Thursday, 30 July 2020

Dialogue by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Atlantic Council Front Page Online Event on 28 July 2020

Singapore hopes US can stabilise its relations with China
Asia depends on this to have a secure and predictable environment to prosper: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2020

Singapore hopes the United States is able to stabilise its relationship with China because Asia depends on stable ties between the two countries to have a secure and predictable environment to prosper, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He made the point in an online interview when American businessman David Rubenstein asked him what he would say to an incoming US president asking for advice on how to strengthen the country's relationship with Asia.

PM Lee said he would also encourage the next president, be it Republican President Donald Trump, who is running for re-election, or his Democratic rival Joe Biden, to develop a bipartisan consensus on US-Asian relations so that American foreign policy would last beyond the president's administration.

He cited how the previous Obama administration's rebalance towards Asia had been supported by many Asian countries, but the Trump administration had a different take on the issue, wanting Japan and South Korea to pay more for the US troops stationed on their soil.

"If you can establish a stable, predictable policy with bipartisan consensus, I think it would be a great help to all your friends and partners who want to be able to depend on you and to rely on you, without the risk that one day, the big power may suddenly decide its interests lie elsewhere," he said.

PM Lee also urged Washington to find a way to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega trade pact it had withdrawn from at the start of the Trump administration.

Worries about the direction of US-China relations featured heavily in the interview on Asia's response to tensions between the two major powers and COVID-19, hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank.

PM Lee described the US-China tensions as very unfortunate, saying: "Actions have been taken which have provoked counter-actions, and the issues have metastasised and spread into all fields of the relationship... The way things have developed over the last several years, you have very many areas where there is not only contradiction, but also deep distrust, and this is corrosive and it is making a very difficult relationship very dangerous."

He noted the relationship historically tends to get tangled with presidential campaigns in election years, but that things settle down after the new administration settles in.

But this year's election - due on Nov 3 - and its aftermath may be different, he said.

"I am not sure whether it will happen this time because the feel is quite different, and the degree of animus and... bipartisan consensus on treating China as a threat is quite extraordinary. I fear that it may carry on past the election and if it does, I think that bodes ill for the world."

PM Lee set out two outcomes, both of which worry Singapore.

The first is that the US will collide with China, and the other is the US will decide it has no stake in the region and leave Asian countries to their own defences. Singapore and other countries in the region want good relations with China while keeping their deep relations with the US at the same time, he added.

"Maintaining that balance and for the US to be able to play that role, and tend to your many interests and your many friends and your influence in the region, I think that requires a significant amount of attention from the United States policy establishment," he said.

"Otherwise, a part of the world which has been crucial to you since the Second World War may become a problem rather than an asset to you."

The dialogue was moderated by Mr Rubenstein, who heads the American private equity firm The Carlyle Group and is chairman of the US non-profit think-tank Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr Rubenstein asked if PM Lee was worried that China's tech companies would become so dominant that Singapore would be dependent on them for technology, noting that the US government had expressed concerns that telecommunications equipment from Chinese tech giant Huawei could pose threats to national security.

PM Lee said Singapore did business with Huawei and did not exclude it from its 5G network bidding process, although Huawei was not chosen this time round.

Noting that no system was 100 per cent secure, he said: "It is a balance of the risks and the purposes to which it is going to be put, and how you can minimise the risks and operate in a way which does not lead you to conclude that you must do everything yourself."

He added: "If the supply chain bifurcates, it will be painful. It may still happen, but we hope there will be trust between the two sides and it will be possible for cooperation to continue.

"It does require a significant degree of trust and a willingness to want to work together, rather than to have a one up, one down outcome. And I am not sure that is the way things are going now."

Singapore aims to keep intact the capabilities of sectors like transport amid COVID-19: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2020

Singapore is likely to see negative economic growth of minus 3 per cent or 4 per cent, or more, this year as a result of the two-month circuit breaker and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

But PM Lee stressed that his focus is not on the exact growth figure. He was speaking at a virtual dialogue held by the Atlantic Council, an American think-tank.

"The key thing is: Which parts of the economy can you preserve and operate normally, and which parts have to be triaged and transition into new activities or new business models," he said. "And which parts will take some time to come back, and you have got to keep them sort of in suspended animation until things come back to normal."

This latter category includes sectors such as travel and transportation, PM Lee said. "We have to try our best to keep those capabilities intact so that when things come back to normal again, once again SIA (Singapore Airlines) will be flying, and once again we will be the best airline in the world."

The Prime Minister was being interviewed by Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein for the Atlantic Council Front Page programme, which features a series of virtual conversations with top leaders from around the world.

During the session, PM Lee was asked for his take on US-China trade relations, Singapore's response to the pandemic and whether he was happy with the results of the July 10 General Election.

"We are satisfied with the results," PM Lee replied. "We had hoped for a higher popular vote, but in the circumstances, we think it is a clear mandate, and we will make the most of it and serve Singapore as best we can in the next five years."

The People's Action Party received 61.23 per cent of the popular vote, about 4 percentage points below the 65 per cent its leaders had hoped to obtain.

On the question of large numbers of COVID-19 cases in foreign worker dormitories, PM Lee added that the situation is now under control.

"But then, of course, comes the challenge of keeping the people continuing safe and clean, and allowing them to go back to work without once again starting a cycle of infection," he said.

One viewer asked how Singapore's casinos and its national carrier have been coping with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

PM Lee replied that both are currently operating, although the flow of tourists to casinos has dwindled, as have passenger loads on SIA's aircraft. "We are actively trying to develop green lanes and safe travel arrangements with other countries where COVID-19 is under control, so that we can restart the traffic," he said.

Mr Rubenstein also asked about the fact that salaries drawn by government officials are comparable to the private sector's, and if this is a contributing factor to the lack of corruption in Singapore.

PM Lee responded that it was one of several factors. "But we still have this problem, and from time to time we come across officials at many levels - some quite high ones, occasionally - who have succumbed to temptation, and we have to act against them zealously," he said.

"Even if it is embarrassing or awkward for us, we have to do it. Because if we didn't do it, then that is the end of the system, and you will not be able to maintain the integrity and the reputation which we have built up over so many years."

Stable, prosperous Hong Kong better for Singapore and region, says PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2020

WASHINGTON • It is better for Singapore and the region if Hong Kong is able to work through its problems and settle into a new normal, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"We think it is better for Hong Kong and better for the region and Singapore if Hong Kong is stable and calm and prosperous and able to play the role which it used to play, helping China to grow and prosper as well," PM Lee said in an online interview hosted by the Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank.

Singapore and Hong Kong have a "friendly competition" rather than a serious rivalry, said PM Lee, who was asked by the moderator, American businessman David Rubenstein, whether the upheaval in Hong Kong would benefit Singapore.

"The Asia-Pacific is a big place, and there are many opportunities," PM Lee said.

Hong Kong had its advantages of being on the doorstep of China, while Singapore had a different set of advantages of being in the middle of South-east Asia and with a broader footprint.

"On balance, I would say I would much prefer Hong Kong doing well than to have people looking for places to go out of Hong Kong," PM Lee said.

He added that Singapore has been watching events in Hong Kong with concern for some time.

"It is a deeply divided society. It has had demonstrations which are bitter and protracted and, increasingly, with a violent tinge to them," he said.

Hong Kong has been embroiled in protests for much of the past year, sparked by anger over a proposed Bill that would have allowed the extradition of fugitives to other jurisdictions, including mainland China.

Though the Bill was ultimately withdrawn last year, China recently enacted a controversial Hong Kong national security law - in a move that protesters said curbs freedoms in the territory.

Giving an overview of the unfolding events yesterday, PM Lee said that Hong Kong had an obligation to pass a national security law but could not do so under its own Constitution, which was a situation that could not continue indefinitely, nor for the 27 remaining years of the "one country, two systems" framework it operated under.

The Chinese therefore decided that the National People's Congress in Beijing would pass the national security law on Hong Kong's behalf, he said.

"In Hong Kong, the reaction has been split. Some people supported it, the administration supports it, a significant part of the population have different views. But it is done.

"The Chinese have said, well, you shouldn't worry, this will only affect a very small number of people and most people should find life carrying on as usual. As time passes, if that proves to be the case, then come home, we will settle into a new normal," said PM Lee.

But the law's passage has also triggered responses from America as well as Britain, which was party to the Joint Declaration that laid out how Hong Kong would be governed, he noted.

"I am sure the Chinese must have calculated that and decided that they had to do this regardless," he said.

"It is most unfortunate because already there is enough menu of complications between the US and China's bilateral relationship, and this only makes things worse."

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