Friday 21 May 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery 2021

Singapore cannot slacken in COVID-19 efforts, global cooperation is key: PM Lee
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 May 2021

Singapore cannot afford to slacken in its effort to keep Covid-19 in check as the virus will rear its head in new and unimaginable ways, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

While the country has kept its number of Covid-19 deaths low at 31 and is in a stable position, it is "far from out of the woods", with a fresh superspreading cluster leading to tightened restrictions and gathering rules again, he added.

"Each time you think you have got the Covid-19 situation under control, and you know how to respond to it, it pops up in a new direction," he said.

"It can be a mutant, it can be a new avenue which you did not spot, but you cannot afford to slacken, and you must always think beyond what you imagine is likely to happen."

PM Lee was speaking on Wednesday (May 19) at the US Chamber of Commerce's inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery, which brings together government and business leaders to discuss opportunities and barriers to global recovery.

In a virtual fireside chat with US Chamber executive vice-president Myron Brilliant, he said Singapore's prior experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 helped it handle the coronavirus pandemic.

"That primed our system to gear up for a next new disease, and primed our population to understand what was at stake and what kind of collective responses we needed," he said.

There were 38 new Covid-19 cases reported in Singapore as at noon on Wednesday, 18 May, including 34 in the community, taking Singapore's total to 61,689.

The pandemic also reminded everyone of the importance of international cooperation, which has largely held up, added PM Lee.

"There was a scramble for PPE (personal protective equipment) at the beginning, there is a scramble for vaccine doses now, but internationally, supply chains have not broken down. You can still buy iPhones made in any number of countries, you can still buy cars, which require parts from many continents."

He noted that the world has not taken "giant strides towards autarky", meaning "total self-reliance". Nor can a small and open country such as Singapore afford to seal its borders off.

"Protectionism? Yes. Autarky? No. That is a qualified plus.

"Other bigger countries can (close their borders), to a very great extent. For Singapore, you need food, fuel, people moving in and out, even during Covid-19. You have to do it to the extent that you can, while keeping ourselves safe with all the precautions... Not without risk, but unavoidable."

PM Lee also said it would be a long way off before countries can open up completely again and have free travel. While countries talk about travel bubbles, this needs confidence on both sides, and Singapore wants to set up bubbles only with countries which are safer than itself, he added.

"That means it is not easy to make a match. But I hope that as societies get vaccinated, and as confidence returns and the disease gets brought under control, that will be possible."

The air travel bubble to allow for quarantine-free travel between Singapore and Hong Kong was deferred for a second time on Monday, after a spike in cases here.

PM Lee said that globally, it is not just India that is in a very difficult spot now, but also Latin America and even Africa, where many have not been vaccinated, though the number of reported cases are low.

"We are very anxious that what has happened to the rest of the world will not befall Africa too, which would have consequences not just on that continent."

Stressing the need for global cooperation to mitigate supply chain disruptions, he warned that it would be "very harmful" for every country to make everything onshore.

While there is greater desire to have more resilience, if that goes too far, the price will be very high, he said.

"You can have the final assembly of your devices in your own country, but to make all the components yourself is a stretch. And to get all the raw materials yourself, in most cases, it is going to be impossible.

"You cannot even make vaccines all by yourself. You do need not just the raw materials, but also the bottles, the bottle stoppers, all sorts of things which come from all around the world."

He said he was happy that the current US administration is re-engaging with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and urged the US to work multilaterally with more partners to establish trust and rules that apply to everyone.

"The WTO has weaknesses, but we should work together to remedy and strengthen the WTO, not to marginalise and cast it aside.

"That is at the top level, but there will be many other areas of cooperation regionally."

Everything at stake for world if US-China ties sour: PM Lee
If that leads to conflict, it will be a bad outcome for US and China too, he says
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 May 2021

If the US and China clash, "everything is to be lost", said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking on tensions between the two major powers at the US Chamber of Commerce's Global Forum on Economic Recovery yesterday, he said that everything is at stake for the rest of the world, if the relationship turns sour and leads to conflict.

This will be a bad outcome for the US and China too, he added.

"Because both America and China are countries with enormous economic and technological power, with high-tech capabilities, weaponry, nuclear capabilities, and modernised armed forces in the case of the PLA (China's People's Liberation Army), and the most powerful armed forces in the world, in the case of the US Armed Forces.

"But not so powerful that when you go to war, that you do not take casualties, and expect to absorb a lot of damage.

"Therefore, it is necessary for both countries to (not only) decide to work together and accept each other as they are, but work together and find common ground where they can cooperate. And there are many."

While climate change is one area, there are others too, such as nuclear non-proliferation, public health and future pandemics, he said.

The global trading system has to be stable in order for countries to import, export, trade and develop their business and prosperity.

Hence the two countries have to work together, but it means they have to reconcile their international stances with their domestic political opinions, he said.

"And both have domestic political opinions, even the Chinese. And (both will have to) overcome the nationalist instinct to say 'we will look after our country's interests, but we will do so by cooperating with other countries. Whether or not we fully trust them, and whether or not they are our bosom friends, they have to be our partners on this planet'."

He observed that this is "a big deal" for China, because the Chinese have reached a point where they feel that they have not only stood up and become wealthy, but also want to become strong and be acknowledged as such.

"But when you are strong, you are not the only strong guy in the world. You have to know how to have that strength accepted by others over the long term, as the US has been able to do since World War II.

"You have the most powerful fleets and aircraft and army, but you have a lot of friends around the world, and people work with you not just because they are afraid of you, but because they think that there is room for them, you leave room for them, and you are doing good for the world, generally."

For the Chinese to adopt such an attitude takes time, he said.

On the part of the US, it has to accept that China is a fact, it is not going to disappear, and the US has to work with it.

"You can try to influence it, but you cannot convert it. And it is not going to become like a European country, much less like the United States of America.

"It is a big psychological thing for America to accept, and it takes great statesmanship to make it work and to make Americans go along with such a policy, but that is what you need.

"If you do not do that, and the two countries clash, neither is going to curl up and die.

"It is not like with the Soviet Union. There is no Potemkin village in China, it is real. The vitality, the innovation, the drive, the prosperity, the determination to get ahead. And neither is America a declining and fading society."

A Potemkin village refers to an impressive facade designed to hide the poor condition a country is in.

He added: "So somehow, (both countries) have to come together, and that is the responsibility of statesmen on both sides."

PM Lee added that while Singapore and other South-east Asian nations would very much like the US to rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), he does not think this is on the cards.

While the idea of the Biden administration joining the CPTPP trade deal - formed by the 11 other countries negotiating the TPP after then President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal during his first week in office - has been floated, significant barriers remain, from domestic considerations within the US to disagreements over issues negotiated under the agreement.

He said that cooperation on the digital economy - to establish norms and standards such as data transfer, data transparency and accountability, and where data has to be hosted - are things which are not so contentious but would be important in the new economy.

"Or cooperation on the green economy, green financing or sustainability standards, these are things which we hope the US will have the bandwidth to put on the agenda."

Countries big and small must do more to mitigate climate change: PM Lee
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 May 2021

While it is important that the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement, countries big and small must go further to mitigate climate change, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

"First of all, we should carry out what has been agreed in Paris. The fact that the US has come back and will do its part is a big plus. Because if the US is not part of this, everybody else will say, 'Why should I do my part? The US is free-riding.' But if the US is back, there is a possibility of doing what is in the Paris Agreement," he said.

"But honestly speaking, all the scientists believe that even if we did everything that is in the Paris Agreement, it will not be enough. And you have to go further, in a fair way, with the big emitters making big adjustments, and the other countries, big and small, each doing their part."

PM Lee said this includes Singapore, which is not just small, but also has an alternative energy disadvantage as it does not have hydro, geothermal or nuclear power.

"But we do have some sunshine and we will make the best of that, although the sunshine alone will not be enough."

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order for the US to rejoin the landmark climate change agreement following his inauguration in January, and hosted a virtual climate leaders' summit in April.

Going beyond the agreement, the next occasion will be the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Britain at the end of this year, said PM Lee, expressing hope that countries will come with proposals to take things forward.

Singapore will be there too, he added.

"We hope to help advance the negotiations, and to help Britain as president of the meeting, and make it a success. Everything is at stake, because it is not just 1 or 2 deg C, but what that means for sea levels, for storms and droughts, for coastal cities and low-lying areas.

"And for war and peace, because climate change means large social and economic disruptions, migrations and human conflict. You can adjust to them over centuries, but if it happens within a few decades, you are putting humanity under stress."

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