going on a path which is up to now, not the traditional path, but they are breaking a new way forward and making a mark for themselves. And I hope more will follow them. Thank you.
RBA: My question goes to the Prime Minister of Singapore and the President of Rwanda. Both countries have faced criticism as you developed your country and the economy. I would like to know what allowed you to pursue your national priorities and stay the course that has now resulted into the success both countries face.
PM Lee: I speak for Singapore. We stay the course because our first responsibility is to serve our people. To do the right thing for them and make sure the country grows. And you have to make up your mind what is right, what is the direction you want to take, how you want to lead the country forward.
You may be right, or you may be wrong, nobody is right all the time. Nobody has a monopoly of the wisdom in the world. Either, you have to listen to views, or you have to listen to criticisms within your team, within the country. And even if it comes from outside the country, listen to it objectively. Does it make sense? Do they have a point? Have I made a mistake? Can we do better? And if so, we do change, better take it, find a way, remedy, whatever is not right.
But then you will still get criticisms even when you are trying to do the right thing and you will have to ask yourself, what is it, which is the purpose of this criticism? If they are trying to help you to do better, then you listen to it, in the end you have to make up your own judgment because you carry the responsibility for the outcome. The person who is criticising, if I follow your advice and things go wrong, can you feed my population? Can you take them if they become refugees? If not, thank you, I appreciate your goodwill, but I have to carry the responsibility and I have to make the decision.
On the other hand, there are also some critics who will take the view that you do not fit their model of how countries should operate, or you do not share their priorities and values and that you should share their priorities and values. And the world is a big place, countries are diverse. We have different circumstances, different histories, different cultures, different aspirations, and therefore, different values and different ways of running our country.
And if you have a different view, well, I respect your view, but I ask you to respect my view. And if you criticise me, and we do not think it is a fair or correct criticism or your facts are not correct. Well, then I will respectfully disagree with you and set down my perspective and explain why I am doing things this way, so that I convince my own people and they do not get confused, and so that anybody else in the world can listen to you and listen to me and make their own judgement.
And ultimately, the test is this. We are here and we are leading the country, we are responsible to our population as elected leaders and we face elections. We are trying to do the right thing, we will account at the elections. If the people endorse what we do, we will continue to serve them with their mandate. If we are not doing the right thing, well, another team will be in charge. And I think on that basis, you can accept criticism without being defensive or without being overly swayed by different views and find the right path forward for Singapore.
Royal FM: My question goes to Prime Minister Lee. There is a general feeling that the Commonwealth as a body benefits countries or members with huge economic muscle compared to the smaller economies. What is your view on such sentiments?
PM Lee: The Commonwealth is an association of countries. Many have had historical connections with Britain. Some have not but have decided that they would like to join the Commonwealth and to work together and cooperate together within the Commonwealth. We work out where we can cooperate, where we can help one another, where we can find win-win opportunities to collaborate, and we do so.
The scope depends on how far the individual countries are prepared to go. Some of it is done through the auspices of the Commonwealth, formally the Commonwealth Secretariat. I think in the scheme of things, that is rather modest because the amount of resources available that way is not huge. But there is a lot of other cooperation which goes on between Commonwealth countries, because we know we are fellow Commonwealth members and therefore we work informally together with each other. That is the value of the Commonwealth. With that branding, we are both Commonwealth countries, there is a certain, I would not go on to say shared values, but certain commonality in a broad approach and mindset, which means if I work together with you, I think it is likely to go somewhere. That is very valuable.
There is another aspect of the Commonwealth which is development assistance to the not so developed members. That is welcome too. Inevitably the needs will be much greater than the resources available, but the most valuable development assistance really, as I explained just now, is in terms of developing technical capabilities, human resources and uplifting the education of the people. This is this way the Singapore Cooperation Program is designed, and particularly the Singapore-Africa Partnership Package.
That is also Singapore's experience when we were a not yet so developed young economy. We received help from the Commonwealth and other Commonwealth members. For example, there was a scheme called the Colombo Plan Scholarships. Australia, New Zealand and some other countries gave scholarships to Singapore and other then not so developed members to go and study at their universities. They came back and in Singapore's case made very considerable contributions in our government. In our administration, many ministers were former Colombo Plan scholars and some of them went out into the private sector and they made a broad contribution to our economy. I myself, when I went overseas, I went on the Government scholarship but I also got a Commonwealth Scholarship, which I am always grateful for. It leaves you a warm feeling for a long time.
We also got technical assistance, which helped us to master how to upgrade ourselves, develop and improve productivity and the lives of our people. I think if we look at it that way, then the Commonwealth does not do everything we would hope for, but on balance, it is good that we are in the Commonwealth and that is why we still stay there. That is why countries like Rwanda joined in 2009, not so long ago. Even at this meeting, we have new members joining – Togo and Gabon. They must see value in it.
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