National Day Rally 2015: Be aware of Singapore's external challenges, says PM Lee

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left) and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shaking hands after a joint news conference at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore, on July 28, 2015.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left) and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shaking hands after a joint news conference at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore, on July 28, 2015.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at length about Singapore's security and diplomatic challenges at the National Day Rally on Sunday.

Early in his English speech, he zoomed in on how developments in the region and relations with major powers - China, Japan and the United States - could affect Singapore.

Admitting that he had not spoken much about Singapore's external environment in recent rallies because the focus had been on domestic issues, he said: "We have to be alive to our external environment, that's a fundamental reality for a 'little red dot'."

While Singapore and its neighbours have prospered together, this state of affairs could change at any time. Thus, Singapore would have to "stay on top of developments", he said.

"Certainly, in the next 50 years, nobody can rule out instability, tension, or even war in Asia."

Singapore watches what is happening in Malaysia very closely, he said, listing some issues that Malaysians are "worried about".

They include the radicalisation of Malaysian citizens, racial and religious tensions, and the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

While Singapore and Malaysia separated 50 years ago, the two countries remain closely intertwined, and Malaysia's problems will easily affect Singapore, he said.

Indonesia, being the largest country in South-east Asia, sets the tone for the region, PM Lee said.

He warned that while Singapore has enjoyed good relations with Indonesia for many years, there are those who still view Singapore as a "small neighbour enjoying undeserved success at their expense".

"It is a deep seated mindset - that a little red dot should know its place in the world - and this mindset will not disappear for a long time," he said.

He also noted that Singapore is lucky that the big powers have been at peace with one another. But he said this balance of powers between the US, China and Japan should not be taken for granted.

Territorial disputes in the region in the South China Sea and over the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands could lead to greater tensions between the US, China and Japan. China and Japan both claim the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands.

China claims most of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan each have overlapping claims in the area, believed to be rich in energy deposits.

"Countries will press us to take sides. 'You are either with us, or against us.' Which are you?" he asked.

Listing Singapore's strengths, he said that a strong armed forces, a successful economy and good diplomats and leaders who can defend our interests abroad have been vital for the survival of " a small country that does not have aircraft carriers" to keep it safe.

It is also important to have Singapore leaders defending its interests abroad.

He cited the examples of Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

Dr Balakrishnan, for instance, not only led the Singapore delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, but also played the role of an honest broker between the nations.

Mr Lee concluded: "We must maintain this quality of leaders, and strengthen our economy and defence to hold our own with the outside world, to work with others to advance our interests, and to protect ourselves when the external environment becomes troubled or hostile."