Singapore hopes situation in Hong Kong will calm down: PM Lee

In this photo taken on Oct 14, 2019, protesters bring out a giant banner at Chater Garden, Hong Kong. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Ongoing protests in Hong Kong may be disruptive for businesses there, but companies there have not made the move to Singapore.

Singapore also does not want to see the businesses moving here. Rather, it hopes that the situation in Hong Kong will calm down so that companies can conduct business there peacefully, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He was at the Forbes Global CEO Conference at the Shangri-La Hotel, where he was asked if Singapore has seen a trend of Hong Kong businesses moving here.

During the dialogue, Forbes Media chairman and editor-in-chief Steve Forbes also asked PM Lee about the implications of the Hong Kong protests for Singapore.

"We thrive best in Singapore when the region is stable, when other countries are prospering and we can do business with them," said PM Lee.

He added that he does not see any easy way forward for Hong Kong as the demonstrators' demands "are not demands which are meant to be a programme to solve Hong Kong's problems", but "demands intended to humiliate and bring down the government".

Hong Kong's issues, one of which is the "one country, two systems" policy, need to be progressively tackled, PM Lee said.

Referring to the approach needed to be taken, he said: "As one Hong Konger put it very neatly from China's point of view, they must not only think of one country but remember this is two systems. And from Hong Kong's point of view, you must not only think of two systems, but remember that this is one country."

"And this calls for wisdom and restraint on both sides."

PM Lee also noted that there was a proposal for Hong Kong's chief executive to be elected, which was debated in 2014 but not passed.

"So they have not had expansion of the suffrage, as was envisioned under the basic law, under the agreement with the British. So that's something else which needs to be dealt with," he said.

But there is no simple solution because Hong Kong is a special administrative region, not a country, he added.

"It has to live and work within that special administrative region framework, which is the basic law. And I think it can be made to work, it is not easy, but if it's not made to work then, I think it's very difficult to imagine that one country, two systems can continue for another 22 years until 2047."

He also noted that one of the underlying causes of the unhappiness in Hong Kong is social issues such as housing. The Hong Kong government has gone for conservative approaches in tackling these social issues, but the problems have not been significantly improved upon, and it will take time before progress can be made, PM Lee added.

Responding to another question from Mr Forbes on how US-China trade tensions are affecting Singapore, PM Lee said the disputes added another layer of uncertainty and anxiety to the global economy.

"It means that much less prosperity for the two countries, that much less buoyancy for the rest of the world, and that much fewer opportunities for our companies to invest in America and China and export to America, or to invest in America to do business with China," he said.

He noted that these are all win-win opportunities that are the essence of international trade, which has enabled the world to prosper for several decades.

Most countries in Asia have China as their largest trading partner, including America's treaty allies like Japan, Australia and Thailand, he said, adding that they do not want to take sides between the two. And it is not wise to try and force a divide and a choice between the US or China, PM Lee said.

Rather, it is wiser to compete in a friendly manner and have a free trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Washington's withdrawal, he said.

The Chinese may be interested in joining the CPTPP one day, PM Lee noted, pointing out that this would be a win-win outcome for all, with China needing to adhere to more stringent rules which are part of a modern free trade agreement.

"We think that (free trade agreements are) the way for the world to go. America for the time being doesn't think so, but I think many other countries do think so and I hope that they will be able to make progress on this."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline Singapore hopes situation in Hong Kong will calm down: PM Lee. Subscribe