If Hong Kong is at odds with China, it's a problem for all: Shanmugam

LAW AND HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM
LAW AND HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM

There is no profit in seeing instability in Hong Kong, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has said, adding that Singapore benefits from stability across the region, including the Chinese territory.

Giving his take on the ongoing protests over a controversial extradition Bill in a recent interview, Mr Shanmugam said: "There is some superficial talk, 'Oh you know, Singapore benefits.' I don't believe that. We benefit from stability across the region, including Hong Kong.

"If China does well, Hong Kong does well, the region does well, we do well. There's no profit in seeing instability. And if Hong Kong is at odds with China, it's a problem for everyone, including us."

Mr Shanmugam was making these remarks in an interview last week with Hong Kong broadsheet South China Morning Post and Singapore's Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao.

Protests began four months ago, when Hong Kong's government mooted a controversial Bill - now suspended - that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to several jurisdictions, including mainland China.

Protesters made five demands of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, including universal suffrage and the unconditional release of all arrested protesters.

The initially peaceful demonstrations subsequently turned violent, with some protesters breaking into the Legislative Council building. Protesters also blocked roads and disrupted the rail network, with hundreds of people joining a peaceful sit-in protest at the airport.

 
 
 
 

Asked later if Singapore has seen increased interest among people in moving assets or company headquarters from Hong Kong as a result of the protests, Mr Shanmugam said he does not see this happening in the short term.

"Hong Kong has very deep strengths. Its financial system, its stock exchange, its valuable position as an outpost for China and the nearness to China are all incredible advantages that any investor will take into account and consider," he said, according to a transcript posted on the Ministry of Law's website yesterday.

He added that perceptions may change if the situation remains unresolved for a long time, with serious consequences for Hong Kong. "But I think the depth of Hong Kong's strengths are such that we are not at that stage."

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore does not have the ability to weather a similar crisis, which would be bad for the country's economy.

"Hong Kong has the huge advantage of China's support. Singapore has no one to support it," he added.

Many Singaporeans consider themselves fortunate because the same things are not happening here, said Mr Shanmugam.

But Singaporeans do not necessarily think that Hong Kong is in deep trouble, and he will not agree that Hong Kong is in a mess.

Mr Shanmugam also noted that the current situation in Hong Kong can be understood at several different levels.

At the most basic level, there is a breakdown of law and order that any government will have to deal with, he said, highlighting incidents such as the airport sit-ins, vandalised police stations, and the disruption of train services.

The Hong Kong government must also deal with underlying causes of the protests, one of which is meeting the material aspirations of young people.

At the same time, some protesters appear to be taking an ideological stance, hoping to see changes in the structure of government, though Hong Kong is part of China.

"Some of the protesters seem to think that China will allow a very different system in Hong Kong. That is wishful thinking replacing reality," he said.

 
 
 
 

On how Chinese leaders will look at the situation, Mr Shanmugam said his view - based on history, past events, and looking at their statements - is that they will say this is ultimately aimed at the Chinese Communist Party's rule in China.

"Why do I say it? You sing the US national anthem, you speak in Mandarin and tell the Chinese tourists to go back and take these ideas back to China. The leaders could think Hong Kong is just the start, for something that some people want to hope to start in the rest of China," said Mr Shanmugam, adding that he is looking at the issue from the outside.

Ideology aside, the facts are that China's system selects very competent people to be in government, which has lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty over the last 35 years, he pointed out.

"Not enough credit is given for that. It's a huge achievement. Could that have been achieved under any of the other systems? Is there a political system that can do better for the people of China, compared to the current system? Which one? Name one," he said.

His personal view - and not that of the Singapore Government - is that he is worried for Hong Kong.

"Because there's no easy way forward when people are in such entrenched positions. To go forward is going to need a compromise and a clear approach that deals with the problem," he said, adding that these include both political and socio-economic issues.

"And quite importantly, to solve problems, Hong Kong needs a supportive China, and the solutions need to work for both Hong Kong and China."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'If HK is at odds with China, it's a problem for all: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe