The question of trust is a fundamental issue in the ongoing debate over the world's next 5G networks, given the need for countries to have confidence in the security of the systems, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
Beyond technical considerations that Singapore is mulling over in its own decision, he said the lack of trust could lead to "grave consequences", where countries end up developing their own systems and operating in separate worlds that are less safe and more unhappy.
At a question-and-answer session at the Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday, PM Lee was asked by a member of the audience whether Singapore would be using Huawei for its 5G network.
Last month, the United States blacklisted Huawei - which it accuses of aiding Beijing in espionage - and restricted the company's dealings with US companies.
Yesterday, PM Lee said that Singapore is in the process of selecting its 5G system and equipment, with the decisions to be made "in due course".
He noted that apart from resilience and security, other factors to consider include performance, cost, reliability, growth potential and vendor diversity.
It is "quite unrealistic" to expect 100 per cent security from any telecommunications system, he said, and it does not matter whom the system is bought from, with every system having its own vulnerabilities.
But beyond the technical aspect, there is also the question of trust, which is the more fundamental issue, said PM Lee. "I need to have trust in order to use the system. And if I suspect that you will abuse my trust, to compromise my systems, I will not be able to do business with you," he said, describing it as a "very serious problem".
But there are grave consequences when going down this road, he said.
"Because if I don't trust your system, you are not going to trust my system, and then the chips... the software... the firmware, and then the whole supply chain. And then you are in your world and I am in my world," he added.
"That is fundamentally a different kind of world from the one which we have been building in the last 30, 40 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall."
But the problem is a very difficult one to solve because, with anonymity on the Internet, there is less incentive for people to behave themselves, said PM Lee.
He said that in the long term, there is a need to establish rules, such that those responsible for bad behaviour can be named and shamed, leading to restraint.
"For immediate decisions on the 5G systems, I think each country will have to weigh the options, there are the uncertainties, and will have to make its own choice."
In response to another question on what small countries can do to avoid taking sides, PM Lee said that they should try their best to maintain relationships with the US and China.
"But to actively avoid taking sides actually also requires actively not being pressured to take sides," he said, to chuckles in the audience.
"And unfortunately, when the lines start to get drawn, everybody asks: Are you my friend or not my friend? And that makes it difficult for the small countries."
Answering another question - on what Chinese leaders can do to put other Asian countries at ease - PM Lee said it may be hard for "one big country to choose another big country as a role model", but there were lessons to be gleaned from the US' presence in Asia in the last seven decades.
He said the US has made many friends in the region with its breadth of spirit, generosity and honesty, creating an environment that has made it possible for even "those who are not quite so close" to grow and prosper and compete in peace.