In response to questions by Members of Parliament:
• Ms Indranee Rajah on Singapore's Foreign Relations
• Ms Indranee Rajah on ASEAN
• Dr Ong Chit Chung on ASEAN
• Mr Charles Chong on ASEAN
• Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman on ASEAN
• Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong on ASEAN
• Mr Teo Ser Luck on ASEAN
• Mr Hawazi Daipi on ASEAN
• Mr Michael Palmer on Relations with China and India
• Dr Ong Chit Chung on Bilateral Relations with Neighbouring Countries
• Mr Hawazi Daipi on Bilateral Relations with Neighbouring Countries
• Mr Zainudin Nordin on Middle East
Mr Chairman, Sir, allow me first to thank members for their questions on Singapore's foreign policy although there are not many cuts this year.
2 To answer Ms Indranee Rajah and others, the overall international and regional outlook for Singapore remains favourable. The big international relationships which affect us have improved. Sino-US relations are on an even keel. As a result of this, cross-Straits relations are stable, at least for now. The US has recognised China's helpfulness in finding a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. Under PM Abe, Japan's relations with China have become less frosty. China's relations with India are also getting better. Both sides are engaged in serious border talks and trade between them is growing smartly. All this is good for community building in the region - APEC, ASEAN plus 3 and the EAS (East Asia Summit).
3 The Middle East, however, remains worrying. The situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. The standoff between the international community and Iran over its nuclear programme is reaching a head. Against the backdrop of growing division between Sunnis and Shiites, the Middle East is one area where conflict can suck in all the world's major powers. We'll be directly affected in Southeast Asia as well. Without forward movement in Palestine, Iraq and Iran, the problem of jihadi terrorism can only get worse. But it is not all gloom; there are some positive developments as well. For example, Saudi Arabia is now playing a helpful role in bringing Fatah and Hamas together to form a unity government in Palestine. Although the Mecca Agreement falls short of the conditions set for an internationally-recognised Palestinian government, it nevertheless represents a step forward. It is good that the US is also now prepared to engage Iran and Syria through a regional conference on Iraq.
4 While we have little influence over the larger forces at play, we can help stabilize our immediate environment in Southeast Asia. Ms Indranee Rajah, Dr Ong Chit Chung, Ms Irene Ng, Mr Charles Chong, Dr Maliki, Mr Teo Ser Luck and Mr Hawazi Daipi raised ASEAN and the importance of ASEAN integration. Building a stronger ASEAN is indeed a core element in our foreign policy. By the next Summit this November, the ASEAN Charter which is being drafted should be ready for our Leaders to sign. We will strengthen all three pillars of ASEAN, for political-security cooperation, for economic integration and the strengthening of our socio-cultural linkages.
5 A strong ASEAN enables us to negotiate more effectively with our major partners like the US, China, Japan, India, Europe and Australia/NZ. ASEAN is already playing a leading role in the construction of a larger architecture of peace and cooperation in the region. We have an inner concentric circle consisting of ASEAN and the three Northeast Asian countries of China, Japan and Korea, what we call ASEAN plus 3. And we have, in addition, a larger concentric circle, the EAS, which also includes India, Australia and New Zealand. Launched in KL in December 2005, the EAS had a successful second meeting in Cebu.
6 Dr Ong Chit Chung asked about the ASEAN FMs' Retreat in Siem Reap last week. We had a good meeting and we were able to advance the ASEAN agenda significantly. Later this year, Singapore will be in the ASEAN Chair for its 40th Anniversary as pointed out by Ms Rajah and Mr Hawazi. We will also be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of our dialogue relations with the US and the EU. ASEAN's relations with both the US and the EU are becoming stronger. With the US, a Plan of Action was signed last July to implement the ASEAN-US Enhanced Partnership. With the EU, negotiations for an EU-ASEAN FTA will soon be launched. The EU has also indicated its desire to accede to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Singapore is a strong advocate of stronger EU involvement in ASEAN. We hope that both the ASEAN-US and ASEAN-EU Anniversaries will be celebrated at the Summit level.
7 While in the Chair, we will do all we can to move ASEAN forward. A peaceful ASEAN can play a major role in maintaining the larger peace in Asia. If I may answer Dr Maliki, Dr Ong and Ms Irene Ng directly, it doesn't mean that, with a strong ASEAN, there'll be no more problems or conflicts among countries in Southeast Asia. There will still be. But a sense of regional solidarity and a habit of consultation and cooperation will set our disagreements within limits and facilitate their solution. To respond to the comments made by Dr Ong and Ms Irene Ng, ASEAN still has a very positive role to play. The most important objective is to maintain the peace in the region. If we are able to keep the peace for another generation, the entire region which encompasses more than half the world's population in Asia will be transformed beyond recognition and hundreds of millions of people will be brought out of the depths of poverty.
Bilateral Relations with ASEAN countries
8 Let me now move to our bilateral relations in ASEAN. Ms Rajah, Dr Maliki and Dr Ong Chit Chung commented on our relations with Malaysia. On the whole, our relations with Malaysia are good and getting better. I agree with the recent remarks by Foreign Minister Syed Hamid quoted in the Straits Times. I quote, 'our bilateral ties with Singapore have never been better. That doesn't mean all our bilateral issues have been resolved, but we are moving on to a more mature track. We are able to segment areas where we think we can move forward and areas we cannot, and move on the areas we think we can move ahead' - unquote. I welcome this new phase in our relationship. In May, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will visit Malaysia with a delegation of Cabinet Ministers for a retreat with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his colleagues. This will be the first Retreat between our Leaders.
9 Close cooperation between our two countries will benefit our peoples. Personally, I was delighted when it was announced that Genting made the successful bid for the Sentosa IR project. We look forward to working with Malaysia on the Iskandar Development Region in South Johor on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit. I am pleased to inform the House that the National University of Singapore will be conferring on the Sultan of Johor an honorary doctorate in April on the occasion of his official visit to Singapore. At Siem Reap last week, I expressed our intention to establish a Consulate in JB to Syed Hamid who welcomed it.
10 Singapore's relationship with Vietnam is growing from strength to strength. Vietnam has made remarkable progress in the last decade. It has been the fastest growing economy in ASEAN all through the Asian Financial Crisis. We have been working with Vietnam to deepen our economic cooperation. The Connectivity Agreement which we signed with Vietnam in December 2005 has raised our economic relationship to a new level by allowing both countries to leverage on each another's strengths. Last year, PM Lee was invited by Vietnam Premier Dung to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park which has been a signal success. The two PMs also witnessed the launch of the VSIP II in September 2006. We look forward to Vietnam playing a growing role in ASEAN. Our relations with Cambodia and Laos are also in good shape.
11 Dr Ong, Mr Hawazi, Ms Rajah and Dr Maliki asked whether problems in our bilateral relations with Thailand and Indonesia will affect ASEAN's development. Well, I certainly hope not. With Thailand, our relationship is strong enough to weather the uproar over Prof Jayakumar's private dinner with former PM Thaksin. As Thai Assistant Army Commander, General Saprang (Kalayanamitr), who is a member of the Council for National Security (CNS), said in his interview with the Straits Times published on 21 February 2007, "misunderstandings between the two countries have come about because of Thaksin's business. The problem can be resolved fairly... and won't blow up because the cause of the problem is not Singapore, but Thaksin". In other words, we are just being embroiled in their own domestic political conflict. I share General Saprang's sentiments. As close and friendly neighbours, it is right that both sides take into account each other's sensitivities whenever possible. We value our friendship with Thailand and the Thai people. It is good that both countries view Temasek's purchase of Shin Corp as a commercial transaction. The Thai Government has stated publicly that it is mindful of the rights of international investors and will not take action which is discriminatory in nature.
12 As for Indonesia, which was raised by, I think, all MPs, our relations were improving until recently. In October 2005, PM Lee held a retreat with President Yudhoyono in Bali. They agreed to negotiate an ET, an Extradition Treaty and a DCA, or a Defence Cooperation Agreement, in parallel and to be concluded as a package. We have made good progress on both the ET and the DCA. There are a few difficult issues remaining but the gaps can be overcome. We have also agreed to cooperate on the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in the Riaus, and to work together regionally and internationally to combat the haze.
13 Unfortunately, despite these positive developments, other issues have recently emerged that could sour relations and affect bilateral cooperation. On 5 February 2007, Indonesia banned the export of land sand to Singapore. Various reasons have been advanced by Indonesian politicians and legislators, some quite wild and strange. I like the five 'P's which Ms Indranee Rajah used to describe the cacophony which we are now hearing.
14 On 16 February 2007, the Jakarta Post published an article which quoted the DEPLU's (Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs) Director General for Asia, the Pacific and Africa saying that the ban on land sand exports to Singapore was a way to put more pressure on us to move faster on ET and border demarcation. MFA issued a statement on 19 February to say that, if this was indeed DEPLU's position, it was unfortunate and contravened the earlier agreement by the two Leaders and would further complicate border negotiations. On 21 February, Foreign Minister Hassan clarified that the land sand ban was not intended to pressure us. He reiterated environmental concerns and conceded that our reclamation would not change the sea boundaries between Singapore and Indonesia because what was under discussion was far away from our reclamation areas.
15 Last week I met Minister Hassan during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat in Siem Reap. He repeated to me that there was no linkage between the ban on land sand and other bilateral issues. And he explained Indonesia's environmental concerns. I told him that our offer to work with Indonesia on these concerns was still on the table. On sand, I acknowledged Indonesia's prerogative to stop its export, subject, of course, to international rules. I told him we were disappointed but we would find alternatives.
16 Early last week, another issue arose. We received reports that the Indonesian Navy was interdicting and detaining tugboats and barges carrying granite chips from Indonesia to Singapore. As of this morning, some 12 tugboats and 12 barges have been detained, most of which fly the Singapore flag. Mr Hawazi and others raised this specific problem.
17 I asked Foreign Minister Hassan whether there was a ban on granite exports to Singapore as well. After checking, he assured me that there was no such ban. He said there were only some existing administrative verification procedures to be complied with for granite exports. He invited us to witness the verification process to ensure its transparency. I welcomed this.
18 Minister Lim Hng Kiang also spoke to Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu to clarify the matter. She also confirmed that there was no ban on granite exports and acknowledged that several barges carrying granite chips from Indonesia to Singapore had been detained by the Indonesian Navy.
19 This morning, MFA delivered a TPN to the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore to confirm what Foreign Minister Hassan had assured me in Siem Reap and to ask the Indonesian Government to take immediate action to release the vessels that are still detained.
20 It is not clear to us what caused the recent events which threatened our bilateral relations. We know, for a fact, that President Yudhoyono values good bilateral relations as we do. On ET and DCA, we are not far from a solution. This was also Minister Hassan's view when I met him. And we have agreed that negotiations should now be elevated to the ministerial level so that they can be jointly concluded on the basis of 'an overall balance of benefits' agreed to between PM Lee and President Yudhoyono.
21 Mr Chairman, Sir, from time to time, we must expect countries to pressure us in the hope that we will then give way to their demands. Singaporeans know that if we give in to such pressures, we would only invite more such pressures. However, we are always prepared to build good relations with them on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit. We should still help them when they are in difficulty not because we expect gratitude or reward, but because that is the right thing to do. I do understand the sentiments expressed by Ms Indranee Rajah, Ms Irene Ng and Dr Ong Chit Chung, which are sentiments shared by many Singaporeans but we have to take these up's and down's in our stride.
Rest of ASEAN
22 Moving on to the rest of ASEAN, Singapore treasures its close ties with the Philippines and Brunei. The leadership of President Arroyo was a decisive factor in the success of the last ASEAN Summit in Cebu. We were touched by the warm welcome accorded to President Nathan during his State Visit to the Philippines last month. With Brunei, our relationship is intimate and problem-free. Later this year, PM Lee will be visiting Brunei to launch jointly with the Sultan a commemorative currency note to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of our Currency Interchangeability Agreement.
23 Dr Ong Chit Chung and Mr Charles Chong asked about our attitude towards Myanmar. It is sad that the country is not moving forward, at least not in a way obvious to foreign observers. By right, Myanmar should be in the Chair of ASEAN this year. We have decided that in ASEAN, we should give Myanmar more space to work out its own internal problems. This also means that ASEAN stopped having a common position at international forums like the UN and the ILO. Mr Chong asked whether the ASEAN Charter should have provisions for actions against member states in the case of serious violations. This is a subject still being discussed but not with specific reference to Myanmar.
24 Bilaterally, we continue to maintain good relations with Myanmar and we wish the Myanmar people well. I will be making a bilateral visit to Myanmar next month. It is not for us to tell them what to do but we support ASEAN's consensus calling on the Myanmar Government to adhere to its own Roadmap to Democracy and for the release of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.
Bilateral Relations with China, Japan and India
25 To answer Ms Rajah and Mr Palmer, our bilateral relations with China, Japan and India are excellent.
26 With China, the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation co-chaired by Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi and DPM Wong Kan Seng covers a wide field. Last year, both sides agreed to launch negotiations for a China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement within the framework of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement. Suzhou has become an icon of our close partnership. China welcomes the extension of our involvement from the coastal regions to the West and the Northeast, and both sides have been making bilateral visits at a high level.
27 Our good relations with Japan were highlighted last year by the visit of the Emperor and the Empress. Following the custom of the Imperial Household, the visit was carefully crafted in great detail to express the depth and the warmth of our friendship. This month, Prime Minister Lee will be making an official visit to Japan. With economic recovery, Japan's role in ASEAN's economic development is growing again.
28 To answer Mr Palmer, we are relieved to see the sun come out in the relations between Japan and China although the clouds have not completely dispersed. Prime Minister Abe made an important move in visiting Beijing first when he assumed office, and Prime Minister Wen will be returning the visit to Japan in April 2007.
29 As for India, raised by Ms Rajah and Mr Palmer, our bilateral relations have never been better. We are now cooperating on a wide front including in security and defence. Our artillery and armour units conduct joint exercises regularly, including live-firing exercises. The two air forces have been conducting a series of bilateral exercises, out of Kalaikunda in West Bengal and, for the first time last year, in Singapore. Following the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement in June 2005, bilateral trade jumped 40 % last year.
30 In a modest way, we have been promoting good relations between India and China and between India and Japan. We try to add value where we can. And these are the three most important countries in Asia. If they develop strong bonds of cooperation, the whole of Asia will benefit and Singapore will prosper. For this reason, we worked hard for an EAS that included India. But we need more than economics to bind us together. We need also to develop cultural ties, the ties that in past periods created the maritime silk route. For example, with the support of the Buddhist community in Singapore, MFA has been working with India, China, Japan and many other Asian countries to promote the Nalanda project which Mr Palmer referred to.
31 Mr Palmer asked whether there is a danger that Singapore might be caught in between should conflict break out between the big powers, for example, between China and US, or China and Japan. There is always such a risk. What is important is for us to be clear about our own position. While we have friendly relations with the major powers, we are never their agents. And we must always be autonomous and have our own core. Let me answer Ms Irene Ng and Mr Hawazi Daipi. If there is a puppeteer, it is the people of Singapore whose collective interest we advance.
Bilateral Relations with the US and Russia, APEC
32 Dr Ong Chit Chung referred to our relations with the US, with whom we have an FTA and a Strategic Framework Agreement. Last year, President Bush made his second official visit to Singapore. No other country can match the US in its comprehensive capabilities. When the Boxing Day tsunami hit us, it was the US military which did the heavy lifting in countries all along the Indian Ocean rim. The SAF was only able to play a significant role because we were within operational range of Aceh.
33 We also recognise the importance of Russia to our region. Our political and economic links to Russia are getting stronger. There are now many direct flights between Singapore and Moscow. We are also working together on the development of Special Economic Zones.
Relations with Middle East
34 Mr Chairman Sir, Mr Zainudin Nordin asked for a progress report on our Middle East account. We have made significant progress since our policy shift to engage that region some three years ago. Last year, the Saudi Crown Prince made a very successful official visit to Singapore. The story of the young boy who walked up to the Prince at the lounge of the Fullerton Hotel, chatted him up and who was then given a string of beads by the Crown Prince, touched the hearts of many Singaporeans. PM Lee also had a good visit to Saudi Arabia in November last year. We were pleasantly surprised and honoured when the Saudis proposed to send more than two hundred scholarship holders to study in our universities annually.
35 Our relations with the other Gulf States - Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait - are also blossoming and becoming more multi-faceted. We enjoy a good brand name and, generally speaking, our companies and our citizens are sought after by all these countries. Some of our companies have secured sizeable contracts. I hope more of our businessmen will seize opportunities in that market.
36 Negotiations for an FTA with the GCC countries, which consists of all the countries that I have mentioned, have begun and should not take too long to complete. Not only are there opportunities for us to trade and invest in each other's economy, there are also good prospects for us to work together in third countries. Flushed with cash reserves from high energy prices, and feeling somewhat less welcome in the West nowadays, some of the GCC countries are looking for opportunities to invest their money in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries in our region. Some have asked to partner us in entering these Asian markets, especially China, as they believe that we are more familiar with this region. And, as Minister Tharman mentioned in his Budget Speech, Singapore is also becoming a centre for Islamic finance to service the growing economic links between the Middle East and East Asia.
37 I spoke about the strategic importance of Iran earlier. SM Goh Chok Tong will be visiting Iran in a few days' time. On Iran's nuclear programme, Singapore has always taken a firm position. We acknowledge Iran's right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes but this must be done under the supervision of the IAEA. It is necessary for Iran to comply with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA safeguards regime. Since Iran has explained that its nuclear programme is a peaceful one, we hope that it will abide by UN Security Council Resolution 1737 and reduce what IAEA Director-General El Baradei called the 'confidence deficit'. We believe that Iran can play an important positive role in bringing peace and stability to a troubled region. Doing so would be in the interest of Iran and the rest of the world.
38 Beyond the Gulf, Singapore's relations with Egypt, Jordan and the Maghreb are all warming up. Last year we established diplomatic relations with Libya. And I hope to visit Libya this coming May to explore opportunities for cooperation.
39 To deepen our knowledge of the Middle East, we will establish an institute to study the Middle East focusing on West Asia and North Africa. It will complement the existing Southeast Asian, East Asian and South Asian Institutes. Our Arab community in Singapore is an invaluable bridge we should use to re-establish links with that region. Many of our Arabs are Hadramis who are an unusually talented and entrepreneurial people. Recently, Minister Yaacob and I had lunch with members of the Arab Association to discuss how the Government can facilitate the Association's efforts to reinvigorate our Arabic heritage including the teaching of the Arabic language.
40 Mr Chairman Sir, with the unfolding of our second wing, Singapore's external engagement has grown dramatically in recent years. Singaporeans and Singapore companies can now be found all over the world, including Africa and Latin America. It is the job of the Foreign Ministry to help expand that external space for Singaporeans in this new phase of our national development. It is an exciting phase and one which I hope more Singaporeans would consider being a part of.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
5 MARCH 2007