WASHINGTON • It is better for Singapore and the region if Hong Kong is able to work through its problems and settle into a new normal, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
"We think it is better for Hong Kong and better for the region and Singapore if Hong Kong is stable and calm and prosperous and able to play the role which it used to play, helping China to grow and prosper as well," PM Lee said in an online interview hosted by the Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank.
Singapore and Hong Kong have a "friendly competition" rather than a serious rivalry, said PM Lee, who was asked by the moderator, American businessman David Rubenstein, whether the upheaval in Hong Kong would benefit Singapore.
"The Asia-Pacific is a big place, and there are many opportunities," PM Lee said.
Hong Kong had its advantages of being on the doorstep of China, while Singapore had a different set of advantages of being in the middle of South-east Asia and with a broader footprint.
"On balance, I would say I would much prefer Hong Kong doing well than to have people looking for places to go out of Hong Kong," PM Lee said.
He added that Singapore has been watching events in Hong Kong with concern for some time.
"It is a deeply divided society. It has had demonstrations which are bitter and protracted and, increasingly, with a violent tinge to them," he said.
Hong Kong has been embroiled in protests for much of the past year, sparked by anger over a proposed Bill that would have allowed the extradition of fugitives to other jurisdictions, including mainland China.
Though the Bill was ultimately withdrawn last year, China recently enacted a controversial Hong Kong national security law - in a move that protesters said curbs freedoms in the territory.
Giving an overview of the unfolding events yesterday, PM Lee said that Hong Kong had an obligation to pass a national security law but could not do so under its own Constitution, which was a situation that could not continue indefinitely, nor for the 27 remaining years of the "one country, two systems" framework it operated under.
The Chinese therefore decided that the National People's Congress in Beijing would pass the national security law on Hong Kong's behalf, he said.
"In Hong Kong, the reaction has been split. Some people supported it, the administration supports it, a significant part of the population have different views. But it is done.
"The Chinese have said, well, you shouldn't worry, this will only affect a very small number of people and most people should find life carrying on as usual. As time passes, if that proves to be the case, then come home, we will settle into a new normal," said PM Lee.
But the law's passage has also triggered responses from America as well as Britain, which was party to the Joint Declaration that laid out how Hong Kong would be governed, he noted.
"I am sure the Chinese must have calculated that and decided that they had to do this regardless," he said.
"It is most unfortunate because already there is enough menu of complications between the US and China's bilateral relationship, and this only makes things worse."