SINGAPORE: Singapore recognises the uncertainty and volatility in the world today, but looking at what it has achieved this year, it does not need to be pessimistic about its outcome, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday (Nov 19).
Reviewing Singapore’s foreign affairs policy in a ministerial statement in Parliament, Dr Balakrishnan said that Singapore has built up the “very precious asset of trust” with its neighbours and the international community, based on its adherence to international law and a rules-based order. This is so, even in times of “significant geopolitical turbulence”.
“They trust us because they know we are straight, honest brokers, we are sticklers for international law and a rules-based world order and free trade, and we believe in the sanctity of agreements and contracts,” he said. “And they also trust our competence, to be able to deliver when times are short and the outcomes are urgent and important.”
“We will continue to be nimble to adapt, seize opportunities and to do our best,” he said, adding that his ministry will continue to work closely with other ministries and agencies to keep Singapore’s foreign policy balance sheet in good order.
But he also stressed that foreign policy begins at home and thus getting Singaporeans' support is crucial. “An effective foreign policy rests on this domestic consensus, a consensus built both within this House, and outside with fellow Singaporeans,” he said.
SINGAPORE’S ASEAN CHAIRMANSHIP A “WHOLE-OF-NATION EFFORT”
Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore has had a very busy year on the foreign policy front, looking at the various events and initiatives the country was involved in over the course of the year.
“We witnessed a global order in rapid transition, marked by heightened big power rivalry, rising protectionist sentiment, xenophobia and technological disruption,” he said.
“As a small country, we have responded nimbly to this volatile global environment, making ourselves relevant to powers big and small, and enlarging the political and economic space for all Singaporeans.”
Over the course of Singapore’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-member regional grouping has made several achievements and launched various key projects, Dr Balakrishnan pointed out.
These include the establishment of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, which creates a common framework for smart city development and mutual exchange of action plans, and finalising of the Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty.
Substantial progress was also made, he added, on negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It is poised to be the world’s largest trade pact, with leaders committing to conclude it in 2019.
Singapore handed over its chairmanship to Thailand at the closing ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit on Nov 15.
“Our chairmanship has been a whole-of-nation effort involving all our government agencies, our media, universities and think tanks, as well as the private sector,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
“Post-2019, Singapore will continue the role of ‘shepherd’ for the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, and bring new ideas to the table,” he added. “There is much more that ASEAN can achieve, and we will work with our counterparts to build a more united, resilient and innovative ASEAN in the years to come.”
Dr Balakrishnan highlighted two events held this year that he said reaffirmed Singapore’s reputation as an impartial and reliable country that can make useful contributions to the international community.
The first was the Trump-Kim Summit in June, and the other was the Bloomberg New Economy Forum earlier this month, which saw international business and political leaders gathering in Singapore to discuss the challenges confronting the global economy and possible solutions.
“Overall, both these events allowed us to raise our standing in the world, and fly our flag high.”
NEED FOR SINGAPORE TO “DOUBLE DOWN” ON MULTILATERAL DIPLOMACY
Dr Balakrishnan also reiterated the need for Singapore to “double down” on its support for multilateralism and the rules-based global world order.
“We have no choice but to subscribe to that, because we will always be small, a tiny red dot, and our trade volume is more than twice our GDP,” he said, adding that keeping the trading framework free and open, and having recourse to third-party dispute resolution mechanisms are “essential for a tiny city-state like Singapore.”
Dr Balakrishnan also gave an update on Singapore’s relations with its neighbours as well as major powers such as China and the United States.
With Malaysia, he said Singapore has had a positive momentum of high-level exchanges with the new Pakatan Harapan government.
“Malaysia has a new, diverse and lively Cabinet – their ages range from 25 to 93 – but we share many aspirations and challenges, and I can speak certainly for the younger ministers, both in Singapore and Malaysia, that there is good rapport and communication,” he said.
As for Indonesia, Dr Balakrishnan said both countries’ relations are in good shape, underpinned by the “robust and expanding economic cooperation” through projects such as the Kendal Industrial Park in Central Java and the Nongsa Digital Park in Batam.
Singapore has also had a number of high-level exchanges with China, Dr Balakrishnan noted, with the Belt and Road Initiative a new highlight in both countries’ bilateral cooperation.
He described Singapore's relationship with the United States as “robust”, spanning defence, economic and security, as well as people-to-people spheres.
“The US remains committed to the region, and we will continue to do more with the US administration in the years to come,” he said.
READ: 'Singapore and US stand together, and stand strong': PM Lee, VP Pence reaffirm robust, enduring partnership
ROHINGYA ISSUE: BANGLADESH GOVERNMENT DONE AN “ADMIRABLE JOB”
In his statement, Dr Balakrishnan also spoke about the Rohingya refugees and the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, giving the House an update on his visit to the refugee camps in Bangladesh earlier in November. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled the Rakhine State since 2017, following an army crackdown.
He said based on his observations on the ground, the Bangladesh government has done an “admirable job” of providing humanitarian support to the refugees. But he added that the current situation is unsustainable.
“As long as the refugees remain in the camps and have no jobs and means of livelihood, they will have no future prospects,” he said. “We have to welcome the fact that both Myanmar and Bangladesh are engaged in direct, detailed discussions on the preparations for the repatriation.”
He added that while this is a critical first step, it is not a complete solution, and there are still many details to be worked out.
This was an issue that some Members of Parliament sought clarification on, with MP Christopher de Souza asking for Dr Balakrishnan’s view on the repatriation of Rohingya that was meant to commence in mid-November, and if enough has been done to ensure that those who return will not face the same threats to their safety as when they first left.
To that, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that there is “sincere goodwill” on the part of both Myanmar and Bangladesh, and that he can state “with a fair amount of confidence” that both sides sincerely want a return of the refugees.
He noted that Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged that the refugees are residents of Myanmar, and they are entitled to go back. “This is a brave position for her to take,” he said.
But he said that the refugees themselves have to want to return, pointing out that their key concern is security.
“Having risked life and limb to get across into the refugee camp, their question is, will it be safe for me to return?” he said, emphasising that there are still a lot more details that need to be sorted out.
“It is ultimately about confidence and trust,” he said. “The domestic lesson for us here is … you understand why we are so focused on making sure inter-ethnic, inter-religious relations are looked after assiduously.
“Because once the fabric is torn, it’s very difficult to put together again.”