The 35th Singapore Lecture: Transcript of Speech by The Hon Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister of Australia

This is the Transcript of Speech by The Hon Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister of Australia. For the event highlights, click here.

Monday, 29 June 2015 – Prime Minister Lee, Deputy Prime Minister Teo – today it is an honour to follow three serving Australian prime ministers in delivering this Singapore lecture.


Yesterday, it was my honour to visit the Kranji War Cemetery where so many of Singapore’s wartime defenders lie.


As the Japanese swept down the peninsula in those years, Australian troops achieved the few modest allied wins of that campaign: the stand at Bakri; the ambushes at Gemas and Jemaluang; and the fighting withdrawal from Muar where the Australians went into battle singing Waltzing Matilda.

Almost 1,800 Australians gave their lives in the fight for Malaya and Singapore, and over 1,300 were wounded.


When Singapore fell, some 15,000 Australians became prisoners of war, and 7,000 perished in captivity.


Australians were some 10 per cent of the defenders but suffered some 70 per cent of the battle casualties.


It was the most disastrous campaign in British military history but it helped to put beyond doubt Australia’s commitment to the region.


Just 73 years ago, Singapore was a burning ruin; today, it is a wonder of the modern world.


Just 50 years ago, when Lee Kuan Yew declared Singapore’s independence, his country was poor, friendless and facing an uncertain future; today, it is rich, well-connected and secure.


Australians of my parents’ generation were haunted by Singapore’s fall; Australians of my generation, and younger, should be galvanized by its rise.


Within two generations, Singapore has moved from the third world to the first; Lee Kuan Yew didn’t just lead Singapore, he built it, he made it.


Once the Gibraltar of the east, Singapore is again a symbol to the world of enterprise, confidence and initiative: of self-reliance and success.


Singapore’s success is founded on the ideas, the drive and the judgement of Lee Kuan Yew; on the talents of the Singaporean people that he unleashed; and on a legacy of law and language that he respected and built on.


Lee Kuan Yew insisted that all Singaporeans learn English; he maintained the legal system built on common law; and even preserved the statue of Raffles, as a sign of the regard that he expected Singapore to have for this heritage.


Back in 1965, Australia was the very first country to recognise Singapore’s independence.


Sir Robert Menzies, our prime minister at the time, deeply respected Lee Kuan Yew; while Lee Kuan Yew said that Menzies was the Australian leader who had most impressed him.


The esteem that Lee and Menzies had for each other was a strong foundation for the friendship between our nations that has grown and grown ever since.


As we’ve heard, Singapore is Australia’s largest trade and investment partner in ASEAN and our fifth largest trading partner overall.


We already have a robust free trade agreement; it’s just the second that Australia negotiated, after Closer Economic Relations with New Zealand.


There are 3,500 businesses with Australian links operating here in Singapore, spanning infrastructure, IT, education, financial services and logistics.


We have invested many tens of billions of dollars in each other – a sure sign of our mutual trust and respect.


Over the past half century, more than 130,000 Singaporeans have been educated at Australian universities under the Colombo Plan and beyond.


The New Colombo Plan, started last year, has already seen nearly 500 Australian students study in Singapore; we are finally returning the compliment that Singapore has paid to us, and hope to learn as much in your country as you have in ours.


Each year over 350,000 Australians now travel to Singapore for business or pleasure; and a similar number of Singaporeans come to Australia.


Almost since Singapore’s independence we have been military partners in the Five Power Defence Arrangements, along with the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Malaysia.


Over the past decade, we have both contributed to military operations in Afghanistan and we are now working together in the skies over Iraq.


For many years, the Singapore Armed Forces have trained in Queensland, and a Singapore Air Force squadron has been stationed in Western Australia.


The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed this morning with Prime Minister Lee will produce a whole new level of intimacy over the next decade.


We’re becoming family; not just friends.


In some ways, Australia and Singapore could hardly be more different.


Australia is a country with its own continent, sparsely settled, mostly by European people, with a successful resources economy.


Singapore is a tiny but teeming island, whose people are mostly of Chinese descent, with a dynamic services economy.


But in other ways, we have much in common – the English language, the rule of law, a high and rising standard of living, and support for the US-backed global order which has made the world’s comparative freedom and prosperity possible.


Singapore seeks opportunities to expand beyond its domestic market; Australia seeks investment, especially in our great north; that’s why we have so much to offer each other.


We are natural partners; we could hardly be more complementary.


My hope is that Australia’s relationship with Singapore will swiftly grow as easy, close and familiar as it has long been with New Zealand.


The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, that Australia and Singapore have concluded today, also moves us towards the closer economic relations that Australia and New Zealand have enjoyed for 30 years.


Over time, I hope that Singaporeans will regard Australia, especially the north, as a frontier of opportunity; and that Australians will regard Singapore, as much as London, as a place to gain the world’s best professional experience.


Soon, I hope that employment and residency rights for Australians and Singaporeans in each other’s countries will resemble those of New Zealanders and Australians.


This will make both our countries even more successful and secure.


In any event, our partnership is deepening as our region is rising.


Over the past few decades the Asia-Pacific region has achieved an economic transformation, unparalleled in human history.


Japan has arisen from the ashes of defeat to become one of the world’s most prosperous democracies.


Korea has moved from the third world to the first in less than half a century.


In an epic improvement, China has emerged from war and internal turmoil to shift hundreds of millions of people from the third world to the middle class.


This is the greatest, fastest change for the better of all time.


And so much of our region’s prosperity has been built on Australian coal, iron ore and gas. 


Now, and far into the future, we can offer the countries of our region the food, energy and resource security they seek.


For Australia, the tyranny of distance has given way to the advantage of proximity.


Our Asia-Pacific region now accounts for over half the global population, more than one-third of world gross domestic product, and about a third of world exports.


Still, continued prosperity depends on continued security.


In our own region, there has been some tension over the disputed islands and reefs of the East China and South China seas.


Australia does not take sides on competing territorial claims; we deplore unilateral moves to change the status quo; and insist that disputes should be settled peacefully, in accordance with international law. 


Like all trading nations, Australia upholds freedom of navigation on the seas and in the air.


Land reclamation on a massive scale not only unsettles the mutual respect upon which our prosperity depends but threatens one of the world’s most complex and beautiful reef systems.


These actions have strained some of the relationships that China has otherwise worked hard to cultivate.


On the other hand, China’s readiness to work with other countries on the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank has meant the emergence of a new Chinese-led international institution with better governance.


As a result, Australia will join Singapore and more than fifty other countries in joining the bank at a signing ceremony in Beijing earlier today.


And there is a lesson here – there is a lesson here: the countries of the Asia-Pacific have too much to gain from cooperation and too much to lose from confrontation.


Participation in ASEAN and then in the East Asia Summit has built the habits of cooperation needed to manage regional issues.


All our regional architecture – including APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting – is designed to defuse regional tensions.


History is a bad master but a good teacher – and the hard-earned lesson of our history is that we will all advance together; or none of us will advance at all.


Now it’s harder to be optimistic about Eastern Europe where Russia is continuing to bully its smaller neighbours whenever they look to Western Europe rather than their former Soviet overlord.


Still, western sanctions are hurting; and the reaction to Russian aggression does seem to have produced a more united and more determined Ukraine.


It’s harder still to be optimistic about the Middle East: where hostility to Israel, longstanding tensions between Iran and its neighbours, sectarian splits within Islam, and a pervasive sense of grievance have helped to create the monster of ISIL or Daesh.


I refuse to call this death cult “Islamic State” because to do so insults the Muslims it is killing every day and concedes legitimacy to a movement at war with the world.


Still, Daesh is consolidating its hold over an area as large as Italy with about eight million people.


Its affiliates control significant swathes of Libya and Nigeria and are active in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.


It is seeking to establish a far province in South East Asia.


It is the deadly enemy of all governments and of all people, even those it has enslaved.


It cannot be contained: it has to be defeated.


This weekend’s attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait are simply its latest atrocities.


In the past year, Daesh and its imitators have carried out terrorist attacks in Belgium, France, Canada, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Denmark and the United States – as well as Australia, in Melbourne and in my home town of Sydney.


I regret to say that we can expect more and worse atrocities as long as even a small minority of people are susceptible to its message.


As the declaration of a caliphate shows, it is coming for everyone on the basis of a twisted interpretation of the Koran: submit or die.


Daesh is using an online world without borders to brainwash our young people and to accustom them to kill for their cause.


More than 20,000 people from over 80 countries have gone to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh.


Up to 300 Indonesians and 90 Malaysians are currently thought to be fighting for Daesh in the Middle East.


Thais, Filipinos, Cambodians and even Singaporeans have also joined, although in much smaller numbers.


And I regret to say that at least 120 Australians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq, with about 160 at home recruiting for them and funding them.


Our domestic security agency is currently investigating several thousand persons of concern and has over 400 high priority cases.


We have more foreign fighters, more terrorist supporters and more terrorist sympathisers than ever before.


A decade or so back, more than 300 South East Asians had trained with terrorist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan.


On their return, more than 80 were arrested or killed in counter-terrorism operations.


Of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists directly involved in the 2002 Bali Bombings – which killed 202 people including 88 Australians – 11 out of 17 had trained with terrorist groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan.


Of the 25 Australians who had returned home after training with terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan, 19 were subsequently involved in terrorist plotting and eight were convicted of terrorism offences.


So this is a daunting precedent, given the many hundreds from our region already fighting in the Middle East right now.


Now living in pluralist democracies under the rule of law, where killing in the name of God is almost unimaginable, it’s hard even to begin to appreciate the motives and methods of an apocalyptic death cult.


Daesh will seek to expand until it’s overthrown – that’s what the logic of the Caliphate demands.


So there are no good options here, but the worst is simply hoping for the best, waiting for something to turn up, or expecting someone else to do the heavy lifting.


The difference between the last American involvement in the Middle East – and any stronger one now – would be that this is in support of the legitimate government of Iraq.


The difference between this outbreak of doomsday fundamentalism and the last, lesser one is that Daesh has united almost every Muslim authority against it.


This is not a fight that can be won quickly or easily, but it can’t be avoided.


Some might question whether we’re at war with them – but they’re certain that they’re at war with us. 


It’s a military and security struggle – but it’s also a struggle inside hearts, minds and souls.


And yesterday, I visited one of Singapore’s de-radicalisation programmes that involves family members, mentoring relationships and a religious engagement to wean people from the idea that serving God means killing infidels.


So we can succeed when we turn our minds to it.


The world should be grateful for Singapore’s solidarity and readiness to be a part of the international coalition against Daesh in the Middle East.


Singapore – along with Australia – has been willing to shoulder its responsibilities to uphold the freedom and security of the wider world.


Now one of the Australian servicemen who arrived in Singapore just a few weeks before its fall was John Gorton.


In late January 1942, he crashed landed after a dogfight with a Japanese aircraft.

As he was being evacuated, his ship was torpedoed.


Gorton would return to Singapore twenty-six years later this time as the Prime Minister of Australia.


He warned, “history shows that … those who neglect security, those who neglect defence, do so ultimately at their own peril”.


And as our foremost historian Geoffrey Blainey has observed: “a nation can be neutral only with the consent of its potential enemies”.


Australia and Singapore are too engaged with the world to avoid its difficulties.


We are too small to change the world on our own but we should never doubt the difference we can make.


We need the world but the world needs us and will be the better for our work together.


Thank you so much. It is an honour and a privilege to deliver this lecture and I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to do so.