Dialogue with PM Lee Hsien Loong at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 13 March 2018

Transcript of PM Lee Hsien Loong's dialogue at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture on 13 March 2018. The dialogue panel comprised PM Lee and moderator Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Special Adviser, the Institute of Policy Studies.


Professor Tommy Koh: Prime Minister, thank you very much for a very comprehensive, substantive and important lecture. As a moderator, I ask your permission to ask you the first and the last question. I recall that on the 26th of January this year, you and the nine other ASEAN leaders were in New Delhi and were the joint chief guests at the 69th Republic Day parade. On the previous day, Prime Minister Modi and you co-chaired a special Commemorative Summit. So what I would like to ask you is to help us understand the state of ASEAN relations with the six major powers, beginning with India, the United States (US), China, Japan, Russia, and the European Union (EU).

PM Lee Hsien Loong: That may take until the 100th anniversary but I shall do my best. If I may start with India, ASEAN has always considered India a strategically important partner because of the architecture of the region. It is growing, prospering and it is a part of South Asia and Southeast Asia, and indeed the whole of Asia. We want it to be engaged in a systematic and constructive way. That is why we have an ASEAN-India dialogue and why India is a member of the East Asia Summit. I am very happy that the Indians also see things in a similar way and invited all of us leaders, ASEAN leaders, to attend the Republic Day this year.

India historically has been very focused on the subcontinent because it is an all-consuming business and they have a complicated neighbourhood and many issues to attend to. But as India’s economy takes off, as its links to the rest of the world grow, trade links, investment links, people links, I think its stake in the region, including in Southeast Asia and East Asia will grow. We are seeing that and I am happy that our Summit meeting in India, New Delhi this January was a manifestation of that. 

With China, of course, we have a deep and broad, and at the same time complex relationship. We co-operate across many, many areas, all the fields of ASEAN and very substantive projects whether it is in terms of economic development, human resource development, tourism, environment or even in security matters. At the same time, it is a complex relationship because there are also issues where we have to manage potential conflicts. For example, the South China Sea. So it is one where each of the participants must at the same time work on win-win co-operation and simultaneously manage the competitive aspects and the rivalrous aspects in order not to allow them to blow up and overshadow the constructive co-operation. In this exercise, I think all of the countries involved are realistic. They understand what is at stake. Singapore is the country coordinator for ASEAN’s relations with China. We work as an honest broker in order to try and increase the common ground. Whether the common ground is on economic co-operation or whether it is on negotiating the code of conduct.

Our relations with America are also substantial. The Americans have a different way of working from the Chinese or the Indians. They are a global power. ASEAN is one of their areas of focus, of attention, but it is not the only one and it will never be the only one. We know that they put emphasis on Asia and that is so whether it is a Democrat or Republican government, administration. This Trump administration, the principal officers, the Secretary of State of Defense, the National Security advisor,  they have all visited the region and they have all reaffirmed that this remains important to them. North Korea is important to them, China is important to them but I think that they also appreciate that it is not just these two countries but the whole region where they have a lot of investment, a lot of stakes and a lot of friends. ASEAN, on its part, sees America as a very important trading partner, as a very important market, a very important source of investment, of technology and of education for the young people because many of the talented young people in ASEAN countries, some time or other in their lives, make it to America. Either to study or to work or just to sojourn there for a while.

Those are the three most intense relationships. Japan has engaged ASEAN for I think 30 years, formally. In terms of informal relationships, Japan has been active in the region ever since the 1960s when they started investing outwards. Their focus is not quite on the scale of the United States or even of the Chinese but the economy is not a smaller one and the technology is not at all inferior to the others. We are happy that with Mr Abe, there is a new emphasis on their links with Southeast Asia and the rest of the region, and we look forward to pursuing that.

Russia is a power with ancient history, considerable military capability and enormous sense of pride and mission. They have felt that in Asia, they want to be at the table and they would like to participate with ASEAN. Therefore, when we expanded the East Asia Summit grouping, when we included America, we also included Russia at the same time. We are happy that the Russians would like to do that. In terms of the broader region they have hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting once in Vladivostok. Siberia is a land of enormous opportunity, tremendous natural resources, the population is not large but the potential is enormous. We hope that our relations with Russia can grow and prosper in accordance with this potential.

Prof Koh: European Union?

PM Lee: The European Union to us, if you look at it, the economy is bigger even than the US economy. If you take it as a whole, the population is bigger. I think their strategic interest is less focused on the Far East, it is more an economic interest. There is a historical link with many of the European countries because of the colonial ties. That is just a jump-off point to make use of in order to anchor a modern relationship between the EU and ASEAN. We see them as a co-operation partner and we would like to do more with them. I talked about the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA), the air traffic agreement. In fact, we have an ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which is being negotiated. Although with 27 or 28 countries on the other side and 10 on ours, you can imagine the 280 possibilities to worry about.

Prof Koh: It is going through the ratification?

PM Lee: No, the Singapore-EU is going through ratification now. ASEAN-EU we are still negotiating. It takes a while. But we would like EU to be engaged because economically they are not less than the US, either in size or in sophistication. What will take some time is for the EU to develop the political cohesion and identity in order for the high representative for foreign affairs to speak on behalf of the whole of the EU. I do not think that they are quite there yet.

Prof Koh: Thank you PM. In the interest of gender equity, I would like the next question to come from a woman. I recognise Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar. Ibu Dewi is one of Indonesia’s most respected public intellectuals.

Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar: Thank you very much Tommy. Prime Minister, I really enjoyed your speech. I would like to ask you, maybe not too difficult a question. Because you emphasised the importance of ASEAN centrality. As you rightly mentioned, ASEAN centrality is not something that we should take as an entitlement, it has to be earned. It is very much dependent upon ASEAN’s unity and credibility. But in your speech, you have also underlined ASEAN’s internal diversity. Lately as you know, we have been very concerned about not just the existing diversity that continues to hamper ASEAN’s unity but geopolitical reality, particularly the rise of China has become a real issue.

What happened in 2012, when for the first time in ASEAN’s history, ASEAN failed to come up with a Joint Communiqué over the paragraph on the South China Sea. It is not just going to be a footnote in ASEAN history, I think ASEAN is scarred by that experience. Diversity and different geopolitical poles on one hand, and centrality and the desire for strategic autonomy on the other hand. How are we going to manage this in terms of the delicacy of understanding? How concerned are you that, as China becomes even more powerful and wealthy, and we all want to get into the China market and engage with China, but at the same time, it is becoming something of a problem. Can you explain a bit more to us about this?

PM Lee: I think these are the realities of the region. In the 1960s, it was not that the region was completely in a coherent, strategic state. Because the Cold War was in progress and there was a line through the region. North Vietnam was communist, Laos was royalist but with a Pathet Lao insurgency making considerable progress. The other countries dealing with insurgencies, communist insurgencies.

ASEAN was a smaller grouping, five at that time, later on six. It was able to come together sufficiently in order to deal with that situation. We dealt with it in the Cambodia War and I think that brought the five plus one closer together. Now, we are not having a Cold War but you have different powers in the world and some countries in ASEAN are closer to China, closer geographically, closer in their strategic perspectives. Other countries are more omnidirectional in their approach. Therefore, there is a gradient within the ASEAN countries. The 10, in their attitudes towards the great powers, in where they line up when issues come up, which are of close concern to one or the other of the great powers. We have to now deal with it within ASEAN rather than to say, “Here is five of us trying to deal with it and the others are outside the pale”. If you ask me whether it is better to deal with it within ASEAN, with the 10 and the difficulties, or whether it would have been better if we stayed five, and then we would have an easier time reaching consensus with only five, I think on the whole, it is better that we have 10 rather than that we have five. Whether you should have more than 10, that is another matter and we have to balance it very carefully.

But I think taking the long view, it was the right thing to do to have ASEAN this shape because it covers the right footprint and the right countries which do need to work together. When it comes to South China Sea or something like that, that is one of the sharpest areas where different perspectives will make it hard for us to go as far as we would like in terms of developing a consensus. But there are many other areas where we can work together. Just as in the first phase of our existence, ASEAN did not pay much attention to economic co-operation, because there was just no basis for a consensus on that. Now, perhaps we have to pay more emphasis to economic co-operation and come together more closely in those fields.

Prof Koh: PM, at the level of the leaders, is there a continuing consensus that the ASEAN policy is to be close to all the major powers but not to be aligned with any of them?

PM Lee: I do not know that we read the credo every time we have lunch together. But I think that is the ethos of our meetings and that is the basis on which our officials operate. All of us are, in the global scheme, not huge countries. If you make a relevant point, you count for something. If something urgent happens in your part of the world and people want to know what is up. But honestly speaking, determining the flow of history, we try very hard to push in the right direction, knowing that that is just one contribution to the tide. Therefore, we have to work together as ASEAN.

Prof Koh: In order not to discriminate against men, I am willing to recognise Professor Tan See Seng from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Professor Tan See Seng: Thank you Prof Koh. Prime Minister, thank you so much for your address. We have touched on the question on ASEAN having many struggles and disenchantments. Do you Sir, foresee the possibility that ASEAN may well have to deal with a Brexit-type situation in its not too distant future? Thank you.

PM Lee: No, I do not think it is likely. Within ASEAN, we make decisions by consensus, as I have explained. It means you have to spend a long time reaching a consensus, you may have to put it off for the next meeting or the next summit, or future generation even. But it means that you will not be in a situation where you are compelled by the rules to agree to something because you have been overruled by the majority. I think that is a survival value for ASEAN.

Prof Koh: I would point out that the ASEAN Charter has no provision for suspending a country or for a country leaving ASEAN.

PM Lee: Well, the EU charter did not provide for that very comprehensively either!

Prof Koh: Would another woman be willing to ask the next question? Yes, please. Ambassador Barbara Plinkert, who is the head of the EU delegation to Singapore.

Ambassador Barbara Plinkert: Thank you very much Prime Minister for your very insightful lecture. I really like to come back to the issue, specifically of EU-ASEAN Relations, especially in the context of the ASEAN Chairmanship in Singapore and also the role that Singapore will be taking over in middle of 2018, as EU Coordinator for ASEAN. Will our relations become even stronger?

Indeed, I think the EU-ASEAN Relations have a very long history already. We are now in our 41th year of dialogue relations and our co-operation stretches widely across all the three pillars of the ASEAN Community. As you also mentioned, our economic ties are very strong already and evolving even further. I think in this context it is very timely that we are starting to discuss again about the re-launch of negotiations for the EU-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. I think that the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement will be an important stepping stone in the direction as well. You also mentioned connectivity, in terms of the negotiations, for an air transport agreement that is ongoing. But I think what is important also is to note that distances have become shorter in recent history.

There are global challenges, there are issues of multilateralism that bring us closer together despite long distances. In fact, there are physical distances that are between the EU and ASEAN. But nevertheless, these distances are shrinking when you look at issues that you mentioned yourself Prime Minister, like cyber security, terrorism, climate change that concerns all of us. In this context, and also looking at the EU co-ordinator role that Singapore will take over as of mid-2018 and will maintain for the next three years, what would you think are more strategic issues that you would like to see strengthen between the EU and ASEAN, from your perspective? Where would be the areas where you would like to see in terms of our co-operation to strengthen, beyond the trade relations and connectivity issues like in the aviation area? Thank you.

Prof Koh: Thank you Barbara.

PM Lee: Trade and connectivity are very important because these are not easy to do but these are areas where the benefits are tangible and calculable. There are other areas where there is a lot of co-operation between the EU and ASEAN which can grow. I think in the academic field there are opportunities, in the security field there are necessities because we are all dealing the problem of jihadist terrorism and they do not respect borders and we will have to co-operate across borders. To go beyond that significant question is, how does the EU see its role in security and strategic affairs? Not just in Europe, but beyond Europe and the rest of the world.

In Europe, you have North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), you have a mission defined that this is something you are concerned about. When you go beyond Europe, to look at security in the Asia Pacific, you have to develop a consensus within Europe, what your position is and then how you are going to express that position and project it. I know that even on these matters, when European countries discuss them, you do not always have the same view because you have the same situation as us. Because your 27 or 28 countries are in different situations, different financial situations, different strategic situations and they have different views which are given to the European Council (EC). I think to the extent that EU and the EC are able to reach on the role you can play strategically, security-wise beyond Europe. The more you are able to do that, the more we can co-operate on those issues as well.

We would like to work with EU, we would like to do more as a coordinator and we hope we can get some things moving. But I would also say that when it comes to cooperation between groups, you want to work between coherent and cohesive groups. I think that there is always a trade-off, because the bigger the groups, the greater the challenge it is to maintain coherence and cohesiveness. We hope that where we are and where you are, we can work across the distance, be able to make common ground on areas where all are concerned. I think free trade now is not just a matter of FTA between EU and ASEAN, but really is a question of whether we come together to uphold the global multilateral trading system and affirm our conviction that this is the best way for us to work together in the world because we are interdependent, because we need to have the international division of labour, because this trade and this interchange is how we have prospered together and how we have made peace in the world. That is something which between the EU and Singapore, we are very much on the same side.

Prof Koh: Thank you. We have many students here. PM, may I call upon one of the students. Can they introduce themselves?

Mr Jason Yeo: I am Jason Yeo from River Valley High School. A very good afternoon to Mr Lee and Mr Koh, and other distinguished guests.

I understand that PM Lee mentioned about the One Belt, One Road Initiative just now during your lecture. I would like to know if you could elaborate on the impact it may have on the world economy, and in turn, how it may impact our own economy also.

PM Lee: I think One Belt, One Road is an overarching theme which the Chinese have designed in order for them to engage and develop their relationships with their region. Their region in Asia, going down into Southeast Asia, South Asia, even East Africa along the sea line, and the region in Central Asia. The "Stans” – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and so on, which if you look at it on a big scale, the map takes you beyond the “Stans”, into Europe and all the way to Rotterdam or London. It means trade, it means investments, it means connectivity, it means infrastructure projects, and it means financial linkages. It means the opportunity for China to increase and build its ties with its neighbours, to benefit its neighbours, but of course at the same time to grow its influence in the region.

From the point of view of the region, the question is, are there opportunities and is it a plus? I think the answer is, well, there are many opportunities, can be a plus, you have to look at the specific projects to make sure whether the sums add up and they add up from a national view or not. But it means that countries would be able to do more with one another and in the process, also with China. If you look at it from a strategic point of view, does it make sense? I think it does, because China’s influence is growing, how can the system of countries internationally accommodate this growing influence? You cannot conclude that you wish it does not grow, therefore you stay in the status quo. It is growing, how is it going to be accommodated? Belt and Road is one way in which it can be accommodated constructively, peacefully and win-win.

There are downsides. There are risks for countries who miscalculate their positions. There are risks for China because if they make bad investments, they may end up turning your friends into people who have disputes with you. Both sides have to proceed carefully and you have to have a good feel for, not just for the economics of it, but also the political sensitivities, and the strategic nuances of what is going on. But I think it is a right approach for them to take. For Singapore, what can we do?

We are a financial centre. The banks in Singapore, they finance projects all over the region and our neighbours are building more infrastructure projects. That means our banks can help finance and support them. Or, our capital markets, they can raise debt here, they can raise bonds here, it means business for us. We are setting up an infrastructure office to promote infrastructure projects and from a comprehensive way. We are not only talking about the design and the feasibility, but also the building and the financing, and to bring all the pieces together. This is one of the small items in this year’s government Budget. To the extent that Belt and Road means infrastructure, it means there are opportunity for us there too.

Most specifically, if you look at our project in Chongqing, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. That is one of the projects which taps into the concept of Belt and Road because it is at the start of the Belt, which means the land route through Central Asia, Chongqing going westwards across the border into Kazakhstan and beyond. At the same time, if you come down from Chongqing, to Guangxi, reach the sea by a relatively short railroad link, you connect up to the sea route, and you create a shortcut from south-western China to the sea and to the outside world. They do not have to sail all the way down to Yangtze River, go to Shanghai and spend another ten days and some significant amount of money. That is one of our projects which we have promoted and discussed with the Chinese. They have adopted it, they are happy to do it as a joint government-to-government (G-to-G) project with us. In particular, they have endorsed the idea of this southern connectivity route to go from Chongqing to Guangxi, out to the shipping route. If that takes off it would be a plus in itself, and a plus symbolically of how we can co-operate with China and benefit the region here.

Q: Will the Prime Minister consider forming a new research centre to deal with elder exploitation that can be very corruptive throughout the whole region?

PM Lee: I will say it is an issue. I think cross border crime, cybercrime and drug crime are certainly issues which have regional scope. As the ASEAN population age, I think the other aspects will come up including the things which you talked about and I am sure ISEAS will be able to accommodate them. I am not sure we need to set up a new centre just yet.

Prof Koh: The second last question from Ms Hoang Thi Ha. She is a Vietnamese scholar working with the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Yusof-Ishak Institute.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha: Thank you very much Prime Minister for sharing your thoughts with us. I have a question with regards to the Indo-Pacific. What is your view on this evolving Indo-Pacific concept and what role do you think ASEAN should be playing in this discourse? Thank you.

PM Lee: As I said in my speech, ASEAN is one grouping. It has a central position and we have to show that we deserve that central position. Other groupings would be formed for various reason. People want to co-operate together, maybe they are forming it in reaction to something else. In the case of the Indo-Pacific, its proposal which the Americans have put forth, the Japanese have talked about it to some extent. I suppose the Australians and the Indians too. There have not been a lot of specific description of what exactly it comprises. If it is inclusive and it contributes to co-operation in the region, I think that is good. We hope that the relationships in the region are such that when you add a new line in, the new line brings people together rather than draws them apart.

Prof Koh: PM, I would like to ask you the last question. This is a birthday party. It is not inappropriate for me to ask you if you could share with us three wishes or three aspirations. One for the Yusof-Ishak Institute, one for our region and one for ASEAN.

PM Lee: For the Yusof-Ishak Institute, we hope you will have excellence and relevance. To be outstanding, to be able to do first class research and research people not only want to read but can either make use of or be part of their minds, mental landscape which can inform their decisions when they have to make decisions.

For the region, we hope we have stability and prosperity. In Chinese you say 国泰明安 and 天下太平. That means that the country is at peace, the population is settled, and they are all under heavens and things are well.

For ASEAN, I think you must have coherence, you must have effectiveness. You must be coherent, you must be cohesive, you must be able to pull together, you can do things and therefore people want to do business with you. You must be effective so that the countries look at it and they say, “Yes I am getting benefits from this, it is worth my while to make the trade-off to work with ASEAN”, and therefore, we all benefit. Rather than we all keep our own, do our own thing, and sub-optimise on the regional level.

Prof Koh: Thank you very much Prime Minister.