Excerpt of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung on 3 February 2015
Excerpt of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung on 3 February 2015.
Q: Tell us a little about Dresden. I read in the Singapore press that this was…
PM Lee: Well, it was my first time to the new German states and we went to Dresden because we have cooperation with them. Our educational institutions have exchanges with them. We have a joint venture with the EADS, converting passenger Airbus to freighters, which has been very successful and it is growing. I wanted to see how a former East German city has transformed itself after reunification. Mr Tillich had been to Singapore three years ago and we had a good conversation and I was very happy to strike up the relationship again.
Q: Vocational training seems to be quite an export item from Germany.
PM Lee: Well, because you have a very unique model. It is not completely exportable because it is also cultural and it has taken many decades to root itself in Germany. The employers have a model. They look for people, they work with them in the institutions, they work with them on an apprenticeship programme and the people who are employed after that, completing their apprenticeship, expect to work for quite a long time with the company. They do not go and wander off straight away because somebody else is paying them another five or ten percent more. We do not have such a culture in Singapore. We are trying to move in that direction and get the employers more engaged in the training of the people, even in the institutions and have internships and immersions as a person graduates. We are making some progress, but it’s a long way to go. The main thing is you want the training and education to be relevant, to be targeted and also to be sustained as the person has gone into the workforce, because you are trained once, but you are going to work for 40 years and you need many new skills along the way.
Q: How is it in Singapore with fluctuation and sort of the need for migration to fill the workforce?
PM Lee: Immigration, yes.
Q: Immigration. This is a very mobile society and you are I guess on a constant search of finding qualified workers.
PM Lee: Well, there are two parts to this. One is birth rates are too low and therefore we are not reproducing ourselves. Our fertility rate is about 1.3.
Q: That is the same like Germany.
PM: Yes, something like Germany, so we need to top up with immigration. We bring in immigrants every year to build up the numbers and talent pool. The second part is, we need workers for the economy and many of these are in a way, in principle, transient. For example you are building a train line, you need the workers to come to complete the line and when the line is finished, well, you go on. So we have a very big transient population of foreign workers from the low-levels – construction work, shipyards – all the way up to managers and CEOs of multi-nationals. Our workforce is three million and of that, one-third is foreign – one million are non-Singaporean. But it brings the talent, the diversity of experience and also the numbers.
Q: What if they demand to stay or would love to inch their way….
PM: No, you have no right to demand to stay. You come to Singapore on the condition you know that this is the basis. Of course sometimes they form attachments with Singaporeans and then they would like to stay and then the Singaporean partner would appeal on their behalf and we have to think about this. But we have to have some rules, otherwise we will lose control.
Q: The rules are very important. Integration is a key item to the Singaporean society and an issue we now newly discover here. What is your experience?
PM: There is integration amongst the Singaporean population, because we belong to different races and religions, and also integration with the new arrivals, because when we bring in immigrants, people who are to stay and ultimately become citizens. We try to bring in people who are assimilable and can be integrated into our society – similar cultures, similar backgrounds – so they are ethnically Chinese, Indian or Malay, from the region. But even if you have similar religion, language, culture and race, you are not the same in terms of background and experience. There is a clear difference between a Chinese grown up in Singapore and a Chinese Chinese from People’s Republic of China (PRC) or even somebody who have spent time in America. And certainly there is a similar difference between an Indian grown up in Singapore, Singaporean Indian who may be a second or third generation, and an Indian Indian who comes from India or again from the West. So when you put them together, there is a sense of clashing of gears, and it takes effort on both sides to accommodate and to adjust; the new arrivals to make the effort to integrate into our society and our own people to have some tolerance and acceptance and at the same time help the new people to fit in.
Q: What is the government’s role in bringing that together?
PM: First, we set the tone. Secondly, in terms of our social policies, we make it an objective to facilitate this integration. For example in our public housing estates, which is where 80 plus percent of the population live, we make sure there are no pure neighbourhoods. We enforce integration, enforce diverse neighbourhoods, and integration in terms of race, also integration in terms of proportion of non-citizens so that you will not have an enclave. So you force people to have to live together. Maybe in that process there are more contacts and some friction, but it is much better than if you are separate and then if you have an ‘us versus them’ psychology.
Q: Do they have any debate on religion- about clashing, fighting or disputes about different interpretation, maybe of Islam. Are there growing tensions within the Islamic community?
PM: All the major religions of the world are in Singapore. They do not have to come from elsewhere anymore because they all there. We have Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, we even have Zoroastrians – a few, because we have Parsee living in Singapore. You have got a small Jewish community, not so small if you include the people who are transient. So we have to get along together and one of our basic principles is that there has to be tolerance and compromise. If you insist on absolute requirements, then we are not going to be able to live peacefully together. That means in terms of your practices, your customs and your celebrations. For example the traditional Chinese religion, the Taoist, they have a festival every year during the seventh month where they celebrate the Hungry Ghost. They used to burn enormous joss sticks, half a dozen of them, and they are about that fat and six feet tall and they burn for days on end. You set them up in the middle of a housing estate and the incense goes to the Gods but the ashes go around the neighbourhood. For the Chinese maybe they will say it is blessings but others do not think it is a blessing.
So we said no more of these joss sticks. It is just not possible so that is accepted. For the Muslims also adjustments have to be made. For example the azan – a call to prayer; we used to have it and you have to do it five times a day and the first one is before dawn which is before six o’clock in the morning. Well, not everybody is a Muslim, not everybody wants to be called to prayer that hour. Many years ago we made an arrangement with them to tone down the volume, turn the loudspeakers inwards into the mosque rather than outwards into the community and we broadcast this over the radio so people who are Muslims, who want to get up and pray, well you can have the azan on the radio and we get along. So you have to have these adjustments. We are also not purist on freedom of speech, so if you say things which go out of your way to denigrate or attack some other faith, that is an offence.
Q: How do you handle new communication structures there?
PM: There is a problem, but whether it is on the internet or whether you do it in person, if we can trace you down, if you say something provocative and offensive, we will pursue the matter. We have had a few cases.
Q: Is integration only working in small societies and prosperous societies? Singapore is rather small society with five point something million people.
PM: I think is easier for us in a way because we were able to physically bring people together. We did not start off like that, because when the British built the colony their policy was to keep the different groups apart. So you had the Malay area, you had an Indian town and you had the Chinese. Even the Chinese were separated into different clan groups. And there were riots in the 19th century between different Chinese clans where hundreds of people were killed. So to go from that to a modern Singapore where they are all integrated together, where every neighbourhood is integrated, was active social policy. We could do it because we had public housing programmes. We cleared the old villages and slums. We resettled the whole population, so in that process we had the opportunity to cause everybody to mix together. After we mixed them together, when we said you can buy and sell your houses, then gradually… It is like milk, you stir it up, it is homogenised, you put it down there, it separates out, the cream comes up on the top. So we saw this happening and we decided better stop this before it becomes irreversible because I cannot shuffle the cards once more. So we actually made rules and set limits on per block, what the ratios can be per neighbourhood and we managed to check the tenancy to separate it out.
Q: Is this probably only a Singaporean model or how much of it could be transferred?
PM: In our case it was public housing. If it was private housing we would not have been able to do this.
Q: Singapore in some respect is sort of a nutshell for probably ethnic, racial, national tension which might rise up in the entire neighbourhood, in the region. You comprise all those ethnicities which are surrounding Southeast Asia, in the Pacific rim, in the neighbourhood of the South China Sea. If we might switch to the broader strategic questions of security and neighbourhood relations. You have been governing for 10 years or so. What is the major change you see? Is it the rise of China? Is it economic tension?
PM: I think in 10 years, ASEAN has made some progress integrating together, the countries in Southeast Asia developing closer cooperation. I think certainly the increasingly influential role of China in economic as well as regional strategic affairs is a major change. I think in 10 years also the attention which has been given to the tensions from globalisation, inequality, the uncertainty of the prospects for an ordinary worker in a globalised economy. Will your job still be here in 10 years’ time? Will I be better off in 10 years’ time with a better job? These are issues which have grown for us and I think for many others in the region.
Q: The Chinese influence has grown dramatically…
PM: Yes, in 10 years their economy has more than doubled. They are very focused on the region. They see this in a way like their near abroad. They want to make sure that it is friendly, well disposed towards them. They want to make sure that their interests are protected and advanced in the region. Within the region everybody wants to make friends with China and gain from the opportunities which China is opening up, at the same time as they would like the region to be open, to be stable and to maintain the relationship with Europe, America and the rest of the world.
Q: Can that always be a win-win situation?
PM: Between countries not everything can be win-win, but overall if you take the relationship as a whole, I think we are much better off with a prosperous China than a problematic one.
Q: Nevertheless there are concrete tensions which are measureable between China and Japan. Give us your take on this, first the development of these tensions and how you foresee them to proceed.
PM: Well it is between China and Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. It is between China and several of the ASEAN countries over the South China Sea. I think China with more resources and more wealth has become more assertive in defending and advancing its sense of its rights and what it is entitled to. The nationalism plays a role in China and also some of the other countries too because it not just a matter of how much the island is worth and we can make a deal but this is my sovereign territory and I stand here and nobody shall advance one inch further. When issues get cast in those terms and there is a historical backdrop, like between China and Japan, it becomes very difficult to resolve. It is possible to put aside and you agree not to settle this, even though you may not even admit that you have agreed not to settle this. Then you move on and try to keep the relationship on an even, practical level, constructive. But the fundamental position between China and Japan is not the same as the fundamental position between Germany and France. The history after the war was very different and it is very hard to unwind that or move from where we are to one where there is mutual acceptance and a desire to move ahead and not let the past be an encumbrance.
Q: How can the past be resolved peacefully? How can one establish…
PM: I mean they are not at war.
Q: But they are not on the same narrative on what belongs to who…
PM: That is impossible. On one side, nothing has been forgotten; on the other side nothing is remembered. So how do you get the same narrative? You visit China and you visit their museums, memorials or just watch their popular television, the emphasis on the history of the Sino-Japanese war, on the century of China’s weakness even before the war, and the popular recreations of these key incidents. This is the 70th anniversary of their surrender and it looms very, very large on the Chinese population even those who were not born at that time. On the Japanese side, more than one generation has grown up who really do not know all the bad things that were done by the Japanese military government as well as their soldiers all over China and Asia. Now there is a new generation in the Government that says “I want to be a normal country again”; “I do not want to admit that I did bad things”. So it is very difficult to reconcile.
Q: Reconciliation in history is not only between nations but also within nations. The Chinese past is a very complex one to say, so is the Japanese. But Germany has had some reconciliations with its neighbours and internally. Why was it so difficult to have a similar development over decades in East Asia?
PM: First, on the Japanese side, after the World War came the Korean War. The Americans decided we better work with the Japanese and use this as a base and fight in Korea. So on the Japanese side, the historical account was never cleared. And fundamentally, even before the Korean War, MacArthur decided that he would use the emperor and they would protect the emperor and not demolish the whole myth which was built around him. So it was very different. Whereas here in Germany, there is no doubt at all – every school child is taught that Hitler was evil and there is a collective responsibility and your old President Weizsäcker who just passed away was completely unambiguous about that. It is unimaginable that such a position could be taken by a Japanese Government.
Q: So you are saying China is still defending itself in history at the moment, or is it the new strengths to show its power?
PM: Objectively speaking, there is no need to show your strength because today China is a nuclear power, Japan is not a nuclear power. Japan has a security treaty with America so it has a nuclear umbrella. So to go to war is unimaginable. And to think that Japan is a threat to China also does not accord to the real balance of forces. But the image of that and the popular impression of what China is and what is old to China and what the Japanese used to stand for and still do, I think that is something which is very difficult to change.
Q: Factually, there are incidents, there are disputes on territories, there have been drilling incidents…
PM: In the South China Sea, it is not the same history as between China and Japan. There is not the same animosity. In fact, the Southeast Asian countries all want to be friends with China and in most cases despite their disputes, maintain good relations with China. The Malaysians maintain good relations with China; Brunei maintains good relations with China; even Vietnam where the drillings took place which you referred to, the Chinese put up a drilling drake, they keep up party to party relations even when the state to state relations are complex. It is like the old days when you have state relations and party to party relations. Well, it is friction, but they will manage the relationship because they have been neighbours and they have fought and dealt with one another for more than two thousand years.
Q: What is your position on freedom on the sea and their movements there?
PM: I think the freedom of navigation is crucial, and the South China Sea is one of our key trading sea lines of communications. To get to Singapore, either you come by the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea. So if freedom of navigation is affected, I think that is a very serious matter for us. And freedom of navigation can be affected even indirectly because if a piece of sea is declared as being somebody’s territorial waters instead of being high seas, well, there is freedom of navigation on the high seas and there is freedom of navigation on territorial waters, but it is not the same.
Q: Sir, the Chinese claim of having exclusive claim of 200 nautical miles…
PM: Nobody knows what exactly the Chinese claim. They claim Nine-Dash Lines and say this is unquestionable but what is unquestionable is not explicitly stated. It is not stated in terms of EEZ or territorial seas or island reefs territories.
Q: What are they trying to do with this? Why are they doing this? Why this ambiguity?
PM: Because this is what they refer back to, a map which was drawn about 60, 70 years ago, in the 1940s. In fact, it was first drawn by the Kuomintang government, before the Chinese took over. And then the Chinese amended the line. I think they removed one of the dashes and put another dash back. So they have decided, I presume and some of their think-tanks say so explicitly, that it was disadvantageous for them to spell out exactly the basis of their claim. Therefore, we would just claim and assert what we have drawn on our maps and that is indisputably ours, ‘how can you ask me’? Well, where are the coordinates? There are no coordinates. What does it mean? It’s quite clear, there’s no need to ask.
Q: Well, there are modern rules like the UN convention to the Sea. There are even courts that one could refer to. There is arbitration...
PM: There is a tribunal in Hamburg, it is called ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) and the Philippines have taken the case to this tribunal in Hamburg and it is in the process of being heard. The Chinese have said they are not cooperating and they will not accept anything which comes out of the Tribunal, so the first question before the Tribunal is to rule whether it has jurisdiction. But whatever the Tribunal rules, the Chinese have decided that they will not be bound by this outcome. It is like the Americans. The Americans have signed the UN Convention – UNCLOS, but they have not ratified UNCLOS. The Chinese did ratify, they have some kind of reservation, so it is arguable whether they have carved this out or not. But basically they are taking a big power position and say ‘what I assert is mine and I will continue asserting its mine’.
Q: Is there any recommendation from the Prime Minister of Singapore on the arbitration or peaceful solutions?
PM: I think there is no solution which is possible because once you say ‘what’s mine is mine’, and the other countries also say ‘what’s mine is mine’, there is no basis to discuss this. In fact, it is very hard to know who has a better claim because nobody can produce document which trace back an impeccable legal lineage. All you can say is, ‘well, my fishermen were there’, or ‘my junk sailed through’, or ‘my maps have some reference to shoals in this area’. Everybody has that and human beings have been living in this part of the world for thousands of years. So you cannot settle and agree. And nobody can say ‘I used to claim Nine-Dash Lines and now I only claim seven’. It is not possible. All you can do is agree to disagree, and manage the disagreement so that you do not accidentally have two boats colliding or two aeroplanes clashing or exchange of fire and event spirals out of control.
Q: Are the mechanisms in place for handling this problem enough?
PM: No, they are not. I mean, we have a declaration of conduct, which was agreed between ASEAN and China, and it says all the things the parties promised to abide by and to some extent, they do. From time to time, people do things. That happens. We are trying to work towards a code of conduct which is going to be binding and which will be more effective. We are in the process of talking about this code of conduct with the Chinese but I think it will take some time. I do not think any of the countries will likely agree to bind themselves. But if we can achieve a code of conduct, that will be a positive development. Does not mean we solve the problem but at least we minimise the chance of that leading to a real show down.
Q: ASEAN will conduct this exercise?
PM: Yes, ASEAN is working on this. As ASEAN, as a regional group, we do not take positions on individual claims, because we are in no position to adjudicate who has a better claim. On the issue of how such a matter should be handled in our region, ASEAN must have a stand, because if we do not have a view on this, what sort of issues do you have a view on, which matters to you? This is a matter which is prima facie of security concern to all the other ASEAN countries.
Q: It is a legal matter but also a simple power matter, what is desired – the leadership question in Southeast Asia. Is it trade? Is it the number of submarines? Or is it the law?
PM: It is not just a power matter; it is also a matter of real politic. Real politic is not just calculating your power on this issue but your reputation internationally and what image you want to present to the world, what is the stance which will be most advantageous to you in the long run. If you look at historical records and the way other countries have conducted themselves, you can never look at an issue just in narrow isolation. How do you handle this? How will it appear to the rest of the world? Will I be seen as reasonable just, or just as powerful and therefore might is right?
So what is influential in Southeast Asia? Certainly, economic opportunities, to cooperate. Certainly, force in being counts. American presence in the region with their 7th fleet, mean something. But it is also what the countries put behind that. So you have the forces, but are you focused on this? Are you cultivating the relationships? Are you developing the links in a deep way so that both sides have an interest in constructive and positive engagement?
Q: There is a nice German word called ordnungsmacht – the power which calls for order. Is the US still the Pacific power which sets the order?
PM: The US is still a major Pacific power. They are not the only one. The Chinese are building up their influence, their forces too. They have one aircraft carrier which is becoming operational. They are building a second one – the reports have just come out. The Japanese want to be a normal county and to have a regional security rule but it is difficult for them to do that especially if their relationship with China is not in a positive state. What is critical to the US is not the number of ships they have; that is not their constraint. What is critical is whether the US is focused on Asia and engaging the countries in Asia and therefore having an influence in the region. They have to have good relations with China and we all hope that they do so, so we do not have to choose between America and China. We also hope that the US is cultivating the other countries in the region. In an environment with multiple stars, you have some opportunities to be friends with both.
Q: Is the Japanese’ attempt to balance power and to open up its constitution towards a more assertive role in security politics, is this justified or historically unwise?
PM: I do not think they can balance the Chinese. Economically yes, they are about the same size as the Chinese, and in terms of technology and capabilities, they are much more advance. In terms of power projection, I think it is difficult for them to match the Chinese. I think if they want to have a greater influence, it is completely understandable, but it has to be done in a way which does not immediately revive all the old anxieties and doubts over Japan lingering from the war. They have not reached that point yet. And it is not just the Chinese; even with the Koreans.
Q: You are talking about image and influence. The Chinese have founded a regional development bank.
PM: AIIB, yes.
Q: What is that? Is it an attempt to be more influential economically, or is it just something for the image, or is it something else?
PM: I think they want to have influence in the region. The region does need infrastructure; there is a genuine need. I think the Asian Development Bank is not quite fulfilling this. The World Bank plays a role, but the World Bank is…Well, to put it quite bluntly, the IMF is headed by a European; the World Bank is headed by an American; and the ADB is headed by a Japanese.
Q: That’s what I am asking.
PM: So the Chinese say, well, if I am going to want to have an influence, I would like to have something I have a greater say in. And therefore, why not we do an AIIB? In fact, they are also starting a BRICS Bank. They have also started another project, called the New Silk Road initiative. So they have got quite a number of new things launching. But the AIIB, if they would like to start one, I think it is a plus for the region. And they are not doing it unilaterally. They are bringing in other partners; they have invited a range. All the ASEAN countries have participated, including Singapore. The Australians have not, because I think they had a debate internally and the foreign policy view prevailed, which said we line up with the Americans, the Americans disapprove of this. The New Zealanders have participated. I think on balance, overall it is a good thing. We engage and we make sure that it plays a constructive role.
Q: It seems to be shifting power to the Southeast.
PM: Shift influence, yes. I mean, you are talking about the GDP, which is now the same size as Japan’s, and within a decade or so, will be, at least on PPP terms, the same size as US. So they will have influence, and they want instruments by which to project this influence.
Q: But is there a competing model behind TPP and RCEP, in terms of ideology or in terms of economic ground rules – open air, labour relations?
PM: First of all, the participation is different. The TPP is transpacific. That means you have got Americans as well as Asians; you have got North as well as South America; and you have got developing as well as developed countries. So it plays a role bringing the Asia Pacific, basically the APEC footprint, together, although not all APEC countries are in it. The RCEP is on the west of the Pacific. It is Asian, so it has got ASEAN; it has got China, Japan, Korea; it has got Australia, New Zealand; it has got India. It’s like the Americans have NAFTA; we don’t ask to join NAFTA. You have got EU; I don’t ask to join EU.
PM: So therefore, it makes sense to have closer integration within the Asian countries. If you do the TPP with the Americans in, the Canadians in, and the Japanese, the areas which you would want to cover would be the things which are of interest to them. You have to talk about intellectual property and pharmaceutical and state-owned enterprises and things like that.
Q: And the US should be part of a Pacific trade zone?
PM: I think it is a great plus to us if the US is part of this, because eventually, really, the ideal is free trade in the Asia Pacific. But to imagine that Americans can have an FTA with China, I think whatever the economics, the politics of it will be very complicated. But if we can have a regional arrangement, it is imaginable that America, China, Japan will all be part of it eventually. So I think it is good that the Americans are in.
On the west, the RCEP, we have all the right participants. We have got China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, so the membership is not the problem. The problem is to overcome the natural bureaucratic reservation in many of these countries which are not naturally free traders, to have a substantial and worthwhile deal. That is proving not easy.
Q: Give us some outside perspective on what’s happening in Europe. We probably have managed something wrong in our neighbourhood relations here. There is a war flaming right now in Eastern Ukraine. You were on the record with being pretty decisive on what caused it. Was the EU not cautious enough or not open enough with Russia? Is this something which is to be blamed for?
PM: I think blame is not helpful. It’s a dynamic which is difficult to control and which has led you to an unhappy position. Eastern Europe collapsed, the Soviet Union broke up. Suddenly it looked like history had come to an end, and you thought that, well, why do we need NATO? You go all the way from England to Vladivostok, it’s all one friendly environment. But it is not so simple. Along the periphery of the Russians particularly, those countries have very difficult decisions to make, and not all of them are clearly united and cohesive countries with stable identities and histories. The Baltics know who they are and what they want to be. It is not easy to decide which side to join, but at least those are countries. If you look at Ukraine, it is much harder to say, because you have got the Russian speaking part, you have got the western Ukrainian part. It is historically part of Russia, and the Russians see this as vital to them. On the other hand, the Ukrainians, they want freedom of space and freedom to pursue their own policies. They wanted some closer association with the Europeans – they even talked about joining NATO, and you found it very difficult to not encourage them. Could you take responsibility for the consequences? I think not really. Could you have stopped them from wanting to move this way?
Q: It’s their sovereign choice.
PM: It’s their sovereign choice, but their sovereign choice has consequences and not only for them.
Q: But the consequence wasn’t annexation of territory.
PM: Well, a lot of things happen on the way there.
Q: Singapore must be worry, I mean…
PM: No. As far as we are concerned, countries cannot go round annexing other countries. And in particular, countries cannot go round ignoring solemn agreements which they have committed to and signed, in this case, what was settled in Budapest, amongst all the nuclear powers to cause Ukraine to denuclearise and to guarantee that Crimea is part of Ukraine. And now to say, well, it doesn’t count because there was a coup, and now I am taking back Crimea, it is very bad.
If it had stopped there, I think you might have found some way to move on and maintain your relationship. You have a lot of relations with Eastern Europe and particularly with Russia. But there is a dynamic to these things. It doesn’t stop there, and now it has gone to Donetsk and they shot down MH17. That changed attitudes in Europe, and you were then forced to decide, what response do you make? You cannot say I don’t do anything. Even the Dutch who used to say don’t do anything, after MH17 totally changed their position. So what can you do? You cannot engage NATO forces, so you say, ok, I do economic sanctions. It hurt Russia; it may or may not hurt Putin. I think to go from sanctions to changing Russian policy on Ukraine, it’s a very long way. But you are fixed with this position, then you have to live with difficult relations with the Russians for a long time to come.
Q: So having a military confrontation is even less advisable?
PM: I don’t think anybody is thinking about that. I see that Mr Obama is reported to be thinking of supplying the Ukrainians, but well, how far is he prepared to go? So these were all calculations which should have been there before people engage in supporting what happened in Maidan.
Q: Is it likely that an authoritarian system like the Russians simply dislike the idea of a country like Ukraine having sovereign decisions, democratic decisions?
PM: I don’t know whether it is a matter of being autocratic or not. Even if you are democratically elected and sitting in the Kremlin, you would be looking at this and say, what happens next? If you were the national security council in Moscow, you would be watching this very, very closely. This is close to your heartlands. It is where Rus started. So it is not to do with being autocratic or not. You may not like Mr Putin’s style, but these are geostrategic realities.
Q: Fifty years of relationship between Germany and Singapore, how should it get better actually?
PM: I think we work together. You are now in the EU; we are working in ASEAN. One way we can do it better is we have the EU–ASEAN FTA, which has been completed, negotiated and now in the process of getting ratified. In fact, it is getting translated first and then ratified. But it is on the way and we hope that we will be able to do it smoothly. It has run into some European complexities because you (Germany) have an issue with ISDS, Investor State Dispute Settlement. It has implications on us. And there is also the question which got raised: Whether the European Commission has competence to negotiate an FTA. So they are thinking of referring that to the European court to decide and once you go to the European court, it’s another one year. So we are learning what it means to deal with Brussels and Europe. I hope that we will be able to navigate this complex environment and procedures. But I think overall, it will be a big plus to you if we can have an EU-Singapore FTA and you can take over from that and do one with ASEAN. You want to be part of the region. There are so many opportunities in the East.
Q: Are there too little right now? Is Germany not present enough?
PM: Well, you have got a lot of companies in Singapore. You have 1,400 German companies in Singapore and many of the big ones are there. Your banks are there. But I think if you compare with American companies, the degree of your involvement is not as deep and also perhaps maybe because of your governance, when it comes to investing in the Far East, you watch carefully and say, ‘what does that mean for my employment back home?’ Well, really you have to watch that part of it, but from a long-term strategic point of view, you do want to be in the Far East; you cannot afford not to be there. China you are there, but the rest of Asia, I think there are many opportunities too.
Q: Are you afraid of the Euro Crisis?
PM: There is no point being afraid of it. We are just watching how things will develop with it. I think the crisis passed after 2008, 2009. The adjustments which have been made in terms of banking unions and in terms of ECB policy, I do not think the fundamentals have been settled, either in terms of the reform structural which the Germans particularly think necessary which are in fact important in the long term, or the macroeconomics, because the debt is still high. Even the Greeks, after writing down half the debt, are still 175% of GDP. We can say we cannot forgive anymore, but you know you cannot squeeze anymore blood out of the stone. So how do you find some way not to resolve that, but to find some formulation to push the problem down the road? Because even the Greeks do not want to leave the EU or the euro, neither do the other European countries want to push them out. But at the same time, neither can you acknowledge openly that you are prepared to forgive even more debt and maybe encourage the others to say, let’s ask for more forgiveness.
Q: How do we get out of this quagmire?
PM: The traditional way for politicians is to kick the ball down the road and in the process, you hope to muddle through. But it is not a certainty and the problem can come back.
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