SINGAPORE: Singapore needs leaders who can "negotiate skillfully" to defuse bilateral issues and are confident that they have the full backing of the people, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the People’s Action Party (PAP) convention on Sunday (Nov 10).
Mr Lee, the secretary-general of the ruling PAP, described the upcoming General Election as “high stakes, not masak masak (play play)”.
“Others will be watching us closely to see if the PAP wins a strong mandate, especially at a time of leadership transition,” he said.
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Noting that “politics has broken down” and “trust in leaders has been eroded” in many countries, Mr Lee highlighted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Chile, which was cancelled due to mass demonstrations triggered by public anger over social issues like public transport fares, healthcare, education and pensions.
Closer to home, Mr Lee referred to Hong Kong, which has been rocked by five months of huge and increasingly violent protests.
“Young Hong Kongers are deeply unhappy with their government. But the angst and pessimism is also about social and economic issues,” he said.
“Their young people feel that no matter how hard they study or work, there is no path to a better future.”
Mr Lee noted that Singapore is “not immune” to such global pressures, but “the anger and frustration that have divided societies elsewhere have not taken root here”.
“They can overwhelm us too if we are not careful,” he added.
“And if it happens to us the consequences will be worse for us than other countries, may even be irreparable, because we are so small and so vulnerable.”
Mr Lee also addressed the tense relations between the United States and China, and the resulting “increasingly uncertain” external environment.
“This is difficult for us, because we are friends with both countries,” he added.
The US is Singapore’s biggest investor, creating jobs in manufacturing, services and finance, said Mr Lee, and Singapore relies on the US for defence technology and training.
China is also a “very important partner” for Singapore, he noted, adding that Singapore has many investments in China and vice versa.
“We have every reason to want good relations with them, and minimise friction,” said Mr Lee.
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Adding that neither the US nor China “has really pressed us very hard” and that he expects Singapore to come under more pressure, Mr Lee said: “Both are probably hoping to get our support, and get us to side with them of our own volition.”
But Singapore has its own principled positions on issues, which do not always align with the interests of the US or China, said Mr Lee.
“From time to time, we will have to do or say something that one or the other of them will frown upon,” he said.
“Then we just have to steel ourselves and do it, and be prepared for the reaction.”
Stressing that this is the only way to preserve Singapore’s credibility and interdependence, he added: “Make sure that everyone knows that we act on principle, and only for Singapore’s interests, and are not taking one side or the other.”
MALAYSIA AND INDONESIA
Mr Lee also noted Singapore’s good relations with Malaysia and Indonesia.
“When I meet their leaders, we eat durian or jalan jalan (walk around) together. But below the surface, there are some difficult issues between our countries. Important national interests at stake that cannot be resolved by eating durian or jalan jalan,” he said.
Noting that water and airspace arrangements with Malaysia, and discussions with Indonesia on airspace issues and military training in the South China Sea form key issues, he said: “For all these issues, my approach is to be constructive. Don’t politicise the issue, or clash with them and damage the overall relationship.
“Discuss matters calmly, government-to-government, behind closed doors. Try hard to find a win-win solution that also secures our long-term interests.”
To manage these external issues, Singapore will “need a capable government”, said Mr Lee.
Stressing that strong domestic support is crucial when dealing with foreign policy, he added: “The unity of Singaporeans is our first line of defence.”
“We must convince Singaporeans to give us a strong mandate. Not just to return a strong PAP government, but also to secure Singapore for the long term.”