Singapore’s Lee seeks details on East Asia community on Japan visit

Associated Press

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes to learn more about Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s idea for an East Asian community during his visit to Japan from Monday.

In written responses ahead of his trip through Thursday to questions from Japanese correspondents based in Singapore, Lee noted that while there are already several groups and forums for regional and international cooperation in East Asia, Hatoyama’s ideas are welcome.

“It is in Japan’s and the region’s interest to keep the regional architecture open and inclusive, with (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) facilitating the dialogues in the various forums. We must also maintain the strong economic and security ties between Asia and the U.S. across the Pacific,” he said.

“(But as) there have so far been few details about the East Asia Community proposal, I look forward to understanding better from Prime Minister Hatoyama what he has in mind.”

Lee, who will be the first head of government to visit Japan since Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan assumed power Sept. 16, also said he is looking for a chance to see the “profound changes” coming in Japan.

“Japan is a very important regional and international player (and) much has changed since my last visit in March 2007.”

“Like other countries, Japan was hit by the global economic crisis. It now has a new, non-LDP government, (so) it is important for Singapore to understand the profound changes taking place in Japan,” Lee said. “I look forward to fruitful and substantive discussions with Prime Minister Hatoyama and his colleagues (and) I am also keen to meet senior Japanese businessmen to hear their views on the economic outlook for Japan and the region.”

Noting “longstanding and broad-based” ties with Japan, Lee said he wants to expand on the already significant relationship and “continue to find new areas where we can cooperate for mutual benefit.”

“One field where we can make an impact is APEC. Singapore is chairing APEC this year, and Japan next year. This conjunction offers a unique opportunity for us to promote trade and finance flows as well as inclusive growth for the Asia-Pacific region,” he added said.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group is made up of economies from both sides of the Pacific and aimed at increasing economic integration.

As to the change of leadership in Japan or a possible change in Singapore, Lee wrote, “Politics in Singapore is always evolving. We have progressively updated our political system…we hope that these changes will generate more robust debate and strengthen our democratic system.”

And perhaps with an eye to the defeat of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s Aug. 30 general election, Lee said his own People’s Action Party “must continue to serve the people well.”

“But if the PAP ever becomes incompetent and corrupt and lets the people down, then it deserves to be voted out.”

“We will do our utmost to ensure that this does not happen,” Lee added of the party that has governed Singapore since independence in 1965.

Asked to assess prospects for Japan in the next few decades given recent economic gains in China and India, the Singaporean premier said he believes Japan will remain “a regional powerhouse.”

“Japan is still way ahead in many state-of-the-art technologies (and) Japan is therefore well-placed to continue contributing to our region.”

But Lee also hinted at a need for a more active political role from Japan.

“I hope Japan will continue to strengthen its cooperation with Asian countries, while nurturing its close relationship with the U.S. On global issues like climate change, Japan can be a leader, both with technology and expertise, and through active and imaginative diplomacy,” he said.

On Singapore’s recent emphasis on immigration to stem declining population growth, Lee said that while his country has many challenges different than those in Japan they share a “similar demographic trend.”

“Later marriages, declining birth rates and ageing populations will lead to population shortfalls and long-term economic decline. Singapore has sought to tackle this problem through immigration,” he said.

“While we continue to encourage marriage and parenthood and engage overseas Singaporeans, we also bring in suitable immigrants and foreign talent who can contribute to Singapore and find ways to integrate them.”

“Without immigration, Singapore’s population and labor force will start to decline by about 2020,” Lee said.

“Japan finds the idea of immigration much harder to accept,” he added.

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