Why Singapore’s Prime Minister Says the City-State Can’t Be a Nanny Anymore

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 15 2013 11:59 AM

“We Can't Be the Nanny”

An interview with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walks to a breakfast with U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at Istana, or Presidential Palace in Singapore in 2012.

Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Singapore—Lee Kuan Yew founded Singapore and built the city-state from virtually nothing into a thriving economy and a leading Asian financial center. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004 and is grappling with new realities: a more politically empowered and tech-savvy generation, a rising China, and an American superpower intent on pivoting toward the Asia. Prime Minister Lee spoke this past week in Singapore with Lally Weymouth about regional tensions, the arrival of casinos in his country, and whether his job ever gets dull. Excerpts:

Lally Weymouth: What do you think of the Obama administration's pivot toward Asia?

Lee Hsien Loong: We are all in favor of the U.S. taking an active and constructive interest in Asia. I'm not sure I would describe it as a pivot. First, it suggests that this area has been neglected, which isn't quite so. Secondly, you really want a long-term, implacable, inexorable presence, and I'm not sure if the pivot conveys that nuance.

L.W.: Does "pivot" convey that the United States could pivot back to the Middle East?

L.H.L: Yes, I think so, because America has got such broad interests around the world and such pressing issues to deal with in so many places. Asia is just one of them, and it is a peaceful part of the world. It may not be on the front burner.

L.W.: Some say that the Chinese perceive the United States as weak and allege that the administration backed down on the Scarborough Shoal [contested by the Philippines and China in the South China Sea], allowing China to push the Philippines around. Now Washington is worried about a possible Japan-China confrontation in the East China Sea. Do you see the U.S. administration as standing up strong?

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L.H.L: The U.S. is not a claimant state in the South China Sea or in the China-Japan dispute over the Senkaku Islands. But, of course, the 7th Fleet has been a presence in the region since the Second World War, and it is the most powerful fleet in the region. I think it has a stabilizing influence on the security of the region ... encouraging countries to exercise restraint in dealing with these very difficult territorial disputes.

L.W.: Are you concerned about the rising tension between China and Japan?

L.H.L: There are nationalist sentiments on both sides, and it's an issue where neither side can afford to be seen to back down. We hope neither side escalates and triggers something unintended. I think something can happen. I don't think it's the intention of either side to spark a conflagration, but when you have ships at sea coming close to one another or aircraft—mishaps can happen.

L.W.: How do you see China under its new leadership?

L.H.L: I think their preoccupations are with their domestic issues, which are considerable. But at the same time, they see their sovereignty and territorial integrity as a responsibility of any Chinese government to uphold and protect. And how flexibly they define that and how the give-and-take works out—well, you have to watch the actions as well as the rhetoric.

L.W.: In the speech you gave in China last fall, it seemed as if you were advising the Chinese to tread lightly.

L.H.L: Yes, because they have broader interests. Their interests are not just the [islands] which are in dispute or the resources, but their larger reputation in the world as an emerging power. Are they going to be benign and not only play by the rules but leave space for other countries that are not as powerful to prosper? One of the reasons America is welcome in Asia is because with America ... there is a certain idealism and a certain bigness of soul. You want the region to prosper, you want countries to do well, and you are prepared to help them.

L.W.: The Singapore-U.S. relationship is very deep.

L.H.L: It's a long-standing relationship that covers many areas.

L.W.: You are going to Washington next month to visit President Obama?

L.H.L: I hope so, yes. The last time I visited a president was in 2007, when George W. Bush was president.

L.W.: What about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is currently under negotiation? What is your assessment of this trade agreement?

L.H.L: I think it's an important deal strategically for Asia-Pacific. It links both sides of the Pacific, the developed as well as some of the developing countries. It is a good standard and yet practical, and it will make a significant contribution to economic integration in APEC [the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group].

L.W.: Is there any chance it will be passed?

L.H.L: That depends on the Congress, not on us.

L.W.: It seems the Americans are trying to protect their industries, and at the same time they're saying that other countries should have a level playing field.

L.H.L: Of course. That's what trade negotiators start off saying. But if you can move beyond that starting position, then you can have a good deal.

L.W.: The United States is losing market share in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] to China and other countries.

L.H.L: For many countries, the biggest partner is China. ... But in terms of an economic partner, the U.S. is very important—your investments, your technology. I don't think the Chinese are in the position to match that for a long time.

L.W.: Do you worry about the rise of China?

L.H.L: Everybody here would like to benefit from it. At the same time, we would like to remain friends with all our other friends, including the U.S., India, and the E.U.

L.W.: Is that a hard balancing act?

L.H.L: No, we would like to have our cake and eat it and be friends with everybody. As long as our friends are friends with one another, we are OK.

L.W.: Does that mean you want the United States to be more involved with China?

L.H.L: We want the U.S. to have constructive and stable relations with China. That makes it much easier for us. Then we don't have to choose sides.

L.W.: Your country has enjoyed enormous [economic] growth.

L.H.L: We have been lucky. [We] depend on a stable international order.

L.W.: Now, you are trying not to let so many immigrants come here.

L.H.L: We are trying to manage our population. It is necessary. We are a small island—700-odd square kilometers. There is a finite limit to how many people can be accommodated, and we have to control the inflow. If we don't do anything, millions of Chinese would arrive at our shores.

L.W.: How will cutting down immigration affect small business?

L.H.L: Small businesses will find the tightening very difficult.