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Lee Hsien Loong: Russia-Singapore trade quadrupled over 10 years, can do better

May 17, 2016, 2:09 UTC+3

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an exclusive interview with TASS ahead of the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi

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Ahead of the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an interview with TASS First Deputy Director General Mikhail Gusman has shared his expectations of the coming event


- Prime Minister, our meeting is taking place just before the Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi. What do you expect from the Summit? What do you expect from the meeting with the Russian leaders?

- We have a very good relationship with Russia, between ASEAN and Russia, and also Singapore and Russia. ASEAN’s dialogue relationship with Russia has been 20 years. This is a commemorative summit and an opportunity to review our progress and to look forward, to see what we can do more together. Russia participates in many of the ASEAN cooperation activities – political, economic, cultural, social activities and also the security areas. For example, the ASEAN Defence Minister's Meeting-Plus, ASEAN Regional Forum, and East Asia Summit which ASEAN initiated and still at the centre of it. We very much value Russia as a participant in regional affairs and a constructive contributor to stability and peace in the region. In terms of economic cooperation, there is a lot more potential for growth. Russia is an important power and economy in the world. The economic ties between ASEAN countries and Russia have been growing, but not really commensurate with the importance of Russia in the world. This is gradually changing. Russia has the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has an FTA with Vietnam. We are talking about negotiating an FTA with EAEU. In this way, by strengthening the ties between Russia and individual ASEAN countries, we can strengthen the ties between Russia and Southeast Asia, and ASEAN region as a whole.

- Russia and Singapore will celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. How do you evaluate the development of relations between our countries today? In which areas is there the most significant success and in which ones is there still undeveloped potential?

- It is a major milestone for a relationship between two countries. 50 years ago, Singapore was newly independent, and the world was completely different, and Russia was still the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Today, Singapore has celebrated its 50th anniversary of statehood and the world has completely changed. We have a lot of relations between Singapore and Russia in many areas. In terms of economic ties, of course, and we have got investments in both directions. Major Russian companies like Lukoil and Gazprom are in Singapore. We have some Singapore companies in Russia like OLAM which is doing commodities. Our Changi Airports International is co-managing a number of airports in Russia. I think one in Sochi which I will be visiting. These investments are growing. We have educational and scientific cooperation because you have very strong scientific and technological capabilities. Our universities have cooperation partnership with many of your institutions and we have students going back and forth. We have got cultural cooperation as well. Not least because the people-to-people relationships are growing and Singapore is a popular destination for Russian tourists. A lot of them are visitors for leisure but we have business tourists, and we also have medical tourists, especially from the Far East, Vladivostok. They come all the way to Singapore and we need Russian speaking doctors who can take care of them. We have been discussing with the Russian government and have advanced plans to build a Russian Cultural Centre in Singapore. We have found a site and it is a good location. I think the plans are advanced. I look forward to the day when we see a Russian Orthodox onion-dome appearing in Singapore. But, if you ask me, in terms of potential, what we can do, I would say we need to do more in trade. We have the Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC) which was started between us and you, when Prime Minister Medvedev visited us in 2009. It has got active participation on both sides – government as well as the business participation. But our trade is not in proportion to the potential. It has risen rapidly in the last 10 years, has about quadrupled, but still Russia is just our 21st largest trading partner. It should not be like that. So, we are planning to negotiate an FTA with EAEU and we hope that with the FTA we will be able to take it another step forward. With my trip to Moscow too, I hope to meet some Russian business people and executives and get them interested in Singapore a bit. We hope something will grow from there.

- Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) headquarters is based in Singapore. Members of this International Organisation account for 57% of the world GDP, 48% of international trade turnover, over 40% of direct foreign investment and over 40% of the world population. What has the organisation achieved in its 30 years? What is the role of APEC?

- APEC has grown in the 30-odd years it has existed. I think it started in, not quite 30 years, 1989, and it has become a leader’s level forum. It has expanded. It was originally ASEAN plus six countries and now it is 21 economies within APEC. The focus is trade, but we have also talked about human resource cooperation, anti-corruption cooperation and technical educational cooperation. So, the scope has expanded, but the basic rationale is to foster regional integration in the Asia Pacific, mutual interdependence, and therefore make for a more stable and more vibrant region. That is a strategic objective which you cannot attain just by one jump or one policy, but you must proceed in many piecemeal ways with an overall picture. For example, in trade, we have got several free trade initiatives which encompass varying subgroupings of the APEC members. There is a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is America, North America FTA (NAFTA) countries, South American countries, some Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore, Australia. We have got the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes ASEAN countries, some Northeast Asian countries, also South Asian countries, India, as well as other countries in the Asia-Pacific such as Australia and New Zealand. And we have got other initiatives like that going. So, I think what APEC has succeeded in doing is, in a non-binding way, provided a framework for the countries to talk to one another, to develop cooperation with one another, and to develop trust and confidence and the desire to do more. I think it is a successful organisation because many countries have wanted to join. Russia itself is now a member of APEC. So, if you go by the desire of people to participate in the organisation as a criterion of its relevance, I think APEC is a very relevant organisation.

- Singapore has a very good geographical position in the world. How do you see the future of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole?

- If you look at the globe, it is a very big globe, and if you look for Singapore, it is a very little red dot. So we look around us and we see big countries, partners, and opportunities, but also, dangers to be avoided, so that we can sail our little boat safely to a brighter, more prosperous future. I think that if we look at Asia Pacific, overall, we are optimistic about the opportunities because we believe that peace and stability can be maintained in the region. It depends on, critically, the relationships between the big powers, between America and China in the first instance. But also if you look at Northeast Asia, of course, Russia plays a particularly significant role in the Korean issue. It also depends on the regional dynamics in the different parts of Asia. North Korea is one issue in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. There are various concerns, including the South China Sea, and whether these can be managed peacefully. I do not say “solve”, because that is very difficult, and will take a very long time. But manage and prevent it from escalating, and becoming dangerous; then we have the potential to build inter-dependence, partnerships, and prosperity in the region. Our priority for foreign policy is first to foster a stable and secure region in the Asia-Pacific. Secondly, within Southeast Asia, to work with our partners within ASEAN, because Southeast Asia is our near-abroad, and we need to make sure that as far as possible, we can cooperate together, manage whatever issues which may arise between us constructively. Thirdly, work closely with our immediate, nearest neighbours, which are Malaysia and Indonesia. So far, over the last 50 years, we have been very lucky. After the Vietnam War and the Indochina War in Cambodia, there has been generally peace in the region, and we hope this will continue for a long time.

 - The world bid farewell to a legendary personality in Singapore’s history – its first Prime Minister, one of the fathers of Singapore’s economic miracle and your father Lee Kuan Yew. What are the reasons for his success? What are the lessons he taught you?

- If you read his memoirs, you will have a sense of how he himself evaluated his experience. He described what his priorities were, how he attempted to realise his objectives, and worked with people. First of all, he succeeded because he had considerable ability, and was an exceptional person. But it is not just that. There are many exceptional people in the world. He also had a very capable team of colleagues working with him. So he was able, but it was not he himself only. As he said, he was the Conductor, but you have the whole Orchestra. That is how the music gets produced. His Orchestra was talented, as well as cohesive. They worked as a team and they were focussed on one common objective, which was Singapore. If you look beyond the orchestra, really, it included the whole of the population. A population which supported him, which had trust in him, which he looked after, which worked with him in order to achieve the transformation that happened. Because you can have good ideas, but unless people buy in to them, and are convinced that they are something which they want to work for and is worth working for, you are not going to get there. We were lucky with that. Also, the historical path which we took was critical. It was because of the history of the war, or the anti-colonial struggle, our experience with the left-wing pro-communist movement, union movement and the political underground movement in Singapore before Independence, because of our experience in Malaysia. The population, having gone through these formative experiences, decided that back to the wall, we will live and fight. That made a big difference to our success. Of course, as he himself said, luck had a part to play, and if he had to do it again, he is not sure that he would like to try it again, because he may not be so lucky the second time. But we have been lucky to have had him, to have had this history, and to be here today.

- You have been holding the post of Prime Minister for over 10 years. What are personal achievements? What are the tasks of your Government in future?

- I do not think that I should speak about my achievements. What I can say is what we have tried to do as a team. Over this last 10 years, we have tried to keep our economy growing in considerably difficult external circumstances, including going through the Global Financial Crisis – keep it on an even keel, unemployment down, growth steady. Now we have to continue doing that with challenging domestic conditions as well. Because our population is ageing. The population numbers are stabilising, we are not producing enough babies, like Russia. And we have to upgrade ourselves and transform our economy and continue to grow, and that is a big challenge. So that is one of our objectives. But at the same time, it was twinned with another balancing objective, which was to develop our social safety nets and our sense of cohesion and mutual citizenry and brotherhood within the country. Because this was a time when the economy was leading to less certain paths for individuals – less certain careers, more turbulence, and more need for people to feel that they are working together. And that if something untoward happens to them, if they are unemployed, if they are ill, when they grow old, there will be mutual support amongst Singaporeans. So we have had to develop our social safety nets, strengthen them, improve them, target them, but in such a way that we avoid the difficulties that other well-intentioned social builders have run into. In Europe, for example, where the social safety nets have become excessive, have become unaffordable and have become counterproductive in some cases. And we are trying to make a controlled move to strengthen that sense of cohesion while not undermining that drive for self-reliance and achievement. And so far, I think we have been making progress in the right direction.

- From my understanding, Singapore is one of the least corrupted countries in the world. The crime level in your country is one of the lowest and it is a leader in healthcare. How do you achieve that?

- I think even in these areas, we are never satisfied because corruption is one of those areas where it emanates from weaknesses in human nature. And you can have the best system, you can have the best standards and values but from time to time, someone will be tempted and you have to deal with that rigorously and impartially. David Cameron is just holding a conference in London. He invited me. I was not able to go but my Minister [Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah represented Singapore the at the Anti-Corruption Summit 2016 held in London on 12 May 2016] is attending and I contributed an essay to his book which we have published in today's papers [Lee, Hsien Loong “Fight against Corruption: S’pore’s experience”]. So, if you are interested, you can see my views on the matter.

On health, we have a good record if you look at the numbers because in terms of longevity, we are one of the highest in the world. I think our expected life span is now 82. In terms of healthy life span – that means how many of those years you are in good health while you are alive – we are also one of the highest in the world; I think about 72 years. In terms of infant mortality, we do well because our public health is good and everybody gets to see doctors before their baby is born and not only when the baby is about to arrive. But we have public health problems because our obesity rate is increasing, our people are not active enough and with fast food, we are beginning to look rounder and rounder. Therefore, our diabetes rate is one of the highest in the developed countries and that is very worrying. It is something which we are trying to tackle now with public education. But there is no easy solution to this sort of problem. We worry a lot about that because as people grow old and if you have diabetes, you have many years of misery and disability. So there are issues, even in public health.

In crime, we have taken a very strict attitude against drugs, against arms, against weapons. So you are not allowed to own guns. If you have armed robbery and you fire a gun, that is the death penalty. We have not had an armed robbery with guns for a very long time in Singapore. We believe that is the right approach. We go the United Nations and they have international conferences, and they talk about a different approach to drugs – that you must be kinder, you must not treat this as a crime but as a medical problem. We do not accept that. We have treated it stringently. It has worked for us and we believe that if we change, we will have a problem.

- About 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher said: “There was time when Singapore learned from Britain, and now it is time we learn from Singapore”. What do you think about that? Recently, there was a conference in Britain about corruption. I think Singapore is an example of how to fight corruption.

- Nowadays, there is no country which is a model for any other country. Our circumstances are different. Each different, even though we all faced similar challenges with globalisation, technological changes, the uncertainties of the modern world. All of us are learning from one another. We go round looking for and scouring the world to see cities, to see countries where they have interesting policies, interesting new ideas, and what we can pick up from them and what we can try and apply in Singapore. We talked about Smart Cities and in New York there is a Smart City, and I think Rio is making a Smart city in Brazil. You look at Europe, they have all sorts of experiments to replace automobiles with either driverless vehicles or bicycles or get away from the ills of traditional modernisation. We have to learn from all of them and I am sure other people come and look at us and say, “what are they doing in Singapore? There is not secret here, we can do that also.”

- I was told that Singapore has one the healthiest food in the world. You have all sorts of food from different races, Indian, Chinese and Malay food, combining to be the Singapore cuisine. What kind of food do you prefer?

- I think we have the most interesting cuisine. I am afraid I do not think we have the healthiest cuisine in the world. If you look at the European and Mediterranean cuisine, you eat olive oil, you lived a long time.

- If you have the healthiest cuisine, Singaporeans' lifespan will be 92 years.

- Well, in theory, yes. In practice, it will take more than 92 years to get there. But we have very interesting food in Singapore and a wide range. You have Indian food, Chinese food, Malay food which is from the Southeast Asia region. Spicy, non-spicy, noodle-based and rice-based. I have tried all kinds of them. I am eclectic and I enjoy a lot of food. But I have to enjoy it with discipline because otherwise my doctor will say, “your cholesterol has gone up, please take care.” I exercise every day. I walk, I swim and I workout in the gym once in a while. But you grow older every year and it shows up and not just in the grey hairs.

- There are many different cultures in Singapore and you have many different holidays for the various communities. Which is your favourite National Holiday?

- I celebrate all of them. We have probably the most different holidays in Singapore. We have Muslim holidays, Christian, Buddhist, Chinese holidays and Hindu holidays. I think the one which is most celebrated by Singaporeans is Chinese New Year because the Chinese are the majority community. Not only that, but I think Chinese New Year has become an occasion even for the non-Chinese to have a good time. But more and more, the holiday which mean the most to all of us and which bring us all together is the National Day on 9 August. We have a parade, we have carnivals, and we have a remembrance ceremony because it is National Day. We come together and we say a pledge together. In recent years, we have a Pledge Moment. So, we have a parade and when the parade says the pledge, we have sirens around the island and wherever you are, you drop your things for a moment and you say the pledge together. It is very moving.

- You have 4 official languages. How do you manage to maintain a harmonious balance between different ethnic groups and religions?

- We work at it constantly. We believed that this is something which we have to always continue to work upon because it is not something which will ever become a solved problem. Our problem is more complex than the Swiss. The Swiss is language. They have German, French, Roman and Italian but basically it is the same Caucasian ethnic groups. For us, it is not just language, but religion and race. Race, language and religion are all different. All the major religions of the world are in Singapore. There are three major races, but many other communities in Singapore. We speak very different languages. We are not very into European languages. Tamil is Dravidian, Chinese is totally different from English and we have to get on together. It is a matter of constant effort, social policy and integration. Our schools are integrated. Our housing estates are integrated – by policy, every neighborhood, every block has to have a mix of different races living in it. When you do National Service, we come together. At our work places, we work together. We make a point of celebrating one another’s festivals, and of restraining ourselves and having give and take between the communities. If you are in Singapore as a Christian, you do not treat this as a Christian country. If you are in Singapore as a Buddhist, this is not a Buddhist country even though the Buddhist may be one of the biggest religious groups in Singapore. If you are a Muslim in Singapore, you can practice your faith, you can fast, you have mosques, but you understand that this is a multi-racial society and you are working and living within a multi-racial context. There is give and take on all sides. It is this give and take and trust that has been built up over a very long period of time which we think makes for the nature of our society, which makes for what is gradually emerging as a Singapore identity. So when you see somebody, he may look Indian, may be ethnically Indian but you look at him and say he does not come from India, he looks like he came from Singapore. Similarly with a Chinese, you see a Chinese and you look at him and say “is he from China? Maybe he is from Hong Kong?” You see the way he dresses, the way he speaks or the way he walks, you know he is from Singapore.

- Singapore is considered to be one of the most visited places in the world. Annually twice as much tourists visit the island as people leaving there. We have had a lot of Russian delegation and Russian people coming to Singapore. What should be done to make sure that there will be more Russian tourists here?

- We may have a few more Russian restaurants for example. But you do not have to come to Singapore to eat borscht, shchi or shashlik. We try to make it interesting for people to come. We may not have mountains and the Black Sea like in Sochi, but we have beaches, we have beautiful parks and historic city centres to look at. We also have the Integrated Resorts – the Marina Bay Sands or Resorts World. We have sea animals. If you like, you can go into the casino or you can go into a spa and enjoy a relaxing holiday. Or you can use Singapore as a base and visit Malaysia, Indonesia, see the region and come back here and feel like this is the next best place to being at home, from which to explore the region.

- We always end our Formula of Power programme with this question: what is power? We have asked you this question previously. You answered then that power is the ability to help people to move forward and inspire them to work together to achieve something beyond what seems possible. Have your views on the notion of power changed since then?

- I think that is still true. That it is the ability to move people, to persuade them, to work with them to achieve something. It is to achieve something for people and not achieve something for yourself. But if you ask me now after a longer time in government what it also depends on, I would say it depends on your being able to see beyond the immediate, persuade people that what you are perceiving and thinking about is what they should be thinking about too. Do the right thing for them and still be able to be re-elected by them. Thank you very much.

Interviewed by Mikhail Gusman

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