Conversation: Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation with the minister of Singapore, and to Ray Suarez.
RAY SUAREZ: This week, Singapore became the first country to sign a free trade pact with the United States since Congress gave President Bush authority to make such deals. A small city-state on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore is home to four million people. In recent weeks it has wrestled with the spread of SARS in Southeast Asia and has been an American ally in the war on terrorism. Singapore’s prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, is the first Southeast Asian leader to visit Washington since the war on Iraq.
Mr. Goh, welcome to the NewsHour.
GOH CHOK TONG, Prime Minister, Singapore: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s begin with SARS. Where is your country right now with the battle against the disease?
GOH CHOK TONG: We have a serious problem and right now we’re on top of situation. The World Health Organization has said that the disease has peaked in Singapore and yesterday the CDC had lifted the travel advisory on Singapore.
RAY SUAREZ: At the time that it lifted the travel advisory an infectious disease specialist in Atlanta said, “I can’t think of a single thing Singapore could have done better,” which is pretty high praise. How did your country handle the outbreak?
GOH CHOK TONG: Well, we took a tough position on this. The strategy was essentially one of detect, isolate, and contain, because you detect a person who has been infected by it, isolate, quarantine, so we can control the transmission of the disease.
RAY SUAREZ: And about the travel advisories, did you understand why Singapore was on those lists?
GOH CHOK TONG: Well, people are afraid of being infected by SARS. And we had quite a large number of cases initially, but now it’s under control. So I can understand why we were put on the list because countries must warn their citizens against traveling to these countries, but we have now turned the corner. That’s the most important thing.
RAY SUAREZ: When will you know that you have got this under control and the disease is close to being eradicated. What threshold must you pass?
GOH CHOK TONG: The last transmission, that is a local transmission of the disease in Singapore happened on April 27, and you normally need two incubation periods of ten days each before we can say that there’s no new cases in Singapore and we are SARS-free. So, we need another perhaps eight, nine days to go before we can say for certain that we are free of SARS.
RAY SUAREZ: You are a small country in a neighborhood of some very large countries that have not taken as hard a line against the disease as you have. Have you been able to give your expertise to Hong Kong, to Chinese provinces?
GOH CHOK TONG: Well, we had an ASEAN leaders meeting about week ago and all the leaders agreed that we should take tough measures. We actually coordinated the measures we should take. Hong Kong and China were invited to the meeting and they also contributed their ideas. We shared experiences and our professionals are in touch with one another.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s move to the war on terrorism. Singapore made some fairly major arrests early on in the months after September 11. How have things been progressing in this arena?
GOH CHOK TONG: So far so good. In Singapore’s case we have discovered a plot and we arrested several people. I think altogether about 31 of them have been arrested. But terrorism is an ongoing thing and unless it is eradicated in Southeast Asia and in the Middle East and other parts of the world we being a very open country which has a taken action on terrorism must expect ourselves to be vulnerable — to be a target in the future.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Singapore is, as you suggest, a mixture of religions, a mixture of cultures and a travel crossroads for Asia. Do you have to move cautiously when you start to try to control people’s movements and keep an eye on who is coming and who is going?
GOH CHOK TONG: I think you have got to have an exchange of intelligence with other intelligence authorities; then we will be able to spot potential terrorists moving in and out. But it’s not easy, but you have to have vigilance on your side.
RAY SUAREZ: Again, you are between two large countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, Indonesia the scene of the terrible Bali bombing not so long ago. How has your cooperation been with your closest neighbors in watching places that could be training camps, watching people who could be part of terrorist cells?
GOH CHOK TONG: Yes, we have very good cooperation from both Malaysia and Indonesia. The intelligence authorities do meet and they do exchange notes. Indonesia has acted against the terrorists, too. Because of the Bali bombing, the government has moved to arrest several key people. Still, quite a few are on the run, but the main thing is both Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore are cooperating to exchange information on their whereabouts and to apprehend them.
RAY SUAREZ: Was your region, let’s say, aware, before September 11, 2001 of how big a problem there might be?
GOH CHOK TONG: Well, unfortunately no, we were not aware. We knew that it could be a problem, but we did not know the size of it. We knew there that there were local organizations which were prepared to use terror against the governments, but we thought they were regional, local. We did not know they were tied up with al-Qaida.
RAY SUAREZ: And in the year and a half since then, has it been harder, would you say, for these organizations to run their schools, to do the kinds of things that they were doing underneath the government’s radar?
GOH CHOK TONG: The main network has been disrupted and this is thanks to the leadership of the United States in disrupting the al-Qaida network and funding of terrorism and putting a stop to the training camps in Afghanistan and also in some parts of Philippines. So that’s very important.
RAY SUAREZ: Has the United States been of much assistance directly to Singapore in this regard?
GOH CHOK TONG: Yes, because you have intelligence as a result of your arrests of many al-Qaida operatives. And where the information concerns Singapore, we do receive information from the FBI which, of course, enables us to take steps to prevent acts being committed against us.
RAY SUAREZ: So the two countries’ intelligence services have also grown closer during this time?
GOH CHOK TONG: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Have there been any attacks in Asia since the Bali bombing?
GOH CHOK TONG: No, but we knew that there were plans. See, the Bali bombing came about because they were actually targeting Singapore. Then they discovered that Singapore had become a hard target because our people were on the alert, all the prized targets were heavily, shall we say, guarded by our security authority; then they decided they must somehow explode a bomb somewhere, and they chose a soft target in Bali. It’s unfortunate for Indonesia, but the lesson was and still is we have to be on guard against the terrorists.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Prime Minister, thanks for joining us.
GOH CHOK TONG: Thank you.