Sunday 7 June 2015

PM Lee interview with ASEAN journalists

PM: Singapore's democratic system evolving over time
Quality of parliamentary debate matters more than number of opposition MPs
By Wong Siew Ying, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2015

SINGAPORE'S democratic system has delivered a stable and competent government for its people, but is also evolving over time because society and expectations are changing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday.

Mr Lee, however, believes that progress will come not from having more opposition MPs in Parliament but from the quality of discussion in Parliament.

He was replying to a journalist from Thailand's Bangkok Post who was in a group of 17 visiting ASEAN journalists who interviewed him on Thursday.

The Thai journalist, raising the issue of democratic development, asked whether there was such a thing as a "Singapore-style" democracy.

Mr Lee, in underlining the country's democratic system, said it works for Singapore even as it evolves. "The way it operates will gradually adjust. So we are looking for our own way forward."

He added: "I don't know if you call it a Singapore model for other people to follow, but it is a model which Singapore is making work for ourselves."

But on whether having more opposition MPs is a sign of progress, Mr Lee was categorical when he stated "it is not the numbers which count, it is what contribution they make".

To him, a responsible opposition is one that raises serious issues which concern the country, offers real alternatives and debates hard choices the country has to make. "That is the duty of the opposition. If they do that, whether they have one member, whether they have 10 members, they are a good opposition. If they don't do that, you may have 20, 30 members, you are not being responsible," he said.

Singapore has 10 opposition MPs - seven elected MPs and three Non-Constituency MPs. The People's Action Party (PAP) holds 79 of the 87 elected seats, of which one is vacant following the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC.

How did the PAP maintain its popularity for so long, the journalist also asked. "There is no secret," PM Lee said. "You must have policies which are in the interest of the people and you must also show to the people that you actually care for them and you are working for them. And you have to work with them at the ground as well as at the policy level."

One way, he added, is through the Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS), where MPs meet and help residents facing problems, and through constituency activities. As a result of these encounters "three, four times a week", the residents know their MPs, who are able to hold the ground.

The ASEAN journalists attended an MPS by Dr Fatimah Lateef, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, this week, met Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and visited several government agencies.

Despite the MPs' efforts, it does not mean the PAP manages to win over everybody, said Mr Lee, highlighting that in the 2011 General Election, the PAP got 60.1 per cent of the popular vote.

"It is a clear majority but it is not 100 per cent. But that is so in any society. It is not possible however hard you work," he said.

"I would say 60 per cent is a good result," he added.

"That is the way democracy works," he said. "We try our best to bring together people so that we have a broad consensus of support for the Government.

"You may not like everything which the Government does, but on balance, you are prepared to say, 'This Government is not bad. We vote for it'."

PM Lee was also asked how different Singapore would be without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and whether he took a leaf out of his father's book.

He replied that while it was sad that Mr Lee Kuan Yew would not be able to celebrate the nation's 50th anniversary in August, a new team has long been in charge. And his father had been preparing Singapore for the day it carries on without him.

"He never stopped making the effort to make Singapore better," he said. "And you have to be able to do that."

He added: "We have to keep on moving forward... It is not so easy to keep on making progress because people have to change. But if you do not make progress, I think we would be finished."

Society here 'not ready for same-sex marriage'
By Wong Siew Ying, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2015

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not think Singapore is ready for same-sex marriage because the society is still conservative, although it is changing gradually.

But gay people have the space to live their lives in Singapore, he said. "We do not harass them or discriminate against them," he added while replying to a journalist from the Philippines who was interviewing him with other ASEAN journalists at the Istana.

Mr Lee noted that same-sex marriage is gaining acceptance in some developed countries such as Britain, and some states in the United States.

But, he added, "even in America, there is very strong pushback from conservative groups".

Similarly, the range of views on gays in Singapore include those of "religious groups who push back", he added. "And it is completely understandable."

His comments reflect a position government leaders have expressed in the past several years.

In the 2011 book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, Singapore's first Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, said he believed homosexuality is in a person's genes: "Some people are that way and just leave them be."

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had also said homosexuality would eventually be accepted. "It's already accepted in China. It's a matter of time before it's accepted here."

On Thursday, PM Lee told the journalists: "The Government view is that where we are is not a bad place to be."

He also said that if asked, most Singaporeans would not want the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community to set the tone for Singapore society.

"There is space for the gay community but they should not push the agenda too hard, because if they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback," Mr Lee said.

"And this is not an issue where there is a possibility that the two sides can discuss and eventually come to a consensus. Now, these are very entrenched views and the more you discuss, the angrier people get," he added.

ASEAN members 'can influence, not compel'
ASEAN can discuss Rohingya issue, but countries have to tackle hardships, trafficking
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2015

ASEAN countries can work together, influence one another, and even encourage others to tackle serious problems, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

But the grouping cannot solve all problems and cannot compel any member to act in a certain way, he told 17 visiting journalists from the nine other ASEAN states on Thursday, when asked about the issue of Rohingya refugees.

Mr Lee also told them that ongoing economic integration was helping to promote development across South-east Asia.

But on some issues like the humanitarian crisis, he said: "ASEAN is not one country, and it's not possible for ASEAN to say, you do that, and you put a stop to this."

Countries have to tackle these problems themselves, he said in response to a Myanmar journalist who asked him to comment on foreign media criticism of the grouping as "toothless" on the refugees.

Thousands fleeing persecution and deprivation in Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded in the Strait of Malacca last month, until Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept them temporarily. Human trafficking camps and mass graves have also been discovered in Malaysia and Thailand.

In his most detailed remarks yet on the issue, Mr Lee expressed sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya - a term he noted Myanmar does not use - whose problems are complex. "The living conditions for the people must be pretty severe, otherwise they would not be going to sea and putting themselves at such danger of life and limb, with their children and womenfolk, and at the mercy of the traffickers," he said.

"But these are problems which the countries have to resolve. We can encourage, we can discuss, but the countries have to tackle these problems and minimise, or at least mitigate, the hardships."

Earlier in the session, a journalist from Malaysia's New Straits Times had also asked him about the refugee issue. Mr Lee said the problem had to be dealt with "upstream, in the source countries".

But human traffickers, "entrenched, well-organised groups with an interest in keeping the flow going to extort money", also had to be dealt with, he added.

Explaining the reluctance of some ASEAN countries to accept the boatloads of refugees - a stance criticised by Western nations - Mr Lee said: "No country can take an endless number of refugees and say, 'Well, we just take them on humanitarian grounds.' Your own people will not accept it, it's not possible.

"And when they do come, there has to be some way these people can be dealt with - either they go back to where they came from or they have to go somewhere which can accept them."

Mr Lee noted that ASEAN will declare an ASEAN Community at the year end, but this would not be the end of regional integration, as the gap in development between older and newer members can be further narrowed.

There was also more work for the grouping in areas like the South China Sea, where ASEAN is in the process of negotiating a Code of Conduct with China to better manage disputes in the waters where four ASEAN nations are claiming territories that China has also laid claim to.

Mr Lee said there was a common ASEAN view on the matter, but in terms of nuance, different countries have different positions.

Singapore's position is that it is in no position to judge the merits of the various claims; it desires only to see the disputes managed peacefully and in accordance with international law.

He was also asked about Timor Leste's membership of ASEAN. Mr Lee said the grouping was carefully studying its application, and doing "quite a lot" to help Timor Leste get ready to join ASEAN.

"They are participating in some of the ASEAN activities in order to understand them, and ASEAN is helping them develop their capabilities in a wide range of ways," he added.

PM Lee talks about social media, governing S’pore post-LKY
TODAY, 5 Jun 2015

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was interviewed by a group of journalists from around the region yesterday (June 4). Here’s are extracts from his interview.


“More and more people are spending time firstly on their mobile devices, secondly on the messaging type platforms like… Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, even Snapchat, and not so much time on the formal news sites. So, they will not go to BBC but they expect to see BBC turn up on their Facebook feed… or whatever it is, and so, I want to be there too. And it does not meet all my needs because sometimes you need to make a speech and it is very difficult to have a one hour speech in a Facebook post. But there are people who will be on the Facebook who will not often be reading speeches and this is one way to reach them.”


“I would say 60 per cent is a good result. If you look at the developed countries - in Britain, they have just had an election, 60 per cent voted and about one-third voted for the Tories. So that means 20 per cent of the population have chosen this present government of the United Kingdom. And if you go to America it is also about 60 per cent voting and about 50 per cent will win you the presidential elections …. So that is the way democracy works. I mean there are different views within the society. We try our best to bring together people so that we have a broad consensus of support for the government. You may not like everything which the government does. But on balance, you are prepared to say this government is not bad. We vote for it.”


“Mr Lee retired as Prime Minister 25 years ago… and he retired from the Cabinet completely four years ago… a new team has been in charge since 1990 and there has been a turnover even in the new team. I am not the second generation leader, I am the third Prime Minister. So in a way, Mr Lee has been preparing Singapore for the day when it carries on without him for a very long time... I think he has prepared well and Singapore is well set to move ahead… Of course, we would have liked to continue to have his wisdom, his advice, the confidence that he has been with us all along and that whatever happens, he can help us to see through… but the reality is increasingly in the last 15 years, it is a new team which has been taking Singapore, making the decisions, carrying them, persuading people or dealing with problems when they have risen and I think that will continue to be so now.”


“We have had many marriage and parenthood packages… It has not turned the trend around and caused more babies to be born. But I think it has slowed down a very strong downtrend in people getting married and people having children. And if you look at the most recent numbers, well, the marriage numbers have gone up. I think birth numbers have gone up a little bit. In terms of fertility, it is still not where we would like it to be. So, we have to consider what we can do to do more.


“Before we take a view or make a decision, I think we need to know what all these implications are... there is always a trade-off between how quickly you expand and how deeply you make your cooperation. The wider you go, the more difficult it is to reach consensus and to work out programmes which benefit everybody and which can go in-depth and make a real difference… it has taken us some time to (have 10 members in ASEAN) and even with 10, there is a question of how do the original six countries match with the… new members, (in terms of) the development gap and so on. So, to have a new member is not a trivial issue. We have to spend some time and understand the issues carefully and decide. But as far as helping Timor-Leste to get ready, I think ASEAN is doing quite a lot.”

Young Singaporeans well prepared for exciting times ahead, says PM
TODAY, 6 Jun 2015

Young Singaporeans may be anxious about change and competition, but they have much to look forward to, being blessed with “enormous opportunities the previous generation did not have”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In fact, they are better prepared than their counterparts in many other countries to deal with the challenges ahead, said Mr Lee in a wide-ranging interview with regional journalists yesterday (June 4), as he touched on challenges the Republic had been tackling, such as housing and immigration.

Young Singaporeans are living in a “very exciting age” when they have resources, a competitive economy that creates jobs for them and a society that values ability and encourages people to do their best. “The next 50 years is actually for the young people to write, and we’ve written our chapter,” said Mr Lee.

Asked about the high price of housing and whether it signalled a wealth divide in Singapore, Mr Lee, acknowledging the periods when Singaporeans had been anxious about property prices and availability, said this is now “well under control”.

“A flat in Singapore costs five times, five-and-a-half times (the) annual income, (which) is about the same as (those in) many developed countries and lower than many cities in Asia,” he said, adding that government subsidies for the lower-income further improve affordability.

And while the Government worries about low incomes not catching up fast enough, the public-housing scheme is one of the ways to “level up”. The lowest 20 per cent of households here have on average about S$250,000 in net worth from their homes — a remarkable statistic, said Mr Lee.

In response to a question on Singapore’s persistently low fertility rates, the Prime Minister acknowledged the “practical issues” Singaporean parents face when they have children.

Singaporeans want to be responsible parents while juggling a career, and the Government is making efforts to provide affordable and high-quality child and infant care, he said.

Asked by a journalist from Myanmar about Singaporeans’ “hostility” towards foreign workers, Mr Lee said, from an economic point of view, migrant workers are needed here in a variety of jobs where there are not enough Singaporeans to fill.

“But if we have too many, then there is a social impact because, then, Singapore feels not quite the same,” he said, adding that a balance must be struck.

When asked to comment on the progress made by the Opposition, which now has more members in Parliament, Mr Lee said it is the quality of the discussion in Parliament that counts, not the numbers. An opposition that raises serious issues, offers citizens real alternatives and debates over the hard choices is a “good opposition”, no matter its numbers in Parliament, he said.

Asked about “what went wrong” in the last General Election for the ruling People’s Action Party — it registered its poorest showing since independence — Mr Lee said capturing 60 per cent of the votes is a good result. In Britain’s recent elections, the winning Tory party earned a third of the votes, while in the United States, “about 50 per cent will win you the presidential election”, he said.

“So that is the way democracy works. I mean there are different views within society. We try our best to bring together people, so that we have a broad consensus of support for the Government. You may not like everything the Government does. But on balance, you are prepared to say this Government is not bad. We vote for it,” Mr Lee added.

As for how Singapore would cope with the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister pointed out that the late Mr Lee retired as prime minister 25 years ago, while he is the third prime minister.

“So, in a way, (the late) Mr Lee has been preparing Singapore for the day when it carries on without him for a very long time,” he said.

Indonesia not renewing 2005 bilateral agreement
TODAY, 6 Jun 2015

Indonesia has informed Singapore that it does not want to continue with a bilateral agreement signed in 2005 by both countries to promote greater investment flows, and this is an issue that must be addressed for both nations to boost economic ties, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In a wide-ranging interview with regional journalists yesterday (June 4), Mr Lee said that while Indonesia had the sovereign right to renegotiate the Agreement on Promotion and Protection of Investments, it is important to bear in mind that the agreement is important for investors, as it sets out the legal framework on norms and protection.

Mr Lee was responding to a question from Kompas TV news editor Yophiandi Kurniawan on economic ties between Indonesia and Singapore as well as discussions between Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Mr Lee on Singapore’s investments into the largest economy in South-east Asia.

“We have very intimate relations ... economically, but also on political relationship and security cooperation,” said Mr Lee, adding that Singapore is one of Indonesia’s biggest investors.

He noted that Mr Widodo was keen to increase investments from Singapore and for both countries to work more closely together.

“I am happy to do that. But I think that there are also issues which we have to deal with when it comes to economic cooperation,” said Mr Lee, referring to the bilateral investment treaty commonly known as an investment guarantee agreement (IGA).

IGAs provide a legal framework that clearly sets out investment norms and protection when investing in another country.

Provisions typically include the principle of fair and equitable treatment and investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

The Singapore-Indonesia IGA is due to expire on June 20 next year. Jakarta has indicated that it will not renew the agreement and is looking at renegotiating a new one.

“When investors go into a country, they are looking for reassurance and confidence that the framework will be there, and the better an IGA you have, the easier it will be to persuade investors to come in,” said Mr Lee.

“So I think these are factors which investors will look at when they decide whether they want to invest in Indonesia ... we hope that we will be able to make progress and both sides will understand how to create the conditions for this.”

Responding to TODAY’s queries, a Ministry of Trade and Industry spokesman said Singaporean investments made in Indonesia before June 20 next year will continue to be covered by the IGA for a further 10 years, until June 20, 2026.

In addition, Singaporean investments will remain covered by the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement, as well as other ASEAN investment agreements and comprehensive free-trade agreements.

“We understand that Indonesia has conducted similar reviews of its bilateral investment agreements with other countries. Singapore’s economic relations with Indonesia remain deep and multifaceted. Going forward, we will continue to look for ways to enhance bilateral economic cooperation between our two countries,” added the spokesman.

According to the Malaysian Ministry of International Trade and Industry website, Jakarta had notified Kuala Lumpur on June 20 last year that it would not renew the IGA between the two countries, and that termination of the agreement would take effect from June 20 this year.

Mr Kurniawan also asked Mr Lee for update on the extradition treaty between Singapore and Indonesia.

The Prime Minister replied that he had not discussed it with Mr Widodo, adding that the agreement was signed as a package that included a defence cooperation agreement and that it was pending ratification by the Indonesian Parliament.

“We had negotiated the package as one and we were prepared to implement it, but Indonesia, I think, there were second thoughts somewhere in the political system, so it’s been held up (from) 2007 till now. It’s been eight years,” said Mr Lee.

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