PM Lee Hsien Loong's interview with ABC Radio

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 3 June 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong was interviewed by ABC Radio's Geraldine Doogue for Saturday Extra on 3 Jun 2017.


Geraldine Doogue: Prime Minister Lee, welcome to Saturday Extra. Thank you for giving us your time.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Happy to have you here.

Doogue: Does this neighbourhood of ours, Singapore and Australia here, does it frighten you more these days? Pretty volatile.

PM Lee: Well, it is always an exciting place to be, never a dull moment.

Doogue: Character building as we say.

PM Lee: We have been living in this place for a very long time.

Doogue: You told our Parliament in your visit last year to Australia, that both Singapore and Australia faced similar dilemmas. China was our major trading partner but we traditionally had our major alliance, on which our national security depended on, upon the United States (US). The US of course is a little bit more unpredictable these days. Are you and Singapore changing your mind at all about these relationships?

PM Lee: We maintain good relations with many countries. You are an ally of the US, we are partner of the US, not an ally. We are both major trading partners of China, major to us. We have to keep our relationships up to date, at the same time, maintaining a certain rationality, consistency and predictability in our positions. Because our interests do not change so suddenly. Enduring interests are security, stability, cooperation, integration in the region, and peace and prosperity, mutually in the Asia Pacific. I think Mr Turnbull would agree with this. That the US continues to have a major role to play and that the US continues to see itself as fully engaged in the region. Their new administration is setting a new direction, really still defining a new direction for itself. We should work with it and hope that they will be able to work something out which will be in the long term interests of the US and of the region, which will mean is good for Singapore and I think will be good for Australia.

Doogue: There is some sort of shift, is there not? With obviously, the big power of China coming in whatever form which remains to be seen I suppose, and the US. Now, does that worry you? Because that is historically not an easy tie.

PM Lee: That is not because of the US elections. China has been developing, growing in economic strength and its influence in the region. That will continue. We are happy to see China prospering, we are happy to see China playing a constructive and positive role in the region. We hope that this will be within an international framework where all countries can prosper, big and small, in a rules-based international order. If that is the case, then it will be welcome and it will be positive. But it is quite hard to do because when you have a major shift in the strategic balance like this, it is easy to have anxieties, nervousness and pushbacks. I think that is something which China has to be conscious of and is conscious of.

Doogue: The Belt and Road initiative has captured a lot of attention in Australia. There is an interesting opinion emerging, only subtle now, but some of the seasoned commentators like Paul Kelly from The Australian wrote, just recently having been there for the big announcements, that the rest of Asia is not necessarily as worried about the rise of big China as Australia has assumed they are. Australia is fooling itself, he wrote recently, in constant claims that Southeast Asian nations are desperate for strong US military presence to balance China. They know the region has lived with China for centuries and knows that when China is wealthy, then the region will benefit and the wealth will spread.

PM Lee: I think many countries, including Singapore, see the Belt and Road as positive. China’s influence is growing, it is natural that they want to integrate more, do more business with countries around them, and the Belt and Road is a constructive way in which they can do so. Many opportunities for the countries from Chinese investments, from trade with China, from projects to be done, from financing, and that is why Singapore supports the Belt and Road and we support the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), so does Australia. You have joined the AIIB too, eventually, after a debate.

Doogue: Yes, eventually.

PM Lee: But I think at the same time, many countries in the region have deep ties with other major economies in the world. With the US, European Union, Japan and they would like these to continue. Because there are markets, technologies, education links, people ties and it is part of an open, globalised world that all parts of the world are linked to one another. You are not carved off as one sphere of influence. That is important to the countries in the region and the security factor remains. We talked about it just now but the US plays an important role in the security of the region, will continue to do so and that is something which many countries benefit from and support in their own varying ways.

Doogue: As we heard this week, that India and Japan are doing their own, are in fact setting up their own partnership, a separate partnership, which is a bit of a surprise really. There are breakout issues are there not in this new world? 

PM Lee: We are all adjusting to a gradually shifting strategic environment. India is also growing. It is still not as vibrant or as big as China is as an economy, but it has tremendous potential because its population is younger. With Mr Modi, he is quite determined to make India even more prosperous than it is now. I think that that would mean that he would want to increase its influence in the region which I think is for the good.

Doogue: Do you? All these breakouts, you do not find them…?

PM Lee: We were very supportive of the East Asia Summit which Australia belongs to. The point of the East Asia summit is that it is not just Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Korea, Northeast Asia, but it also brings in India and Australia and New Zealand. We think that that more inclusive grouping is the right way to do things. Because the chance of you becoming a bloc by yourself is less.

Doogue: That is what General Mattis said this morning, Secretary of Defense of the US, that countries, typically over history, countries that do not set up alliances and keep them, wither and die. But to retreat, is no answer.

PM Lee: No country can be an island unto itself or world unto itself. Not even the biggest country.

Doogue: How do you, here in Singapore, assess the threat of jihadism? Much closer to you than it is to us. We all had our experiences but I wonder how you think this through.

PM Lee: We worry about extremist terrorism a lot. The Middle East seems a long way away but it is not. This is a problem which is amidst us. There are activists who have gone to the Middle East, from Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia and a few from Singapore. There are activists who have gone to Southern Philippines and linked up with separatist groups there, including the Maute group which is now in Marawi and Abu Sayyaf group. It is a clear and present danger.

Doogue: Do you let them back in? Are they allowed back in?

PM Lee: If we know of anybody who is there and he gets apprehended, we will take him back but we will take a very close look at him to make sure that he has not brought back any dangerous ideas and is not likely to do any harm.

Doogue: You have got this extraordinary balancing act that you have performed so brilliantly. I thought for Singapore, you look at Manchester, and you must be worried.

PM Lee: You can never say that it will not happen. For us, we assume it is a matter of when and not whether. Because if you have a lone wolf, or a single person, mounting something and people do not know about it, it is very difficult to pre-empt and prevent. If you have a group, then there will signs, somebody will chatter, we may pick something up and we have a better chance of breaking it up beforehand. But even then it is not certain. We assume that one day, something will happen in Singapore and we are doing our best to prepare ourselves. If it does happen, we are psychologically prepared and our multiracial society will not be under catastrophic stress. Because the risk is not just the casualties from the physical attack but the psychological damage you do to the trust and confidence between people of different races and religions in Singapore, particularly between the Muslims and the non-Muslims.

Doogue: I just want to go into the economy now. You have got this marvellous accolade that you are the best place to set up a business in the world, two and a half days to establish a business here.

PM Lee: You can actually register a company in a few minutes.

Doogue: Your research and development is now 2.1 percent of your gross domestic product. It is 0.5 percent in Australia and it is three percent in Israel, which is generally regarded as sort of an exemplar. Do you worry that there are going to be jobs for ordinary Singaporeans just like we worry in Australia for ordinary Australians, if I can put it like that, in this future, brave new world.

PM Lee: There will be jobs. The question is what kind of jobs and will it be able to use the talents and meet the aspirations of our people, and can we prepare our people for the jobs which we think they should be capable of doing? That is a big challenge for everybody. Because we are globalised and not just unto ourselves, we can play a role which is servicing the region, which is servicing the world, and so I think we can have jobs in Singapore which are better paying for a wide range of our people.

Doogue: You are putting a lot of money are you not, into the economy of the future and are very concerned about how you position yourself. We sort of do it in Australia and then we pull back, we start and we stop.

PM Lee: It is not a matter of money. First of all, you must have the mindset that technology can make a big difference to us and we want to make full use of it. Secondly, you must have organisations which are geared up to be able to operate rationally and efficiently in improved ways. When the technology comes, you are not just automating your old way of doing things, you may have to restructure all together and we must be prepared to do that. Thirdly, you must have the people who have got the ideas and the technical know-how, to make the projects happen. You must have a whole structure of managers, leaders, promoters, people who may not themselves be techies, but who have enough appreciation of technology, of what this is about, to know what is snake oil, what is real, what should be pushed and which fears are genuine and which are just phantoms in the night.

Doogue: It is judgement really.

PM Lee: You need that feel.

Doogue: These are systems you are talking about, whether your whole of government systems…

PM Lee: It is the ethos of the society. Are you forward looking, are you prepared to change, are you a society where if there is a problem you can talk about it and we can begin fixing it? Or are there certain things which really, not only cannot be changed, but cannot even be talked about.

Doogue: So the “no, stop, do not”. Stop at all, really.

PM Lee: There really should be no wrong doors. Wherever you go, we find a way to make it happen. That is the ideal. We are some distance off from there.

Doogue: You think that do you?

PM Lee: Yes, I think there is a lot of work to be done. It is not easy to work this into our society. In a way we have an advantage because our people are well educated, everybody has handphones, and smartphones, in fact more than one per person. The base is there. But to go from there to what the potential is and what we should be striving for, it is a lot of work.

Doogue: On a lighter note, I noted your exchange in Australia in 1967 and that you have kept up with the people when you were there last year. I just must ask you your observations about Australia over that time. Because you have watched, Singapore watches Australia, probably frustrates Singapore quite a lot, but what do you see as Australia’s main challenges?

PM Lee: You have had to re-orientate yourself from Britain in the old days, now to Asia and to this part of the world and to be wholly this part of the world. I think your leaders are fully engaged in this, they fully understand this.

Doogue: You father called us to order on this quite a while ago in a very blunt way.

PM Lee: He spoke his mind.

Doogue: He certainly did.

PM Lee: I think in Western Australia it is quite clear, in the rest of Australia, I think your leaders know it. I am not sure whether it is percolated all the way down into your society. With migration, it is easier because you got the Asian population so that gives you the family links. But I think many of your newspapers still may not be fully focused or full sensitive to the nuances and the dynamics within the region. You look at it as an outsider, you try to make sense of it not really as an Asian, and I am not sure in that process you are helping to make Australians understand Asia better.

Doogue: That is what we try to do, I must say. You must like this new Colombo plan. I think we have already got 80 students here from Australia.

PM Lee: You have had a thousand students come on the plan.

Doogue: A thousand already?

PM Lee: Of whom maybe 80 or so have come on scholarship. The scheme itself, many have come and spent time here. We are very happy.

Doogue: I finally have to ask you, I did notice that the previous Prime Minster Tony Abbott was a much better cook of steak than you were.

PM Lee: He still is.

Doogue: Your barbeque abilities were not at their best when he was last here. Have you improved?

PM Lee: I try hard but I think it is a long way to catch up.

Doogue: You need more practice. Prime Minister, thank you very much indeed for giving us your time. I really do appreciate it.

PM Lee: Thank you.