Singapore must 'stand up and be counted': PM Lee on country's foreign policy

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MUNICH: As a small country, Singapore has to “take the world as it is” but at the same time protect the country’s fundamental interests, especially in matters of safety, security, or its position in the world.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this on Monday (Jul 10) as he approached the end of his week-long visit to Germany, fresh from attending the G20 Leaders’ Summit and several bilateral meetings.

“We are under no illusions. This is a dangerous world, there are countries big and small – Singapore is small,” PM Lee told Singapore reporters. “And we have to take the world as it is, at the same time we have to protect our interests, and do the best for ourselves (as) we can in the world.”

“I think these two are complementary, they are not contradictory, we have to be aware of the realities but that does not mean surrendering ourselves to our fates,” he added.

The Prime Minister’s comments come as the question of how Singapore should conduct its foreign policy resurfaced recently. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam as well as a few diplomats took issue with a commentary by Professor Kishore Mahbubani who wrote that “small states must always behave like small states.”

When asked about the role of small states on the global stage, PM Lee said Singapore has a responsibility to highlight and deal with important issues which concern the country.

“I think if we don’t stand up and be counted, you cannot lie low and hope that nobody will notice you. And I think that’s how Singapore must conduct our foreign policy,” he added.

PM Lee pointed to Singapore’s inclusion in the G20 summit, representing the Global Governance Group (3G), an informal coalition of 30 small- and medium-sized countries. Addressing world leaders last week, he made the case for multilateral trade and also urged governments to help their people embrace new technology.

“We got our point of view across, we explained what we had to say on trade, on digitalisation, on jobs,” PM Lee said on Monday, adding that it has been a “good meeting” and a “productive visit” for Singapore.

“From the overall G20 point of view – it’s more difficult because the US view has become different from the other participants on trade as well as climate change, and the communique reflected this difference in views, and tension in positions of the different countries,” he said.

KEEPING “AN OPEN MIND” IN MEETING WITH TRUMP

When asked about his first bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump, PM Lee said his aim was to understand how Mr Trump viewed ties with Singapore.

“I went in with an open mind,” PM Lee said. “I asked him when he was last in Singapore, he thought about it, he said perhaps about 10 years ago – I said it’s a long time I hope you come again,” he told reporters.

“I think we had a good discussion – I focused really on understanding how he looked at the relationship and on the broad issues and not on specific items. I think there’s time enough for specific items later on.”

For Mr Lee, Singapore’s relationship with the United States was “a very broad and substantial one”.

“We are engaged in many, many different fields,” he said. “And whichever is the administration, whoever is the president – these are interests we would like to push ahead and they would like to push ahead to.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong meets President of the United States Donald Trump at the G20 Summit on Jul 8 2017. (Photo: MCI)

One interest that Singapore has been keen to push ahead with is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Trump took Washington out of. Still, Mr Lee said that relations with the US were not strained, and that Singapore had to move on with countries still on board – a sentiment Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe echoed when he and Mr Lee met at the summit.

Mr Lee also met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit, where both reaffirmed bilateral ties. On Monday, Mr Lee said that both sides shared a wide range of co-operation, with frequent high-level exchanges. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is set to visit Singapore as well, after accepting an invitation from Mr Lee.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Xi Jinping meet in Hamburg on Jul 6, 2017. (Photo: MCI)

“We have a broad relationship,” Mr Lee said. “There are issues that come out from time to time. We deal with them in a mature way and we move ahead. We are not at odds with China, and I think China finds it useful also to be friendly with Singapore so that’s a good basis on which to work.”

“DIFFERENT COUNTRIES PLAY DIFFERENT ROLES”: PM LEE

On whether nations like China and Russia would take up the mantle of world leader should the US position change, Mr Lee said that “different countries play different roles”.

“This new administration is different,” he said. “They put US first, and they put less weight on the US’ responsibility for what people call ‘global public goods’, which means security, being the world’s policeman, upholding open free trade because trade is good for other countries, and so on. So whether another country can step up and perform that role is not so clear.”

As for Singapore’s approach, PM Lee said the country needs to adjust with changing global politics.

“If (there is) a new government in America you have to consider what that means for the world, as China becomes more influential we have to consider how we can develop our relationship with China,” Mr Lee said. “These are adjustments which you have to make because the world is not static.” 

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