Bad news comes in threes – South China Sea, TPP, Kra Canal – what PM can do

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By: Tan Jee Say

THE THREE BAD NEWS

1. Philippine President Duterte announced last week a pivot to China, away from the US and the opening of bilateral China-Philippines negotiations on the South China Sea. This is contrary to Singapore’s stand that China should respect the recent decision of an international tribunal. Philippines’ open embrace of China and its decision to put aside the tribunal’s decision and opt for direct talks with China, put PM Lee in a spot and lower Singapore’s standing and influence in the ASEAN and international community.

2. In the third and final US Presidential debate, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton who leads in the polls, stated emphatically that she opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership: “I’m against it now. I’ll be against after the election. I’ll be against it when I’m president”. Singapore has been a key promoter of the TPP and has invested much time, energy and reputation on getting it implemented. These effort, hope and prestige have now gone down the drain.

3. Thailand announced that former premier Tanin has been appointed president of the Privy Council. Tanin is known to support the building of the Kra canal that will allow international cargo to bypass the Straits of Malacca and the port of Singapore. This will adversely affect Singapore’s economy significantly, not just in the long term but also the short term with loss of investor confidence in Singapore’s future.

SECURITY AND ECONOMY

Singapore is under serious threat. PM needs to take the following actions immediately:

1. Accommodate, not antagonise, China particularly with regard to the South China Sea. As a “price-taker”, accept the new realities. US is disengaging from Asia, she has no more spare cash to help, defend or invest in Asia. Only China has the enormous spare capacity (industrial and financial) to invest in and develop badly needed infrastructure in South East Asia. This will generate an economic boom across South East Asia and Singapore will benefit from it. To move in this new direction, replace the existing idealogues in MFA and government think tanks with a different team of advisers that will pursue a fresh course of action.

2. Focus on the regional economy. Anti-globalisation is the trend, do not spread our limited resources too thinly across the world. Grow with the region in our backyard as I had recommended 5 years ago and which EDB belatedly recognised and urged. Read my recent post on Facebook “EDB’s new focus on region is behind the curve”.

3. Use our top business brains to improve the economy and businesses, not politicise them in committees to justify the government’s political agenda. If it is so important to have someone from a minority race to be president, then just change the system to appoint one and not waste everybody’s time.

4. Allow a second newspaper whose editors are not appointed by the government. This will provide an independent platform for a different set of people to come forward with new ideas and ways of doing things to improve innovation and productivity. Current discussions are dominated by people of the same mind set as the political leaders’. PM has been talking about innovation and productivity since 1985 when he became chairman of the Economic Committee – all 31 years and nothing significant to show for! Productivity still much below target after spending tens of billions of dollars. And still talking and spending billions more! Let new people talk and listen to them.

5. Avoid another health scarce. Don’t try too hard and stress yourself, PM. Relax and be confident. The 70 percent majority gives you a very big buffer to allow and tolerate differences of opinion.

6. Lastly on a personal note, focus on your job as PM and not allow family disputes to distract you. Settle the differences with your siblings amicably, not let them fester. Give and take.