LEE HSIEN LOONG: OUR LEADERS HAVE REALISTIC SALARIES, NOT HIGH SALARIES

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated that Singapore would like to be a conduit for a Maritime Silk Road, mooted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a half-hour interview with Yang Lan on Beijing Satellite TV that was broadcast on Monday (Nov 10), he said the world is watching China’s anti-corruption drive as it could be a tremendous boost to its development and stability, and described it as an admirable effort.

He also addressed the notion of clean government in Singapore. He said it is not about high salaries, but ones that are “realistic and correct”, in order to find the right people who are “most capable”, and “most trustworthy”.

Here are some excerpts from Mr Lee’s interview, aired while the Prime Minister is in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit.

ON REGIONAL COOPERATION

Q: In the Asia-Pacific region, there are many bilateral, multi-lateral, regional and sub-regional trade agreements and mechanisms of cooperation. For example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is supported by the United States, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which China is involved in. Do you think there is an element of competition between these two groupings?

A: Of course there is some element of competition and overlapping, but that cannot be helped. Because the most ideal way to cooperate is to do so on a global basis, which involves all economies. It becomes a multi-lateral agreement, such as through the Doha Round of negotiations. But the Doha Round involves many countries, so it becomes difficult to reach an agreement. In the Asia-Pacific region, we hope that if fewer countries are involved, that makes it less difficult and we can get things done faster.

So for APEC, we have a voluntary method of cooperation, and we have already made some progress. The TPP and RCEP are both recognised as pathways to achieve free trade in the Asia-Pacific. Our economies are in different stages of development, and our different mechanisms for cooperation need to adapt to these realities.

Q: One reality is that Singapore is very much involved in these various trade agreements and cooperation mechanisms. How does this reflect Singapore’s view of itself? What does globalisation mean to Singapore?

A: We have no choice. We are a very small country, with a very open economy. If we are not outward-looking, then we have no way to go. In countries such as China, the US, and Japan, the domestic economy is already huge, the domestic demand is sufficient. We do not have that – if we rely on domestic demand to boost manufacturing, I think very few companies will come to Singapore. If we rely on our own farming to supply all our food, then I think we will starve. So we have to look outwards. If there is an opportunity, we will try our best to take part in these negotiations for free trade agreements, and try our best to cooperate with other countries, to deepen our relationships; enhance our mutually beneficial work.

THE NEW MARITIME SILK ROAD

Q: President Xi Jinping has proposed the idea of developing a new Maritime Silk Road. In such a scenario, for the relevant economies, in terms of infrastructure – including information networks and the internet, and other network systems – there can be improvements. Does Singapore see an opportunity and role for itself in such a scenario?

A: The idea of a Maritime Silk Road – it can deepen our cooperation with neighbouring countries, and strengthen, especially, trade and investment from China and its neighbouring countries. So of course, we hope that some of these services can be supplied through Singapore’s port, airport and networks.

MAINTAINING INTEGRITY IN GOVERNMENT

Q: Economic reform, the creative economy, and urbanisation are some of the topics up for discussion at APEC. Another important theme is anti-corruption. What are your views on the relationship between anti-corruption measures and economic development? In the past, people have viewed this as a political issue and a social issue.

A: In the long term, anti-corruption measures are necessary for economic development. In Singapore, we feel anti-corruption is very important. Since the People’s Action Party became the ruling party, its 55 years – we have always stood firm on maintaining a clean and corruption-free Government. Of course, sometimes some people may break the rules, or break the law. No matter who is involved, we deal with this very strictly according to law. So I admire Mr Xi’s anti-corruption drive in China.

Q: So you have been paying attention to the anti-corruption drive?

A: I think the whole world is paying attention. Because if China can succeed in this, I think it will be a tremendous boost to China’s development and stability.

Q: In China, particularly at the government level, the topic of Singapore’s clean government is often discussed. But very often people attribute its success to high salaries for office-holders. Do you think it is that simple?

A: I think the topic of high salaries can cause a sharp reaction. In principle, we are not talking about high salaries, what we want are realistic and correct salaries. We want talent, we want morally upright people, and we want the right people for the right jobs. The most important job must be done by the most capable, the most trustworthy person. If we want the services of such capable and trustworthy people, then we must treat them fairly and equally. We must have a practical system – a realistic salary.

At the same time our requirements are strict – your performance must be good. Legally, you absolutely cannot do anything you are not supposed to do, and if that happens, you will be punished under the law, and the punishment will be severe. So this is not just a question of salaries, it is also a matter of the system, an issue of transparency, and our whole culture.

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