Leaders need to make people see how globalisation benefits them: PM

PM Lee speaking at the South Asian Diaspora Convention's gala dinner yesterday. The dialogue was moderated by Mr Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary of India.
PM Lee speaking at the South Asian Diaspora Convention's gala dinner yesterday. The dialogue was moderated by Mr Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary of India.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

News from around the world in recent days has been dismal: a terror attack in the French city of Nice, a failed coup in Turkey, and shootings of cops in the United States.

Amid these worrying developments, is there room for optimism, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked at a dialogue last night.

These are troubled times, he replied, citing Brexit, terrorism and tensions in the region.

"But at the same time, we should remember this is a time generally of peace and prosperity," he said.

Globalisation has brought considerable benefits to people in South Asia, China and all over the world, he noted. And the way forward is more globalisation, he added.

However, he stressed that there must be greater distribution of the benefits of globalisation "to those who have not enjoyed it or may be at risk of its side effects".

PM Lee was speaking to about 1,000 people at the South Asian Diaspora Convention's gala dinner. Moderator Shyam Saran, India's former foreign secretary, also asked him what message he wanted to convey on globalisation.

PM Lee pointed out that India's opening up to the world since the 1990s has seen it prosper, and its diaspora has provided a network and presence all over the world.

"Singapore, too, has sought benefits from our links with the subcontinent," he said, adding that India, too, has a role to play in this region.

PM Lee was also asked how he would respond to a world that was becoming more fragmented.

He acknowledged that people would like to think they were safer if they returned to the "good old days". But, he pointed out: "If you go back to a closed world, you're going to be a lot poorer. And you will not be able to operate the way you are doing."

"You may wish that your own market is more secure and those unfair competitors were not present," he said. "But if everybody has that attitude, then many of these companies will not exist. Certainly, they will not be able to operate the way they have done. That means we are all worse off."

The challenge, he said, was to make this basic reality clear to millions of people whose economic well-being depends on that.

"You need politicians who have courage, who are prepared to stand, face the crowd, and say, 'Well, you would like me to say something different but I have to tell you what my conscience and my reason say is true'," he added.

"It's not easy but if you want to make the system work, such leadership is necessary."

PM Lee was asked if peace in the region was at risk from developments such as China's angry reaction to an international tribunal's ruling on the South China Sea.

He said South-east Asia has prospered in the last 20 or more years because the region was peaceful.

"South China Sea has the potential of offsetting that. It may or may not," he added. The countries involved do not want to collide and are trying their best not to "but there are tensions at stake and it is not so easy to resolve".

South-east Asia has been in a similar situation before, he noted, pointing to how the region was on the front line during the Cold War.

"Fortunately, we passed that phase," he added. "But if dark clouds come, we will have to find a way to manage complexities."

Pearl Lee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Leaders need to make people see how globalisation benefits them: PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe