Singapore and Australia confident that RCEP negotiations can conclude by end-2019

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison at the Istana on June 7, 2019.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison at the Istana on June 7, 2019.

SINGAPORE - Singapore and Australia expressed confidence on Friday (June 7) that talks for a 16-nation mega trade pact will conclude by the end of this year.

At a joint press conference with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "We are reasonably confident that with sufficient political will and willingness to make difficult trade-offs, it's possible to conclude the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) by the end of 2019."

Mr Lee noted that when leaders of the RCEP's participating countries met last November, they had expressed a strong political commitment to push for the conclusion of talks by the end of this year.

The RCEP comprises the 10 Asean members and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Formal negotiations began in 2012.

Mr Morrison said progress on the RCEP has "had some frustration" due to the "electoral cycles of the partners, particularly over the first half of this year".

Australia, India, Indonesia and Thailand have all held elections from March to May.

Mr Morrison, himself re-elected as Australia's PM last month, said that with those elections completed, there is "a very good opportunity for considerable focus" to be placed on the RCEP.

 
 
 

Both leaders also affirmed the importance of the trade pact on Friday.

Mr Lee said concluding the RCEP this year will "send a strong signal to the business community, that our region is open for business and is committed to continue operating on the basis of an open, free, and rules-based environment".

Mr Morrison added that the trade pact "acknowledges the need for an open architecture of trade relations in our region".

During Friday's press conference after his meeting with Mr Morrison at the Istana, Mr Lee was also asked what Singapore - which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics - could learn from Australia.

Australia had passed a package of laws last year, which include a ban on foreigners making political donations, stronger espionage laws, and tougher penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

Mr Lee said Singapore's current thinking is "broadly aligned with Australia's approach", which is to detect and expose foreign interference efforts early.

"And we want to put in place safeguards and disclosure requirements at all the likely entry points: Funding, key leadership roles in organisations, or mass information or disinformation campaigns on the social media."

"So we want to be able to detect as early as possible attempts by foreign actors to manipulate information online to sway public opinion," Mr Lee said.

Singapore also needs to develop responses to digital-age tactics, such as the use of bots to occupy mind space through sheer volume, Mr Lee added.

"At the same time of course, we need to build up the ability of Singaporeans to discern and respond appropriately to resist foreign interference, through educating the public and working with our media to call out falsehoods, disinformation, and half-truths," he said.