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Edited Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Opening Address at the 8th Meeting of Honorary Consuls-General, 8 July 2019

08 July 2019

Distinguished Honorary Consuls-General, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, let me bid all of you a very warm welcome to Singapore.  I see some familiar faces in the audience.  Some are not so familiar but all of you have travelled long distances - quite literally halfway round the world for some of you - and I am grateful to you and your spouses for making the effort.

 

2   We have been hosting these regular meetings of our Honorary Consuls-General actually since 1990. The 7th Meeting was held in 2015 – that was during Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence. We thought it would be fitting to hold one this year, which coincides with yet another significant occasion in our history.  2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in Singapore.  The Singapore Bicentennial is an appropriate time to reflect on our journey as a relatively young, new sovereign nation; but actually with a much longer history, a history which reflects a confluence of trade, technology, innovation, culture and immigration over, in fact, many centuries. Singapore lies in the heart of Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia has always been influenced by many successive waves that have originated far from our shores. 

 

3 Consequently, we have always had to be keenly aware of events and trends all over the world and we have always had to seek to pre-position ourselves optimally in both good times and dangerous times. In other words, we also have to be friends with all countries.  Even more importantly, we need to understand them, and they us. 

 

4 But the number of resident Missions that MFA can set up overseas will always be limited by our size and by our human resources. In fact, we only have about 50 Overseas Missions in over 30 countries, bearing in mind there are over 200 countries in the world. But fortunately for us, we also have a network of 33 in-service Honorary Consuls-General, spanning 29 countries in total.  And all of you have helped us significantly expand our reach across the world.  So today, we have HCGs in 24 countries where we do not even have a resident Overseas Mission.

 

5 And so our network of HCGs has helped us to deepen our relations with your respective countries.  As Honorary Consuls-General, you have helped us to do this, and indeed you personally reflect the diversity and richness of human societies across the world. Your personal influence, your extensive networks have also help to open doors for our companies to explore economic opportunities; and your deep understanding of your own countries has helped us to turn official ties into partnerships and friendships.

 

6 As honorary representatives of Singapore, you are also our key touch-points for Singaporeans travelling and living overseas.  I know that your job is not easy – helping to look after our people, who sometimes get into trouble overseas, or others who are finding opportunities to advance the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans in your respective country.  So allow me to express our deepest, sincere, appreciation to all of you, and including your spouses for helping to fly the Singapore flag in your country.  We are very proud to have you represent us.

 

7 Singaporeans are amongst the most well-travelled people in the world, and many of us have families and close friends living abroad.  We have a citizen population of only 3.5 million but yet we make a staggering 24 million trips overseas every year.  Having Honorary Consuls-General on the ground helps us to augment our consular reach and allows MFA to render more prompt and effective consular assistance to Singaporeans in distress overseas and to better serve their needs, especially in places where we have no resident Missions.

 

8 MFA is committed to do our best to assist Singaporeans who get into difficult situations overseas.  In this technological age, we need to effectively integrate technology into our consular services in order to deliver more prompt and useful services and assistance.  One such system which you may be familiar with if you surf our website, you may see this little icon called “AskJamie”, which is an attempt to use artificial intelligence to deal with the more routine enquiries that Singaporeans may have.  We have also launched the “Be Informed & Be Safe” initiative to provide safe travel information through a variety of platforms, including the website and also our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.  There are travel advice pages for well-known destinations, including your countries, and all these can be found on our website.  To further establish MFA as an authoritative source of information, we have also stepped up our public engagement through social media so that people can verify news. 

 

But frankly, the nature of consular work is such that no amount of technology, artificial intelligence, or otherwise, can substitute for the human touch, the voice, the eyes, and knowing that there is a human being on the other side of phone, on the other side of the counter, who cares for you, knows for you, and is out there to look after your interest. And that is why we had to continually review and expand our footprint across the globe. And a key part of this is to appoint new HCGs and in fact today we have three of the four new HCGs who are from Port Moresby, Warsaw and Casablanca. I am glad that the new Honorary Consuls-General are here with us today. 

 

10 It is a great honour for me also to make a special mention of our Honorary Consul-General in Stuttgart, Mr Hans Peter Stihl. Can I just get him to wave his hand?  Over there, thank you.  Mr Stihl is retiring as our HCG after 17 years of distinguished service to Singapore.  Mr Stihl has greatly contributed to the deepening of the political and economic exchanges between Singapore and the Federal State of Baden Wurttemberg, and in looking after the Singaporean community in the region. Thank you. Mr Stihl was conferred the Public Service Star by the Singapore Government in 2015 and we are highly appreciative of the excellent working relationship with Mr Stihl and I would like to take this opportunity to warmly wish you good health and success in all your future endeavours.

 

11 I would also like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude for the distinguished service of Mr Joseph Salim Habis. Mr Habis is this young man seated at the front, who has been appointed as our Honorary Consul-General in Beirut back in 1974. That makes you, Mr Habis, our longest-serving Honorary Consul-General for almost 45 years. Thank you.

 

12 Before all of you start getting worried about how long you are going to have to serve, I need to say that we really do appreciate the significant role that each and every one of you play, not just in promoting bilateral relations between Singapore and your host country, but on the consular front as well.  Your support during difficult moments for Singaporeans provides much needed assurance, comfort for them and their families.

 

13 Let me cite you one case recently where our Honorary Consul-General went above and beyond the call of duty.  You would recall that in late April, Sri Lanka was struck by multiple bomb blasts on Easter Sunday.  Over 250 people were killed and another 500 injured.  In spite of the limited resources and the uncertainties on the ground, our Honorary Consul-General office in Colombo was tirelessly attending to Singaporeans seeking assistance, seeking information, seeking reassurance.  Dr Jayantha Dharmadasa, thank you.

 

14 Dr Jayantha Dharmadasa owns a hospital in Colombo.  Although it was obviously inundated with victims and their next-of-kin, Dr Jayantha Dharmadasa deployed one of his own staff to visit other government and private hospitals to check if there were any Singaporeans amongst the casualties.  He also took the initiative to convey a letter to the Chief Judicial Medical Officer to enquire if there were Singaporeans among the victims.  I need to make special mention of his assistant Ms Damayanthi. In fact, she was, I believe, accompanying her own husband at the hospital the morning of the blasts, but she immediately rushed back to work, to attend to queries from Singaporeans, and to check in with the hospital’s A&E department, to check whether there were any Singaporean casualties.

 

15 Fortunately, there were no Singaporean casualties in the attacks.  However, the fact that our Honorary Consul-General and his staff went out of the way to ascertain this and to provide timely information made a difference to Singaporeans in Sri Lanka and to their families back home.  And I know the extent of your assistance went to even placing flight bookings for Singaporeans who were trying to fly home.  Amidst this tense situation in Colombo, HCG office continue to regularly update MFA of developments on the ground.  And we work therefore very closely with all our HCGs if and when we are faced with such a situation, and again I thank you in advance. 

 

16 I want to commend Dr Jayantha and Ms Damayanthi for their timely assistance during the crisis.  This dedication and tireless efforts brought comfort to all Singaporeans who would otherwise have felt stranded and alone during the time of great distress.

 

17 I hope that the next five days will be an excellent opportunity for us to forge even closer relations.  Your programme includes meetings with several of our leaders and senior officials from a range of agencies.  Tomorrow, you will meet our new Deputy Prime Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat.  On Wednesday and Thursday, you and your spouses will meet President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong.  There will also be briefings by the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority.  On Friday, we have arranged for you and your spouses to tour the Bicentennial Experience, this is the centrepiece attraction of the Singapore Bicentennial celebrations which was opened just last month.  It is a multimedia showcase that goes back in time and we hope it will help you understand Singapore a little bit better.

 

18 So let me conclude again by saying that we are fortunate, and we are grateful to have all of you serving as our Honorary Consuls-General.  I look forward to sharing ideas with you on how to strengthen these friendships, outreach and further exchange our experiences on common issues that confront us in Southeast Asia and you in your respective regions.  Once again, a warm welcome, and deepest gratitude to all of you.  Thank you very much.

 

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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

SINGAPORE

08 JULY 2019

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