VIENTIANE, Laos: Singapore must navigate and find its way through an unpredictable world of international relations, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Sep 8) as he met Singapore media at the end of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.
He was speaking in reference to the South China Sea disputes, which loomed large over proceedings in Vientiane. When asked where ASEAN stood after three days of meetings, Mr Lee said there were “quite a range of perspectives”, for reasons explained in his National Day Rally speech in August.
“But on other areas, the differences and interests are not so stark, and so there's better possibility for us to work together,” he said.
Still, Mr Lee acknowledged that the differences would not easily be overcome. “Because they are fundamental to the strategic situations that the countries are in, and therefore the way they see the world - what are the threats, what are the opportunities, who are the allies, who are the neutrals, who are the potential adversaries,” he explained.
Mr Lee also noted that economically, the South China Sea issue “affects the mood, the atmosphere of peace and calm and confidence in the region”.
“The region has prospered because there has been peace, because the countries have worked together cooperatively, because we have deepened our interdependence on trade and our investments, and we all need that,” he stated.
“Even (Chinese) Premier Li Keqiang said today that China needs a peaceful and stable environment because China is a developing country,” Mr Lee shared.
“So I think when you have tensions in the South China Sea … There is an impact when people make decisions on investments. They won't say that this is a decisive factor, but it's one of the things which affects their decision.”
If there were to be a mishap, or an encounter at sea, then there would be a big impact, he added. “Then confidence will really be shaken and you would have a big problem.”
“It's one of those situations where you don't feel that it is good, but neither can you say I can count how many dollars it has cost me. It’s a minus for me, I know it, and we really should mitigate that risk as much as we can.”
“TALK ABOUT IT, MAKE IT BETTER”
On the difficulty of coming together at extended blocs like the East Asian Summit, where major powers may hold differing views on global issues, Mr Lee said that by meeting and stating their positions, countries would at least have a chance to engage and make progress towards easier resolution.
“The (issues) are not going to disappear in a hurry,” he said. “But if you don’t talk about it, there is every prospect it can get worse. If you talk about it, you should be able to prevent it from getting worse. If you are lucky, you can make it a little bit better.”
Mr Lee said the same of the ASEAN Summit as a whole, describing it as a continual effort to keep on developing and deepening the cooperation between member states.
He was also asked about the leaders making their debuts this year – Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and outspoken Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. The former “made an impression because there's a lot of interest in her”, said Mr Lee.
“I think Mr Duterte also, there's a lot of interest in him … Today he decided to make an extemporaneous exposition defending his position on human rights and on drugs, and anti-drug campaign.”
“NO MAGIC SOLUTIONS TO TERRORISM”
Mr Lee also described terrorism as a topic “on everybody's minds” at the Summit, and here talked about dealing with the matter at operational, ideological, and what he dubbed “the most fundamental” levels.
“There are no magic solutions. The solutions all require hard work, and none of them are foolproof,” he warned. “You have to deal with it operationally, that means you find out who the potential terrorists are, intercept them and try and catch them before some damage is done.”
“Then you’ve got to deal with it at the ideological level and target the perverted ideology they have which motivates and justifies their criminal actions,” he added. “And you’ve got to also do it at a broader social, community level to make sure within the community you have good mutual trust and understanding and there is no reason for people to feel marginalized, dispossessed, disenfranchised and therefore to be inclined towards crazy drastic solutions.”
“And of course you take it at the most fundamental level, then you wish some of the historical senses of injustice could be redressed; or at least mitigated and that removes a fundamental justification but I think that will take a long time.”
ON PROPOSED CHANGES TO THE ELECTED PRESIDENCY
Mr Lee was also asked about the impending changes to the Elected Presidency (EP), which will likely include a provision for a minority elected president and tightening of eligibility criteria.
"There are qualified Singaporeans of all races," he said. "We hope that by strengthening the criteria, we would enable qualified people to become President so that whoever becomes President is well-qualified. And furthermore … we minimise the risk that we will not have minorities become President from time to time. I think that is very important,” he said.
He said of the Constitutional Commission, which released its report the day before: “They've made a good proposal. We're studying their proposal."
A White Paper response to the proposed EP changes will be published by the Government on Sep 15 before amendments to the Constitution are tabled in Parliament.