Mr Lee paid heed to input from people on the ground

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's willingness to listen to people on the ground helped break a political impasse with China and made a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Asian giant a reality, said Singapore's longest-serving envoy to China.

Mr Chin Siat Yoon, who served from 1998 to 2012, recalled how Beijing "decided to punish us by suspending all interactions, political and even commercial" over then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Taiwan in July 2004, a month before he became PM. China considers Taiwan a renegade province, to be reunited by force if needed.

Even after the fracas blew over, as signalled by a meeting between PM Lee and then President Hu Jintao in Santiago in November 2004, Chinese officials still did not move on some important matters, Mr Chin told The Straits Times, citing a mutual agreement to start negotiations on the proposed Singapore-China FTA.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked me how to get it revived. I took pains to explain how the Chinese system worked and suggested a way to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy. He listened attentively, asked some questions, agreed," said Mr Chin, currently Singapore's ambassador to Japan.

"Shortly thereafter, the initiative somehow burst into life. In due course, both sides entered into an FTA. I was lucky!"

The FTA was signed in 2008.

Mr Chin said Mr Lee always "gave due emphasis to input from people on the ground".

"Yes, he did not suffer fools. But if one could advance an idea or an argument which he found useful, he never hesitated to take them in," he added.

Mr Chin, who accompanied Mr Lee on his China trips and joined his meetings with its leaders, said they would seek advice on various issues from Mr Lee, who first visited in 1976 and would make 33 trips over a 37-year period.

"Mr Lee never minced his words. Occasionally, they would query the positions taken by Singapore which were not to China's liking. On this, Mr Lee would stand absolutely firm," added Mr Chin, citing Singapore's "One China" policy and position on cross-strait issues. Under this policy, Singapore recognises Taiwan as one of the territories of sovereign China, among other things, though it also maintains economic and military links with Taipei.

Still, Chinese officials told Mr Chin they took serious heed of Mr Lee's remarks, which were noted and sent to members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex decision-making body.

"For Singapore's voice to be taken seriously by China is indeed 'punching above our weight'," said Mr Chin, who turns 66 this year. "Mr Lee had positioned Singapore as an important spot on the radar screens of major powers, including China."


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