Transcript of the Q&A segment at the Joint Press Conference of the Singapore-Australia Leaders’ Meeting on 10 June 2021.
The Straits Times: My question is for both Prime Ministers. How soon can we expect this air travel bubble to take off and what is the progress made on the mutual recognition of health and vaccine certificates? Also, will vaccine rates or community cases be used as indicators for this air travel bubble? Lastly, is there a tentative timeline for this air travel bubble?
PM Lee Hsien Loong: Our officials are discussing the air travel bubble and they are also starting to discuss the visual recognition of health and vaccination certificates. We will have to resume this in a safe and calibrated manner when both sides are ready. Certainly, vaccination rates and transmission rates will be part of the consideration.
I would say that in Singapore, we are making good progress with our vaccination programme. In Australia, they are also steadily vaccinating the population. Once the majority of the population is vaccinated, it becomes much easier for us to contemplate these openings up.
It is not the only consideration. The prevalence and transmission rates will certainly be a factor and we will watch it carefully. That is how the arrangements between Australia and New Zealand work right now. What we want to do is to get the pre-conditions, the infrastructure ready, the vaccine recognition, what are the standards? what are the conditions? Then the actual decision to do it. That is a political decision. But let us get everything teed up so that we are in a position to make the political decision when we want to do so.
PM Scott Morrison: Thank you, Prime Minister. Singapore is the first country outside of New Zealand that Australia would wish to engage in a travel bubble with. And we want to get it right. To get it right in Singapore - which we know we can do - because of the very sophisticated systems that Singapore has.
Our digital certificate on vaccines has just now gone live. So that provides another important building block that is necessary for these arrangements to work. But the sophistication of the systems both in Singapore and Australia will enable both countries to ensure that we can get a system that works incredibly well. And once we have that capability, then as the Prime Minister says, it then becomes a second consideration to consider all the various medical issues and the various risks we have to manage as leaders, to ensure that we can go to the next stage successfully.
But I would note, and some encouragement for Prime Minister Lee, we really do want to focus on those students coming as a first wave, a first tranche, as part of the exercise pilot, if you will, how these systems can work most effectively when we get to the next phase, which would be more broadly. But the timing of that is still some way away.
PM Lee: I raised this matter with Prime Minister specifically because I know quite a number of Singaporeans study in Australia. Some of them have come home during this COVID period and are now in Singapore unable to go back to Australia to resume their studies. There is urgency for them, especially for those of them who have got clinical attachments or postings, and to be unable to take them up is very, very disruptive to their studies.
I raised this with Prime Minister Morrison, who was very generous to say yes. It is on his mind and he is minded to do that as his first priority. I said, well, that is one way to test out our systems and get a pilot going so that we can widen the project, and later on have a full travel bubble between the two countries. There is no timetable, but we hope it can be done as soon as possible.
Sky News Australia: My question is for Prime Minister Lee. Prime Minister, you have spoken before about your concerns about the US and China hardening their positions against each other. In Australia, we cannot even get a minister to minister dialogue with China anymore. As the Australian Prime Minister heads to the G7+, what is your advice to Australia and the G7 on how to handle relationships with China?
PM Lee: I think that is a very big question to deal with in a three-minute answer in a video interview like this. But I would say that the relationship with China is one of the biggest foreign policy questions for every major power in the world. You will need to work with the country - it is going to be there, it is going to be a substantial presence, and you can cooperate with it, you can engage it, you can negotiate with it but it has to be a long and mutually constructive process. You do not have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you.
And you have to be able to work on that basis that this is a big world in which there are different countries, and we work with others who are not completely like-minded, but with whom you have many issues where your interests do align, and where your mutual cooperation is necessary.
There will be rough spots and not few, and you have to deal with them. But deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going, and not issues which add up to an adversary, which you are trying to suppress. That is speaking in very general terms, but I think that is - from Singapore's point of view - how you have the best chance of developing a constructive relationship and avoiding very bad outcomes.
The Australian: Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson will tell G7 leaders he wants the world to be vaccinated by the end of next year. Is the production and distribution of vaccines into developing nations in the Indo-Pacific happening fast enough? Do you have concerns about the rise of vaccine diplomacy?
PM Lee: I think faster is better. Producing enough vaccines is a challenge both for all countries, especially in India, certainly even in China, even in Russia. I think in the US, they have now got enough supplies for themselves and they are looking to donate supplies internationally. I think President Biden intends to say something about that at G7. But globally, the supplies need to grow, and the vaccination efforts also need to be scaled up commensurately. It is not just producing the vaccines. It is being able to administer them and get people to take them nationwide, nation by nation in nearly 200 countries in the world to 7 billion people. That is a massive effort. Countries will certainly use vaccines in order to win friends and influence people, but as long as it helps in the end to vaccinate the global population, that is to be expected of the path for the course.
PM Morrison: Thank you, I would make a couple of points. First of all, Singapore and Australia have made very large contributions to the COVAX Advanced Market Commitment. This facility has already delivered some 13 million doses to Southeast Asian countries.
In addition, Australia, going to the point the Prime Minister has just made. It is not just about the doses themselves. We have invested some $623 million not only to provide doses but technical advice, training, cold chain storage to support countries across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. That is wrapped up also in the contribution that Australia has made as part of the vaccine partnership with Japan, the United States and India, which aims to provide some one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific by 2022.
So there are myriad ventures that nations are engaged in, in the various partnerships they have. Australia in particular, as the Prime Minister and I were discussing today takes a particular responsibility when it comes to supporting vaccination in the Southwest Pacific and in Timor Leste, but also increasingly now in Southeast Asia. So, it requires all, particularly developed countries, to step up and continue to step up, because once, as we know in our own countries, once you go through the two doses and ensure that is made available for, everyone who wishes to be vaccinated, then next year, you are moving into issues of boosters and new variants and what might come next.
So this is an ongoing global task. It is not something that started and finished at any time. it is an ongoing task that we will have globally. Right at the outset, I remember saying that whoever comes up with the vaccine will need to share it. That still remains my view. That sharing is not just about the intellectual property and the chemistry of these vaccines, but the manufacture and distribution. We must avoid any form of vaccine protectionism as much as possible. I look forward to participating in those discussions with Prime Minister Johnson and so many others because I know these views are shared.
PM Lee: I thank the Prime Minister for highlighting COVAX. Singapore also participates in COVAX and has made substantial donations to the facility. We are also cooperating with Australia in efforts to help the region get their vaccines. I told the Prime Minister that we are very happy that Singapore is able to be the hub for distributing vaccines to the region, which Australia is producing. We have also got fill and finish facilities, so that if the Australian producers want to use those in Singapore, to make the vaccines here, make the vials here in order to ship out from Singapore, we are happy to do that too. It has to be a multilateral effort and each of us has to do our part.
CNA: My first question is for both of you. What did the various deals show about the future of bilateral cooperation with the prospects of COVID becoming endemic, and specifically, are there plans to beef up endemic response on the healthcare front and does cross-border travel facilitate military exchanges?
Additionally, this is for Mr Morrison. Are there any specific targets on vaccination rates you are looking at for safe travel to resume? Since climate change issues will be on the agenda at the G7, what are you hoping the outcomes could be for this bilateral deal with Singapore on low emissions?
PM Lee: COVID has not hurt our bilateral cooperation. In fact, the ties have remained strong and it presented us with opportunities for cooperation in new areas. For example, in health, we have signed this Health Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). It is to facilitate the exchange of information, knowledge and expertise, between Ministry of Health and the Australian Department of Health, and particularly in areas of health technology assessment and relevant strategies to manage the high costs of patented medicines and devices.
There are no radically new ways to fight the virus. We know what we need to do. You need to test to discover the cases. You need to contact trace to find new cases. You need to vaccinate people to prevent them from becoming so easily infected, and you have to do this at scale.
We also have to find therapeutics to treat people who are sick, so that they recover and they do not get sicker and die. I think, in all these areas, countries are working together. Singapore and Australia both have substantial research efforts in this, and we are working together on that too.
PM Morrison: First of all, neither of us have identified a benchmark rate on vaccination when it comes to the decision that we would be taking around a travel bubble. This is something that I think will continually be informed by the medical evidence as time goes on.
I think one of the reasons, both Australia and Singapore have been successful to date and we should, I think just take a moment to note that success, not just from a health perspective but from an economic perspective as well. Both of our economies have performed well, relatively, through this pandemic.
In Australia's case, our economy is larger today than it was before the pandemic began. There are more employed Australians today than there was before the pandemic began. Our triple A credit rating from S&P has only just been upgraded further as we come continually through this pandemic. It is constantly a challenge to balance the economic and the health objectives that we have as leaders, and we have learned a lot from Singapore in that process. We will continue to, and I think one of the most helpful things throughout the pandemic has been, whether it has been the exchange the Prime Minister Lee and I have had or I have had with many other leaders. Largely, no country has a mortgage on what the answers are. But they all have the opportunity to share that experience.
Prime Minister Lee and I joined a group of countries early on in the pandemic brought together by the Chancellor of Austria. I continue to participate in that group where we share our experiences. Whether it is rolling out vaccinations, running contract tracing systems, how digital certificates work. All of these tools, as Prime Minister Lee says, they are not novel to one country, but they all need to be achieved successfully in each country.
That will continue to be one of the great learnings of the pandemic - the need to share experience, technology, information and learnings about any pandemic, and to be able to move quickly as possible. We both run similar quarantine systems. We both run similar tracing systems, and that is a lesson for how we deal with this in the future.
When it comes to emissions reduction and issues of climate change. I am very excited about this energy technology partnership that we are putting in place here in the maritime sector. In the same way that Singapore benefits greatly from the world's great maritime vessels making their way here and taking goods from here, being able to do that with hydrogen powered ships is extremely important for emissions reduction in the future.
It is a practical, technological and commercial partnership that will change the world. In the same way we want to power large ships, we want to power large mining vehicles, mining trucks or trucks in Australia. What we are simply doing here again is demonstrating Australia's commitment to technological advancement to reduce emissions. Australia's carbon emissions have fallen by over 20% since 2005. We have the highest rate of rooftop solar take-up anywhere in the world, and our rate of renewable development in our country strips that of most developed countries.
Now this will continue for one simple reason, and that is continued developments in technology. This partnership demonstrates, and I will be very pleased to share it with those attending the G7 that this is how you deal with climate change. You work on the technology, you work on the technological solutions and hydrogen in particular, and the partnership we have here to develop new hydrogen technologies will be critical to solving that problem.
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