S'pore must 'be alive' to outside environment

S'pore must 'be alive' to outside environment
Haze from forest fires enveloping Pekanbaru in Sumatra this year. The haze issue is a sensitive one between Singapore and Indonesia.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Singapore needs to "be alive" to its external environment even as it attends to domestic concerns - or the country's survival will be at risk, stressed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It was a point he made in both English and Mandarin speeches at the National Day Rally yesterday, saying he had "spoken too little" about the issue in recent rallies because of the focus on affairs at home.

Today, Singapore enjoys good relations with its neighbours, said Mr Lee, but he cautioned that this may not always be the case.

"Even in the next 10 years, we cannot be sure. Certainly, in the next 50 years, nobody can rule out instability, tension, or even war in Asia."

He said Singapore needs to be vigilant over external events and stay on top of developments, or risk being overwhelmed by them. And that is a "fundamental reality for a 'little red dot'".

Instability in its closest neighbour Malaysia, for instance, will affect Singapore, which is closely watching developments there.

Among Malaysia's worries is the threat of terrorism, noted Mr Lee. The authorities have arrested nearly 100 Malaysians suspected of having links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist group.

Even some members of Malaysia's armed forces have gone to the Middle East to join the fight, he said.

Incidents like the recent riot in Low Yat Plaza between Chinese and Malays have also raised concerns about racial tensions, which could spill over into Singapore.

Money politics is another worry, said Mr Lee, with Malaysian Premier Najib Razak having just set up a national panel to develop laws on "political funding with integrity".

"These are Malaysia's problems. Fortunately, we are a different country, having separated from them 50 years ago," said Mr Lee.

"But our two societies and our two economies remain very closely intertwined, so their problems can easily become our problems.

"If Malaysia is troubled, unstable or divided, it will affect our economy, our society and our security too. And the closer we work with them, the more we are concerned that things go well for them."

Relations with Indonesia, the largest country in South-east Asia, also bear watching, and Mr Lee said he looks forward to continuing good relations with Indonesia under President Joko Widodo.

However, he noted a common Indonesian view about Singapore: "that we are a small neighbour that is enjoying undeserved success at their expense".

He gave the example of a senior politician who told an Indonesian publication that he would consider apologising for the haze only if Singapore and Malaysia are thankful for the oxygen they enjoy from Indonesian forests 11 months a year.

Another example, which Mr Lee cited in his Mandarin speech, was of an Indonesian official's view that Singapore must know its place and meet the demands of "big brother" Indonesia - just as minority Chinese Indonesians do for the majority.

Mr Lee said such comments may not reflect the Indonesian government's view, but Singapore has to take note of them. "It's a deep-seated mindset - that a little red dot should know its place in the world - and this mindset will not disappear for a long time."

Singapore also has to watch its relations with the major powers - the United States, China and Japan - all of which the Republic is friends with.

"People are amazed and asked how this is possible." The answer: adroit diplomacy and that the three have been at peace with one another.

But, Mr Lee asked, what if relations among the powers sour and Singapore is pressed to take sides? "Countries will press us to take sides... You are either with us, or against us. Which are you?

"These are imponderables and risks which we have to be aware of, and which Mr Lee Kuan Yew was very concerned that Singaporeans may not be adequately aware of, and wanted to speak about even into his extreme old age," he said.

The Prime Minister said Singapore must maintain the advantages that enabled it to maintain its security and standing in the world. These include: a strong Singapore Armed Forces, a successful economy, and good diplomats and leaders who can defend Singapore's interests abroad.

wongsy@sph.com.sg

See also: More stories on National Day Rally 2015


This article was first published on August 24, 2015.
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