Lee Hsien Loong: Foundation laid, now for more progress

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Lee Hsien Loong sees a bright future as New Zealand and Singapore build on their friendship.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes New Zealand and Singapore can do more together. Photo / AP
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes New Zealand and Singapore can do more together. Photo / AP

The decision to set up the Asia New Zealand Foundation and to engage Asia, which New Zealand took in the mid-1990s, was wise and timely.

Asia was taking off. And indeed in the two decades since, has made tremendous progress. It is a vibrant and dynamic continent, offering many opportunities both to the countries in Asia as well as to the rest of the world. The key drivers of Asia's development of course have been China and India - opening up, reforming, liberalising, growing rapidly, having a tremendous impact on the world as they themselves benefit from globalisation and investments and trade.

Southeast Asia has also been progressing steadily. It has benefited from regional integration; it has benefited from a generally peaceful international environment; it has benefited from Asia getting on to people's mindshare, because of China and India.

In this period, New Zealand has worked systematically to strengthen its engagement with Asia.

You have been a dialogue partner with Asean for nearly 40 years. You are a member of regional groupings centred around Asean and involving Northeast Asia, India and the Pacific countries - you are in the East Asia Summit, you are in Apec, and you participate in our co-operation, in our projects together, you are part of the regional architecture. And this participation reflects New Zealand's support for an open and connected world.

Your population too is reflecting this shift in focus and emphasis, and with more immigrants from Asia, I am sure it has enhanced people-to-people links, because of families to-ing and fro-ing, (and people gaining) better mindshare and better understanding of happenings in Asia, and what it means for Asia and New Zealand.

I hope that you will continue to build on these foundations, because Asia is going to continue to move forward, to transform itself and to grow its influence internationally - not just in terms of trade, but increasingly also through cultures, through ideas, through movements of people and talent. This will open up many opportunities, and I believe the centre of gravity of the world will shift further east and in the long term, this will affect the strategic balance of power.

New Zealand will benefit from engaging Asia more broadly, notwithstanding your location in the South Pacific - it is not that far away and in today's globalised world, what happens in Asia can affect you almost instantly. I think New Zealanders increasingly understand this: the foundation does a survey every year on "Perception of Asia", and it shows that now 83 per cent of New Zealanders view Asia as being important to New Zealand's future, which I think shows that you understand what is happening.

New Zealand's relations with Singapore have progressed along with your engagement of Asia.

We are both small countries so we have to take the world as it is. And we also need to make common cause with other small countries so our voices can be heard and interests can be protected, and if possible, advanced. And we do share many interests, for example, an interest in an international order which is based on the rule of law internationally, where big and small countries can all live peacefully together and might is not right.

Therefore we work closely together in the United Nations and in informal groupings, such as the Forum of Small States and the Global Governance Group - is basically an opportunity for small countries to get together to make sure our voices are heard. As small countries, we also uphold strongly a free international trading system, because without that, we could not make a living for ourselves. We uphold regional peace and stability. And I am very happy your defence relations with the US have been on the mend, because we believe US participation and interest in the region is one major positive factor for stability, for peace and for security, for all of the countries.

Our trade and investments links are growing. New Zealand companies are in Singapore, many of them - Fonterra is there, Microbiology Lab and Beca Carter.

And Singapore companies have invested in New Zealand, especially in the hospitality sector.

Because we are familiar, you understand us. By working together, you can use us as a springboard - set up in Singapore, cover Southeast Asia or even beyond. And we are also co-operating in new areas, for example, in the creative industries. We have a co-production partnership in the film-making and creative industry. I have watched all three The Lord of the Rings movies; I look forward to The Hobbit; and I hope maybe Singapore can have a small piece the next time you make an Avatar or another blockbuster like The Lord of the Rings.

We collaborate in biomedical and life sciences. The Liggins Institute, a world leader in this field, has a joint project with the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences researching metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity.

In security, too, we have a good relationship. Our armed forces have been on deployments together on international missions - in Afghanistan, in East Timor before it became independent. We also work together in the five-power defence arrangements which New Zealand has been part of for decades. And we are grateful for the training facilities which you afford to Singapore armed forces in Waiouru, where years ago I spent three weeks. I don't remember much about Waiouru itself, but the countryside around it is beautiful. And it is very valuable to us because land and training space are something which in Singapore we desperately lack.

Our people-to-people links are warm. We are very happy right now. I think we are in an exceptional position because both your Prime Minister and your Governor-General have links with Singapore. Both have lived there - your Governor-General when he was in the armed forces, and John Key, as an investment banker for several years. And both of them have one child each born in Singapore - the Governor-General's daughter and John Key's son, Max. These are people-to-people links. These are just two people, but many other New Zealanders have such links. And we have got Singaporeans who have such ties as well. Many studied on Colombo Plan Scholarships in New Zealand from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, just as New Zealand students are now studying in Singapore under the Asia:New Zealand Foundation scholarships.

But we can still do more together. Singapore can be the hub for New Zealand to connect with Asia and the world, and New Zealand can work with Singapore, for example, to develop food products for Asians' taste. We can take advantage of the complementarities of our two countries. For example, Singapore's A*STAR, our research organisation, is keen to work with New Zealand institutes like AgResearch and Plant & Food Research to validate basic research on nutrition.

We should promote international trade together too. New Zealand is participating in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership); you were one of the nucleus of four countries in the P4 on which the TPP is now being built. And we look forward to New Zealand participating in the RCEP - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - which Asean is launching this year, Asean's free trade area with Asean's partners. We hope New Zealand will be part of that.

These are just some of the possibilities. There will be many more as our people work with one another as the world gets closer and smaller. I think it is a dynamic phase Asia is going through, and I believe that it represents a big part of the future for New Zealand. You will still be linked to Europe, to the US and the developed countries. But Asia is growing and we look forward to you engaging with Asia and we look forward to working with you to prosper both our peoples.

This is an edited version of a speech by Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore and a founding patron of the Asia NZ Foundation, to a foundation dinner in Auckland during his official visit to New Zealand this week.

- NZ Herald

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