7 highlights of PM Lee Hsien Loong's interview with CNBC

During an interview with CNBC's Christine Tan, PM Lee Hsien Loong fielded questions on political succession, other domestic issues, and foreign relations.
During an interview with CNBC's Christine Tan, PM Lee Hsien Loong fielded questions on political succession, other domestic issues, and foreign relations.PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong fielded questions on political succession, foreign relations and domestic issues in a wide-ranging interview with US news channel CNBC.

The transcript of the interview was released on Friday (Oct 20), ahead of his upcoming visit to the United States, during which he will meet US President Donald Trump and other officials. Here are some highlights of the interview.

1. On US President Donald Trump

I think he is confident of himself. There are things which he wants to do. He has a very set view of the world and of people. And we will work with him. He has been elected, he has a mandate from the American voters and he represents the United States of America.

I think every administration has a settling in process. There is always an adjustment between what you can say during a campaign and what you find are the possibilities and imperatives when you win the election, when you enter the Oval Office. The Trump Administration is not different.

Perhaps the adjustment is bigger in this case because President Trump represented such a radically different rethink to so many things which the American policy intelligentsia had considered to be shared conventional wisdom, but reality and forces of events press down on every president.

2. On Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which the US has withdrawn from

The 11 remaining members are still discussing how we can take (the TPP) forward and we hope we will be able to get somewhere... Many of the 11 are quite keen. The trade ministers have been meeting and Apec is coming up soon. By the time Apec comes up, perhaps there will be further developments.

I think the President (President Trump) has made his position quite clear. He has made a formal decision and I think we leave it at that. I do not think it is the time yet, to start new initiatives multilaterally with the United States. Perhaps one day the time will come.

Their pulling out of the TPP means that we did not conclude this deal to have a free trade agreement. It does not mean that the existing trade stops. It does not mean that the investment flows are abandoned. It does not mean that Asians are not travelling to America to work, to study and for tourism, or that Americans are not all over the region. These are very big stakes we have in each other and which will continue.

3. On the missile and nuclear threats from North Korea

During the interview, PM Lee spoke about the missile and nuclear threats from North Korea. PHOTO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

The danger is not just the immediate alarums but also the longer term trends, which are set off in North-east Asia, if things persist in this direction. Because with North Korea going this way, the South Koreans are asking themselves: "What can we do?"... Sixty per cent of South Koreans now think that they should have some kind of nuclear capability. So that's in South Korea.

Japan, too, which has a very strong anti-nuclear public stance, will be forced to think about the possibilities and the unthinkable, and what may they need to do. And one former defence minister has said recently, "Well perhaps we should ask the Americans to bring their nuclear weapons and put them in Japan." And the government says: "No, we shouldn't."

But these are thoughts which cannot be completely suppressed. In fact if it goes that way, and South Korea and Japan go closer to be in nuclear power or actually cross the threshold, it means different strategic and security balance in North-east Asia. More risky, more tense, and the Chinese will be very alarmed. And I do not think it will make for a safer world. There will be implications elsewhere in the world.

4. On Singapore's relations with China

We are good. We are forward looking. We are two countries and sovereign countries, so there will always be issues where we do not completely see eye to eye. But fundamentally, there are no basic conflicts in our perspectives and we both wish to do more together bilaterally and also in the context of Asean. Because next year, Singapore is Chairman of Asean. And also for these couple of years, Singapore is the Asean coordinator for relations with China. So we both want to make the relationship prosper.

We understand each other's position clearer now... But events happen, and then we react to events and then the positions have to be restated, clarified. In the case of the South China Sea, our position has always been that we are not the claimant state. We have no claims. So we do not take sides on those claims: who owns which island. But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, in the rule of international law, in the peaceful resolution of dispute, and in Asean having a role in an issue which is this important in our neighbourhood. I think that bears repeating.

5. On balancing relations with China and US

It is never easy to be a small country next to a big neighbour. If you have one big neighbour only, that is not easy to manage. If you have two big neighbours, in some ways you have more friends but in other ways you have to make more difficult choices.

It depends on how the US relationship with China develops. If that stays stable and good, then it is easier for Singapore. It that becomes strained or harsher, then it is harder for us.

If there are tensions between America and China, we will be asked to pick a side. It may not be directly, but you will get the message that: we would like you to be with us and are you with us? If not, does that mean you're against us? And that is to put it gently.

We hope not to have to pick sides. We have such substantial relations with both.

6. On the dispute with his younger siblings over the Oxley Road house

The matter is in abeyance. I am not sure that it is solved.

We have not recently communicated. I think they (the relations) are where they are. Perhaps one day when emotions have subsided, some movement will be possible. These things take time.

When asked if he is sad. "Yes of course."

7. On who will be Singapore's next prime minister

PM Lee fielded questions on political succession in a wide-ranging interview with CNBC. PHOTO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

I have explained this quite often, and quite publicly that I have assembled a team, a strong team of younger ministers. They have to establish themselves, among themselves, they have to work out their relationships and assess one another. Publicly, they have to gain the confidence of the public and show the public what they are able to do.

In time, they will have to come to a consensus as to who should be leading the team into the next stage. Beyond me. The process has taken some time. We have been bringing in people in every election - 2006, 2011, 2015. So it has advanced, we will continue to bring people in to reinforce the team, but who is to emerge? Well, time will tell. It cannot be a very long time, because the clock ticks and waits for no man.

I think it is very likely that he is in the Cabinet already. But which one? That will take a while to work out.