China's cities are rising and developing rapidly, and Singapore can prosper with them - but only if it continues to move forward with the region.
Speaking to reporters at the end of a week-long trip to southern China yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted how cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen have transformed and caught up with Singapore since his last visit almost a decade ago. And in Hong Kong, which he visited this week after 13 years, he saw that its planners are positioning the city "for the next 30 years", he added.
"We have to be part of this. And our attitude must be that, it is good that the region is prospering, so long as we are also moving with it," he said.
Asked if China's fast-rising second-tier cities are a threat to Singapore, he said: "If you don't move, of course it is a threat. But if you continue to move, then we prosper with them."
New York, London and Paris are not threats to Singapore but mutually complementary parts of a globalised world, he said. Just as Singaporeans live and work in other cities, foreigners come to Singapore for opportunities.
"That is the way talent moves in the world, and that is what we have to accept if we want to prosper," he said.
In relatively unexplored parts of China such as the Guangxi region, opportunities abound for Singaporean businessmen, he said. The Singapore brand name is well-regarded and opens doors in China.
During his visit, all the Chinese leaders Mr Lee met, including Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua, suggested ideas for collaboration with Singapore.
But on Beijing's proposal for a third government-to-government project in its western region, Mr Lee stressed that the Singapore Government has not yet committed to the idea, which would stretch its resources considerably.
There are two existing Sino- Singapore government-level pro- jects - the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-City.
Both involved not just commercial objectives but also policy goals, which Mr Lee defined as something beyond the commercial viability of a project.
"What are the new systems you want to try out? What are the new initiatives you want to launch? What examples do you want to prove so that other parts of the country can pick up useful ideas and implement them?"
In Suzhou, the novelty at the time was "in bringing all the pieces of the software together to see how you can run a city, in China, using some of the ideas of how we have done it in Singapore".
In Tianjin, the policy objective was to answer the question: How do you develop with a heavy focus on an environmentally friendly approach?
Singapore will proceed with the third project only if it similarly fulfils this double objective of being commercially viable and breaking new policy ground, Mr Lee said.
He did reveal that if the project does go ahead, it will be in the area of connectivity and modern services. China's vast, western region needs to be linked up not just physically, but through IT, financial, telecommunications, logistics and aviation services, he said.
PM Lee had discussed this with Executive Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli when they met earlier this week. It will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the Sino-Singapore Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation in Suzhou later this year.
But Mr Lee said it would be too ambitious to expect an agreement on the project, and its location, by then.
HK's way forward 'tied to one country, two systems'
There is no other way forward for Hong Kong but on the basis of its Basic Law, which binds its sovereignty to China, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
Speaking to reporters in the city, which has been divided over China's proposed rules for the 2017 chief executive election, Mr Lee noted that the political starting point in Hong Kong is the "one country, two systems" principle, a unique arrangement that Beijing and Hong Kong "must make work".
Whatever solution emerges from the stand-off between Beijing - which allows only very controlled elections in Hong Kong - and political activists who want a direct nomination process for candidates, Mr Lee said, "it has to be on the basis of 'one country, two systems' as the Basic Law says". The Basic Law is often seen as Hong Kong's mini-Constitution.
Beijing's stringent rules announced last month essentially rule out candidates from Hong Kong's pan-democracy parties.
"There's really no other way forward. I think if you understand that, then you know what are the possible ways forward, and which ways don't really lead to any practical, sensible outcome," said Mr Lee.
He added that the current disquiet cannot fundamentally change the basic structure of Hong Kong's system, which is that it is not an independent country.
Asked what lessons there are for Singapore, Mr Lee said countries must evolve, adapt and have a good sense of the overall geo- strategic circumstances they face.
While Hong Kong has one very large neighbour with whom its sovereignty is bound, Singapore is an independent country surrounded by several larger neighbours.
"We have to make our way forward and be able to prosper in friendship and in cooperation with our neighbours," Mr Lee said. Hong Kong was the final stop of his week-long visit to southern China.
This article was first published on Sep 19, 2014.
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