SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Oct 16) that he does not "see any easy way forward" for Hong Kong and called for "wisdom and restraint" from China and Hong Kong to make the "one country, two systems" formula work.
Speaking at a dialogue with Steve Forbes at the Forbes Global CEO Conference, Mr Lee said that steps have to be taken to “progressively tackle the issues that are bugging Hong Kongers”.
Over the last four months, Hong Kong has been hit by violent protests, sparked by the now-scrapped extradition Bill. The protests have since become a wider movement calling for greater autonomy from Beijing.
Mr Lee said: “I don’t see any easy way forward, because the demonstrators they say they have five major demands and not one can be compromised.
“But those are not demands which are meant to be a programme to solve Hong Kong's problems - those are demands which are intended to humiliate and bring down the government.
“And then what? I think if you press the question, some of them would if they were candid, they would say ‘I don't know … But anyway I am not happy and I want this to happen'. And that's a most unfortunate state to be in.
“You’ve got to be able to move beyond that. And to take steps which will not overcome all of the problems at once, but progressively tackle the issues which are bugging Hong Kongers.”
ONE COUNTRY, TWO SYSTEMS
Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and is governed under a “one country, two systems” doctrine until 2047.
Quoting a Hong Konger, Mr Lee said that from China’s point of view, they must not only think of one country, but remember the two systems. From Hong Kong’s point of view, they must not only think of two systems, “but remember this is one country”, the Prime Minister added.
“And that calls for wisdom and restraint on both sides,” Mr Lee said.
There are other issues of governance as well, the Prime Minister said, such as how the Hong Kong chief executive and Legislative Council are selected.
There was a proposal for the chief executive to be elected, but that was not passed after a debate in 2014, so Hong Kong “has not had an expansion of the suffrage that was envisioned under the Basic Law”, Mr Lee explained.
But there is “no simple solution” because Hong Kong is not a country but a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and it has to “live and work” within such a framework, he said.
“I think it can be made to work – it’s not easy – but if it’s not made to work, then I think it is very difficult to imagine that ‘one country two systems’ can continue for another (28 years) until 2047,” Mr Lee said.
SOCIAL ISSUES IN HONG KONG
Underlying this unhappiness in Hong Kong are social issues, in particular housing.
Mr Lee said: “It’s very expensive, young people can’t afford if, a flat costs 22 years’ worth of income so it’s not practical, and even to rent a space is very expensive. And so people feel, ‘what am I slogging for, where is the future? Where is the pot of gold?’
“There are solutions to that, but they are radical and they require not only a lot of political courage but you must be prepared to make changes which will have very significant social and economic consequences.
“And so far the SAR governments have gone for conservative approaches and the problem has not really significantly improved.
“These are things that I think you can make progress on, but it will take time. And before you can make progress, I think it’s necessary for temperatures to come down so that we can get people to work together.”
The Prime Minister said Singapore thrives best when the region is stable, when other countries are prospering and when Singapore can do business with them.
“When Hong Kong is troubled, when there are demonstrations or worse, riots, when the chief executive is booed out of the Legislative Council chamber, it’s very sad for Hong Kong and very bad for the region,” said Mr Lee.
“We look on with concern, we hope that Hong Kong will be able to overcome these problems.”
US-CHINA TRADE WAR
In the wide-ranging dialogue, Mr Lee also touched on the consequences of the ongoing trade tensions between US and China.
“The frictions between America and China, the trade disputes have cast a pall over the whole global economy, including the American economy,” he said.
“And what it means is that (it) adds an extra layer of uncertainty, of anxiety, it’s caused consumers to hold back, it’s caused investors to hold back.”
Rather than "force" such a divide, it would be wiser to compete in a friendly manner, added the Prime Minister.
“In Asia, most countries have China as their biggest trading partner, all of America’s treaty allies have China as their biggest trading partner … If you ask all these countries: ‘Draw a line and take sides’, I think it's very hard," he said.
PROTECTING AGAINST POPULISM
In the question and answer segment of the dialogue, Mr Lee was asked about populism and how people can be protected against it.
The Prime Minister noted that it is an "issue" for many countries - developed nations in particular.
“What in Singapore we tried very hard to do to avoid being in that position is to have a Government that focuses very much on the basic needs of the people,” he said.
This is done through the Government's housing schemes, its healthcare system and education infrastructure, Mr Lee explained.
“We have tried to make sure that people have basic needs met, aspirations achievable, and a sense that this is theirs, this is their country, that they have every reason to be proud of it and they will defend the system and they will defend the country,” added Mr Lee.
“And if we can do that, and they can adopt this system … There is no need for you to go and vote for a team which will pull the system down.
"It calls for high-quality political leadership, high-quality civil service, and not just competence, but conviction and commitment that you believe you are doing this for a purpose which is not just to advance your own career or to make your own fortune."
"ORDERLY POLITICAL SUCCESSION"
Touching on his political future, Mr Lee noted that it is vital to plan ahead for an “orderly political succession”.
“It’s very important to try to plan ahead and to arrange for orderly political succession so that whatever may happen to you personally, the country is assured of a leadership team which is competent, which is experienced, which is in touch with population and in sync with the times and is in a position to take the country the next step forward, with the next generation of Singaporeans,” he explained.
“I’ve said that after the next General Election, I hope within a not too long time, I would be able to hand over to my successor ... It can be anytime within the next 18 months," he added.