The World According to Lee Kuan Yew

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Free trade sits at the top of Singapore's foreign policy list, and it seems everyone is getting signed up. So what does Singapore's most respected political figure, Lee Kuan Yew have to say about all of this? NADIA CAMERON reports on the future prospects of the republic from one of the 20th century's most prominent statesmen.

DESPITE HIS considerable age, Lee Kuan Yew still holds plenty of clout and has influential viewpoints on all things Asia. And what's more, he's not afraid to express them.

One of the region's most longstanding and respected political leaders, Lee has an admirable background. Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, Lee has witnessed British colonial rule decline throughout the Asia Pacific region, and led his country from a self governing state and member of the Federation of Malaysia to an independent, republic nation. Through cunning, charm and wit, Lee's master strokes have developed his country into what is now Asia's fastest growing nation.

Born in Singapore in 1923, Lee was educated at Raffles College, Singapore, and Cambridge, England, where he read law. After four years of practise as a solicitor, Lee helped found the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1954. In 1959, PAP won the general election and Lee became Singapore's first Prime Minister. Under his premiership, the party won eight consecutive general elections. Having held the position for 31 years, Lee resigned in 1990. He then took the newly created post of Senior Minister, where his strong political background and international distinction continue to influence the Asian region and Singapore's foreign policy today.

In both his long tenure as Prime Minister and as Senior Minister, Lee has had a close rapport with Australia. His most recent visit was at the Asia Society Australasia Centre's annual dinner in Sydney this month. His speech was prompted by the launch of the second of his memoirs, From Third World to First, an extensive autobiographical took into Singapore's radical development.

Looking all of his 77 years and walking meekly to the podium at the dinner, Lee's demeanour was anything but dynamic. His speech on "East Asia and the Pacific in the 21st Century", however, was a far cry from being outdated.

Lee's most fervent point was that global free trade and alliances between nations in the Asia Pacific region were paramount to the success of the region. For Singapore, this means pushing agreements between itself and other APEC nations.

"It is our long-term interest to press ahead with trade liberalisation," Lee said.

Concerned with the evident growth of China, South East Asian nations need to complete efforts of creating free trade areas if economic prosperity is to be obtained. To this end, Lee espoused that dream long held by many in Australia -- a large scale South East Asian free trade area that includes Australia.

"To meet the economic challenge of China's attractiveness to foreign investments, the ASEAN countries will have to combine their markets in an ASEAN free trade area," Lee said.

One way of achieving this, he believes, would be by establishing a new regional group of North and South East Asian countries within the APEC framework. Spurred on by the delay in development of free trade agreements (FTA) in AFTA-CER (ASEAN Free Trade Area - Closer Economic Relations) talks, this group would be able to renew free trade efforts throughout the region, Lee said. It would also provide a way to deal with the recent widening of APEC's constituents to include the Russian Federation, Chile and Peru.

"It will be useful to have a subgroup within APEC of East Asians and Australasians, just like the sub-group on the eastern side of the Pacific of US, Canada and Mexico," Lee said.

Effectively, the group would be "ASEAN plus three in North East Asia, plus two in Australasia".

"Such a group can better advance the common interests of the western side of the Pacific in trade liberalisation and in resisting any resurgence of protectionism," he said. …