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Singapore encourages reconciliation: PM Lee

Engaging and helping the country in its reconstruction is more useful

WHILE a handful boycotted the summit in protest against the host's poor human rights record, most members, including Singapore, turned up over the weekend for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka.

"We have taken a different approach in Singapore," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Singapore reporters on Saturday after the summit. "Our view is, we encourage reconciliation, we will participate. We will do this by engaging the country (and help in its reconstruction)."

It's a more useful and tried stand that goes well with Singapore's belief not to meddle in the domestic affairs of others, he said. "We hope that this would promote the recovery and reconciliation," said Mr Lee, who is now back in Singapore. "But really, you cannot impose reconciliation from the outside, nor is it our business to intervene in other country's affairs."

Asean, of which Singapore is a member, seems to have succeeded in persuading Myanmar to introduce democracy and open the country to investors with constructive engagement. And Singapore companies are among those rushing in to do business.

Will Singapore back Singapore companies to invest in Sri Lanka as well? Mr Lee said the government will encourage them to invest in "the region" but won't tell them where exactly to put their money. "Whether they come to Sri Lanka or (go) elsewhere, it's up to them. It's their decision."

Investment is different from constructive engagement, he said. "It's a matter of security environment, business environment, political outlook and basically a decision of the company - whether the timing is right, favourable for investments, what opportunities are here, elsewhere, whether they want to put their money and bet and go for it."

Sri Lanka has a population of 20 million and an estimated per capita income of US$3,200 in 2012. The economy has expanded by up to 8.2 per cent yearly since the end of the civil war in 2009. Tourism is a main sector of the economy and a record one million tourists visited the country last year. The other key sectors are tea, agriculture and apparel and textile.

With the country now stable and at peace, the Sri Lankan government has set ambitious targets to develop economic hubs in ports, aviation, commerce, knowledge and energy.

A United States Department of State report says that apart from tourism and ports, there's also ample scope for foreign investments in information technology, business processing, franchising, retail and services as well as light manufacturing.

But it cautions that doing business in Sri Lanka can also be challenging, with "high transaction costs related to an unpredictable economic policy environment".

Mr Lee noted that there are Singapore companies in Sri Lanka - and some have been there for many years. "Some are doing OK, some have various issues which they are sorting out," he said. "It's a situation which is developing, the government is working very hard to bring in investments and develop the confidence and momentum. I am sure our businesses are watching it closely."