Singapore thrives best when the entire region is stable and can attract investors, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said as unrest continues to roil Hong Kong, often seen as the city-state's competitor for the role of Asia's premier financial center.
Speaking at the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore on Wednesday, Lee said confidence in the region would mean that "investors can come and not think that 'I'm in a dangerous part of the world.'"
"We thrive best in Singapore when the region is stable, when other countries are prospering and we can do business with them," he told the audience at a dialogue with Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media.
Those ties with other countries would include those in financial services with Hong Kong, tourism, or trade, Lee said.
"When Hong Kong is troubled, when there're demonstrations — or worse, riots — when the chief executive is booed out of the Legislative Council chamber, I think that's very sad for Hong Kong and very bad for the region," he said. He was referring to Wednesday's incident where Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was heckled and interrupted by pro-democracy lawmakers twice while trying to make her annual policy address. She was forced to eventually deliver the speech by video.
"We look on with concern. We hope Hong Kong will be able to overcome these problems. I don't see any easy way forward," Lee said.
The protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill — which would have allowed China to potentially freeze assets in the city — initially sparked reports that Hong Kong tycoons started to move their personal wealth offshore. Bankers and wealth managers subsequently told Reuters that they were receiving more queries from individuals about moving their funds to Singapore.
In a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore in September, a majority of businesses polled indicated that the unrest in Hong Kong has hurt the city's business reputation and affected their decisions about future investments there.
But, responding to a question from the audience on whether he has seen businesses moving from Hong Kong to Singapore, Lee said: "I haven't seen it happen yet. It could happen. We don't hope for it."
"I mean, we hope Hong Kong will calm down ... and that Singapore companies will be able to send people to go to Hong Kong and do business there," Lee said.
As the turmoil drags into its fifth month, Lee had sharp words for the protesters and their five demands. The protesters have been adamant about the government meeting all demands, and "not one less."
"Those are not demands which are meant to be a program to solve Hong Kong's problems. Those are demands which are intended to humiliate and bring down the government," he said.
"And then what? Well I think if you press the question, some of them would — if they were candid — would say 'Well, I don't know…and anyway I'm not happy I want this to happen.' And that's the most unfortunate state to be in. We've got to be able to move beyond that," Lee said.