PM Lee on democracy, China and regional tensions

In an hour-long dialogue with the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tackled a sweeping range of questions on Asia.


South-east Asian countries "do value human freedoms and welfare but they also have other priorities and political imperatives", PM Lee said in reply to a question about democracy in the region.

Each country has its own perspective and what is key is whether it can deliver "for the welfare of the people, for the stability of the country, for the opportunities for the next generation".

"If you can deliver that, that's more important than the forms and the precise way the rules are expressed," he added.

For instance, while communist Vietnam has no elections, it is "very sensitive to ground pressures" - not just about foreign issues such as Vietnam's territorial disputes with China but also domestic issues like corruption.

For Myanmar, the military regime changed because the people "hated the status quo".

But its path to democracy will be difficult, rife with "new demons" such as unleashed tensions between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minorities, Mr Lee added.

In Indonesia, which has enjoyed stability in the past 10 years under elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Mr Lee said he hopes the next president "will continue the good work".


Asked if Singapore is willing to play a role in promoting dialogue between China and Taiwan, Mr Lee said that Singapore, like many countries, has an interest in stable cross-strait relations.

"We do what we can to help but we are not the mediator," he said. Singapore hosted the historic Koo-Wang talks between the two sides in 1993.

"The Chinese have made quite clear that this is a family matter, and we are not family. We may be distant relatives but we are not family."

But Mr Lee added that if China and Taiwan "find us useful" as a mutual contact, Singapore will "be happy to oblige and do what we can".


China's main challenges currently are rebalancing its economy, maintaining social harmony and finding a workable political model to engage an increasingly vocal population, Mr Lee said.

Of the three, the economy is "less of a difficult challenge" as there are plenty of economic development models available.

In contrast, there are "very few models for transforming a society like China", he added.

"There are even fewer models for designing a political system which will work for a society which is changing (like China) - on that scale, with that history and culture, and that need for stability but also openness, and the opportunity for different voices to be expressed."

But Mr Lee said China's leaders are taking the task of reform "very seriously", adding that President Xi Jinping's commitment to the process will help get the system moving.


Shanghai is already a "very important financial centre" due to China's heft in the world economy, but whether it can go beyond that to become a regional hub for finance is still up in the air, Mr Lee said in response to a question on the impact of Shanghai's emergence as a financial centre.

Citing the example of Tokyo, he said that despite Japan's position as the world's No. 3 economy, Tokyo is "very domestic focused" and is thus "not the regional hub for financial services in Asia" the way Singapore, Hong Kong or even Sydney is.

"Each of us, we have our own niche and we prosper together," Mr Lee said. There is "some rivalry and competition in a friendly way, but Asia-Pacific is big enough for all of us".


Japan and its neighbours must put the legacy of World War II behind them and not keep reopening sore topics such as comfort women, Mr Lee said. "One of the reasons Japan's difficulties are with not just China but also South Korea is because of the reopening of the issues which go back to World War II and before, and which have never been properly put to rest the way they were put to rest in Europe after World War II," he said.

But Japan cannot take steps to develop its relationship with its neighbours alone, he added. "It takes two hands to clap, so you need the Chinese as well, and the Koreans, to be part of it," he said.

This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
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