Singapore’s prime minister took questions on a wide range of subjects at a dialogue with editors whose newspapers are members of the Asia News Network (ANN).
THEY may not have each other’s phone numbers on speed dial, but the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore have “very good rapport”.
That’s now Lee Hsien Loong described the relationship he has with Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Indeed, the relationship between the two leaders mirrors the ties between their nations which have thawed considerably since the frosty days of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew.
“I have good rapport with Prime Minister Najib and our officials and ministers work well with each other. There are issues to be handled. We are not identical, either in the structure of our societies and political system or in our approach to economic as well as social issues, but we are able to work together.
“And I think that is the way we have made progress, and that’s how I think we can continue to make further progress,” said Lee at a dialogue with editors whose newspapers are members of the Asia News Network (ANN) last week.
The editors were in Singapore for the ANN’s annual meeting. The ANN was founded in 1999 with six newspapers and sponsored by the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation. In its 15th year, it now has a membership of 22 Asian news organisations, including The Nation (Thailand), Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), Yomiuri Shimbun, Jakarta Post, The Korea Herald, China Daily, The Straits Times, The Star and Sin Chew Daily.
Lee took questions on a wide range of subjects but top of the agenda was Malaysia-Singapore ties as he had just returned from a two-day Fifth Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat in Kuala Lumpur which began in 2007.
By all accounts, both men have developed a genuine friendship which has enabled their governments to overcome long standing issues, resulting in key agreements.
As The Star reported last year, based on data from the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority, Singapore remains one of the top investors in the country, with total value of approved projects standing at RM2.2bil last year; and RM2.5bil in 2011.
Singaporeans have also taken a deep interest and strong investment in Iskandar Malaysia. All in, both countries “have a very big agenda”, as Lee puts it.
That big agenda includes the other ambitious project: the High Speed Rail (HSR) link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, which was first mooted as far back as 2006 and was brought to the table for agreement by both leaders in February last year.
The HSR, announced last year, will reportedly cost RM40bil and will cut rail travel time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore from six hours to just 90 minutes.
Lee hailed the HSR as a game changer, likening it to the rail
links between major cities like London and Paris, Shanghai and Hangzhou and Chengdu and Chongqing in China.
“These are cities three, four hundred kilometres apart. You want to make it less than a day trip,” he said. In the same vein, the HSR “would make a very big difference to the connection between two very vibrant cities, in the way you can do business together, in the way you can travel up down, the convenience of it”.
With so much going for it, there are high stakes involved in bringing the link to fruition by 2020, the stated deadline.
But there is much work to be done. So far, what is known is the rail line will be 330km long, the Malaysian terminus will be in Bandar Malaysia in Sungai Besi, KL, and there will be five stops in Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor.
Singapore is still mulling over three possible sites for its terminus, with Jurong East as a very attractive option, according to Lee.
While Lee said “we know in principle that we want this”, he was candid to admit the specifics had not been worked out when asked what obstacles could derail or delay the project.
“In those broad terms, we have decided the shape of it. But where is the line going to go? How is it going to be built? What’s the engineering? What’s the financing? What’s the governance? What’s the legal framework? How are we going to operate this?
“These are all very complicated to do even in one country, but to do in two countries and to work it all out in what would be quite a compressed time frame, I think will test our teams,” he said.
On the annual problem of haze caused by land clearing fires in Indonesia faced by Malaysia and Singapore, Lee said the burning has to stop.
“But to stop burning, you must have the laws and you must enforce the laws. And then you must have sustainable agricultural practices.
“The climate is changing. And when you have extreme droughts, dry weather, then even if you don’t start a fire, a fire may start by itself.
“But if you do start a fire, it is very unlikely that you can control it. And if you decide that this is the time to start a fire because that’s the easiest way to clear the forest, well, we are affected, Malaysia is affected. I think the Indonesian government knows it’s a problem.”
Asked how long he planned to stay as Singapore’s leader, as the era of long tenureship of prime ministers seemed to be over, especially in the region, Lee replied: “I think leaders stay as long as they are able to make a contribution. If they stay beyond that, then they have overstayed their welcome.
“I can’t say exactly how long I’m staying but I’m 62 years old and that’s not young.”
He added, however, that succession planning for Singapore’s top political leadership was already in place.
“We are making sure we have a new team ready and new leaders who are capable of taking charge, so that the country can move ahead and the leaders can be in sync with the country,” he said.
Lee said that after the 2011 general election, he had brought in more than 20 new Members of Parliament and several of them were in the Cabinet. They are Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and Acting Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong, according to The Straits Times.
“They are doing well and moving into more responsible positions. I hope they continue to do well and mature and grow in their responsibilities and in their understanding of Singapore,” he said, adding that he hoped Singaporeans would also accept their leadership.
Questioned about what key qualities he would look for in Singapore’s leaders, Lee said: “You must be quite clear what Singapore’s interests are, and you must be able to persuade people that this is what we need to do together. People have to be willing to go with you and to say yes, I trust him, I (will) work with him.”
Asked if he thought Singapore would still be all right if he were to retire as PM tomorrow, Lee, who once said he hoped he would not have to serve beyond the age of 70, replied: “That is the objective.”
Excerpts from ANN editors’ dialogue with Singapore PM