PM Lee Hsien Loong's Interview with BBC HARDtalk

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 23 February 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong was interviewed by Mr Stephen Sackur for BBC's HARDtalk on 23 February 2017.


Mr Stephen Sackur for BBC HARDTalk: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, welcome to HARDtalk. Let us start with the international political climate. Donald Trump is now president of the US. He talks about protectionism. He talks about ripping up trade deals that have been bad for America. How dangerous is this new political climate for Singapore?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: We are watching it very carefully. We of all countries depend most heavily on trade. Our foreign trade is 3.5 times our GDP, probably the highest in the world. We have free trade agreements with many countries, including US. We participate actively in the WTO and we have depended on the system which America has built and upheld to maintain an open, global intercourse of trade, commerce, investment, finances, which has prospered most countries most of the time. There is a new mood in America. President Trump reflects that, and we will have to watch carefully what policies he pursues.

HARDTalk: Tell me your reaction when Donald Trump says things like this, and this is a quote, “the globalised trading system has led to the greatest job theft in the history of the world”.

PM Lee: There are many views on that and in Singapore’s case, it has not done that to us. In America’s case, there are many American companies which have prospered because they are all over the world and therefore there is a base in America. But this is a view which a segment of Americans hold and I think the President reflects that.

HARDTalk: Worried? Alarmed?

PM Lee: It depends what he actually does because campaign rhetoric is always slightly overheated and then when the administration comes in, they settle in and they confront the realities and they have to make the choices.

HARDTalk: So Prime Minister, we already know one key act which he has already taken, which is to walk America away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal which Singapore was very much a part of and now the Americans want no part of it.

PM Lee: Yes, we were disappointed by that because we all spent a long time negotiating it. It was a hard won deal – carefully balanced. The Americans bargained hard and so did the other countries. Singapore particularly felt that it was important not just economically because it was 40 per cent of the world’s GDP brought in by the participants, but also strategically, because it can deepen America’s engagement in Asia and give a rationale for America to take a close interest in Asia and try to make things work out well in Asia.

HARDTalk: So what signal does it send of America’s feelings about its engagement with Asia?

PM Lee: It shows that on this issue, Mr Trump was following on his campaign rhetoric. But I do not believe that the administration is planning to pull back from Asia or to pull back from the world. On the contrary, he said he wants a muscular engagement and we will have to see what that means.

HARDTalk: Well, let me quote you your own words in Time magazine last autumn just before Trump won the election but it was clear that he stood a chance. You said that if the US went back on the TPP trade deal, how would anyone believe in the Americans anymore? You said it was not just about trade, it was about strategic issues too.

PM Lee: America is a reality. It is still a great power. This has put a dent in the degree to which people can be confident of America’s policies but it has happened and we have to live with it.

HARDTalk: Last question on TPP. Some other signatories, thinking of Australia and New Zealand, have said they would not rule out a “TPP Minus” – moving ahead without the US. In Japan, that seemed to be a non-starter. How is it viewed in Singapore?

PM Lee: If there were consensus and 12 minus one, 11 countries, say let us go ahead and sign the thing, just minus the US, Singapore would sign. Whether that happens I am not sure, because the Japanese in particular made very painful concessions in exchange for American concessions. And if you have a deal in which the Japanese have these concessions and the Americans are not a party, I think that the political balance and economic balance have shifted. So I would not rule it out but I think it is not so easy to achieve.

HARDTalk: If we are talking about hostility in East Asia, in the end, we have to talk not just about US but China – the two huge powers in your region. We talked about uncertainty in Washington. You have to live with that right now. But there is also uncertainty in your relationship with Beijing. Singapore, going back to your father, has always sought strong relationships with both Washington and Beijing. Right now, I look at your relationship with Beijing and it seems to me you have got some major problems, perhaps symbolised recently when the Chinese impounded for a short time some of your military vehicles because they have been on exercise in Taiwan. How worried are you about your relationship with the Chinese?

PM Lee: I would not say we have major problems. We have had some issues and some incidents. The military vehicles were an incident which happened to both of us and we had to handle it.

HARDTalk: Suggests a lack of trust?

PM Lee: It was a delicate matter for both sides and I think both sides handled it carefully and there has been a satisfactory outcome.

HARDTalk: To put it bluntly, the Chinese are furious about some policy decisions you have made, not least your decision to support the Court of Arbitration’s backing of the Philippines in the dispute in the South China Sea. The Chinese feel that you are betraying a friendship.

PM Lee: No, I think you mis-paraphrased me because I did not strongly support the Court’s ruling. What I said was the Court had made a strong statement, and there is a difference.

HARDTalk: No, let us be clear, the Court is an respected international court…

PM Lee: No, I said the Court made a strong statement. The Chinese do not accept it. The Filipinos do. But it was, if you read the ruling, it was a ruling in very strong terms.

HARDTalk: In that dispute which side, Prime Minister, has justice on its side? The Chinese or the Filipinos?

PM Lee: We do not judge specific claims. Singapore respects the interest of the court.

HARDTalk: But you respect the interest. The Court made a decision.

PM Lee: We respect international courts. Decisions are made – they can be scrutinised, they can be examined, they can be criticised. In Singapore, our interest is freedom of navigation, rule of international law, and also the cohesion of ASEAN, and the relevance of ASEAN.

HARDTalk: I am looking at this from Beijing’s point of view. Also your decision during the Obama administration period in 2015 – you signed a deeper defence agreement with the Americans and to the Chinese,that looks like a statement of intent which works against their interest.


PM Lee: We have had this relationship with the US for a long time. We buy a lot of military equipment from them. We train on quite a big scale in the US – our Air Force is there. For more than 30 years now, we have hosted American aircraft and ships, in the region, which pass through and stop in Singapore. It is the right thing for us to do because we believe that the American presence in the region is positive for the region, and the security presence is positive for the region. It has brought about stability. It has enabled countries to prosper and to compete peacefully. Therefore, we believe it is in our interest to be helpful to the Americans.

HARDTalk: I guess that just indicates that at a time, let’s be honest, of rising tensions in the region, and with Donald Trump talking about a new American First policy – we discussed the protectionism aspect of that – things are getting very difficult for Singapore.

PM Lee: If America-China relations become very difficult, our position becomes tougher. Because then we will be coerced to choose between being friends with America, and friends with China.

HARDTalk: That is a real worry for you.

PM Lee: That is the real worry. Right now we are friends with both. Not that we do not have issues with either, but we are generally friends with both, and the relationships are in good working order.

HARDTalk: But reading the signs, do you believe that Beijing-Washington relations are in danger of deteriorating?

PM Lee: The relations always require close and sustained attention on both sides. I am sure that the Chinese side do that. On the American side, I hope that they will have that attention, because on the American side, they have got many other issues to worry about – Europe, the Middle East, Ukraine, Latin America. Unless you focus on this relationship – both the win-win aspects, as well as the areas where you are in contention – it can go wrong.

HARDTalk: You have just mentioned Europe. Let me switch attention to Europe for a second, and in particular, the looming prospect of the Brexit. When you look at the United Kingdom as a place to do business, as a trading and investment hub, from your point of view, has Brexit strengthened or weakened United Kingdom?

PM Lee: We have no vote on this. From our point of view, we think that Brexit weakens the EU, but we are not sure if it strengthens the United Kingdom. You can make a living; you will not starve outside the EU, but it is an enormous market that is on your doorstep, you cannot avoid doing business with it. If you cannot influence it, then you may not have strengthened your influence in the world.

HARDTalk: This is what Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said very recently. He said let us understand what we are dealing with here. The world does not see Britain through the prism of being a member of the European Union. The nations of the world see and respect Britain as a major power in its own right. Looking from Singapore, do you think that is true?

PM Lee: Singapore is a small country. We also are trying make our way in the world. We find it useful, and in fact essential, that we are part of a regional group – ASEAN. It is not as ambitious as the EU, it does not aim for political union or total economic integration. But it is a life raft which gives our voice a bit more influence in the world.

HARDTalk: Britain’s International Trade Secretary Mr Liam Fox has been in Singapore in just the past few days. Did you meet him?

PM Lee: Not this time. I have met him before.

HARDTalk: But I think he has met your trade officials.

PM Lee: Yes, he did.

HARDTalk: Britain now is very eager to begin work on driving a very far-reaching bilateral trade deal. Obviously, as an important trading nation in the world, they are looking at Singapore. Are you already in negotiation with them?

PM Lee: We are not in negotiation but we would be willing and happy to do that, when Britain is ready. I think you will have many countries who will wish to do deals, starting with the United States. You have to do that. But the fact is, you are doing it on your own.

HARDTalk: There is an active debate in the UK about how these trade deals, bilateral deals, should be done, what value should be brought there. For example, opposition figures, have said, “Look, if we are going out to countries around the world looking for preferential trade deals, we must not and cannot turn a blind eye to human rights issues, abuses, violations, in the pursuit of sweetheart trade deals”. Some even mentioned Singapore. This is what Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK said. He said, “If we are to seek a deal with Singapore, Theresa May, the Prime Minister must raise issues of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in any trade talks with Singapore”. How do you respond to that?

PM Lee: I do not see you being restrained in asking me any questions.

HARDTalk: No, I am not. That is not really the point is it. The point is whether you would be prepared to offer guarantees on your treatment of the press at home, here in Singapore. Whether you would be prepared to talk about why the freedoms for the press is…

PM Lee: I would not presume to tell you how your Press Council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run? We are completely open; we have one of the fastest internet accesses in the world; we have no great wall of the internet; you can get any site in the world. So where is the restriction?

HARDTalk: So if the government of Britain were to make linkages between the trade deal and seeking guarantees about human rights, press freedom, workers’ rights, demonstrators’ rights in this country, your reaction would be?

PM Lee: I would wait to react until I see it. You look at the Americans. They do not lack fervour in moral causes. They promote democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, gay rights and sometimes even transgender rights. But you do not see them applying that universally across the world, with all their allies. Yes they do it when the cost is low. You can take the high position. But you look at some of the most important oil producers in the world. Do they conform? Have they been pressured? You have to do business. The world is a diverse place. Nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom. Unless we can accept that and we prosper together, and cooperate together, accepting our differences – differences in values, differences in outlook, differences even in what we see the goals of life to be, it becomes difficult.

The world is a diverse place. Nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom.

PM Lee Hsien Loong

HARDTalk: If we may spend just a little bit of time thinking about the values that are represented here in Singapore – it is a democracy. I think you are proud of your democracy, and yet the reality is, that there has been one party in power, the party that your father founded, and was the central figure within. One party rule ever since the independence of Singapore. Most people in the West would say that for a really active, successful democracy, you need a powerful opposition that has the very real prospect of winning power. You do not have that.

PM Lee: I would not say it is one party rule. The government has only belonged to one party but there are many parties in Singapore. The elections are fiercely contested.

HARDTalk: I think you know as well as I do. The number of MPs from the opposition in your parliament is just a handful. In fact, you have to pass a law guaranteeing them certain positions otherwise there would be virtually none.

PM Lee: There are now six elected, three unelected. We are going to increase the number to at least 12. But really it is the workings of our democratic system. The population voted, they prefer PAP candidates to become Members of Parliament. They have confidence in the PAP to form the government and to govern them well. As long as that happens, I can have such an outcome in parliament. Once the government stops functioning, or for that matter, if I have a Member of Parliament who does not perform his duties and loses the confidence of the supporters and I field them again, the situation will change overnight. It is open.

HARDTalk: Your country is so open in terms of its economy, but so not open in some other ways.

PM Lee: Just because the voters have voted for me and my party does not mean that we are not open.

HARDTalk: But hang on a minute. I mean just look at the realities, you have the Internal Security Act which still allows people to be locked up without charge or trial.

PM Lee: The only people we have locked up in recent decades have been terrorists and Islamist extremists.

HARDTalk: You also actually taken legal action against teenage bloggers for things they have written online. You have got human rights who are saying, “Prime Minister Lee is imposing a mix of absolute political control and repression of dissenting voices that was the hallmark of his father”.

PM Lee: If it were such a miserable place, you would not be interviewing me. You would be going down the streets and getting “vox pops” and all sorts of people would be saying terrible things about the government and some of them would have emigrated. But the fact is, Singaporeans are happy, they have chosen this government, we are governing the country and the people to the best of our ability. Millions more would like to come if we allowed it.

HARDTalk: Well, let us talk symbols then. About the identity of Singapore today and what you want it to look like in the years to come. There has been a lot of discussion, shall I say, inside the city-state about your repressive law on homosexuality. It is still technically illegal, thanks to statute, I think, number 377A, for two consenting male adults to have sex. It is a criminal offence. Now I know that the Singapore judicial authorities choose to not prosecute men for doing it, but why not, as a symbol of change in this country: get out the statute.

PM Lee: It is a matter of society values. We inherited this from British Victorian attitudes.

HARDTalk: And I am sure you do not want Singapore today to reflect British Victorian attitudes.

PM Lee: We are not British. We are not Victorian. But this is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand. The majority of Singaporeans…

HARDTalk: You have been in power for what, more than 12 years yourself. Is it not your role as a leader to signal to your people that Singapore can and must adapt to changing social mores?

PM Lee: On social moral issues, I think the government’s role is not to do that. People believe this, some of them believe this fervently – it is a vexed issue in every society.

HARDTalk: Let me ask you a personal question. I do not wish to sound rude in any way but…

PM Lee: You never are.

HARDTalk: But if any of your children or grandchildren were gay, would that change your perspective? Would you then think it unacceptable for consenting adults to be criminalised for in this way?

PM Lee: It is a law which is there. If I remove it, I will not remove the problem because if you look at what has happened in the West, and in Britain, you decriminalised it in the 1960s, your attitudes have changed a long way but even now gay marriage is contentious. In America it is very contentious. Even in France, in Paris, they have had demonstrations in the streets against gay marriage.

HARDTalk: But what is your personal view? Would you like, all things being equal, to get rid of 377A?

PM Lee: My personal view is that if I do not have a problem, this is an uneasy compromise, I am prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.

HARDTalk: We are almost out of time. Just a couple of quick questions on Singapore’s future and its future leadership. In 2008, you gave an interview where you indicated that you did not think Singapore was ready for a Muslim, non-Chinese Prime Minister. Did you still feel that today?

PM Lee: I think that ethnic considerations are never absent when voters vote. It is like that in America, certainly in this last election, and in Singapore, it is much better than before, but race and religion count and I think that makes it difficult. It is not impossible and I hope one day it will happen.

HARDTalk: Is Singapore ready today?

PM Lee: If you ask whether it will happen tomorrow, I do not think so.

HARDTalk: Alright, put it this way: one of your deputies, so one can assume a man you believe to be qualified to be PM, if it should arise, is Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Now he and I have discussed this, as it happens. He told me that he did not believe he would ever be PM of Singapore. And polls suggest that most Singaporeans see him as the man best qualified to be the next PM. Perhaps it is time to reassess.

PM Lee: It may be I am wrong but my sense is that Singaporean voters will look for a good man – a man who can resonate with them; a man they can identify with.

HARDTalk: Could it be Mr Tharman?

PM Lee: It could be somebody like Tharman but…

HARDTalk: But he is your deputy.

PM Lee: Yes indeed, it could be somebody like him but these are factors that voters take into consideration when they go to the ballot box and when they identify with you. There are very few countries where you can say their race does not count at all.

HARDTalk: Yeah, but well, let us talk about name as well. The truth of the matter is that in Singapore, your father led this country for more than 30 years. You have led it yourself for more than 12 years. Do you not think that it is going to be difficult for Singapore to move beyond the Lee family?

PM Lee: Nobody is immortal. I will have to hand over as Prime Minister and there will have to be a successor.

HARDTalk: And Prime Minister, again, it is a little personal, but you did have a health scare last year…

PM Lee: Two years ago.

HARDTalk: Yes. I mean, you have recovered, and we all understand that you are feeling well. Do you intend to go on and on?

PM Lee: No I do not. I have said that many times.

HARDTalk: Well, how? So tell me about succession. Your father always said organising a succession is crucial and I think you have said it too, so how is the succession going to work?

PM Lee: It is the most difficult job. I have assembled a team of younger ministers; some are in their 50s, some are in their 40s; and amongst them, they are able people, they have to work together, they have to build their team, they have to build the trust of Singaporeans, and amongst themselves they must throw up and acknowledge and support a leader.

HARDTalk: When you pick that leader…

PM Lee: I cannot pick that leader. They have to decide whom they are going to work for. If I pick their leader and they do not support him, one day when they decide they are off to become the curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum or something like that, well, that is the end of Singapore.

HARDTalk: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, thank you so much for being on HARDTalk.

PM Lee: Thank you very much.