15 Apr 2024

Singapore PM warns against Middle East 'calamity', signs NZ agreement

8:14 pm on 15 April 2024
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon meets with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong at the Istana.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon meets with his Singaporean counterpart, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the Istana - the official residence, office and palace of the president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Photo: Dan Brunskill

Singapore's prime minister has warned small countries cannot solve the Middle East situation but efforts must be made to push for peace, after promising closer cooperation with New Zealand.

The two countries walked away from bilateral meetings between Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon with agreement to work more closely together - including on defence and green economy.

Luxon was officially welcomed to Singapore's presidential palace - the Istana - ahead of the meeting, greeted by a brass band and full guard of honour, as is customary.

Earlier, he attended an orchid naming ceremony at the country's iconic botanic gardens.

The pair had previously met twice, and were expected to discuss global tensions including the developing situation in the Middle East. Iran had launched an attack on Israel over the weekend after an Israeli air strike hit its embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing two Iranian generals and five military advisers.

In the first instance of the country taking a direct role in the conflict since Hamas carried out attacks on Israel in October, Iran vowed to retaliate and on Saturday launched hundreds of drones - which were shot down by Israel with no casualties and causing only minor damage.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee said he did not think it signalled a world war, but it was also not a problem small nations could solve.

"I don't think we are close to a world war. I think it's a troubled world, and in particular it's a very very troubled Middle East, and war in Gaza continues to have repercussions more widely," he said.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon at the Istana - the official residence and office of the President of Singapore - during his visit to Southeast Asia.

A guard of honour welcomes Luxon to the Istana. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

"What can we do as small countries? We can't solve the problems in the Middle East. Nothing is going to solve the problems in the Middle East within the foreseeable future."

However, that was no reason for those small countries not to do what they could.

"They can be managed, you can try and calm things down, you can get people back onto a track to talking about peace, maybe - and even that's going to be very hard given what has happened, October 7 and post-October 7," he said.

"If you don't try to do that, then you are saying the only way is the way of the sword and I think that's going to lead to calamity for everybody. So if you do not want a calamity for your own people then you have to make some very painful decisions you need very strong and courageous leadership.

"We have to explain our stance, our attitudes, what we consider right, what we consider wrong ... to developing a global consensus on the direction to go."

Luxon concurred.

"I just echo those same comments, I mean the prime minister and I have spoken and we've got a very aligned position as you would expect. We're both countries that respect international rule of law, we're both countries that respect humanitarian law, and our positions are very much aligned.

"As we've seen in the Middle East, what we've been saying and what we want to continue to say, is that we really want people to exercise restraint, I mean this is the last thing this region needs is an escalation of tension."

Joint statement

The pair's opening comments referred to their official joint statement, which included comments about their respective positions on several areas of global competition and some new trade initiatives.

It included a promise to further elevate the Enhanced Partnership between the two countries before the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries next year, following the announcement of the Enhanced Partnership in 2019.

The most concrete agreements from today were on electronic trade invoicing and certification, and an invitation for a Singapore Food Security mission to visit New Zealand this year as part of the Supply Chain Working Group launched in 2022.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is welcomed by his Singaporean counterpart, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the Istana - the official residence of the president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Luxon is greeted by Prime Minister Lee on arrival to the Istana. Photo: Dan Brunskill

They agreed to add "Supply Chains and Connectivity" as a sixth pillar to the partnership agreement between the two countries, promising to streamline flows of critical goods during times of crisis, and planning to work together on sustainable aviation and shipping and green customs issues.

The prime ministers directed officials to explore how they could cooperate further on climate change and transitioning to a greener economy, with the possibility of green-business missions between the two countries.

On defence, a live firing training exercise for Singapore artillery called Thunder Warrior, hosted in New Zealand, would also take place again next year.

They raised "grave concern" about the situation in Gaza and called on Israel to "urgently facilitate safe and unimpeded humanitarian access", saying civilian protection was of paramount importance, and restated their commitment to "a negotiated two-state solution".

The statement also highlighted both countries' condemnation of Russia's "illegal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine" more than two years ago, calling on those with influence to convince Russia to withdraw its troops and enter diplomatic negotiations.

They raised concern about the South China Sea, and reaffirmed the need to respect states' ability to conserve, sustainably develop and manage their maritime natural resources in accordance with international laws - particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Myanmar's coup three years ago did not escape mention either, with both prime ministers urging the military to stop the violence, release those arbitrarily detained, and provide "full safe and unhindered humanitarian access and create space for meaningful and inclusive dialogue between all parties".


Lee was also asked about trade with China, and said Singapore wanted to do business "wherever the business is".

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon at an orchid-naming ceremony in Singapore.

Luxon wears a colourfully patterned shirt at the orchid ceremony held at Singapore's botanic gardens. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

China was a very big market, he said, but he also pointed to the value of agreements with many different countries such as the NZ-Singapore FTA, the CPTPP, the RCEP and the Digital Economy Partnership trade agreements.

"I think that's the way we should work, so that we have overlapping groups, and they each contribute something - and it's not quite as good as having one whole cloth - everybody free trading with everybody else - but short of that impossible ideal we are not bad."

Lee also gave his opinion on reports New Zealand was being considered for inclusion in the AUKUS defence agreement. While the New Zealand government has not signed up to the deal - which initially centred around provision of nuclear submarines to Australia - Luxon reasserted the country was considering joining the technology and communications-focused Pillar 2.

Lee said from an economic perspective, small countries were unable to move away from globalisation.

"If New Zealand has to eat all the food which it produces," he said. "We'd be very large," Luxon finished.

Lee continued: "So we've got to trade, we've got to do business, and we can't do it always multilaterally with [the roughly] 200 countries in the world but I can find partners and do more together with the partners."

"On the security side, I think different countries will have different postures ... not everybody is best friends forever with everybody else," he said.

He pointed to Singapore's lack of a firm defence treaty with the United States, saying that was what was best for Singapore.

Read the full joint statement:

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