Instability in Hong Kong a problem for everyone, including Singapore: Shanmugam

In a picture taken on July 24, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam speaks at a forum organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Institute of Policy Studies. PHOTO: ST FILE

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

Giving his take in a recent interview on the ongoing protests over a controversial extradition Bill, 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 Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao.

Protests began four months ago, when Hong Kong's government mooted a controversial Bill - now suspended - that would allow the authorities to extradite people to countries it has no formal extradition agreements with, including mainland China.

The protesters subsequently 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 have 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 to move 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 on Sunday (Aug 11).

"Unless people become pessimistic about China, I don't see immediate calculations being made by serious investors."

He added 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," he said.

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. "That is probably the significant majority of Singaporeans," he said.

He added that Singaporeans do not necessarily think that Hong Kong is in deep trouble and that he would not agree that Hong Kong is in a mess now.

"The general impression that Singaporeans would have is that we are glad this is not happening here, because we are different from Hong Kong. We are different from Hong Kong because we don't have the same advantages that Hong Kong has. Hong Kong can weather it. Singapore may not be able to weather it," said Mr Shanmugam.

"I think that's the perception of Singaporeans, not so much of Hong Kong is in a mess. I won't 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 which 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.

"I'm sure the Hong Kong government is aware of these aspirations and the issues, and will look for solutions. People's aspirations need to be met. Solutions need to be found. But, I will add, the solutions cannot be found if serious disruptions like these continue," he said.

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.

"Beijing will expect Hong Kong to adapt to the political structure that prevails in China. Adapt, not adopt," said Mr Shanmugam.

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

On how Chinese leaders will look at the ongoing development, 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 (United States) 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 for a very competent 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 system?" he said. "Is there a political system that can do better for the people of China, compared to the current system? Which one? Name one."

Mr Shanmugam added: "Ideology is important. But it must square with reality."

He was also asked if the best-case scenario is to maintain the "one country two systems" model as originally promised which offers Hong Kong autonomy for 50 years in all affairs except defence and foreign affairs.

"That's what is under the treaty. I'm not an expert. If you ask me, 'one country two systems' requires a sensible approach. The current situation is challenging China, and I'm not sure Chinese leaders will or can accept that," said Mr Shanmugam.

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 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."

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