PM Lee interview with The Australian full transcript

The interview was conducted on March 20, 2020.

Belmont Lay | March 23, 2020, 05:00 AM

Singapore no illusions Covid-19 problem is easily over

The Australian: The Economist has declared Singapore to be the most successful country in dealing with the coronavirus. How have you dealt with it and what do you think this coronavirus really means for Singapore and for the region?

PM: Well, we are flattered, but we are actually very deeply concerned for ourselves, as well as for the wider world we live in. It is a very difficult virus to eradicate. It is one which is dangerous enough to cause considerable human suffering and death, and even greater anxiety and fear. It has brought the whole economy to a halt in so many countries.

In Singapore, when we first suspected that this was going to take off, we got our ministries to come together so that we could respond to this on a whole-of-government level. Because it is not just a matter of the doctors and the hospitals and treating the sick people, but also the social measures and the public reassurance and communications, as well as the national preparations for stockpiling, for ensuring supplies come in, and for making sure that we can cooperate with other countries and keep our borders safe while at the same time, keeping essential trade and intercourse

going on.

We have tried our best to do that but we are under no illusions that the problem is over at all. If I made an analogy – it is not that the tide has turned, it is that we put the dykes up. We are watching very carefully to see where water may leak in, and if you take your eyes off it for a moment, suddenly I have an outbreak, like what happened in South Korea, and I will be in a perilous situation. It can happen to us at any time.

So, I think many countries are in this situation. Australia is grappling with the same problem. The countries around us in Southeast Asia are also facing the problem. Some more clearly than others, because I think in some countries, it is such a vast territory that you may not know what is going on in a very timely and precise way. But it is going to catch fire in many countries, and is going to take a long time to burn out.

Singapore has reasonably successfully hindered Covid-19 transmission

The Australian: Yes indeed, Prime Minister.

Prime Minister, Singapore, it would seem to an outsider is almost uniquely vulnerable, because it is such a densely populated island. How were you able to even conceive of a policy like social isolation in Singapore? I mean, the one thing you never feel in Singapore, is isolated. How were you able to successfully prevent the transmission within such a densely populated population?

PM: I would not say we have successfully prevented. I think I would say so far we have reasonably successfully hindered the transmission. It is a combination of measures. First, we strongly encourage people (to) take your own temperatures. If you are sick, see the doctor. We have set up a network of Public Health Preparedness Clinics (PHPC) - basically fever clinics. If you have these symptoms then go to one of these clinics, they are equipped to see you and to assess you. So, if you detect the case early, that prevents you from transmitting the virus to many more people.

Secondly, once we detect the case, we work very hard to contact trace. Who are the people you have met within the last two weeks, where have you been, what have you done, who may have been exposed to you. We make every effort to trace those people down as well, and to put the immediate contacts either on notice or on quarantine, depending on whether they have symptoms. It is very labour intensive. We have 300 plus cases now, but we have contact traced several thousand people already, at least. It is labour intensive, but it is helpful in preventing one single case from becoming many hundred cases, if you catch it in time.

Thirdly, I think people are cooperative. When we tell people to introduce their Business Continuity Plans (BCP) and to go on to split shifts or to work at home, many companies are doing that. Many businesses have made these arrangements. People are working at home. Entertainment outlets are sparser, food outlets are sparser. Times are hard for them but what to do, these are hard times and the government will do what it can to give some succour and help to the whole economy, and especially the most affected parts of the economy. We have already done this once, in the Budget in February. We are teeing up to do again, because just from February to now, many things have happened, and the gravity of the situation has become so much more evident.

Number of Covid-19 tests Singapore can conduct daily

The Australian: Yes. Prime Minister, I apologise if I have not given you notice for this question, but do you know offhand how many tests Singapore has conducted?

PM: I do not have a number, but I know we have the capacity to conduct a few thousand a day. We have been doing this now for two months, so it must be tens of thousands.

Why are Singaporeans so cooperative with their government?

The Australian: Yes. Prime Minister, do you think the success you have had reflects on the social spirit of Singaporeans? That they are perhaps more cooperative with their own government than you might see in every country in the world?

PM: Well, I think it is a great help for us that people listen to the government, they trust the mainstream media, they accept our explanations, and they appreciate the fact that we have gone to enormous lengths to be transparent and to explain to people in a timely way, what is happening, where they have to take precautions, what the prospects are going to be.

We have a ministerial task force which is overseeing the response to Covid-19, and they have been holding press conferences every other day, sometimes every day, in order to bring people up to date and to prepare people when something particularly significant or surprising happens. I have, twice, made televised broadcasts to the nation in three languages to speak to people directly, to give the reassurance, but also to get people to understand how serious the situation is, and what we can do about it.

I think all this helps. It helps to go into this with some social capital and some trust, but you have to build on that during the crisis. Because if you do not, and people start to doubt what they are told, or think that facts are being withheld, you will be in deep trouble very quickly. We are trying very hard to stay ahead of the curve, because every day new things happen. Each time we prepare a speech, we start working a week beforehand, and before the speech can be delivered, it has to be changed 20 times. New things have happened.

Why Singapore has no Covid-19 deaths up until March 20?

The Australian: Yes, I do understand that, Prime Minister. Again, I have not given you notice of this, but as I understand it, Singapore has had no Covid-19 deaths here?

PM: Not so far, but we have about 15 people in the ICU currently. The numbers in the ICU have gradually been creeping up, and some of them have been there for quite a long time. I think we must prepare ourselves that sooner or later, there will be Covid-19 deaths.

Strict travel restrictions for flights

The Australian: Yes. Prime Minister, has Singapore enforced very strict travel restrictions in terms of the flights coming into Singapore and so forth?

PM: We have progressively tightened up. At first, arrivals from certain places were blocked, because these were places which had very high incidence of the infection, but now we have moved to the position where arrivals from all countries have to be quarantined when they arrive. Effectively, it is almost a shutdown, except that our own people coming home from overseas are still able to come home, and we are bringing them back. Some of them are coming back infected, and we are tracking them closely and making sure they get identified and treated quickly.

Nature of quarantine measures in Singapore

The Australian: Yes, when you say visitors have to be quarantined, is that self-isolation, or do they have to go into a quarantine facility somewhere?

PM: It depends. In most cases, it is self-isolation, but we will check on you at random times and buzz you, and you have to prove that you are where you are supposed to be.

How long will Covid-19 lasts?

The Australian: Prime Minister, everyone is asking this question all around the world. How long do you think this lasts for? Is there any sense at all that we can predict when we might come out of this crisis?

PM: I am not a specialist; I can only go by what I read and reasonable inferences from that. But looking at the behaviour of the disease and the way it is jumping from country to country, you can push it down within a country, but it has not disappeared worldwide, so I think this is going to be with us for quite some time.

You look at China. By dint of Herculean effort, they locked down drastically many of their cities, and brought their domestic cases to zero. But they are at risk now from imported cases from all over the world. So what do they do? Do they shut themselves off from the world, or do they carefully open up, knowing that this is going to let the virus back in?

Their population is not immune to it yet, in very large numbers. Because even if a million Chinese have got the virus so far, that still leaves almost 1.4 billion who have not yet, and are still, in immunological terms, naive and at risk. So, what you can hope for is that you control the spread of the disease, you hold the position, and hope and pray that the scientists come up with either a treatment or a vaccine within a year or two. And in time for us to exit this without the doomsday scenario, namely that the disease goes through the whole population, and then eventually we have herd immunity. Either it is going to leave you with huge casualties or it is going to take forever, and to lock down forever. I think it is an enormous economic cost and human cost too.

Has globalisation gone too far?

The Australian: Prime Minister, just trying to look ahead a bit. Do you think that this crisis does make people wonder whether elements, not the whole thing, but elements of globalisation, maybe have gone a bit too far – like having very concentrated supply chains being dependent on one supply chain? Would countries will want to be a bit more resilient, and have more of their own capacity? Secondly, will it have long term implications for the free movement of people?

PM: I am sure that there will be. Certainly, the logical extreme of a completely borderless world, where goods and people can move freely, and you do not mind being completely dependent on one source for important things, whether it is drugs or electronics, or for that matter, food, is going to come under very searching scrutiny.

I mean even Singapore will have to ask ourselves, in a crisis, what will we be short of? Masks in this crisis, but in another crisis, it may be something else. Certainly, you have to ask whether your food supplies are secure. Then you have to ask, what is it which I can do to secure myself? Because I cannot go back to a situation of autarky. So you need some diversification, you need some fire breaks, you need some checks on movements of people.

And yet I do not think we want to go back to a situation where you disconnect ourselves completely. Even in 1917 and 1918, in the global flu pandemic, there was not that degree of globalisation then and yet it swept the world. So to shut yourself off and hope to become impregnable, I do not think it is a realistic approach.

The Australian: No, indeed. Now, I am sure you are right, Prime Minister. Today, as you say, some scrutiny of the management of how diverse your supply chains are and what resilience you have.

PM: So I think you will want diversification, but I do not think that is the same thing as bifurcation.

How will China-US tensions play out?

The Australian: No, indeed. Well, on that very question of diversification versus bifurcation, perhaps I could ask you about a different topic, but very related. The China-US trade tensions that we have seen over the last year or two, have had all kinds of consequences. People have diversified, some companies have diversified out of China, there has been a bit of a slowing in the China-US trade. That is all affected by this Covid-19, but how are you feeling about those trends generally? Do you think they were on the way towards a resolution or were they getting a bit worse or what was your view of that?

PM: I think they have temporarily come off the boil, with the first package of measures – the first agreement between the Chinese and the Americans, which had some Chinese commitments and the Americans held off from some further tariff measures, so the business picked up again. But many difficult issues have not been addressed, and I think the fundamental strategic tension between the two in their perspectives of how they each stand in the world and how they see their relationship, has not reached a resolution.

You will always have a tension in it, but at least some mutual understanding of each other's position, and what is a way forward which will acknowledge that tension, but enable the two countries to work constructively together in a wide range of areas, and stably. I think that has not been resolved, it is on ice for now because both countries are preoccupied with the Covid-19 virus. But that problem will come back, whoever wins the presidential election in the US.

How reliable is the US in this region?

The Australian: Yes, I am sure that is right. President Trump did not make it to the East Asia Summit. Do you think in some respects, this was a little symbolic, or a little bit of a new question mark about US reliability as the strategic balancer and as the regional ally?

PM: The US president is always a very welcome visitor to the region, so when he does not come, naturally we are all very disappointed and we all wished he could come. But we understand that the US president has many preoccupations on his mind and well, sometimes it cannot be helped.

But I think more important than any particular visit, is the overall US stance towards the region. First, its relationship with China, how it is managing that. Secondly, how much the US leans forward and engages the other countries in the Asia Pacific, whether its allies like Australia and South Korea and Japan, or partners like Singapore and many of the ASEAN countries – countries which want the US as a friend, as an economic partner, as a strategic participant in the region with a security role, and which hope to see some bandwidth and long-term perspective consistently in America's relations with the region, which is really a very broad range one. I think that is the most important thing and if you have that right, then we hope for a few more visits, but you can manage if you are disappointed once in a while.

The Australian: Prime Minister, the nature of the US commitment that you just outlined there, do you think regional nations like Singapore and Australia are still justified in feeling that the US has that broad commitment to our region and to our nations?

PM: I think that the relationship between Australia and the US, and certainly Singapore and the US, is a very long, deep and extensive one, and it has gone through various ups and downs. We have gone through many things together, there have been times when we have been at odds with one another or at least some issues have arisen, and we have had good and bad times. Right now, I think the US is very preoccupied with their domestic issues and particularly with their coming elections. We would, of course, hope that the US takes a multilateral view of their relationship, takes an open view of their role in the world and how they not only can contribute to maintaining the global order, but also maintaining the system of markets and rules-based arrangements between countries, which have underpinned stability and prosperity, not just in the Asia Pacific, but around the world.

There is a changing strategic situation, so they are rethinking their strategy. With a smaller share of the world GDP and other major players, how should they play this? Should they take it that what is good for the region is good for them, or should they say that ‘I put myself first and sometimes that means that I have a big ask from other countries in that region’? I think that is an argument which they are going through. I hope that it will eventually settle somewhere that is in keeping with the generosity of spirit and breadth of vision, which has for very long, characterised the US approach to not just international affairs, but even to their self-conception of their role in the world.

Will US rejoin the TPP?

The Australian: Yes and Prime Minister, just on the specifics, would you still think there is any chance that the US might reconsider, eventually, the new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

PM: We hope that they will join in in some form. If you are realistic about it, it cannot be just unpausing the tape and then you carry on and sign the document. But I hope that some way can be found for them to participate and some adjustments can be made, which will make it presentable politically on both sides.

But it requires the Americans, not just the White House, but the opinion leaders and the establishment to be persuaded that this is the right thing to do. The establishment amongst the newspapers and think-tanks, but also in Congress. Even before Trump was elected, there were many signs that Congress was not enamoured of such a commitment. They have political reasons for it, but from a strategic point of view it is a great pity they did not participate.

Does China's continued assertiveness in SEA cause concern?

The Australian: Prime Minister, thank you for that. Final question on China. I was in Indonesia a few weeks ago, and interviewed the Indonesian foreign minister, and she recounted to me the dispute that Indonesia had with China over the Natuna Islands earlier this year. Does China's continued assertiveness right across the South China Sea cause you concern?

PM: Well we have always encouraged all of the claimant states in the South China Sea to exercise restraint and to refrain from measures which will raise the temperature and risk unintended consequences. And the reality is all participants have taken various steps at sea and on the ground, and not just diplomatically. Each time something like that happens, there is a risk of things going wrong and going somewhere which nobody wanted to go.

But ASEAN is talking to China, negotiating a code of conduct. We have made some progress in the negotiations, but I think it will be sometime more. But whatever the detailed text which emerges, the basic principle that you should have peaceful resolution of disputes, it should be in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that it should respect freedom of navigation for all countries through the South China Sea, and should be constructive for the stability and the security of Southeast Asia. I think these are basic things which we must hold.

Is ambition to have zero net emissions by 2050 unrealistic?

The Australian: Thank you Prime Minister. Two last questions, one on Australia and Singapore, but just before that, the great vogue in the West amongst climate activists and some commentators and governments, is to reach zero net emissions by 2050. Now like you, Prime Minister, I spend a lot of time in Asia, and know the coal-fired power stations which are all lined up with China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and so on. Is this ambition to zero net emissions by 2050 unrealistic as it fails to factor in Asia? Is it possible that Asian nations have a slightly more pragmatic view of the need to balance economic growth with climate action?

PM: I think it is a very ambitious target, but also a very serious target because climate change is going to be a great issue. In Australia, you will see hotter and longer summers. You are already seeing that. For Singapore, we are anxious about rising sea levels as well as more extreme weather, droughts and rainfall. So, we have to do our part to bring down emissions and hit the UN targets. I do not think for Singapore ourselves it is practical to expect us to go to zero emissions by 2050. But we have said we are going to bring down our emissions substantially by 2050, by half (from our 2030 peak), and we will aim to reach zero, as soon as viable in the second half of the 21st century. We are actually doing as much as we can in order to achieve that, and I hope other countries will do that too.

Asian countries sacrificing economic growth and development for climate action

The Australian: Prime Minister, just a quick comment on that. I take entirely what the thrust of your answer is, but I am just struck how different the Asian political and economic context is from the context of Western Europe, New York and California. It just does seem to me that many nations in Asia are going to insist that climate action has to accompany economic growth and development, but they are not going to sacrifice economic growth and development for climate action. As I mentioned, the vast majority of our new coal plant power stations are scheduled, for example, in Asia.

PM: I think that is so, but attitudes will change with development. If you look at China, where they are at today, compared to where they were in 2009, at the Copenhagen Climate Conference, their position has shifted a long way. They signed on to Paris, they have introduced alternative energy on a massive scale – in fact, people are now accusing them of distorting the solar panel market.

So you cannot fault them for not trying hard enough. It does not mean that they can reach zero easily, but I think their attitudes have shifted because I think they realise that this is actually going to affect them and their own coastal populations in a big way. They are big enough that what they do is going to have material impact on the outcome. Singapore is so small that what we do will not have a material impact on the outcome, but nevertheless, we have to do our part. Australia is somewhere in between.

PM Lee's view of Australia-Singapore relationship

The Australian: Prime Minister, just in our last few moments. The Australia-Singapore relationship – Australians admire Singapore, and we regard it as a very successful country, and a great friend. What is your view of the Australia-Singapore relationship


PM: We are very happy with it. We have got a comprehensive strategic partnership, it has taken our relationship forward. When I meet Prime Minister Morrison virtually on Monday, we are signing a treaty which will formalise a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) we have on defence cooperation – basically training in Shoalwater Bay and other places in Australia. We are going to announce a completion of an agreement on digital economy cooperation, and we have got a lot of other items on the agenda, including cooperation on scientific research on the Covid-19 virus.

We are like-minded countries; we have been through a lot of things, through thick and thin. This year you have not been able to commemorate Gallipoli, but we remember you for all the times that you have spent with us in Singapore since the war and beyond. And we would like to keep that friendship for a very long time to come.

The Australian: Indeed, Prime Minister, thank you for those remarks. I would say that Singapore is the closest nation to Australia in Asia, really. It is the nation that Australians knows best and probably a higher percentage of Singaporeans are now in Australia than is true of any other Asian nations. It is a remarkable friendship over these many decades.

PM: It has been deeply appreciated on our side, and I am sure on your side too.

The Australian: Yes, indeed. Prime Minister, we very much hope you will come and visit us in person when circumstances permit.

PM: I look forward to that. It would mean that the world is no longer so topsy-turvy anymore. Thank you.

Top photo by Ministry of Communications and Information