The formation of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of the year prompted Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, to speak to Viet Nam News and other ASEAN news outlets on issues facing regional group members.
|Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong. — Photo Singapore MCI
The region has recently seen an influx of problems related to refugees and human trafficking. How do you feel about this?
Well, it is an issue that affects quite a number of countries in the region, so we need to discuss and see what we can do about it. It has to be dealt with upstream in source countries, where conditions must be quite tough for the people to think of becoming refugees in this way.
You have to also deal with human traffickers who are well-organised entrenched groups in several countries. They make money out of this and have an interest in keeping the flow going and extorting money from desperate human beings who are trying to go somewhere.
No country can take an endless number of refugees and say we just take them on humanitarian grounds. And your own people will not accept it. Therefore, it has to be dealt with upstream. We should put a stop to human trafficking.
There have been issues of irregular migration in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait, with about 4,000 boat people stranded in Indonesia and Malaysia. Foreign media report ASEAN's inability to find a solution. Would you like to comment?
There are many problems in the world. ASEAN cannot solve all of them. Even with regard to serious problems, we can work together, we can influence one another, we can encourage other countries, but ASEAN is not one country and it's not possible for ASEAN to say you do that and you put a stop to this.
These are problems that individual countries have to resolve.
Do you think that ASEAN can remain united to handle the South China Sea (East Sea) dispute?
The South China Sea (East Sea) dispute is an issue that directly affects four of the ASEAN countries, but indirectly affects the whole of ASEAN because it is a security issue in the middle of Southeast Asia.
ASEAN has a stand, which is that we should be negotiating a Code of Conduct. We want to complete the Code of Conduct with China and are in the process of doing this. It will take a while, but I think there is an ASEAN view on this. In terms of nuances, different ASEAN countries will have slightly different positions because if you are a claimant state, you have a direct stake and you have to fight for your corner. If we are not a claimant state, such as Singapore, we back your claim.
We are not in a position to judge any claim. But we are in a position to say we are affected by how this dispute is resolved and if it is not resolved peacefully in accordance with international law or the Convention on the Law of the Sea, we will have a problem. So, that is where ASEAN stands.
How do you see ASEAN after the regional integration (ASEAN Economic Community) on December 31, given that the development gap is the main challenge?
I think when we make the ASEAN community by the end of the year, that is going to be a very huge step, but that is not going to be the end of the completion of our co-operation. There are more agendas to be done, even to set the target for what we want to do by December this year. I suspect there will be some items we will not be able to complete by then and that will be our outstanding business.
But, beyond that, we need to think what we want to do as a next step in our regional integration and cooperation, and we have got an ASEAN group to study this. I think they have got a group of wise men looking at this and we look forward to their recommendations to work towards narrowing development gaps and how the Indo-Chinese countries can grow faster, either through Human Resource Development or trade or technical cooperation.
There are thousands of migrant workers in Singapore, and some Singaporeans complain that these workers are stealing their live-lihood. What is your opinion?
I think from the economic point of view, we need migrant workers in Singapore because there are many jobs that our economy has created and there are not enough Singaporeans to fill all posts. There are no Singaporeans in construction or maritime industries.
And then, you have management and technical jobs, where you need a wide range of background and expertise and people who have been all over the world; so you form a multinational team to work together.
We need talents from all over the world. But if we have too many, then that will have social impacts. We are trying our best to create a balance. We can't do without foreign workers, but, at the same time, we have to manage their inflow.
Singapore and Viet Nam have a common problem: expensive housing. It takes people 10-15 years of working just to own a house. How do you deal with it? Do you think it is a sign that Singapore is experiencing a wealth divide?
I don't think we have such a serious problem that you must wait 10 or 15 years to own a house. I think if a young couple are getting married and planning to start a family in their late 20s or early 30s and they have been working for five or seven years, it is quite possible that they will be able to make a down payment and book a flat and by the time they get married, they will already have a flat in their name. Home ownership in Singapore currently is about 90 per cent, so nearly every family lives in a flat of their own.
Earlier, there had been periods when it took a little bit longer and people worried about not getting their flats soon enough when prices were high. But in terms of affordability, we make sure that, whether you are rich or poor, in Singapore, you have significant assets to your name.
Yes, we worry about incomes stretching out, we worry about low-end incomes not catching up fast enough, but through our Public Housing Programme, we make sure that we can level up.
Last year Singapore initiated the Pioneer Generation Package for older people. How much budget do you have to spend on the programme? Can it be said that Singapore once concentrate on the younger, working age generation rather than older people?
The Pioneer Generation Package was initiated because we felt that Singapore had come very far in 50 years. And a lot of the progress we made was because of the work of the first generation Singaporeans, the ones who were adults around 1965, when we became indep-endent. The ones who helped make and build the country from nothing when it was very poor and the ones whose incomes were not so high as peoples' incomes today. And now they are retired. Overall, I think we put aside $8 billion (US$5.9billion) from our budget into a fund. The fund will have income over the years. So, by the time we spend the money, we estimate that 12 to 13 billion dollars (US$8.8-9.5billion) will be spent on this pioneer generation. And it is mainly for healthcare purposes.
I think we need to do more for older workers in the years to come. But we also need to engage older workers more so that they are able to make contributions.
Singapore has a reputation for a low level of corruption. What is the key to eradication?
I cannot speak for other countries, but in our experience, we have gone for a zero-tolerance approach: right from the beginning and right from the top to the bottom. And I think that is the only way you can tackle the problem.
And it has to start from the top because if the boss is corrupt then he must have secretaries, he must have officers, and they must know and conclude that if the boss can do this, then we can also do this.
And then they will help themselves and so the whole system will become impossible. So we started off right at the beginning, with an attitude that we will not accept corruption at all. From 1959, when the PAP first became the government of Singapore, we were very strict and we showed we were prepared to act against whoever was found to engage in corrupt behaviour.
If you have transgressed and it was proven, then you had to pay the price and penalties were severe. — VNS