04 Aug 2009



Minister: Thank you all for coming to the Foreign Ministry. I welcome all of you to Singapore, and hope that your visit here will be useful. Our objective is to promote greater understanding between the Middle East and ASEAN countries. Just three weeks ago, we had a very good first ASEAN-GCC Foreign Ministers meeting in Bahrain. It was a great success. And the next meeting will be held in Singapore next year. We're delighted to play host. We're looking forward to it. And if you look at the bilateral account between ASEAN and GCC, it is growing and can only move in one direction in the coming years. Between Singapore and the GCC, we signed a Free Trade Agreement a few months ago, and we're now talking about the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement between ASEAN and the GCC in the near future. This may now be an important subject of discussion between the Ministers. So if I may now open the floor to you and I will try to take your questions as best I can.

Who will like to start first?

Question: Thank you, my name is Karaniya, from Indonesia. I have two questions: The first one, please give us roughly the progress of the two agreements between Singapore and Indonesia, i.e. the defence agreement and the extradition agreement. And second one, a bomb again just hit Jakarta and we know that three countries will have quite a problem in dealing with the terrorist network, the Jemaah Islamiyah.

Question: On the Extradition Treaty and Defence Cooperation Agreement, we had many rounds of negotiations and eventually, last year, after a whole day of negotiations, here in the Foreign Ministry, between Ministers and Panglimas on both sides, we finally achieved agreement. We signed, we hugged each other, then the following week there was a celebration in Bali involving President SBY and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, followed by a karaoke session. Subsequently, we were told that the agreement was incomplete because of the opposition from the DPR. Singapore is comfortable with talking about the elaborations of an agreement, and how we should implement it. But it's very difficult for Singapore to accept that we did not have an agreement, because if there were no agreement, why did we celebrate? But because this became an issue on the Indonesian side, between Pak Hassan and myself, we agreed to set it aside for the time being and not let it affect our much larger bilateral account, and that's where we're at. As for the problem of terrorism, as we know the terrorists work across borders. In fact, borders mean nothing to them. It's therefore very important on our side that our security and intelligence agencies work closely together, and they are. And it's because they work very closely together that we've been able to achieve some important successes, and keep the terrorists on the run. From time to time, they may still succeed in letting off bombs and killing people, but I believe that with good cooperation, particularly among Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, we will able to keep them on the run. But this is a long term problem which we've got to look at it in a long term way.

Question: Le Quoc Minh from Vietnam. I have 2 questions. One, the first one is that US and other developed countries now push for protectionism to save their economies. So what should trade-dependent Asia-Pacific nations such as Singapore or Thailand or Vietnam do when they see their exports slump? And second one, do you think the 42-year-old ASEAN can help set the future for Asia?

Minister: The first question about protectionism, it is a concern for all of us. In the economic downturn, as jobs are lost, as companies go bankrupt, there will always be domestic political pressure to protect [domestic industries] in order to ameliorate [their] immediate pain. But as we know, protectionism leads to more protectionism. Eventually, it can roll back the wheels of the global trading agenda. And that's very bad. So it's very important that we keep pushing forward the Doha agenda, and work for its early conclusion. Within the Pacific, we should work on multiple initiatives to widen the circles of free trade. Within ASEAN itself, we are hoping to determine a way towards creating an ASEAN community in 2015. Then ASEAN+1 Free Trade Agreements with China, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, the GCC, then the ASEAN+3 FTA, ASEAN+6 FTA, and we're talking about the free trade area in the Asia Pacific --- so it's all multiple overlapping initiatives to keep the global free trade agenda moving forward. It is very important to do this, because if we let up, if we become complacent, then the domestic political pressure can become overwhelming, and that will be very dangerous.

On your second question about the effectiveness of ASEAN after 42 years, I believe that's your question. In fact, while we may be impatient about ASEAN progress from year to year, if we take five-year snapshots, ASEAN has made great progress. At the least, it has kept the peace in Southeast Asia. And without peace, there's no possibility of development. There are problems from time to time naturally, like Myanmar, like the border problems between Thailand and Cambodia, but by and large Southeast Asia remains peaceful. We are in consultation and when crisis erupt from time to time, like the Asian financial crisis, like SARS, like the tsunami or Cyclone Nargis, we become stronger as we come together in order to address these problems together. So looking ahead, we've got the ASEAN Charter now. We're working on the implementation. At Phuket recently, we agreed on the inter-governmental human rights commission for ASEAN, we're settling the details of the disputes settlement mechanism, and pressing on with creating a community by 2015. And in the meantime, bring the idea of ASEAN down to the younger generation so that they internalise in themselves the sense of ASEAN citizenship and develop an affection for the entire region. This is something that we must strive to do.

Question: Thank you Minister. You mentioned you had a meeting with GCC countries and you're going to have another one. Could you please highlight the milestone of this relation between your country and GCC countries?

Minister: We agreed that the first meeting was a very important one, it established a sense of friendship, or bonding. We met in New York, but in New York there are so many meetings, and people are very business-like, they're rushing in and out. But at Manama, somehow the balmy air got everybody to relax, and we were talking in a frank way. At coffee breaks, cigars were passed around, we were in a glass gazebo by the sea. And it may seem cavalier for me to talk about these softer aspects of diplomacy, but they're important because in the end, we're talking about human beings. And a few ministers on the GCC side said, "You know, when we came here we never expected the meeting to amount to much." But when it ended, everyone felt good about it and we were determined that the next meeting should be held a year from now, and after that maybe once every two years.

We are forming working groups to look at the FTA, to look at other aspects of economic cooperation and to look at wider issues. And, in a practical way, where we can cooperate to our mutual benefit, let us do so. And it's not as if we're just discovering each other for the first time. We talked about how the sea was the original Internet, that anybody who reached the sea was able by boat to reach any part of the world. And looking back over the centuries, we've always been linked together by the maritime silk route, the Gulf Cooperation Council states and the Southeast Asian countries, sailing the monsoons and looking ahead. All the GCC countries are looking eastward. King Abdullah, on his first overseas visit, chose in a very symbolic way to visit China, India and Malaysia --- sending a signal to his people and to us -- that Asia was going to become much more important to Saudi Arabia. And I believe the same is for all the other GCC countries. So this is something that we're now working on, the process has begun and I think it can only lead to greater friendship and cooperation between the two sides.

Question: Your Excellency, thank you for this opportunity. Singapore has an increasing interest in building better and stronger relations with the Middle-East as a whole. Could you please share with us more quotes, from the view of Singapore, why is it important for your country to have stronger relations with the Middle East in general?

Minister: Because it's in our interest and more profoundly, it's in our blood. There are various numbers, but there are at least 2 million ASEAN citizens of Arab descent in Southeast Asia, and for many of them, Singapore has been a historical centre. When Sir Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading post for the British East India Company, he administered Singapore from Calcutta. Before that, during the Napoleonic wars, the British occupied Java. And he noticed, when he was Governor of Java, that in all the major towns there were Arab communities, mostly Hadhrami, and they were the ones who moved the wheels of commerce in the region. So when he established Singapore in 1819, one of the first things he did was to invite a Hadhrami family from Palembang in Sumatra to settle in Singapore --- a man by the name of Syed Omar Aljunied. And the oldest mosque in Singapore today is called the Omar mosque, and my political constituency today is named after him --- Aljunied constituency. When I visited the Hadhramaut three years ago, the Governor of Hadhramaut is a great great great grand-nephew of Syed Omar Aljunied --- Syed Junied Aljunied. So these are all links going back a long time. When I went to Tarim, to Shibam, to Seiyun, so many of the houses were built by money, repatriated from Singapore. That's why we have in Singapore an Arab quarter. There's a Muscat Street, which the Omani government now wants to refurbish. There was a few years ago, an important Tang dynasty wreck which was found in the water south of Singapore, and the Arab dhow which carried the Tang treasures over 1000 years ago is being rebuilt and will be sailed from Oman to Singapore as a personal gift by Sultan Qaboos. So we're not doing something new. There's Arab blood, there's Arab history, Arab inheritance here, many wakafs were Arab in origin, and that's why I said it's not only in our interest, it's in our blood.

Question: Your Excellency, I mean in the Middle East now, at present, is a volatile area. There are many conflicts, there are instability, do you feel concern that Singapore might be involved somehow, in one way or another, in any of the conflicts that are going on?

Minister: Singapore getting involved in your conflicts? God forbid.


Question: No, no, no. Are you concerned that all the relations between Singapore and Middle Eastern countries are not going to exceed certain limits of friendship and bilateral relations?

Minister: No, we accept the Middle East for what it is, not as we wish it to be. So we work with the realities of the region. There are certain conflicts like that in Palestine which are not easily resolved. We have good relations with both the Palestinian government and with Israel. We maintain good relations with both but we know that it is not easy to resolve those conflicts. But where it is possible for us to trade and to be partners with, we try to do so. So we take a very realistic view, we don't take sides, we are not Americans or Europeans wanting to tell you what to do because that is not within our capabilities, nor is it our wish and we hope that you will accept us for who we are too. And let us stress on the points of commonality between us and seek areas where we can cooperate to further our mutual interests. That is the basis on which we would like to see this relationship grow.

I was just in Syria for the first time, a couple of weeks ago. [It was a] wonderful visit and the first time a Singapore Foreign Minister has been to Syria. We only established diplomatic relations a year before that and we hope that in the coming years even relations with countries like Syria, which has got fewer links with the region, will grow.

Question: Sir, I was struck by what you said about developing affection for ASEAN, being an ASEAN citizen. That idea seems far from us. So how do you move this forward in Singapore? We don't read each other's books, we don't watch each other's movies, we don't listen to each other's music. So how can we have more affection for ASEAN?

Minister: Compared to ten years ago, I think we have travelled some way. You take, say, Singapore. Singapore is the most ASEAN-ised of all the ASEAN countries. All the other nine countries have significant populations in Singapore, either working here or studying here. A number have married Singaporeans. Last week when we gave out new citizenships, a number were from the Philippines, some from Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia. So even as I was congratulating them and taking photographs, I thought it is interesting how we are becoming a kind of an ASEAN in miniature, within Singapore itself, which is a small place. I believe that what's happening here will eventually spread to all the capital cities. It will take time, of course, but these are human links. In the end, it is journalists knowing one another, students knowing one another, young people falling in love, appreciating each other's music and cultural forms, travelling, seeing places, seeing commonalities in their histories and then saying yes, this is our region and this is where we belong. It is not just Luzon or Mindanao, it is also the Peninsula and Sumatra and mainland Southeast Asia. Little by little, I think we will get there. People are travelling much more now. Certainly among ministers, there is a much greater familiarity and also among policy thinkers, academics. And if you look at the flow of students, because that is always the harbinger of things to come, the trends are very positive.

I must say I went down this morning to sign the condolence book for Cory at the [Philippines] Ambassador's residence here. I wore a yellow tie which my Protocol officers frowned on. I said, "No, this is in special remembrance of Cory," and I think the Ambassador appreciated it. So I said, with deepest condolences from the people and government of Singapore to the people and government of the Philippines because she, by restoring freedom and democracy to the Philippines, has inspired others in the region and that is something precious. We can identify with her in a way which is harder for us to identify with people from further away.

Question: I have a question. You mentioned ASEAN and Myanmar. What do you think ASEAN can do more, particularly for Aung San Suu Kyi?

Minister: The development of a country depends primarily on its own internal dynamics. Nobody can interfere in a society and try to alter its internal dynamics, so the Myanmar people in the end will have to resolve their own political evolution and it will take time. It is not easy. They were once a part of the British Raj. They did not want to join the Indian Union when they became independent. They developed certain xenophobic tendencies and expelled the Indians and the Chinese when Ne Win came to power. Then, there were internal disputes with armed insurrection by many ethnic groups and the armed forces became the dominant institution in the country and the Burmese road to socialism led nowhere. So there is an attempt now to find a different way to the future but it is not easy. So it is not as if there is a single issue which determines the course of Myanmar history. It is complicated, as is the history of all countries. The histories of different countries are complicated. We have clear positions regarding Myanmar's road to democracy. We have clear positions calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. We would like to see the coming elections next year as being free and fair, which the Myanmar government assures us will be. We are opposed to sanctions. We feel that engagement is a better policy, as it gives us more leverage. Western sanctions have not worked and cannot work for as long as the Chinese and Indian borders remain open, and so on. So I am not sure what is your question, whether you think we should interfere in Myanmar?

Question: ASEAN statements several times would say that we support Aung San Suu Kyi but she is still under detention.

Minister: But we can't do more. It is not possible to do more. We are not going to invade Myanmar. So there is a limit to what we can do. Someone said you can only bark but you have no bite, and that is absolutely true. But a tongue can sometimes be very dangerous.

Question: Is it fair that it is possible to kick Burma out? At least for the time being.

Minister: Well, let us think about it. Is it in our interest to expel Myanmar? Let us say, as a theoretical exercise, Myanmar is a buffer state between China and India. It has got long borders with both. And if Myanmar were not in ASEAN, then I believe both China and India will have to take a much closer interest in Myanmar, each in its own self defence. Each would then have clients within the country and if China and India are dragged in, I believe in the end, others will be dragged in and we will be dragged in too. So in an interesting way, all the major powers have concluded that they are all better off by Myanmar remaining in ASEAN. Therefore, it is not in ASEAN's interest to have Myanmar out and the Myanmar government has long come to the conclusion that despite being repeatedly criticised in ASEAN, they are still better off remaining a member of ASEAN. That is the position.

Question: Thank you. I am from Laos, Vientiane Times. I have a question. As far as I know, development gaps in ASEAN are a big problem. There are rich and poor countries in ASEAN and ASEAN has been talking about this matter for many years and I would like to ask you what should be done in order to increase efforts to narrow down the development gaps within ASEAN?

Minister: Many things are being done and the results have been not bad at all. We take this economic downturn for example. When the economies of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are contracting, the economies of mainland Southeast Asia are still registering strong positive growth in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, maybe even in Myanmar, although the statistics there are not very clear. There is the IAI, the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, which is a very important programme in ASEAN. And at our recent meeting in Phuket, we spent some time discussing what we see to be a subject of growing importance, which is connectivity. China is building infrastructure of world class standards. India is not far behind. When I met the Indian transport minister Kamal Nath recently, he told me that India will soon have the world's biggest highway construction programme.

On one side we have China, and on the other side, India with fast improving infrastructure. If we can improve our own infrastructure correspondingly, then we will be well-linked to China, we will be well-linked to India. And through us they will be well-linked to each other by road, by rail, through open skies, through ships, rivers, through electronic links. And that is the best way to equalize, to close the gap in development. Every time you build a road into the countryside, you connect villages to cities; people travel, investments flow, the prices of factors of production equalize. That is the best way to bring development in addition to capacity building, education and so on. This is something we are now looking at in a very serious way and I hope that in the coming months, we can prepare things to the point where the leaders can announce at the East Asia Summit a work program for ourselves in enhancing the connectivity of ASEAN, so that ASEAN will help integrate the whole of Asia. For a country like Laos, this is particularly important.

Q: Thank you Mr George Yeo. I am Mohammed Yahya from Dubai, UAE. I think that you have very good relations with the UAE. I remember your visit last May. I think that you have very good relations with this country. I want to focus on this good relations and ask about the investment that you are looking (for) from this country especially, and in the GCC in general. This is one question. Another question about the global crisis. I want to know if the Government of Singapore has any initiative to solve this crisis? Thank you.

Minister: Your second question is a very big one. The first question, I think there is a lot of scope for greater cooperation between the GCC countries as a group and individually with Singapore. I am from the Harvard Business School and some years ago, my professors told me that every time they conducted courses in the Gulf, there will always be an insistence from the Gulf countries that the Singapore cases be included. They told me - Warren McFarlane with Dick Vietor and others - they told me that there was a great fascination about the Singapore model of development in the Gulf countries, later I found out even in Libya, more than we realise ourselves. In the case of Mohammed Al Abbar, he spent years in Singapore so he knows us inside out and I think he has recruited many Singaporeans. And this has created a lot of goodwill for Singapore. Problem was after September 11, security became a dominant consideration for us and it was sometimes at the expense of our economic links. But after two years, we found our balance and then we started building up our links with all the Gulf states. In the last three years, there has been a great flurry of activities between the two sides, exchange of very high level visits and growth in the economic accounts, both on the investment side and on the trade side. There have been many requests to study what Singapore has done in education, healthcare, water management, public administration, and where we can be helpful to the Gulf states in our own modest way --- because Singapore has very different circumstances --- we try to be. But it really cheered me when [Saudi] Crown Prince Sultan visited us in Singapore in 2006. He indicated an interest to send large number of Saudi students to Singapore and we really welcomed the idea. Of course, it is not easy because there are a certain cultural mismatch and language barriers and so on, but we have started and I hope that eventually there could be a great two-way flow of our people. Once our people know each other, the cultural differences are more appreciated when you do business. I think it fits the agenda of the Gulf countries very well because you are not always very well treated in the West. And I think you find in the East, growth opportunities which you had not looked at before and which you are now looking at with the greatest interest. Singapore hopes that we can partner some of the investors from the Middle East, in China, India and elsewhere. Malaysia and Indonesia too.

D/ME: The second question on economic crisis.

Minister: Why, I was hoping to avoid that question because it is too big. The G20 countries and their meetings - we naturally support this process. We have a particular interest in financial restructuring because of Singapore's own role in the international financial system. But generally speaking, we support free trade, we support a sounder restructuring of the global financial industry, but one which doesn't lead to government interfering in all aspects of economic life. So a sensible balance must be struck between regulations and letting the market operate its magic.

Question: I am Zeya from Myanmar. I thank you, Your Excellency, for your answers. What I would like to know is about ASEAN. What is the role of ASEAN in creating this so called East Asian community or the integration of Asia?

Minister: I think there are many aspects. There is a political aspect where ASEAN is at the core. We have different groupings in widening circles, the ASEAN+1 relationship, ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6, ASEAN-GCC, and so on. Through these various mechanisms, we bring others together using the ASEAN platform as a neutral platform. ASEAN's strength resides in its weakness. We don't have aircraft carriers, ICBMs or cruise missiles so we don't threaten anybody. So no one worries about being a friend of ASEAN. For some time now, the leaders of China, Japan and Korea would meet on the sidelines of ASEAN meetings. It is only recently that they had their own first meeting in Japan. But before that, they made use of our facility. We have good friends with the Americans, Europeans, Indians. Even North Koreans come here for our ARF meeting. So that puts us in a very good position of helping to integrate Asia politically in a soft way. And in a way which is not exclusive, which makes the Americans and Europeans equally relaxed about what we're trying to do.

If you look at the economic aspects, I talked about connectivity earlier, and if you look at the cross patterns of trade and investments and all the free trade initiatives taking place, we are now embedded in a World Wide Web and one which makes us an important dense network for connectivity to China, to India, to the West --- and very often through us, very often to link to one another, making use of the fact that we're a neutral platform. But the most important aspect of integration is longer term integration, which is people knowing one another, respecting different systems, values, cultural mores, and this is something which requires a lot of work among young people. I hope that one day young Asians can travel all over the region the way young Europeans are able to using Eurorail, or InterRail, or in America using Greyhound. Then before they marry and settle down they would have seen all parts of the region, developed friendships, then in their working lives when they've got to work with people from another country, there is a thick layer of understanding already there. That is really what we want to achieve. It will take time, but it's coming along. I think there is a very good chance that if ASEAN plays its role well, that will help to make this a very peaceful century for all of Asia.

Question: Hello, first of all thank you very much for this programme, really it is admirable. I mean what you're doing to enhance friendship. I am Nadine Hani from Al Arabiya News Channel, we are a pan-Arab news channel and based in Dubai. My first question is, I loved your description of the meeting in Bahrain because you know we always see it on TV the relaxed environment, the cigars, but no one has described it in such a way like you did today. But really in a relaxed environment, this is where business is done. Were there any specific business projects discussed in that meeting, especially that the Gulf has the competitive edge in the oil industry and governments basically are responsible for the oil industry? Are there any possible collaborations in that sense? And the second question. I've been reading the business headlines in the last couple of weeks and I can tell you that almost in every two or three bulletins we have a headline about protectionist measures against Saudi Arabian petrochemical products from India and China. I don't know if you've heard about it. Apparently there are anti-dumping lawsuits against petrochemical products and there is a big, now, public outcry against that in the Arab world. Are you aware that since SABIC has a major office here and plans also in Singapore, is there a role to be played there in that area?

Minister: At Manama when the GCC-ASEAN Foreign Ministers met, we did not talk much about oil and gas, except in the context of both sides cooperating to achieve food and energy security. ASEAN has a food surplus, the GCC countries have an energy surplus. And if we can help each other assure the stability of supply, that is a form of mutual risk diversification, risk lowering, which will be of mutual benefit. But otherwise, oil and gas are obvious sectors which we didn't want to spend too much time on. We were hoping to explore other areas apart from oil and gas. As for the petrochemical industry of Saudi Arabia, the problem is this: Saudi Arabia provides cheap feedstock to petrochemical companies. We know it because we are competing for the same investments. And we're not able to provide cheap feedstock because we are not an energy producer, but Saudi Arabia was able to put cheap feedstock on the table. But this may contravene WTO rules and may trigger anti-dumping action on the part of other producers. In fact, Singapore could be an interested party as well. From the viewpoint of the consumer, naturally we welcome subsidies. I mean if you want to subsidise my plastics, that's wonderful; if you want to subsidise my cheeses, that's wonderful. But if there are domestic producers, their interests will be affected and therefore, so long as you work within WTO rules, we should let due process take its course.

Question: Let me just point out one small thing that the value of the damage, if you quantify the damage done from the low prices that you call a dumping crisis of Saudi Arabia, versus the damage that could be done by this negative friction now that is there, because if you monitor the Arab media, how this has been dealt with, there is huge rage from the actions of China and India. If you look at the cost of that, I mean the material cost is so small but the damage done --- especially if you mention that we are looking to China and India as growth regions, I just wanted to point out the percentage of outrage that is there from these measures and whether it is worth it to do those actions right now, those anti-dumping laws and to impose tariffs, and whether the cost would be much bigger later on?

Minister: The WTO is a very civilised process for resolving trade disputes. In the old days, if we had trade disputes, we may end up going to war. Today, if we have trade disputes, the rules require you first to have consultations. Then you seek mediation and if you cannot [settle], then in the end it goes to a dispute settlement panel, where independent parties would evaluate the opposing cases and if there are damages, calculate the actual damages, make judgments and make awards. So to me, that is a very civilised way of depoliticising trade which is in the long term interest of both Saudi Arabia, China and India. And even though in the short term, people who do not understand trade regulations may get upset, I think it is best that we tell them, look, these are for professionals to deal with, and let this go through the due process. In the long term, these due processes are good for us. Because the shoe may be on the other foot, there may be times when Saudi Arabia is on the offensive, when others oppose your investments for reasons which are specious, then you can also take it up within international rules and say look, hang on, let us not politicise this, what did the rules say? So this is a process which benefits all parties.

Question: I am from the Philippines. When the ASEAN Charter was signed two years ago, there were expectations especially from the West, that it would help address the problem of Myanmar, is that a fair expectation? And my second question is, you said earlier that it is not possible to do more with regards to the Myanmar issue, so can we take it to mean that ASEAN has done everything it can? And we are just leaving this whole matter to the Myanmar people to resolve since it is an internal matter?

Minister: No, we have some influence, but we must be realistic in the influence that we are able to wield. What can we do? Can we use force? That would not be wise. Can we use trade sanctions? Well, the Europeans and the Americans have done their worst and it has not worked. Can we criticise? Yes, we have done. Should we engage? Some people say yes, some people say no. We have decided, on balance, that with engagement, there is leverage that we can have some influence over the process. And that is how it is. I mean, it is not as if we either do nothing, or we do everything. The reality is much more complex and it is somewhere in between. And we try our best to influence outcomes there. When there was a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in September 07, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers were at the UN at that time and we met and issued a statement expressing our revulsion. After Cyclone Nargis, we met again. There was a standoff between the Myanmar authorities and the international aid agencies. So we interposed ourselves, aid flowed in, we helped to prevent a second wave of deaths from disease and from famine. So we engage, we also admonish, we can't force, neither can we be disinterested.

Question: So ASEAN is comfortable with this kind of action? Will it eventually lead to...

Minister: No, we are not comfortable at all. We are always unhappy but we have to work within what is possible.

Question: Sir, so is it fair for the West to gauge the efficacy of the ASEAN Charter on its ability to resolve the issue in Myanmar?

Minister: The ASEAN Charter is much more than a single issue, and the most important aspect of the ASEAN Charter is what it does for us, for citizens of ASEAN. I mean, yes, the regard of others is important to us, but what matters the most is whether the ASEAN Charter serves our own interests. That is the single most important test of the success of the ASEAN Charter.

Question: I'm from Myanmar. Your Excellency, first of the questions I would like to know is what do you think about the progress of Myanmar having elections in 2010? And the second is, after the elections in 2010, whether economic investments from Singapore will be increased there based on the situation or not?

Minister: We are encouraged by repeated statements from Naypyidaw that the 2010 elections would be free and fair. And that the Myanmar government is determined to reach stage seven of the Seven Point Road Map to Democracy. So we see all this as a step forward. The present trial of Aung Sang Suu Kyi is a problem because even though it is a domestic issue, as my Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong put it, "it is a domestic issue with an international dimension". And it will affect how the world deals with Myanmar. And Myanmar cannot ignore the rest of the world because without globalisation, a country is very limited in its ability to uplift the livelihoods of its own people. It was only after China decided to globalise that it was able to transform its economy and move onto this new path of development. There is no way that Myanmar, embarking on its new road to the future --- whether it is a capitalist road or socialist road --- can get anywhere unless it is connected to the rest of the world. So this it must do and because of that, it has to take into account the views of others. It cannot ignore them, Even though we recognise that you have your own judicial process and your own judicial process must be allowed to take its own course. That is how we view it. Now, as for greater Singaporean engagement in Myanmar, now that depends on the policies. If the country frees up the economy and there are more opportunities for trade and investment, I am sure more Singapore investors will look at it. But political stability will always be uppermost [factor] when businessmen make their decisions. And the more quickly Myanmar can become a constitutional democracy, I think the more assured the businessmen will be.

Question: Apart from a lot of progress that we have in ASEAN, I myself sometimes am also concerned, as a matter of fact, that we have a lot of problems. We say that we have signed a proposal on human rights, but the problem in ASEAN is not only Suu Kyi. Look at the Rohingya coming to Malaysia and Thailand, do you accept that? They just do not accept them, the Rohingya. Look at the current refugees, they went to Thailand. We do not talk much to the junta in Myanmar. We say 'our brother', so there is a lot of contradiction. Other issues between countries --- look at Thailand and Cambodia just because of the temple; and Indonesia and Malaysia just because of Ambalat, a tiny island; and look at Indonesia and Singapore about extradition. These problems cannot be solved even within the ASEAN corridor. I see ASEAN actually in danger. What do you think about it?

Minister: You listed many problems, but that is in the nature of life. There are always conflicts. That has been the story of human history. It is not just in Southeast Asia. In fact if you look at other regions in the world, I mean, look at the Middle East. Our problems are nothing compared to theirs. [Laughter] So it is all a matter of proportion, a matter of degree. We have not done too badly. The Rohingya problem has been repeatedly discussed in ASEAN. The temple issue has been discussed. So far, it has quietened down. It remains a festering point between the two countries but it has quietened down. From time to time there would be other issues. Ambalat, I am not sure that it is a small issue because there could be a lot of oil and gas below. We have competing claims in the South China Sea as well.

Question: May I add one thing, Is it because ASEAN is in a leadership crisis?

Minister: I think we have to ask ourselves: Are these problems made less or aggravated by ASEAN? I would say in every item that you have listed the existence of ASEAN has made the problem less acute and less sharp. Without ASEAN, all those problems would be worse. So to that extent, ASEAN adds value even though by not as much as you and I would have wished.

Question: If my understanding is correct you have visited Yemen. Correct?

Minster: Yes.

Question: Could you please share with us some of your experiences and thoughts on a personal level. What was the most interesting for you to see there? What was your favourite dish to eat? Some of your personal experiences and when was that visit?

Minister: That was about three years ago, or rather, slightly over two years ago.

Question: Could you please share with us your experiences from that visit? If there is something that you kept for yourself?

Minister: We were visiting relatives because I went there with the members of the Arab Association in Singapore. And many of them have close relatives in Yemen, in the towns and valleys. The Singapore Mufti, I met his brother or his cousin. Habib Hassan from the Alwi mosque, I met his brother. When we had lunch in Tarim, the food tasted like Indonesian food. We had sambal belacan and keropok. The people there wear batik sarongs. I do not know whether you know what sarongs. The reason is because of the long historical contact between Arabia and Southeast Asia. Traders who went back and forth, many making money in Southeast Asia and sending it back to Yemen. Today, many families there getting monthly pensions, monthly allowances because of trust deeds executed in Southeast Asia till today. And do you know that the road from Mukalla to Tarim was built by Singaporeans, by the Alkaffs. The first motor car in Tarim was exported from Singapore to Mukalla, dismantled, carried by pack camels to Tarim and reassembled in Tarim, complete with a Singapore number plate. I saw a photograph when I was there.

I was there only for two days. On the second day when I left, it started to rain. Can you believe it? In that arid wadi it started to rain. When I came back they sent me pictures of the place in flood, and they say it was blessings (from the visit). So it was a good visit. I dare not go back because it is not going to rain again. Unfortunately last year, they did have a lot of rain and it lead to great floods and people died. Here in Singapore we raised money, we sent a team back, we helped in the rehabilitation work, and so on. But the links are very close, familiar links even though Wadi Hadhramaut is a desperately poor place, which is very sad to see actually because they are a talented people that deserve better.

Concluding remarks

Minister: I only hope that among us here we can help each in his own way to sow more threads linking the two sides closer together. I talked about the Ministerial meeting next year and there will be an Asia-Middle East Media Roundtable on 6 Aug, which I think many of you will be participating in. In your own way, through your reflections just write about this. I believe it will all be to the good. There is nothing negative in this, it will only be pluses. If we can add up the pluses in the end it will lead to jobs, opportunities for our people and that is something worth doing. Thank you for coming.

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