Press Conference, Singapore

07 Jun 2019
Prime Minister, Prime Minister of Singapore

PRIME MINISTER LEE:  Prime Minister Morrison, ladies and gentlemen, good morning to all of you. Personally, I once again welcome the Prime Minister to Singapore, and his delegation. He was last here in November for the ASEAN-related meetings, and I’m very happy that he’s made Singapore the first country in Asia to visit on his first overseas trip and soon after winning the Australian federal election, for which we congratulate him. 


PRIME MINISTER LEE: I’m happy to take stock of our excellent bilateral relationship with the Prime Minister today. We’ve made good progress in implementing our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the CSP concluded in 2015. Last year our bilateral trade grew by one quarter, year on year, and I hope it will continue to grow to the upgraded FTA which came into force two years ago. Tourism has grown substantially too. There are 1.1 million Australians who visited us last year and about 400,000 Singaporeans who visited Australia. So, that’s a thriving business.

We appreciate Australia’s generous support for our military training, including in New South Wales, the Prime Minister’s home state. Prime Minister Morrison and I hope to take our relationship further, to jointly developing military training areas in Queensland, and look forward to finalising this agreement through a treaty this year. We welcome Australia’s increase of the work holiday visa program spaces for Singaporeans from 500 to 2,500.

I raised with Prime Minister Morrison two items which we have agreed to do under the CSP. One is to conclude an open skies agreement and the other is to update our avoidance of double taxation agreement which is celebrating its Golden Anniversary this year because it was concluded in 1969, and has long since been revised. Under the CSP, we had agreed to do both of these by 2022. So I told the Prime Minister that I hope our officials can begin discussions on these subjects soon.

We also explored other areas of, new areas of collaboration, for example in cybersecurity, for security in the digital economy. Discussions on the digital economy are still at an early stage but there is scope to deepen our collaboration particularly in areas like e-invoicing, digital identities, e-payments and artificial intelligence. The two of us have asked our trade ministers to lead these efforts and to find ways where we can break new ground and report back to us by October this year. This would pave the way for a new form of economic engagement and trade.

We also exchanged views on regional and global issues. Australia is already firmly linked to the regional architecture as an ASEAN dialogue partner and a member of the East Asia Summit. I welcomed Australia's continued deep engagement of the region and thanked the Prime Minister for Australia's firm support for ASEAN.

Australia is one of a few countries with whom we meet at the leaders’ level every year. We are natural partners – Australia and Singapore. We see eye to eye on many issues including the importance of an open rules based and inclusive multilateral trading system. I've enjoyed good relations with every Australian Prime Minister who has been my counterpart, and I fully expect to continue to do so with Prime Minister Morrison.

I'm happy that we are able to meet so early in his new term to give fresh impetus to our relationship and look forward to working with him and his Government to strengthen our relations further. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Thank you very much Prime Minister.


PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, thank you very much Prime Minister. On behalf of my delegation, thank you for your very warm welcome here this morning, and for the opportunity for us to meet as part of our comprehensive, strategic partnership. It is a very significant partnership and holds a very special place for Australia in our engagements with countries around the world. I was also pleased to be here in the ASEAN region, and particularly with Singapore, so soon after our recent election. My presence here today with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade, Investment and Tourism is a strong signal about where we see our focus from an external affairs point of view.

During this visit, this overseas trip I should say, that has also involved us attending the D-Day ceremonies in the United Kingdom. But importantly before that visiting the Pacific. And so whether it's the Indo-Pacific specifically here in Southeast Asia or in South West Pacific, it is my Government's intention to be very, very focused on where we live, and the countries with whom we live in this part of the world.

And I want to thank you Prime Minister for your strong leadership on the on the major issues that are confronting our region. In particular I want to commend you on the presentation you made last Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue. I thought it provided some incredibly useful insights that Australia shares and I believe others share also, and provided, I think, a very great deal of clarity on the way that independent sovereign states, particularly in the Pacific, can go forward in engaging with the challenges that are present.

I'm also very excited that we've been able to make progress already on the digital economy agreement that we're working towards, and I'm looking forward to our trade ministers reporting back to us, as you say in October, and hopefully be able to make significant progress before the end of the year. The digital economy is going to be so critical to our productivity for our economic growth, and this election of working in this area, I think is important as it is a demonstration of the close working relationship our two countries have. We continue to make progress on our defence arrangements; and the work is being done in Shoalwater Bay, and we look forward to that program continuing to progress; and hosting Singapore; forces coming to trade in Australia; at a whole new level, they have for many, many year, and this provides a whole new dimension to that partnership. So our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership works across so many areas, whether it's tourism, whether it's, as you say, security and counterterrorism, whether it's in the space of addressing strategic challenges in the area.

And finally I want to commend you for the leadership role that you've been playing with ASEP. Australia remains absolutely committed to working with Singapore to see ASEP completed on the timetable that you have outlined and we spoke of when we were here last year. And we will undertake our efforts to that end. And we see whether it's ASEP or our involvement through the TPP, or the many other agreements we're working on, as a demonstration of while there may be challenges in the great powers, and how they’re seeking to conclude their arrangements, other sovereign independent states are getting on with the business of trade, and investment, and cooperation, and partnership, in this region, and Australia is very pleased to be doing that with Singapore, our Comprehensive Strategic Partner.


MC: Thank you, Excellencies. We will now take a few questions. First from Singapore media. [inaudible] from CNN.

JOURNALIST: Good morning Prime Ministers. Thank you.


JOURNALIST: How confident is Singapore and Australia that ASEP talks may conclude soon, given you know, the urgency to rising trade protectionism?

PRIME MINISTER LEE: Well, we’re reasonably confident that with sufficient political will and the willingness to make difficult trade-offs, it’s possible to conclude the RCEP by the end of 2019. It's a key priority for all of the RCEP participating countries. The leaders of these countries last met in November, when we announced that the negotiations had made substantial progress in 2018, and also expressed a strong political commitment to push for the conclusion of the negotiations by end 2019 under Thailand's Chairmanship. I think it's important because concluding the RCEP this year will send a strong signal to the business community that our region is open for business and has continued, committed to continue operating on the basis of an open, free and rules-based environment. So we'll continue to work closely with our partners and particularly with Thailand, which is chairing ASEAN this year, as we will try our best to achieve the target.

MC: Prime Minister Morrison, do you have anything to add?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Only to say that ASEP, I think very much, acknowledges the need for an open architecture on trading arrangements in our region. It's something that Australia is very supportive of hence out comments that we want to work with Singapore to ensure that we meet the timetable the Prime Minister has set out.

This is an important opportunity. It has had some frustration in terms of the many electoral cycles of its partners, particularly over the first half of this year. But with much of that now completed, I think there is a very good opportunity for considerable focus to be placed on this and to meet that timetable. We think it's a very important agreement for our region.

MC: Thank you. Mr Greg Jennett from ABC.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister Lee in your Shangri-La speech which Mr Morrison has cited, you listed many stresses and strains between the US and China – and you included in that 5G technologies. Now Australia is unique in seeking to ban the state-owned corporation Huawei from its network. Singapore appears, correct me if I'm wrong, to be somewhat more pragmatic. So my question is why is your Government less concerned about foreign state interference in your future networks here? And Prime Minister Morrison did you seek to persuade Prime Minister Lee, that what is in the interests of a Singaporean company in Australia, should also be in the interests of Singaporean companies in Singapore?

PRIME MINISTER LEE: I stated my position on 5G last week at the Shangri-La Dialogue. After my speech, there was a question to this and I gave it a full answer. If you look it up, you'll see what I said. I don't know if it is helpful to compare relative degrees of concern about foreign interference. We're all concerned about foreign interference in our domestic politics, and in our networks. The question is what degree of risk you're prepared to take. What is an effective measure to counter this? And what's the best way to proceed? And different countries will make their own assessments. Each one has to come to its own conclusion. And we respect each other's conclusions, and decisions, and actions. These are sovereign choices which are the responsibilities of the governments to keep. So we will look at this very carefully. We will value network resilience, network security. We value also vendor diversity, and we want to make sure that we have a system which serves a purpose and meets our interests. And, it is a right choice for Singapore, and that’s what we will do.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: I think Greg, it’s important not to over interpret Australia's decision. Australia, we made our decision in accord with our own interests and our own challenges and we made it for Australia - without the involvement of any of any other third parties in coming to that view. And so similarly, we don't see it as our role to be involved in the decisions of other nations on these issues. Whether it's here in Singapore, or indeed in the United Kingdom where I recently was, or anywhere else. These are sovereign decisions to be made by independent nations in accordance with their own national interests and the challenges that they face. The 5G is an incredibly important platform for the success of our economies into the future. And the sheer scale and scope of the technology means that we have to be very mindful of other security interests, not directed to any particular nation at all, for that matter. And that's the nature of the decision that we took. So, we, when asked, are always happy to go into some of our own analysis as to how we make our decision. But the decisions of others is completely and entirely up to them, and we do not see it as our role, whether here in Singapore or anywhere else, as being an advocate for a decision one way or the other.

MC: Thank you. [inaudible]. Thank you. 

JOURNALIST: Good morning, Prime Ministers. My question is for PM Lee. We understand that the Australian Government has passed a very strict anti-foreign interference last year to combat the threat of external political meddling. My question is, is there anything we can learn from the Australian experience as we as we make our own tougher on laws against foreign interference? Also another question for both prime ministers is, is there any scope for us to expand our bilateral cooperation in these areas?

PRIME MINISTER LEE: Well, foreign interference is a significant threat for all countries, because it can severely disrupt the functioning of our democratic political systems. And so we are all watching one another: what measures we are taking; what we can learn from what other people do.

Singapore is particularly vulnerable because we are a multiracial, multi-religious, and race, religion, and identity can easily be exploited by foreign parties as fault lines to disrupt and weaken our society – as indeed has happened in the past, long before the internet got invented, repeatedly. But the internet and social media have now provided new tools for foreign parties to conduct hostile information campaigns to reach a large domestic audience very quickly, very cheaply, and under the cover of anonymity. And so it's that problem has morphed and become much more serious. Our current thinking is broadly aligned with Australia's approach, and that is to detect early, to expose such an effort early. And we want to put in place safeguards and disclosure requirements at all the likely entry points, funding key leadership roles in organisations, all mass information or disinformation campaigns on the social media. So we want to be able to detect as early as possible attempts by foreign actors to manipulate information online to sway public opinion. And we need to develop responses to digital age tactics, such as the use of bots, to occupy mind space through sheer volume. And at the same time of course we need to build up the ability of Singaporeans to discern and respond appropriately, to resist foreign interference. Through educating the public and working with our media to call out falsehoods, disinformation and half-truths.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Independent, sovereign states throughout the Asia-Pacific, indeed throughout the Indo-Pacific; respect for them, and ensuring that internally they're able to maintain their independence and sovereignty, is incredibly important for the stability of our region. And that's why measures such as these are so important. And so we will each take actions that we believe are appropriate in our own settings. As Australia has, and indeed as Singapore does. We do share many experiences though with Singapore. We are both as countries host to ethnic diasporas from many places. And I think a key issue for us both, and for Australia in particular, is engaging with those communities. Across all of these communities in Australia, they’re always Australians first. And happily so. Our migrant communities have come from all around the world, and they've come to Australia to realise their aspirations. And we celebrate that with them. And to ensure that they can continue to enjoy that freedom, and enjoy pursuing those aspirations, it's important to have appropriate protections in place, which we believe we do. But we watch these very closely and we seek to learn from others’ experiences. But I conclude where I started, I mean our vision for the region, which we share with so many partners, I’m sure including Singapore, and this is why we so much enjoy our association with ASEAN, is ASEAN is a grouping of fiercely independent, sovereign states. And very keen to remain so and we very much support that.

MC: Thank you. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.