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AR: Anjali Rao
AR: Hello I'm Anjali Rao in Singapore. With me today is the country's Prime Minister lee Hsien Loong. This is Talk Asia!
Lee Hsien Loong may only have been at the top of Singapore's political heap since 2004, but he's been in training for the job all his life.
LHL: I did feel a sense of responsibility that if I can do it, it is my responsibility to try and give it my best shot.
AR: As the eldest son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, the younger Lee has had to contend with skepticism over his abilities and criticism over his policies.
LHL: You rise on merit, you're judged on your performance and your family connections do not add, in fact sometimes they subtract from what you are able to do.
AR: From fighting with activists over freedom of speech, to national debate on whether he's compromising Singapore's morals, Lee deals with public battles as he does everything else, under a great big microscope!
AR: Prime Minister, welcome to Talk Asia. First of all let's talk about your dad. Lee Kuan Yew is still very much an icon here, having transformed this country from a sleepy Asian backwater to what it is today. What's it like for you having to fill boots that big?
LHL: Well, I think it's a challenging responsibility. That my father was once PM and the founder of the country, makes it more challenging because people make the comparison. But even without that, to run a country -- small, needing to remain supple, needing to move faster than others and stay ahead -- is a tremendous experience.
AR: Your father had a very definite way of governing, didn't he? It was very much no-nonsense and uncompromising as well, some would say. How does your style differ?
LHL: I don't spend time introspecting about my style. I do what I need to do. I'm myself, I'm different from my father, I'm a different personality, in a different period, with a different population who have grown up during a time of stability and prosperity and progress and who want to improve their lives and who want to participate in making Singapore better. And I think I'm working with them!
AR: Far from fading into political obscurity though your father is still a minister in your government, minister mentor, to be precise about his title how much influence does he have over you and also the decisions that you make?
LHL: We listen to him very carefully of course because he has tremendous experience, which he brings to bear and he keeps himself current on what's going on in Singapore, what's happening overseas. But when it comes to deciding on policies, finally, my team and I, we have to decide because we have to settle the direction to go. And having decided it, we have to carry the people, and persuade them and make it work.
AR: Because some have said that as long as he remains in your cabinet, he's the one who's really pulling the strings!
LHL: (laughs) There's no end to this argument. Finally people have to look at me and decide whether I'm speaking for myself or there's a little earphone giving me instructions from somewhere
AR: Well, not only are the Lees at the top of the political tree, your brother is head of SingTel, that's the country's largest telecommunications company, your wife is head of Temasek, the multi-multi billion dollar investment arm of the government. Do you think that in any democracy, having one family in such prominence is really healthy?
LHL: I don't think you can look at it on the basis of should one family be in so many places. The question is why are they there, how did they get there? Who selected them and are they performing?
AR - Can you understand though how others might look at the situation and wonder exactly where the meritocracy that your father so earnestly championed is?
LHL: We wouldn't be prospering if this were a family operation. No matter how talented the family is. Singapore only works because it's a meritocracy and people know it. You rise on merit, you're judged on your performance and your family connections do not add, in fact sometimes they subtract from what you are able to do.
AR: In the past though, you have taken legal action, successfully, against allegations of nepotism. Why is that such a sensitive topic for your family?
LHL: Because we operate a clean system and the fundamental basis of the whole of our system is meritocracy and transparency. And if you say that we're running a nepotistic system, and all this is because of family ties, you're striking at the very fundamental root that underpins our whole system and our entire success of Singapore. And the matter has to be proven. And these are matters of fact. So if you're saying that we have nepotism, then you go to court and you prove it. And we will go to court and we will defend ourselves, and you can cross-examine us. And if you prove it and we are destroyed, that's the end of us. But if we prove our case and you are wrong, then I think we have to establish that you are wrong because otherwise there will always be a question mark. It cannot be "I say, you say, I say, you say, well we agree to disagree." On other matters we can argue till the cows come home. But on the fundamental issue like this, there has to be finality and the facts have to come out and be ascertained definitively. And the way to do that is to go to court.
AR: We're back on Talk Asia with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Prime Minister Singapore is as you well know one of Asia's wealthiest nations, but now millions are being spent building two casinos. What for, isn't that just going to put paid to so many things that this country prides?
LHL: First of all, we're not spending millions of dollars. Investors are spending millions of dollars. Secondly, we're not building a casino, we're building two integrated resorts and we're putting in each of them 4- 5 billion Singapore dollars, massive investments -- hotels, conventions, restaurants, entertainment, shops. Whole range of activities and in the middle of that, one area put aside for gambling, for a casino. Why did we do it? It was a big step. We'd resisted having casinos in Singapore for a long time. But the world changed and gradually, we also came to the realization that we also had to change.
Because if you look at the way the tourist business is growing, if you look at the way the entertainment business is growing, if you look at the way Las Vegas does its business, it's not just gambling, but it's a whole mega industry of leisure, of entertainment, of food, lifestyle. And the way Las Vegas has gone, if Asia continues on this route of growth and vibrance -- China and India -- over the next couple of decades, that is the way the business is going to go in Asia.
AR: You yourself initially said that casinos could lead to undesirable activities like money laundering, illegal money lending and organised crime. Isn't Singapore giving up the moral high ground here? What happened to those concerns that you had?
LHL: We will have to deal with these problems. Every place where you have gambling, you have the ancillary activities which are not so desirable and shady businesses, and some crime. And we will have to find ways to deal with them. As Las Vegas has found ways to deal with them.
I think we have a system in Singapore which we can keep clean, and it's much easier to do that in Singapore than in other places in Asia. And I think that's one of the reasons why the casinos want to come here. Because they want to have that cache, that they can operate in Singapore in a respectable first class jurisdiction.
AR: Singapore is a successful stable state, its ultra clean and modern plus its got among the highest GDP per head in the whole of Asia what though do you think could be done better here?
LHL: I think you have to continue to change. It's a world which is changing very rapidly, just to sustain this GDP, you have to continue to upgrade your activities because things which we are doing today, the Chinese will do tomorrow. And some of them, the Chinese are already doing today. And we have to continue to move ahead and keep on doing things which other countries cannot yet do, or which we can do better than them.
AR: What about easing up on media restrictions for a start. For you and your father are now suing the Far Eastern Economic Review for defamation and you have, in the past, taken similar actions against other foreign media outlets. Do you not think though, that if you relaxed the rules here a bit, then you can cut back on the cases?
LHL: If you look at other countries that have operated different media models, I'm not sure that they are better than Singapore. If you look at the Philippines, you look at Taiwan, or India...all kinds of stuff is published in the media. You don't know what's true, what's false, what's reliable, what's not. On every issue there is a plethora of views. Some people call that a marketplace of ideas but the result is chaos and confusion.
AR: Some people call that a democracy!
LHL: You may call it that, but the test is...is life better for the people of those countries? And I believe that life is better for Singapore where the media are accountable, where they report facts, they fully inform the population, but when it comes to deciding the direction of the country, nobody elected the media to do that. The government, or whoever is in the political arena, they have to take positions and fight that out. So if you are the newspapers, Singapore newspapers, you report the facts, and you separate news reporting from opinion making and campaigning for issues. And if you're a foreign media in Singapore, then please stay out of Singapore politics because this is Singapore politics, it's for Singaporeans.
AR: The article that you were upset about, in the FEER, is written by the editor Hugo Restall. When he spoke to CNN recently, he said that in regards to Singapore, you cant have a really flourishing financial centre when there's not the free flow of information. Doesn't that sound like a valid point?
LHL: I think that's a valid point. We have a flourishing financial centre, so how can it be that it's true that we are restricting information? We're not! Otherwise we wouldn't have all the major banks here. Otherwise we wouldn't have all the fund managers here or the hedge funds.
13:59:10 AR - But then you have an organization like Reporters without Borders and in its world press freedom index for 2005 it ranked Singapore 140 out of 167 countries, because they said that you had a complete absence of independent media, doesn't that at least give you pause for thought?
LHL: It's ridiculous! You can get all the news you want in Singapore. You want CNN it's there, CNBC, Bloomberg, you want the Herald Tribune, Time Magazine, the Economist...you name it, all the respectable journals are available in Singapore. And what is not available here is on the net. You can get all the information you want. What can you not get? I think what you cannot have, is foreign media in Singapore, playing the role that the NY Times or Washington Post want to do, and do do in the United States -- setting the agenda, pontificating on issues and really pushing politics...push and shove in the American system as very major players which the administration and congress have to take very serious account of. And we don't think that's the role of the foreign media in Singapore.
AR: The constant threat for journalists of being hauled up before the judges, doesn't that stifle even the tiniest semblance of independence here?
LHL: What do you want to say that you dare not say? Now!
AR: Absolutely nothing! I'm saying everything I want to say!
LHL: There you are! So how are you stifled?
AR: I'm not but plenty of others will say they were.
LHL: I'm glad you are a brave woman!
AR:I do want to ask you sir, about your ban on protestors in Sept 2006 for those who wanted to come in for the IMF and World Bank meetings. You did eventually relent and say that 22 of the 27 accredited demonstrators could come in, but you were still under rapid fire from both the IMF and World Bank for not letting them in in the first place? Why didn't you? Doesn't that paint Singapore in a negative light overseas?
LHL: We had no intention of having a riot in Singapore. There was a riot in Seattle, there have been very violent demonstrations even in Washington DC. There was a riot in HK last year at the WTO meeting in Dec. And we were determined that in Singapore during the IMF/World Bank meetings, we were going to have an orderly and safe situation and it was our responsibility to protect the safety of the delegates.
AR: Do you not think that protests and even political opposition show the workings of a well-oiled and vibrant democracy?
LHL: Yes I agree! I mean you can express any view that you want, you can form a political party, you can contest the elections, you can have rallies, make speeches, no trouble whatsoever. And there are parties in Singapore...we've just had a general election in May, and the opposition mounted massive rallies. In the end, the population voted, two thirds of them, two thirds of the popular vote went to the PAP. So I think to say that there are no protests, no different views in Singapore, that's not true. What we do say is that for outdoor demonstrations we have to be careful. We are a multi-racial society, the possibility of a demonstration getting out of hand and becoming a racial problem is always a possibility that we have to worry about. And today with terrorism, that's another reason why we have to take possible threats to security very seriously. But even then, if you want to make a speech and muster a crowd and pour forth, we have a Speakers Corner, there's nobody there!
AR: Yes I know! Isn't that though, because they have to go to the police to get a permit and they keep the recordings on file and you can use it in the court of law...
LHL: All you have to do is to sign your name and put your identity card number so we know who you are and go ahead!
AR: There are those with different political opinions here as you say and many of them have said "what is the point of going to Speakers Corner? It's a joke really, I mean everything that we say has got to be vetted by the Government anyway!"
LHL -- No, not at all! You can say anything you like in the Speakers Corner, but stay away from race, language and religion because those are issues that can be explosive. But otherwise, pour forth! People have tried (laughs) and some of them eventually, the audience got bored first and they got bored second (laughs).
AR: Welcome back to this edition of Talk Asia with the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Prime Minister you come from a very impressive Asian family you've also got a first class honors degree from Cambridge and now you're PM of this thriving place Singapore, yet you have been painted as aloof, humorless and generally unapproachable how do you deal with that image?
LHL: I just leave it be, I'm not worried about the image it's the reality which counts and Singaporeans know me and that's good enough.
AR: Was the Lee name ever a hindrance for you in any facet of your life?
LHL: In politics I think in the beginning its helpful because there's name recognition, you are not a stranger, people have already heard of you and they know he is Lee Kuan Yew's son, and when I first came into politics and went around from time to time you'd here parents tell their kids or kids telling their parents oh Lee Kuan Yew's son is coming but now they say Lee Hsein Loong is coming so I think after a while the name carries you that far and beyond that you're on your own, and actually beyond that my father said that if I had not been his son things would have been easier for me but that's his judgment.
AR: It hasn't always been easy for you has it and your first wife sadly passed away in 1982 shortly after she gave birth to your son, how difficult was that time for you?
LHL: It's a tough time. It's a long time ago but it happened.
AR: How much of an influence was she on your life?
LHL: Ah a great deal but I mean you can't be married to somebody for many years without it leaving a deep impression.
AR: You yourself also suffered from cancer in the 1990s, and that was something you eventually overcame, also you've had to raise a disabled son, how have the personal challenges which have been thrown at you shaped you as an individual do you think?
LHL: I think its very hard to reach middle age without having come across some rough spots along the way. I've had some and lived through them, I suppose it helps you know a little bit better who you are and what the limits are. But I don't think its so unusual, I mean these are things which happen and have happened to many people.
AR: It did seem fairly much set in stone I suppose that you would one day follow in your father's footsteps but was there ever a time when you thought you know I don't want this for myself, I don't want to go into politics and I don't want to run the country?
LHL: I don't think it was set into stone at all I mean there are three of us siblings, I was in the armed forces and went into politics later. My sister became a doctor and has remained a doctor, my brother went into the armed forces and came out and went into business, went into Singapore telecom, so we have taken different paths, nothing would persuade my brother to go into politics or my sister. But I mean it didn't go against my grain. I suppose you do or I did feel a sense of responsibility that if I can do it, it is my responsibility to try and give it my best shot.
In Singapore, the small country, if you have the possibility of doing a good job of it, I think it's your responsibility to come forward and give it a try. And that's what I tell people when I try to persuade them to come into politics. Because I'm here, my team is here but we need a team for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and we have to start looking for them now.
AR: What about your children, you've got four of them, do any of them have political aspirations or do you have aspirations for them to go into politics?
LHL: No they have to find their own path. That's the first thing which I learned, my parents were lawyers, they let us choose our own paths we all did different things, My children four of them, they are all different in their different ways and I think they all have different interests. They have to go with what they are good at and decide what they want to do with their lives and make something out of it. And they will not all do the same thing. And I don't think that they will go into politics because they happen to be my children
AR: How do you juggle Prime Ministering with coming home and being a family man. Do you have to sacrifice one for the other?
LHL: You have to keep a balance, you never completely leave your work behind because partly because you're on email and constantly in touch but also because wherever you are you are thinking about things and even if you're away on holiday or something if something pops up you have to switch on and focus and react straight away. But at the same time, if you spend all your time doing work and you have no time for family and for unwinding and keeping a balance, I think you will burn out. And that's not a good idea, and besides which family is important anyway. And we have to be there, bring up children and guide them and be friends with them as they grow up and eventually be proud of them.
AR: Prime Minister thank you so much for your time today its been a very very enjoyable thirty minutes.
LHL: Thank you.
AR: And that brings us to the end of this edition of Talk Asia thank you for joining the Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong and myself Anjali Rao we'll see you next time.