PM Lee Hsien Loong's interview with CNN (Mar 2020)

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 30 March 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong's interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, 29 March 2020.


CNN Fareed Zakaria: Tell us what you think Singapore got right? Many people looked at the fact that you got in very early. You developed the test the minute the sequences were published, (and) you developed the nucleic acid test. Do you think that it was that? What do you think is the key to your success?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: I hesitate to talk about success because we are right in the midst of a battle, which is intensifying. We have tried very hard, right from the beginning, to take this very seriously. We watched what was happening in Wuhan, in China. We prepared our people. In fact, we have been preparing for this since SARS, which was 17 years ago.

As the cases started to come in, we were able to identify them, because we said treatment and testing for COVID-19 will be free. We were able also to contact trace and find the contacts of the people who had come in and isolate the contacts, so that we slow down the spread within the population. We have tried very hard also to explain to the population, what it is we are facing, what we need to do, and what are the steps which we need them to cooperate with us, so that our efforts can succeed - such as keeping safe distances from one to another, such as watching their own personal hygiene, such as staying home if they are sick and not going to work, and not socialising.

With great effort, I think it has helped to keep the number of cases down, but I am under no illusions that we have won. We are just going in, and there is a long battle ahead.

CNN: Let me ask you about contact tracing, because that is one of the things that you seem to have done particularly well. You used people's phones the minute somebody was diagnosed, and tried to figure out exactly where they had been. You now even have an app which people can get to tell them if they are close to somebody else who might have tested positive. How difficult was it to do all this?

PM Lee: We have not been using phone data. We have been interviewing people, asking them, interviewing them, tracking down their contacts, interviewing their contacts, trying to piece a story together. It is traditional detective work, and patient work. We hope to get a quick answer out within a couple of hours, but in fact we have pursued the cases for days to try and pin down, who talked to whom and who might have given the virus to whom. We do have an app now, which we hope will be able to track who has come into contact with somebody else who also has the app, and who might be sick, but it is really a work in progress and we do not know yet how well that would work.

CNN: How do you respond to people who say, Singapore is able to do this because it has these controls, it is a paternalistic system, the government has more powers than in other places?

PM Lee: We have not taken extraordinary powers. I think the key thing is people must understand what we are facing and must support what we are doing, cooperate with us, and have confidence in the government. We put a lot of effort into explaining to them what is happening, speaking to them and I have done it a few times directly on television, so people know that we are level and we tell it straight.

We are transparent – if there is bad news, we tell you. If there are things which need to be done, we also tell you. I think that you have to maintain that trust because if people do not trust you, even if you have the right measures, it is going to be very hard to get it implemented.

CNN: You have talked about the economic situation to your people and you just came out with a second budget even though you had planned in February for a kind of relief budget. You have come up with a new budget that is five times, I think, larger. You described in your speech – you said this is not going to be a V-shaped recovery, it is not going to be a U-shaped recovery. Right now, it just feels like it is going down. Explain what you think the economic consequences here are.

PM Lee: First of all, there is a direct impact on certain sectors. Aviation has died, for example, tourism is dead and all the travel industry which is associated with that – the hotels are in considerable difficulties. So that is an impact which is not going to go away in a hurry.

Secondly, supply chains are getting disrupted because other countries are not operating at full steam, the economies are locked down, and so supplies are not coming in. Our production is also affected and our exports are also affected. That is a broad base impact on the rest of the economy.

Then you have got the self-employed, the gig economy. The people who depend on entertainment, who depend on normal socialising, who would get jobs day by day – and those jobs have all evaporated. I do not see that coming back until such time as people gain confidence that they have a hold on the virus, that we can resume normal socialising, normal traveling, normal human intercourse. I think that is quite some time down the road.

CNN: What does it mean, Prime Minister, to get a hold on the virus because there are these theories, you have to develop herd immunity which would mean infecting 40 per cent of the population or so. Or does it really just have to wait for that vaccine or perfect therapy?

PM Lee: If you are going for herd immunity, you have to have a big proportion of the population infected. Angela Merkel, who speaks very carefully, talked about 70 per cent of the German population possibly. If we have to go that route all the way, I think it is either going to be very, very painful, because there will be a huge spike and you will have an uncontrolled outbreak as happened in some cities in northern Italy or in China. Or you have to flatten the curve and it takes a very, very long time. You have got to hope for an off ramp to get off that path, and the only visible way to get an off ramp is to have either a treatment or an effective vaccine. That is some distance down the road, but many very smart people are working very hard at it. I can only hope and pray that they will make some progress soon.

CNN: We are back with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Prime Minister, you follow China very carefully and you also follow the debate in the United States. You know, there are a lot of people, including our Secretary of State, who have said that the Chinese government is in some way to blame for this pandemic because they were silent about the fact that it was happening, they was secretive, they covered it up, they punished the doctor who was tried be a whistle blower about it. Do you think that that is a fair criticism of China?

PM Lee: I am sure that there were many aspects of the Chinese response to this outbreak which they will look back upon and believe that they should have done better. But I do not think overall that one can say this would not have happened if that only the Chinese had done the right thing. Because you look at the way the outbreak has continued, grown and spread in many countries, and they do not have the Chinese government and yet they have not found it easy to keep the outbreak under control in their country. I think that we are in a very difficult situation and it is most constructive for us now to look ahead and find the best way to move forward and deal with a problem which we now have.

CNN: You see how this has worsened US-China relations - with the Secretary of State making these accusations, the official spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry blasting back. Does this worry you? I mean, you sit in the middle of this situation in a sense with good relations with the United States and China. Is there a danger here that one of the side effects of this virus would be a US-Chinese real kind of Cold War?

PM Lee: It is a most unfortunate situation to be in. US-China relations have been complicated even before this. But if we are going to deal with this virus, you have got to get all the countries to be working together, in particular, US and China. Under the best of circumstances, it is going to be a very difficult challenge for mankind. But if the US and the Chinese are swapping insults and blaming one another for inventing the virus and letting it loose on the world, I do not think that that is going to help us solve the problem sooner.

CNN: It strikes me that with something like a pandemic, it is so obvious that it spills across borders, it is so obvious that it can only be handled if everyone is in some way cooperating, sharing information, sharing best practices and typically the United States has taken the lead on organising some of these kinds of global responses. The Trump Administration does not seem that interested. With the absence of US leadership, can the world organise itself without some kind of agenda setting, at least?

PM Lee: The world has greatly benefited from American leadership in situations like this for decades. If America is in a different mode, well we will get by and I think other configurations will eventually work out, but it would be a loss.

CNN: You would prefer to see American leadership on this issue?

PM Lee: Yes of course. You have the resources, you have the science, you have the influence, you have the soft power, and you have the track record of dealing with these problems convincingly and successfully, and in the greater good of many countries, not just the US. It is a pity not to put those resources to work now, to deal with this very grave challenge to mankind.

CNN: Let me ask you about something you said in our previous segment. You said that you are going to have to keep flattening the curve, until a vaccine or therapy was found. So you are thinking about the flattening of the curve, not as something that you do for a month or two and then restart the economy. You think this is potentially a year or 18 months of flattening?

PM Lee: That would be my guess. I am not a professional epidemiologist or infectious disease specialist, but I do not see this problem going away in a couple of months. It has spent, taken several months to, more or less, bring under control in China. It is taking off in Europe now, and will take many months to bring under control. It is taking off in America now, and that is not going to disappear soon. And there are other huge parts of the world, where we do not quite know what is happening, but I think that it will happen. It will happen in India, it will happen in Southeast Asia, it will happen in Africa and Latin America.

By the time it goes around the world, and then finally runs its course, I think that is several years, unless something happens to abort that process.

CNN: Prime Minister, there are a lot of people in Singapore, who tell me that they wish that you would stay on, you plan to leave office. You have elections – at some point – have to happen. Could this crisis make you decide to postpone that decision to leave politics?

PM Lee: I think this crisis keeps my hands full. Let us just focus on that for now.

CNN: Alright, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, pleasure to have you on, sir.

PM Lee: Thank you.


Economy , Governance