Strong support for leaders 'good for Asia'

SINGAPORE - Asia would benefit from strongly supported leaders in China, Indonesia and India, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a discussion with Asian editors as elections get under way in the latter two countries which are also two of Asia's largest democracies.

A strong mandate will make it easier for businesses and regional affairs to be managed in a cooperative way.

"I think it's good for Asia if the countries have capable, responsible and strongly supported leaders," he said. "Then you can do business, then you can manage regional affairs collectively and in a cooperative way."

Mr Lee made these remarks in response to a question on implications for Asia given that China has a powerful leader and the likelihood of India and Indonesia gaining strong leaders with credible mandates after the elections.

Parliamentary elections in Indonesia took place yesterday and the presidential election is due in July. General elections in India are ongoing, with the process due to be completed next month.

That was one of the questions put to Mr Lee when he met editors of the Asia News Network during an hour-long dialogue at the Istana on Tuesday, which was moderated by Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez.

Founded in 1999, the Asia News Network has a membership of 22 newspapers in Asia.

Besides The Straits Times and The Star and Sin Chew Daily in Malaysia, other members include China Daily, The Nation, Eleven Media of Myanmar, the Yomiuri Shimbun and The Jakarta Post. Editors were in Singapore for its annual meeting and to mark the grouping's 15th anniversary on Monday.

Taking up the point of strong leadership, Mr Lee added: "If the leaders are not strongly supported, or if their leaders are weak personally, then you may be able to have a discussion but it may not be so easy to deal with problems."

"Of course, strong leaders also have strong preferences and ideas, and it doesn't mean that they will all get together and it will all be the best of all possible worlds. There will be friction, there will be disputes, there will be difficult problems to be solved," he said.

Singapore, Mr Lee said, looks forward to working with a strong Indonesian government, one which would take an ASEAN perspective the way the present government has done and President Suharto did for many decades.

In India, he hoped that the new leadership will continue to pursue cooperation with South-east Asia and East Asia. As for China, President Xi Jinping would have a "full agenda" domestically and globally, managing China's presence and increasing weight in the world and "the way which advances China's interests and at the same time maintains China's position as a country which is a member in good standing in the community of nations".

Singapore's bilateral ties with Malaysia, Indonesia, China and other neighbours figured prominently in the discussion, during which Mr Lee was also asked to share his perspectives on the continuing search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, the haze, ASEAN, flashpoints in the region, and his succession plans.

On Thailand, he noted that the founding member of ASEAN could have contributed far more to the grouping if not for its present political turmoil. The various sides would have to find ways to work through their differences, which was "a very deep problem".

But, he noted, Thailand was a more natural country than Singapore, being one nation, with people of the same race, language, religion, and a common history.

Turning to Malaysia, he said the planned high-speed rail link between the Republic and Malaysia would be a "game-changer". The target to complete the project by 2020 was ambitious, he acknowledged, as "many aspects have to be studied and discussed and agreed upon".

"But if we can get the high- speed rail between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur built, whether it is 2020 or whether it is a bit later, I think it will make a very big difference," he said.

Asked what regional countries could do to tackle the problem of haze, Mr Lee had a straightforward response: "Stop burning."

And laws to stop burning must be enforced, he added.

On ties with Indonesia, he said bilateral ties were generally good, and he had a "good relationship" with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the two countries had cooperated on many issues. Some differences had arisen from time to time, he noted. The recent naming of a warship after two Indonesian marines convicted of a bombing in Singapore that killed innocent civilians, he said, was "unfortunate".

Excerpts from Asia news network's dialogue with PM Lee

•MALAYSIA'S SEARCH FOR MH370

I think your government has had a very tough time managing this crisis because it is quite unprecedented. You have been searching now for one month, and you have had no clues, or rather, you have no hard evidence of the aeroplane. In that situation, you have to deal with not just the engineering and the actual operations of it, conducting the search, but also the communications, with the families, with the relatives, with the international public who are watching this. So it's a very difficult situation which your government is in, and I think they have done a very manful job.

•HAZE

Stop burning. But to stop burning, you must have the laws and you must enforce the laws. And then you must have sustainable agricultural practices. The climate is changing. We are having more extreme weather, more extreme droughts as well as rain. And when you have extreme droughts, dry weather, then even if you don't start a fire, a fire may start by itself. But if you do start a fire, it is very unlikely that you can control it.

•THAI POLITICAL CRISIS

We are concerned about it because Thailand is a very important member of ASEAN, and if Thailand is preoccupied with domestic difficulties, you will not be able to contribute your full weight to ASEAN endeavours and deliberations. And we see this as a very difficult problem which Thailand, the Thai people and Thai society will have to solve.

•CHINA AND SINGAPORE

We are both very different societies, at different stages of development. You are in very rapid progress, and you have gone beyond the initial take-off now to sustaining that development and transforming your economy. We are a very small microcosm, a small model of how one can do things in a country which is also a city, and you might find something interesting to pick up from us. And we certainly find a lot of fascinating things to learn from China.

shefali@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 10 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.

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