PM Lee, Turnbull push for cooperation on free trade

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull highlighted Asean and Australia's shared interest in deepening economic integration.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull highlighted Asean and Australia's shared interest in deepening economic integration.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Calling protectionism a dead end, Aussie PM vows to work with closest neighbours on issue

Protectionism is a "dead end", Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday, when he and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a strong push for countries to continue working together on free trade.

The plainspoken Mr Turnbull gave corporate and political leaders at an Asean-Australia business summit a clear picture of his country's position, saying it will continue to work with its closest neighbours in the region on freeing up trade.

"You don't grow stronger by closing the door to other markets. Protectionism is a dead end. It is not a ladder to get you out of the low-growth trap. It is a shovel to dig it much deeper," he said. "We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it, and do so on the basis of strong and transparent rules, fair and open competition and non-discriminatory legislation."

His remarks carry a message similar to that of PM Lee who, a day earlier, had said in an interview with Australian media that recent measures taken by the United States to protect its industries have raised the spectre of tit-for-tat trade wars.

PM Lee warned that US President Donald Trump's actions, like imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, set a precedent, and countries were now "under pressure to retaliate". He is in Sydney until tomorrow to attend the 3rd Singapore-Australia Leaders' Summit and the Asean-Australia Special Summit.

Speaking after Mr Turnbull at the business summit, Mr Lee noted that Asean continues to work towards strengthening regional economic integration.

"The global mood may be moving in the opposite direction, but within Asean, within South-east Asia, we are trying our best to strive forward to deepen integration, to deepen interdependence, to work together to trade and open up markets, to co-prosper together," he said.

In one such move, Mr Turnbull said, Asean and Australia will team up on a new Digital Standards Cooperation Initiative - a set of standards to make it easier for businesses to conduct cross-border digital trade.

The standards will ensure that the region can tap the potential of digital trade to gain greater access to markets and secure a more certain online environment to do business. "It will show the world yet again what can be achieved when nations work together," he added.

During Singapore's chairmanship of Asean this year, Asean is pursuing an agreement on e-commerce to streamline the varying regulatory systems in member states and make electronic transactions safer and more convenient, PM Lee said.

Both leaders, speaking later at a joint press conference, highlighted Asean and Australia's shared interest in deepening economic integration. One way to do this, PM Lee said, is to involve Australia in the Smart City network that Singapore is spearheading across Asean.

Temasek Holdings chief executive Ho Ching, who is Mr Lee's wife, also spoke at the business summit, during which she called on businesses to train their workers for the future and embrace sustainability.

She and Mr Turnbull's wife Lucy, who is a businesswoman, were joint hosts at a Women in Business breakfast at the summit.

Ms Turnbull highlighted the importance of giving women and girls the technological skills to thrive in the jobs of the future. She said girls should be encouraged to make choices "to engage in this fast-changing, digitising and scientific world''.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'PM Lee, Turnbull push for cooperation on free trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe