Press Conference - The Istana, Singapore

11 Jun 2021
Prime Minister

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Ladies and Gentlemen. Good evening to all. I bid a very warm welcome to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Singapore. I am very happy that he decided to stop over here on the way to G7 in Cornwall, and that we have been able to meet in person after quite a long time.

Naturally, PM Morrison and I discussed the COVID-19 situation. Australia and Singapore have similar approaches to keep the virus out of our populations, and to keep our people safe.

We have strongly supported each other, especially to get through the early days of the pandemic. Our health authorities shared information on the virus. We helped to bring each other’s citizens home from abroad, especially early on when flights were getting cancelled. Singapore Airlines maintained passenger and cargo flights to and from Australia throughout the border closures.

Now, the world is moving into the next phase of the fight, with vaccinations becoming more prevalent, and countries beginning to open up their borders. We discussed how two-way travel between Singapore and Australia can eventually resume, in a safe and calibrated manner, when both sides are ready. Before COVID-19, many Singaporeans travelled to Australia for business, for holidays and to pursue their education, and vice versa. We need to resume these people-to-people flows to maintain our close and excellent bilateral relationship. We need to prepare the infrastructure and processes to get ready to do this. It starts with mutual recognition of health and vaccination certificates, possibly in the digital form. When all the preparations are ready, we can start small with an Air Travel Bubble to build confidence on both sides. Relatedly, our health ministries have signed an MOU to collaborate in healthcare and health technologies.

Our overall cooperation has been anchored by our ten-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), which is now at its halfway mark. Both sides have made progress on the five pillars of the CSP: economics and trade, defence and foreign affairs, science and innovation, people-to-people; and last year we added the digital economy as a fifth pillar of our comprehensive strategic partnership.

Last year, in December, our Treaty on Military Training and Training Area Development came into force. This was a milestone in our longstanding defence partnership.

Singapore greatly appreciates Australia’s generous and sustained support for SAF’s training. Over many years, in many air bases and camps all over Australia.

On the digital economy, we had a bilateral Digital Economy Agreement which also came into force last year. This was the fruit of our forward looking, open and progressive attitudes towards trade and the future economy. Building on the Digital Economy Agreement, PM Morrison and I have agreed to commence discussions to develop a FinTech bridge between our two countries.

In science and innovation, we are exploring collaborations on low-emissions solutions to support our climate change efforts. This is another key domestic priority for both of us, and it includes a public-private partnership on low emissions fuels and technologies for shipping and port operations, based at Nanyang Technological University’s Eco Labs. We are also exploring a broader partnership on a green economy agreement. This will facilitate trade and investment in environmentally sustainable goods and services, and strengthen environmental governance and our capacity to address climate change.

Once again, the Prime Minister and I are very happy that we are able to meet again and that our relations have continued to grow and prosper in these challenging times. I look forward to continue working with him and his government to take our relations even further forward and wish him a safe and productive trip to Cornwall in the UK for G7.

Prime Minister Morrison: Well, thank you and thank you, Prime Minister Lee, for your very warm welcome to be back here in Singapore with you again in this magnificent property. And to be here with our friends in Singapore is a great thrill after such a long time. Can I also thank you for the opportunity that we have had to continue our engagement over the course of the pandemic to date, even though we haven't been able to meet physically. But today is a great opportunity that is presented to us to be able to renew that association in this way, but also to press forward with the many areas of our very productive partnership.

Australia and Singapore share many things. We share history. We share trust. Most significantly, we share ambition. And that ambition, I think, is reflected in the comprehensive strategic partnership we have that is now being demonstrated in the many granular agreements and memorandums that have been completed in so many parts of this relationship. Whether it's what we're doing together in defence, in technology, in addressing climate change, and importantly, working together to ensure the stability of our region, that all of our prosperity, all of our safety depends. I particularly want to thank Prime Minister Lee, you, for your great leadership within this region and particularly as one of the longest serving leaders, particularly in the ASEAN partnership. I thank very much, Singapore, for the way you have supported Australia in so many different areas of our relationship. But I never seek to not take the opportunity when I can to gain the insights of Prime Minister Lee on his views on on the region, ASEAN more broadly, but particularly Singapore, is very central to Australia's view of the world. This is where we live. This is where our primary relationships are. And we greatly respect the region in which we live and how we work those relationships on a day to day basis in very practical ways. The Prime Minister has mentioned those already.

The fintech bridge is something I'm particularly excited about. Previously, as a Treasurer, we were able to secure such a bridge with the United Kingdom. And now to have one with Singapore, I think is tremendous. Singapore is one of the leading economies in the world when it comes to financial technology. And for Singapore and Australia to connect up in this way will only add further to both of our countries’ success in realising the great advances that can be achieved for our economies through financial technology. Equally cooperating on low emissions technologies, especially hydrogen, which is the key game changing fuel of the future. Australia has always played a very significant role in meeting the energy needs of Asia and particularly for South East Asia. And we intend to continue to do that by ensuring that we are achieving the breakthroughs in technology which will enable us to continue to support our many partners in the region and their energy needs. I particularly welcome the fact that we're making so much progress with projects like Sun Cables Project, which can see the homes powered here in Singapore from solar panels in Australia. That's an exciting new development amongst many, but particularly the work we're now doing on maritime and port use for hydrogen. That is an obvious place of partnership between Australia and Singapore. And we look forward to the great results that I know will come from that partnership.

Prime Minister, we thank you again for your hospitality and we look forward to the many other areas the relationship will continue to give us opportunity to pursue. But the one above all at present, which we are very focussed on, is the challenge of COVID. I commend you for the tremendous job you've done here in Singapore. Singapore is a country we've often looked at the experience of here with COVID and we have discussed that on other occasions. We have sought to learn from Singapore and how they've combatted COVID and I'm sure there have been lessons that have gone both ways. That's why I welcome the fact that we will now work together to put the infrastructure in place, to put the systems in place, to enable us to open up in a similar way that we've been able to open up to New Zealand from Australia, when we're both in a position to do so. There is still some time before we reach that milestone, but there is nothing impeding us, as we've discussed today, from getting on with the job of putting systems in place that will enable such a bubble to emerge between Singapore and Australia as it does now occur between Australia and New Zealand. But in addition to that, as we've discussed, Prime Minister, giving a priority, a priority to students from Singapore to be able to return to Australia, to complete their studies and to engage in their studies and for the students from Singapore to be a first opportunity to see increased travel between Australia and Singapore realise and for that to occur sooner rather than later. So thank you very much.

Journalist: Good evening, I am Hariz from the Straits Times. My question is for both prime ministers. How soon can we expect this air-travel bubble to take off and what's the progress made on the mutual recognition of health and vaccine certificates? And also will vaccine rates of community cases be used as indicators for this air-travel bubble? Lastly, is there a tentative timeline for this air-travel bubble?

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: Well, our officials are discussing the air-travel bubble and they're also starting to discuss the mutual recognition of health and vaccination certificates. And we will have to resume this in a safe and calibrated manner when both sides are ready. Certainly vaccination rates and transmission rates will be part of that consideration. I would say that in Singapore, we're making good progress with our vaccination programme. In Australia, they are also vaccinating the population. And I think once the majority of the population is vaccinated, it becomes much easier for us to contemplate these openings up. It's not the only consideration. The prevalence, transmission rates, will certainly be a factor, we watch it carefully, I mean that's how the arrangements between Australia and New Zealand work right now. What we want to do, is to get the preconditions, the infrastructure, the vaccine recognition, what are the standards, what are the decisions. Then the actual decision to do it, that is a political decision. But let's get everything teed up, so that we can be in a position to make a political decision when we want to do so.

Prime Minister Morrison: Thank you, Prime Minister. Singapore is the first country outside of New Zealand that Australia wishes to engage in a travel bubble with. And we want to get it right. To get it right in Singapore, which we know we can do, because of the very sophisticated systems that Singapore has. Our digital certificate on vaccines has just now going live. And so that provides another important building block that is necessary for these arrangements to work. But the sophistication of the systems both in Singapore and Australia, I think will enable both countries to ensure that we can get a system that works incredibly well. And once we have that capability, then, as the Prime Minister says, it then becomes a second consideration, we consider all the various medical issues and the various risks that we have to manage as leaders to ensure that we can go to the next stage successfully. But I would note and some encouragement Prime Minister Lee, we really do want to focus on those students coming as a first wave, first tranche, as part of the exercise pilot, if you will, how these systems can work most effectively when we get to the next phase, which would be more broadly. But the timing of that is still some way away.

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: I raised this matter with the Prime Minister specifically because I know quite a number of Singaporeans study in Australia and some of them have come home during this COVID period and are now in Singapore unable to go back to Australia to resume their studies. And there is urgency for them, I know, and especially for those of them who have clinical attachment or those things and to be unable to pick them up is very, very disruptive for their studies. And so I raised this with the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Morrison was very generous to say yes, it is [inaudible] on this mind and he's minded to do that as a first priority. And I said, well, that's one way to test out our systems and get a pilot going, so that we can widen the project and later on we have a full travel bubble between the two countries. So, there's no timetable, but we hope it can be done as soon as possible.

Journalist: My question is for the Prime Minister Lee. Prime Minister, you've spoken before about your concerns about the US and China hardening in their positions against each other. In Australia, we can't even get a Minister to Minister dialogue with China anymore. As the Australian Prime Minister heads to the G7 Plus, what is your advice to Australia and the G7 on how to handle relationships with China?

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: I think that's a very big question to deal with in a 3 minute answer in a video interview like this. But I would say that the relationship with China is one of the biggest foreign policy questions for every major power in the world. You need to work with the country, it is going to be there, it is going to be a substantial presence and you can cooperate with it, you can engage it, you can negotiate with it. But it has to be a long and mutually constructive process. And you don't have to make it- You don't have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you. And you have to be able to work on that basis. This is a big world, in which there are different countries and work with others who are not completely like minded, but with whom you have many issues where your interests do align and where your mutual cooperation is necessary. There will be rough spots and not few and you have to deal with them, but deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues which add up to adversity, which you are trying to suppress. And that's speaking in very general terms. But I think that from Singapore's point of view, how you have the best chance of developing a constructive relationship and avoiding very bad outcomes.

Journalist: Thank you, Geoff Chambers from The Australian. Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson will tell G7 leaders he wants the world vaccinated by the end of next year. Is the production and distribution of vaccines into developing nations into the Indo-Pacific happening fast enough? And do you have concerns about the rise of vaccine diplomacy?

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: Well, I think faster is better, producing enough vaccines is a challenge both for all countries, especially in India certainly, and even in China, even in Russia. I think in the US they’ve now got enough supplies for themselves and are looking to donate supplies internationally and I think President Biden intends to say something about that at G7. But globally, the supplies need to grow and the vaccination efforts also need to be scaled up commensurately. It’s not just producing the vaccine, it’s being able to administer them and get people to take them - nationwide, nation by nation, in nearly 200 countries in the world, seven billion people, and that is a massive effort. And countries will certainly use vaccines in order to win friends and influence people. But as long as it helps in the end to vaccinate the global population, well, that's to be expected and par for the course.

Prime Minister Morrison: Well, thank you, I’d make a couple of points. First of all, Singapore and Australia have made very large contributions to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment. This facility has already delivered some 13 million doses to South East Asian countries. In addition, Australia, going to the point the Prime Minister has just made, it’s not just about the doses themselves. We've invested some $623 million, not only to provide doses, but technical advice, training, cold chain storage to support countries across South East Asia and the Pacific. That is wrapped up also in the contribution that Australia’s made as part of the Quad vaccine partnership with Japan, the United States and India, which aims to provide some one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific by 2022. So there are myriad ventures that nations are engaged in in the various partnerships they have. Australia, in particular, as the Prime Minister and I were discussing today, takes a particular responsibility when it comes to supporting vaccination in the South West Pacific and in Timor-Leste, but also increasingly now in South East Asia.

And so it requires all, particularly developed countries, to step up and continue to step up, because once, as we know in our own countries, once you go through the two doses and ensure that is made available for, as everyone who wishes to be vaccinated, then next year you're moving into issues of boosters and new variants and what might come next. So this is an ongoing global task. It is not something that started and finished at any time. It is an ongoing task that we will have globally. Right at the outset I remember saying that whoever comes up with the vaccine will need to share it, and that still remains my view. And that sharing is not just about the intellectual property and the chemistry of these vaccines, but the manufacture and distribution and that we must avoid any form of vaccine protectionism as much as possible. So I look forward to participating in those discussions with Prime Minister Johnson and so many others, because I know these views are shared.

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: I thank the Prime Minister for highlighting COVAX. Singapore also [inaudible] COVAX and has made substantial donations to the facility. And we are also cooperating with Australia in efforts to help the region get their vaccines. And I told Prime Minister that we’re very happy that Singapore is able to be in the hub for distributing vaccines to the region, which Australia is producing. And we have also got fill and finish facilities so that if Australian producers want to use those in Singapore to make the vaccines here, make the vials here, in order to ship off from Singapore, we're happy to do that. It has to be a multilateral effort and all of us, each of us has to do our part.

Journalist: Hi, good evening Prime Ministers. My question, my first question is for both of you. So what do various deals show about the future of bilateral cooperation with the prospects of COVID becoming endemic, and specifically plans to beef up pandemic response and health care front and cross border travel [inaudible]. And additionally, this is for Mr Morrison, are there any specific targets on vaccination rates you’re looking at for safe travel to resume? And also since climate change issues will be on the agenda at G7, what are you hoping the outcomes to be for this bilateral deal with Singapore [inaudible]? Thank you.

His Excellency Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore: Well, COVID has not hurt our bilateral cooperation. In fact, the ties remain strong and it's presented us with opportunities for cooperation in new areas. For example, in health, and we’ve signed this health MOU. It’s to facilitate exchange of information, knowledge and expertise. We do that [inaudible] and the Australian Department of Health, and particularly in areas of health, technology, assessment, and relevant strategies to manage the high cost of patented medicines and devices. There are no radically new ways to fight the virus. We know what we need to do. You need to test this [inaudible] the cases, you need to contact trace to find new cases. You need to vaccinate people to prevent them from becoming so easily infected, and you have to do this at scale. And you also have to find therapeutics to treat people who are sick so that they recover and they don't get sicker and die. And I think in all these areas, countries are working together. And Singapore and Australia we both have substantial research efforts in this and we’re working together on that too.

Prime Minister Morrison: Thank you, Prime Minister. I might, first of all, I mean, neither of us have identified a benchmark rate on vaccination when it comes to the decision that we’d be taking around a travel bubble. But this is something that I think will continually be informed by the medical evidence as time goes on. I think one of the reasons both Australia and Singapore have been successful to date, we should, I think, just take a moment to note that success, not just from a health perspective but from an economic perspective as well. Both of our economies, both of our economies have performed well, relatively, through this pandemic. In Australia's case, our economy is larger today than it was before the pandemic began. There are more employed Australians today than there was before the pandemic began. Our AAA credit rating from S&P has only just been upgraded further as we come continually through this pandemic.

So it is constantly, I think, a challenge to balance the economic and the health objectives that we have as leaders. And we've learnt a lot from Singapore in that process, and we will continue to. And I think one of the most helpful things throughout the pandemic has been whether it's been the exchange that Prime Minister Lee and I have had or I have had with many other leaders. Largely no country has a mortgage on what the answers are, but we all have the opportunity to share that experience. Prime Minister Lee and I joined a group of countries early on in the pandemic brought together by the Chancellor of Austria, and I continue to participate in that group. We would share our experiences, whether it's rolling out vaccinations, running contact tracing systems, how digital certificates work. All of these tools, as Prime Minister Lee says, are, they're not novel to one country, but they all need to be achieved successfully in each country.

So that will continue, I think, to be one of the great learnings of the pandemic, the need to share experience, technology, information, learnings about this, about any pandemic, and to be able to move quickly as possible. We both run similar quarantine systems. We both run similar tracing systems. And that is, I think, a lesson for how we will deal with this in the future.

When it comes to emissions reduction and issues of climate change, I'm very excited about this energy technology partnership that we're putting in place here in the maritime sector. In the same way that Singapore benefits greatly from the world's great maritime vessels making their way here and taking goods from here, being able to do that with hydrogen powered ships is extremely important for emissions reduction in the future. It is a practical, technological, commercial partnership that will change the world. In the same way we want to power large ships, we want to power large mining vehicles, mining trucks, ore trucks in Australia. And so what we are simply doing here again is demonstrating Australia's commitment to technological advancement to reduce emissions. Australia's carbon emissions have fallen by over 20 per cent since 2005. We have the highest rate of rooftop solar take-up anywhere in the world, and our rate of renewable development in our country strips that of most developed countries. Now, this will continue for one simple reason, and that is continued developments in technology. So this partnership demonstrates, and I'll be very pleased to share it with those attending the G7, that this is how you deal with climate change. You work on the technology. You work on the technological solutions and hydrogen in particular, and the partnership we have here to develop new hydrogen technologies will be critical to solving that problem.