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Pragmatism and poetry: What PM Lee brought to Singapore’s four most important bilateral relationships

Some bilateral relationships have seen hiccups or problems, but Mr Lee Hsien Loong always sought win-win cooperation and took a long-term perspective, say foreign affairs experts.

Pragmatism and poetry: What PM Lee brought to Singapore’s four most important bilateral relationships

SINGAPORE: Ties with the United States, China, Malaysia and Indonesia are four of Singapore’s most important bilateral relationships, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.

While some of these relationships have seen hiccups or problems under his charge, observers and people who worked with Mr Lee said he always sought win-win cooperation and brought long-term thinking to the table.

Mr Lee has also been candid about the “harsher reality” in the conduct of international affairs. “It is power that determines which countries prevail, and which countries set the agenda,” he said in the 2015 S Rajaratnam Lecture.

As a small country, Singapore needs a network of friends, Mr Lee said at the 2016 National Day Rally.

“Friends in our neighbourhood and also friends among the big powers all over the world, even in faraway places,” he said. “Beyond Malaysia and Indonesia, our most important relationships are with China and with America.

Singapore can advance its national interests in several ways, he said. It can be an active and constructive player internationally, make “common cause” with its neighbours, continue to succeed as a nation and stay united, he said.

With Mr Lee handing over the premiership to Mr Lawrence Wong on May 15, CNA looks at how Singapore built on its ties with the world’s two biggest powers and its immediate neighbours during his 20-year term.


The US and Singapore marked 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2016. That year, Mr Lee made an official visit to the US at the invitation of then-President Barack Obama.

“It was a significant gesture. The last time a Singapore PM was officially welcomed in the White House with ceremonies was more than 30 years ago when Mr Lee Kuan Yew went in 1985,” Mr Lee said at the National Day Rally 2016, soon after the trip.

The visit reflects Singapore's “warm and deep friendship” with America spanning many areas, he said.

“My visit was also a signal that the US values its friends and partners and appreciates Singapore support for the role that America has played in the Asia-Pacific for more than 70 years since the war, spreading prosperity through trade and investments, maintaining security and stability, enabling all the countries in the region to thrive and to compete peacefully,” he added.

Under the current US administration led by Mr Joe Biden, the first trip Vice-President Kamala Harris made to Asia in August 2021 included Singapore, noted Mr Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the US from 2012 to 2023.

This was around the time the US withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years, the US’ longest war. At the joint press conference with Ms Harris, Mr Lee spoke about “the value that the US brought in terms of the security and stability of the region, because the US had engaged in this battle against terrorism”, Mr Mirpuri said.

“PM brings a very long-term perspective to that relationship,” he added, noting that Mr Lee was subsequently welcomed again “very warmly” in Washington DC in March 2022.

Mr Lee and US leaders have always “actively engaged”, and “they appreciate his strategic thinking, his thoughtfulness, his wisdom and really feel the value of the Singapore relationship”, added Mr Mirpuri.

During Mr Lee’s term, the US and Singapore signed the Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005, which recognised Singapore as a major security cooperation partner of the US.

In 2015, both sides signed the enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement and, in 2019, they renewed the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding which provides the US military with access to Singapore’s air and naval bases.

On the economic front, the US-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA) that came into force in 2004 was the first FTA between the US and an Asian country.

Singapore is home to nearly 5,500 US companies, and US foreign direct investment stock in Singapore exceeds US investments in China, India and South Korea combined, Mr Lee noted in his March 2022 working visit to the US, where he held another joint press conference with Ms Harris. Singapore is also the second-largest Asian investor in the US, he said.


“Occasional hiccups” surfaced in Singapore’s ties with China in the last 20 years, but this has not marred the relationship, which is being handed over to Mr Wong in “shipshape”, as Mr Chin Siat Yoon, Singapore’s ambassador to China from 1998 to 2012, put it.

The first hiccup occurred in July 2004 when Mr Lee made an unofficial visit to Taiwan about a month before he became prime minister. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” and protest, saying the visit had “hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people”.

Singapore upholds a “One China” policy  that sees Taiwan as part of China and opposes unilateral changes to the status quo. Singapore established diplomatic relations with China in 1990 on the basis that its military training programme with Taiwan, which began in 1975, would continue.

A second “downturn” in the relationship occurred in 2016 due to “differences over Singapore’s position on the South China Sea dispute”, and China perceiving that Singapore was “too close to the US”, noted Mr Lye Liang Fook, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

China claims most of the South China Sea and has overlapping claims with four Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The Philippines brought its case against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, in July 2016, a tribunal ruled that China’s claim to historic rights within its “nine-dash line” was incompatible with UNCLOS. China rejected the tribunal’s jurisdiction and award.

Explaining the situation at the 2016 National Day Rally, Mr Lee said Singapore was the country coordinator for the Asean-China Dialogue Relations at the time, and “this puts us in a slightly warm seat because each party wants us to side a bit more with them”.

While Singapore has no claims on the South China Sea, “in other ways, we do have a lot at stake and three things matter to us, international law, freedom of navigation and a united ASEAN”, he said.

In November 2016, nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carrier vehicles en route to Singapore from Taiwan after a routine training exercise were detained in Hong Kong for about two months.

While the “full story on the Chinese side” behind the episode is not known, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Alan Chong believes it was “opportune” – possibly to send signals to Ms Tsai Ing-wen, newly elected as Taiwan’s president at the time and seen to be more independence-leaning, as well as to Singapore.

The episode, while “unhappy”, is “important because it enables Singapore to tell China that, ‘at times, there will be differences and we will stand firm in terms of our principles. Hope that China can understand where Singapore is coming from’”, said Mr Lye. 

“I think this is important in fostering a more mature and realistic relationship with China,” he said.

“No two countries have got identical interests. But both sides value the relationship so no hiccup has proven to be insurmountable,” said Mr Chin.

The two countries have launched three government-to-government projects: the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city in 2008, and Chongqing Connectivity Initiative in 2015. Singapore continues to identify areas that China is interested in, and dovetails them with its own growth and development priorities, said Mr Lye.

Both sides upgraded bilateral relations to an “All Round High Quality Future Oriented Partnership” last year and also signed an upgraded FTA.

Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor since 2013, and China has been Singapore’s top investment destination since 2007, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said last December.

In 2023, Singapore’s total merchandise trade value with mainland China was S$167 billion, according to the Department of Statistics. As for trade in services, Singapore exported S$33.6 billion to mainland China and imported S$35.2 billion in 2022.

The economy and Singapore’s network of 27 implemented FTAs are one way of gauging how Mr Lee has managed foreign relations – by outcome, Mr Chin said. But there is also depth in Mr Lee’s understanding of China, he said.

In May 2004 at the inaugural Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation in Beijing, Mr Lee, who was then deputy prime minister, met then-Chinese vice-premier Wu Yi, Mr Chin recalled. Mdm Wu congratulated Mr Lee on being Singapore’s next prime minister, to which he replied: “高处不胜寒.”

The line, which roughly means “it’s lonely at the top”, was from a poem by Song dynasty poet Su Shi.

“The fact he’s able to quote a poem by a Song dynasty poet won him a lot of points. Mdm Wu gave him the thumbs up (and) the Chinese audience applauded. It’s these things that help you connect,” said Mr Chin.

Mr Chin later found out the poem was one of Mr Lee’s favourites. “He liked Su Shi,” said Mr Chin. “He understands not only the Chinese language, he understands the literature.”

Mr Lee is also respected by the Chinese, being one of the rare foreign leaders invited to address the Central Party School twice, in 2005 and 2012, said Mr Chin. The school trains Chinese Communist Party cadres including promising party officials.

Singapore’s relationship with China “blossomed” during Mr Lee’s term, and is today “quite good”, Mr Chin said. “It’s strong, substantive, it’s moving forward.”


Mr Lee has said ASEAN is the cornerstone of Singapore’s foreign policy and, within the bloc, Singapore’s “most intense relationships will be with our immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia”.

He worked with six Malaysian prime ministers and was consistent in his interactions with all of them, said Mr Vanu Gopala Menon, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia since 2014.

In the beginning, Mr Lee’s counterpart was Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. This was followed by Najib Razak from 2009 to 2018, Dr Mahathir Mohamad from 2018 to 2020, Muhyiddin Yassin from 2020 to 2021, and Mr Ismail Sabri Yaakob from 2021 to 2022. Malaysia’s current prime minister is Mr Anwar Ibrahim, who took power after the 15th General Election in November 2022.

“We have a close, longstanding, and multifaceted relationship with Malaysia. For Singapore, it is one of the most important, if not the most important bilateral relationship,” said Mr Menon.

Mr Lee has always “taken a hands-on, pragmatic approach in his handling of bilateral relations with Malaysia”, striving for win-win cooperation, he said.

During his term, the Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat became a regular platform for both sides to come together to enhance bilateral cooperation and make progress on outstanding bilateral issues, said Mr Menon.

It was at the retreat in May 2010 that both countries broke a 20-year deadlock on the outstanding issues regarding the Points of Agreement of 1990 on Malayan Railway Land in Singapore. The leaders agreed on steps to move the issue forward and met again twice after that.

They agreed for ex-railway land to be returned to Singapore, in exchange for land in Marina South and Ophir-Rochor to be developed by M+S, a joint venture owned by Temasek Holdings and Malaysia’s Khazanah Nasional.

Left unresolved was whether Malaysia had to pay the development charges for the three parcels of ex-railway land. They agreed to settle the issue through arbitration and accept the award as final and binding.

“(Najib) worked constructively with PM Lee to resolve the longstanding dispute over the location of the checkpoint immigration quarantine facilities of the railway station … (as well as) the Tanjong Pagar Railway land dispute,” said Dr Chong.

“Today, when Singaporeans look at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway land as a green corridor, we must be thankful that PM Lee’s foreign policy engaged pragmatically with Najib Razak to the point where these things are no longer serious thorns in our relations with Malaysia.”

In 2003, both countries also brought the dispute over Pedra Branca before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The ICJ in 2008 awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore while sovereignty over Middle Rocks – two clusters of rock south of the island – was awarded to Malaysia.

“You can say that the planning for this could have started under Mr Lee’s predecessor, but you have to give Mr Lee’s team credit for seeing it through to its logical conclusion,” said Dr Chong.

The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia is not “problem-free” and there are some “outstanding issues that need to be resolved” and “occasional differences”, said Mr Menon.

For instance, in Dec 2018 during Dr Mahathir’s two-year return to Putrajaya, Malaysian vessels anchored in Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas for months until early April 2019.

Issues still outstanding include maritime delimitation, reclamation at Pedra Branca, water, and airspace. They are important issues, Mr Lee said last October after a Leaders’ Retreat with Mr Anwar, and will be considered “holistically and constructively, within the broader context of our overall relationship”. 

Projects that will further increase connectivity and cross-border flow of people, goods and investments are the Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Woodlands North in Singapore and Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru, and the proposed Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The RTS Link is slated for completion by 2026, while a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in January to develop a framework for a legally-binding agreement on the SEZ.

“The fates of our countries are intertwined,” said Mr Menon.

“If Malaysia does well, then both our countries and the wider region would prosper too. In this regard, PM Lee was always focused on what more could be done to enhance cooperation and bring our bilateral relationship to greater heights.”


A final Leaders’ Retreat last month with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in the West Javan city of Bogor marked Mr Lee’s last overseas visit as Prime Minister.

“I’m glad that I have been able to round up my so many overseas trips over the years with this one, which is memorable in its own special way because of the depth of the relations between our two countries and the significance this friendship holds for the prosperity and the stability of Singapore and of the region,” he told reporters.

Mr Widodo, after two five-year terms, will also step down in October this year.

Both leaders are ending their terms with three long-standing bilateral matters resolved.

Three pacts, signed in 2022 dealing with airspace management, defence cooperation and extradition, came into force on March 21. Mr Lee and Mr Widodo marked the occasion with a call the next day.

Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia has “only gone from strength to strength” from the “lowest point” post-Konfrontasi, said Ms Julia Lau, a senior fellow and co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Konfrontasi was a conflict started under Indonesia’s President Sukarno, who opposed the formation of the Federation of Malaysia consisting of Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah). It ended in 1966.

The bulk of Mr Lee’s term coincided with that of two Indonesian presidents: Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Mr Widodo.

“The fact that this one person has led Singapore (for 20 years) and has seen other world leaders come and go … there’s a certain depth of knowledge – institutional as well as personal – that he has,” said Ms Lau.

Mr Lee’s 20 years in office helped both countries’ ties reach a point of more stability, she added.

Indonesia under Mr Yudhoyono moved past more turbulent times, and the language used by both countries became “much more positive”, she noted. “There are now concrete achievements as well.”

The aftermath of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, four months after Mr Lee became prime minister, marked a turning point in the Singapore-Indonesia relationship in Ms Lau’s view.

The Singapore Armed Forces’ humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation in Aceh included the search and evacuation of victims, delivering emergency relief operations, and aiding in reconstruction efforts.

Other foreign forces also pitched in, and “it really showed the Indonesians that it’s okay to ask for help and that (they) have neighbours who have (their) back’,” said Ms Lau.

Under Mr Lee and his Indonesian counterparts, the relationship has become “much more mature”, she said. “There’s mutual respect but there’s also recognition.”

This has trickled down to their staff members, she reckons. When big groups of Singaporean and Indonesian officials get together now, “you can really see, in some cases, they have been professional friends for years and there’s genuine goodwill”, she said.

At the recent Leaders’ Retreat, Mr Lee and Mr Widodo were joined by their respective successors Mr Wong and Mr Prabowo Subianto.

“I am glad that President Jokowi and I are handing over the bilateral relationship in good state to our successors,” said Mr Lee, who will become Senior Minister after stepping down as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Mr Wong posted on Facebook: "I look forward to working with president-elect Prabowo to build on the strong ties, and to take our partnership to greater heights.”

Read More: Here

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