Lee: Thai crisis is weakening Asean ahead of integration

opinion April 11, 2014 00:00

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Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong maps out the road ahead for regional ties in a roundtable discussion with the region's newspaper editors on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Asia News Network. Excerpts from the first half of their d

Suthichai Yoon, The Nation: In the Asean context, how worried are you or other Asean countries about the political turmoil in Thailand. Is there anything Asean can do?
Well, we are concerned about it because Thailand is a very important member of Asean, and if Thailand is preoccupied with domestic difficulties, you will not be able to contribute your full weight to Asean endeavours and deliberations. And we see this as a very difficult problem which Thailand, the Thai people and Thai society will have to solve. It is not easy to do; it is a very deep problem. I don’t think there is very much which outsiders will be able to contribute to that, even well-meaning outsiders within Asean.  
SY: Can Asean meet and discuss how to help Thailand get out of this?
Well, the two sides need to want to work together and get into a better position. And I don’t think they lack opportunities to talk to one another; I mean, they are in the same society and the same city.  I don’t think we outside of the country have either the authority or the knowledge or the influence, certainly not the power, to cause things to happen which the participants don’t want to happen.
SY: But the good intentions are there…
We wish Thailand well, because a prosperous Thailand is very beneficial to Asean. It is one of the founding members of Asean.  
SY: Has the Thai issue, Thai problem weakened Asean as a whole?
If you had not had these difficulties, you would have made many more contributions to what we have been working on.
SY: So what is your advice to the Thai leaders?
Well, I think it is not just the Thai leaders but really a matter for the Thai society to be able to find a basis on which to work, which is viable over the longer term and where you are one society and one country. Thailand has always been seen to have the advantage of being the most natural nation in Southeast Asia.
SY: Natural?
Natural, in the sense you have one race, one religion, one language, one history, over quite a long period of time. Singapore has a very short history compared to Thailand. We are a very artificial country compared to Thailand, because we are multiracial, we don’t have one religion – we have many religions, our history was as a colony, was not as a country. So to build a nation out of these conditions is very hard, but to build a nation out of what Thailand has, well, you already have most of the pieces. But evidently there are difficulties which are not easy to overcome and we wish you all the best.
SY: In the Asean Charter, is there any clause that could enable Asean as a whole to help a particular member country with this kind of domestic conflict?
I think Asean has succeeded because we have not interfered with one another’s domestic affairs.
Warren Fernandez, The Straits Times, Singapore: your two recent trips abroad – to The Hague for the Nuclear Summit, and then to Malaysia for the Leaders’ Retreat – both took place against the backdrop of very dramatic developments – Ukraine and Crimea, and the disappearance of MH370. Could you give us your sense of the thinking and concerns of the counterparts that you met, as well as whether you think these two developments will have longer-term implications for all of us?
In the case of the Nuclear Security Summit, Ukraine and Crimea are major developments which could have longer-term implications for relations between Russia and the Europeans, Russia and America, which has set a tone amongst the G8 countries. In fact, the G8 can’t even meet anymore. And [it] also sets a precedent in what is said, what is followed up, how countries react, which will have consequences beyond Ukraine, beyond Europe, and probably even in Asia. So, it is something we are watching very carefully, and which the G8-1 countries were discussing on the sidelines while we were in The Hague. But the main purpose we were in The Hague was not because of Ukraine; it was because we were talking about nuclear security, which has to do with non-proliferation, which has to do with nuclear safety, which has to do with nuclear security. These are not urgent but long-term and quite likely, important issues which we have to focus on, and which President Obama has personally taken a close interest in and has been pursuing at the Summit.
In the case of my meeting with Prime Minister Najib yesterday, MH370 is the backdrop, but that is an immediate urgent issue. Our discussions were to do with our cooperation, our bilateral relationship, how to build on the progress we have made in order to consolidate a good partnership between Singapore and Malaysia, which are very close neighbours but not identical countries and very dissimilar in some important ways. And we had good meetings.  
WF: There is a lot of excitement about the High Speed Rail link to KL, but you have set a very ambitious timeframe for it.
I think that’s what we are aiming for. There is a lot of work to be done. Many aspects have to be studied and discussed and agreed upon. But if we can get the High Speed Rail [link] between Singapore and KL built, whether it is 2020 or whether it is a bit later, I think it will make a very big difference to the connection between two very vibrant cities, in the way you can do business together, in the way you can travel up down, the convenience of it. It is a game-changer. I mean, it’s like the Euro(star) train between London and Paris. And in Asia or in Southeast Asia certainly, I think Singapore and KL are the two natural ends between which you would like to have such a link.  And elsewhere there will be other opportunities. 
Zhou Li, China Daily: For years, China has been learning from Singapore in many ways. At current stage, in your opinion, what areas do you think that China can still learn from Singapore?
I think it’s a mutual process of learning now. We are both very different societies, at different stages of development. You are in very rapid progress, and you have gone beyond the initial takeoff now to sustaining that development and transforming your economy, going to a model which is less dependent on exports, which has more emphasis on services, which has more emphasis on the environment, on the quality of life, on your urban developments, and also not only on economic issues, but also what you call social management. In other words, how to get people to work together and live together in communities, and to live harmoniously together, and be able to maintain order but in a way which is sustainable and which people feel they can accept and it is not something that weighs heavily upon them.  And we are watching you, how you manage your process of change, your transformation; how you have been managing the social media, the Internet, because China is now, you have got 500 million Internet users, some number like that.  It’s the biggest community in the world online, and we are all struggling to cope with this new cyber age.  So I think there is a lot we can learn from one another.  We are a very small microcosm, a small model of how one can do things in a country which is also a city, and you might find something interesting to pick up from us.  And we certainly find a lot of fascinating things to learn from China.
Tom Hsieh, The China Post, Taipei: We have a protest called the Sunflower [movement] going on in Taipei right now. In your opinion, will the protest be a setback to the Taiwan-China relationship?
Well, I am sure the Chinese are watching this very, very carefully, wondering what is happening in Taiwan and quite concerned that things do not go out of hand, because in such a situation, you cannot quite predict what comes next. As for China-Taiwan relations, I think they have improved over the last 10 years, especially under the KMT government with President Ma Ying-jeou. And I hope they continue to improve, because this … is one of the potential flashpoints in Asia.  At an earlier stage, I think there was a lot of concerns and alarm, but these have subsided because the ties between the two sides have deepened. You have got a goods agreement in the FTA with China. I think there is an understanding in Taiwan of the limits of what is wise and what is possible, and that sets constraints as to how far things will go. And I think that is the best path forward for Taiwan in your geopolitical circumstances, and for China in its desire to have a peaceful, stable development in the region.
June Lee, The Star, Malaysia: Malaysia and Singapore have had an interesting relationship, ups and downs through the years. How would you describe the relationship now? Is it very warm? at an all-time high? Are you [and PM Najib] on each other’s speed dial or something?
Speed dial? Well, I think relationship is very good. We have good rapport. I have good rapport with Prime Minister Najib and our officials and ministers work well with each other. There are issues to be handled. We are not identical, either in the structure of our societies and political system or in our approach to economic as well as social issues, but we are able to work together. And I think that is the way we have made progress, and that’s how I think we can continue to make further progress. We have a very big agenda. The High Speed Rail plan is a very major item. The Iskandar Malaysia development as it takes off, and it’s already gathering a lot of steam, I think has the potential to bring our two countries even closer together. So I hope we can focus on those as constructive agenda to keep us busy for some time to come.
JL: What are possible obstacles or roadblocks that could derail the High Speed Rail plan?
We have not yet worked out the specifics of it. We know in principle that we want this. Najib has said that in KL, the terminus is going to be in Bandar Malaysia, in the Sungai Besi side. I have told him in Singapore we have three sites possible, but Jurong East is one very attractive one which we are considering. So in those broad terms, we have decided the shape of it. But where is the line going to go? How is it going to be built? What’s the engineering? What’s the financing? What’s the governance? What’s the legal framework?  How are we going to operate this? These are all very complicated to do even in one country, but to do in two countries and to work it all out in what would be quite a compressed time frame, I think will test our teams.
JL: Finally, Malaysia and Singapore face an annual problem of haze from Indonesia. What can we do about it?
Stop burning. But to stop burning, you must have the laws and you must enforce the laws. And then you must have sustainable agricultural practices. The climate is changing. We are having more extreme weather, more extreme droughts as well as rain. And when you have extreme droughts, dry weather, then even if you don’t start a fire, a fire may start by itself. But if you do start a fire, it is very unlikely that you can control it. And if you decide that this is the time to start a fire because that’s the easiest way to clear the forest, well, we are affected, Malaysia is affected, but it’s actually the farmers themselves, the families who are living nearby who are affected the most of all. So I think it’s a problem.  I think the Indonesian government knows it’s a problem. I think the Malaysian government also knows that it’s a problem, because you have farmers too. I don’t have farmers, but once in a while, I have lalang [grass] fires.
WF: Are you expecting it to be especially bad this year?  
Well, there is some possibility of this being an El Nino year, in which case it is likely to be dry and in which case the vegetation will be flammable.
Pook Ah Lek, Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia: What do you think Singapore can learn from the Malaysia (Airlines) 370 tragedy in the area of crisis management?
I think your government has had a very tough time managing this crisis because it is quite unprecedented. … You have been searching now for one month. … You have clues, you have information, pings, satellite messages, but you have not got any hard evidence where you can show and say, see, this is a piece of the aeroplane, this is where the aeroplane ended. In that situation, you have to deal with not just the engineering and the actual operations of it, conducting the search, but also the communications, with the families, with the relatives, with the international public who are watching this and watching from all over the world. Watching how it is handled, whether it has been properly investigated, how all this will end. So it’s a very difficult situation which your government is in, and I think they have done a very manful job. … There is latest information which gives hope that we will get some confirmation that the black boxes are found. We hope that those turn up.
Riyadi Suparno, The Jakarta Post, Indonesia: You know that tomorrow [Wednesday, April 9] we have elections. What “homework” do you want to finish, especially with the next government, because we have some unfinished business. Of course, on the haze issue, Indonesia is the [party] most responsible, and maybe you can rely on the new government in that sense. On Asean, Indonesia is one of the least-ready countries for the Asean Economic Community, which is already postponed from early 2015 to end of 2015. And it is possible that the new government will demand another extension. Is another extension possible in your view? And, what do you foresee for the Asean Economic Community?
Well, our bilateral relations with Indonesia generally are good, and I have had a good relationship with President SBY [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono]. We have cooperated on many issues, both bilateral as well as within Asean, as well as wider forums like in the G20 or in the APEC group. We have had issues come up from time to time, where things didn’t work out. We negotiated the extradition treaty with the defence cooperation agreement and that could not go through, which was a pity. We have the problem of haze, which is a recurring issue. We recently had the issue of the naming of the warship, which was unfortunate. But I really don’t want to say anything more about that, especially one day before your elections.  But with your new government, I hope that we will be able to continue working constructively in areas where we are cooperating and overcome some of the problems which we have not yet solved. …  Sometimes it’s the difficulty of working out the right solutions; sometimes it’s a political difficulty. And there are many areas where we could cooperate, but politically, it is not so easy to explain to the rakyat [public], or not so easy for us to carry.  
RS: What issues are not easy to explain to the rakyat [public]?
Well, for example, when it comes to economic issues. Investments in Indonesia: Often companies invest in Indonesia, and then when they do well, there is a pressure to divest. And when you don’t divest, well, it is felt that you didn’t do the right thing.  I can understand the nationalist pressure, but when that sort of thing happens, I think it discourages other investments from coming in. So those are some of the issues we have to deal with.  
In the Asean context, we have set the end of 2015 as our deadline for our Asean Community. I think whether it is the beginning of the year or the end of the year, it doesn’t make so much difference – 365 days more gives you a bit more time to work at it. But I expect that we will get most of the pieces done; probably another 10, 15 per cent which we would like done but which we would have to continue to work on beyond 2015 and into 2016. But that’s the way Asean is. It’s a work in progress, and when you have done some job, well, new possibilities arise and new problems need to be solved. I don’t know if it is fair to say that Indonesia is the least prepared of all the Asean countries. In fact, your economy has been doing very well and you have been growing quite steadily over the last decade. I think your commodities have been a great help to Indonesia. Your urban middle class has been growing; their spending power has been growing. Your international influence has been growing. So I would have thought that in fact Indonesia is one of the more prepared of the countries within Asean.
Excerpts from the second half of this discussion will follow in tomorrow’s edition of The Nation.