Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan During the Committee of Supply Debate, 2 March 2020

02 March 2020

Mr Chairman, Members of this House, I will start with a quiz. Which two Ministries are asking for less money this year than last year?


2 2019 was a busy and eventful year for MFA. And this year will be no different. I wish to address three key aspects of our foreign policy today.  These are: First, looking after Singaporeans overseas. Second, managing relations with our immediate neighbours; and third, engaging the major powers, specifically the US and China.


3 MFA’s mission has always been to uphold Singapore’s independence and sovereignty, and at the same time to advance the interests of Singaporeans both at home and especially overseas.  Today, more Singaporeans than ever before are living, working, travelling overseas. This means more Singaporeans will occasionally run into trouble overseas – be it a personal crisis, epidemic, natural disasters or political unrest.


4 I have personally met Singaporeans who have lost loved ones in tragic overseas incidents, or have been released from detention overseas, and most recently, Singaporeans who have returned from Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19.  All these Singaporeans have shared with me that, when the chips are down and when they are in moment of great distress, what is most comforting is to hear that familiar Singapore-accented voice. The human touch made all the difference. And these Singaporeans are so grateful to the Foreign Service officers who go beyond the call of duty to reach out to fellow Singaporeans at the point in need. And they know we will leave no Singaporean behind. This is a 24/7 commitment – and here I do want to express our deepest appreciation to all our consular officers all over the world.


5 It is telling that this year’s MFA debates began with the questions from Mr Vikram Nair and Ms Joan Pereira on COVID-19. New cases are occurring daily all across the globe. And Singaporeans are understandably concerned about their well-being and their loved ones. As PM Lee highlighted in his televised address on the 8th of February, this is also the time for Singaporeans to pull together in solidarity. Whilst the focus is on containing and overcoming the crisis at home, we must do our best to take care of Singaporeans overseas who were affected by the travel restrictions, or indeed are at risk of exposure to the virus themselves.


6 Members will know that we launched two flights in late-January and early-February this year to Wuhan to bring our people home. There were a total of 266 Singaporeans and their family members from Hubei Province in China who returned. This was a major, delicate whole-of-government operation. MFA worked closely with MOH, MOT, MHA, many other agencies and with the airline Scoot to arrange these flight repatriations and then to quarantine all our returning Singaporeans for their safety and for the safety of the larger population.


7 Whilst many people were trying to leave Wuhan, it is noteworthy that our pilots, flight crew, nurses, and MFA consular officers volunteered to fly into the epicentre of the epidemic. They accepted personal risk. They went beyond the call of duty to bring fellow Singaporeans home.  These officers, themselves, had to be quarantined for 14 days, separated from their family members. Their service, their personal sacrifice should be recognised and commended. I believe this was a display of the Singapore spirit at its best, tested and proven in a time of crisis.


8 Diplomacy was also crucial. Our Embassy in Beijing had to coordinate closely with the Chinese government at the centre the Hubei provincial government to arrange these repatriation missions.  I will be very frank, our decision around that same time to impose travel restrictions on travellers from Mainland China was not easy.  Our paramount concern was to protect public health in Singapore. After all, we are a densely populated city-state and we are an international transportation hub. We did not want to import or export infection. These stringent measures were necessary in order to prevent the virus from spreading here.


9 These measures, I should add, were not directed at any specific country, nationality or race. But we recognised that this could impact our bilateral relations with China. We therefore gave China a “heads-up” before making the public announcement, and we made a special effort to explain why we had to do this. When I spoke to a senior Chinese leader recently, he conveyed China’s understanding of the actions that we had taken due to the unique circumstances faced by Singapore. I think his exact words to me was “我们可以理解你们的特殊情况”. He expressed his gratitude for our efforts to support China during this crisis.


 10 We sent testing equipment and test kits which were developed in Singapore to Wuhan. We also sent personal protective equipment and other medical supplies that were needed because of the sheer scale of the challenges that they were facing in Wuhan. The Singapore Red Cross has raised more than S$6 million for the affected communities across China.  And we have been working together with the international community to address this emerging global epidemic, and some people would say pandemic. Two weeks ago, I was in Vientiane for a Special Meeting of the ASEAN Coordinating Council and a Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting. We reaffirmed the importance of openness, decisiveness and cooperation to collectively address the crisis.



Our Neighbourhood


11 When I stood here a year ago, I said peace and stability for our immediate neighbourhood are absolutely essential.  I think recent events just in the last one week have underlined this imperative. As our closest neighbours, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei will always be of special importance to us.





12 Mr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim asked about our relationship with Malaysia. Members would know that our ties with Malaysia are deeply rooted in history, people-to-people ties and business links. More than 300,000 people cross our land links daily for business, work and other reasons. The Causeway, in fact, is one of the busiest cross-border road-links in the world.


13 Both countries, Malaysia and Singapore, are each other’s second-largest trading partner, and also important investment partners to each other. More personally, many of us seated in this Chamber would have family members or relatives who are Malaysian or who live in Malaysia. We therefore have long-standing and broad-ranging relations with Malaysia.


14 Over the years, we have worked with successive Malaysian governments for the mutual benefit of both countries. Members would be aware of ongoing major political developments just across the Causeway last week. We congratulate Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on being appointed Malaysia’s 8th Perdana Menteri. In fact, Prime Minister Lee telephoned him yesterday to convey his congratulations personally.


15 We look forward to Prime Minister Muhyiddin forming his new Cabinet soon. He has not announced it yet, but we know many of the personalities who are potential Cabinet members, and we know them from our prolonged engagement over decades, and we wish them sincerely, all the very best. We hope we will continue to have a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship with Malaysia, and we look forward to resuming discussions on ongoing issues and projects, which you are all aware of.


16 We have always sought a win-win approach in the many areas where we have common interests, such as the Singapore-Johor Bahru Rapid Transit System (RTS) and the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail (HSR). These are mutually beneficial projects for both countries. But after the Pakatan Harapan government took office in May 2018, you would recall that these projects were delayed.


17 When that happened, Singapore could have enforced our legal rights and we could have sought full compensation from Malaysia. But in the spirit of constructive bilateral cooperation, at Malaysia’s request, we agreed to temporarily suspend both projects through formal agreements, and we gave Malaysia time. Time to review their position and propose amendments to what both sides had in fact agreed to contractually before. However, these major infrastructure projects cannot be suspended indefinitely. At some point, we do need to decide whether to proceed or not. We look forward to hearing from Malaysia on these two projects in particular, in the coming months.


18 At the same time, we have continued to have a constructive discussion on maritime boundary delimitation. You would recall the problems that we had last year. We have been able also to advance other areas of cooperation, including Iskandar Malaysia, or recently, setting up a Joint Working Group between our Ministries of Health on COVID-19.


19 Mr Pritam Singh has asked for an update on our bilateral issues, in particular, on the 1962 Water Agreement.  Singapore’s longstanding position, which successive foreign ministers have reiterated, is that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the 1962 Water Agreement. We have told Malaysia this, as early as 2002, when Singapore last negotiated with Malaysia on water as part of the package deal. Malaysia cannot unilaterally revise the price of water. Our legal position remains unchanged.


20 Then-Prime Minister Mahathir had raised with Prime Minister Lee on several occasions his desire to revise the price of raw water sold to Singapore. Malaysia subsequently made proposals on a new price for raw water. In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right of review, we have been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia’s proposals, on the basis that there must be a balance of benefits for both sides.


21 I have in fact had some preliminary discussions over the past couple of months, over two meetings with my then-Malaysian counterpart, Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah. I believe we met in December 2019 and January 2020. We made it clear to Malaysia that any review of the price of raw water sold to Singapore will also mean a review of the price of treated water sold to Johor. Both sides must also discuss the yield and the quality of the water from the Johor River, so as to ensure that Singapore can continue to draw our entitlement of 250mgd of raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement, for the remaining 41 years of the Water Agreement.


22 We have also been concerned for a very long time about the yield and quality of the water from the Johor River. Mr Pritam Singh had referred to the recurrent episodes of pollution. The Malaysians have built two major water treatment plants which are drawing water from the Johor River upstream of Singapore’s PUB Johor River Waterworks. The Malaysian water treatment plants’ abstraction from the Johor River, in addition to Singapore’s entitlement of 250mgd, has caused the total abstraction to exceed the Johor River’s sustainable yield. In addition to that, there have been recurrent pollution incidents in the Johor River. These developments have forced the PUB Johor River Waterworks to shut down temporarily on multiple occasions. And I say that with the benefit of experience from my time in the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.


23 Singapore has raised our concerns with successive Prime Ministers of Malaysia on many occasions. Prime Minister Lee previously raised them with Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and also with Tun Mahathir Mohamad. In fact, the 1990 Water Agreement (which is a supplement to the 1962 Water Agreement) was the result of prolonged negotiations between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Mahathir. I believe those negotiations in fact began in 1982. Members may not be familiar with the additional fact which is that Tan Sri Muhyiddin played a key role, as the then-Menteri Besar of Johor. And ESM Goh was sharing with me just now that in fact, the two of them had a final round of negotiations in the then-NOL penthouse. This agreement, the 1990 Water Agreement, led to the construction of the Linggiu Reservoir that was completed in 1993 to ensure the sustainable abstraction of our entitlement of 250mgd of raw water from the Johor River. Had Malaysia exercised the right to review the price of water in 1987 as provided for by the 1962 Water Agreement, Singapore might then have made different investment decisions to develop the Johor River, including the Linggiu Dam.


24 In recent years, we have made further progress. Malaysia built a barrage along the Johor River at Kota Tinggi, in order to keep seawater from intruding upstream and affecting the abstraction of water from the Johor River. Again, Members of the House might not realise how shallow the Johor River is. Seawater from the Straits comes all the way up to Kota Tinggi, and this barrage helped. The barrage became fully operational in March 2017.


25 But let me be frank. Much more needs to be done urgently. Johor’s own water needs are increasing, as its economy and as its population grow. Already from time to time, Johor’s own supplies have run short, and the state has had to impose water rationing and buy additional treated water from PUB. In fact during periods of drought, there have been occasions when they have bought more than four times their entitlement because they needed the additional water. Even in normal times, they buy more than three times their entitlement under the 1962 Water Agreement. PUB out of goodwill has continued to provide this additional treated water to Johor at the same price of fifty sen per thousand gallons. This is out of goodwill and this again illustrates the interdependence and how these arrangements have been of mutual benefit to both sides. The steps need to be taken, and taken now to protect the Johor River from pollution, and to enhance the yield of the river, and to manage the total amount of water being drawn from the river. Singapore and Malaysia could otherwise end up in a very difficult situation down the road, especially in dry weather conditions and if you believe as I do that climate change will make the situation worse.


26 If Johor is unable to fulfil its obligations to provide us with 250mgd of raw water as stipulated by the 1962 Water Agreement, this will have grave consequences. It would undermine the sanctity of the 1962 Water Agreement. It will severely damage our bilateral relationship. Members will recall that the 1962 Water Agreement is guaranteed by Malaysia as part of the Separation Agreement in 1965. And this is the sacred document on which we draw our independence.


27 In order to head off such an eventuality, Singapore has been prepared to hold discussions with Malaysia on these matters related to the 1962 Water Agreement up front, without prejudice to our legal position. We are even willing to discuss the possibility of Singapore sharing the cost of pollution control measures, and new schemes to increase the yield of the Johor River, since this is important for both sides. We are therefore negotiating with Malaysia on these issues in good faith, to explore a practical, durable and mutually beneficial solution for both sides. So I take Mr Singh’s comments just now are entirely consonant with the position that we are taking.


28 However, if despite our best efforts Singapore and Malaysia are unable to reach an amicable outcome on these issues through negotiations, then Singapore is prepared to resolve them through arbitration, on terms mutually agreed to by both countries. This is like how we have successfully resolved other bilateral issues in the past. This is what Prime Minister Lee and Tun Mahathir agreed at the Ninth Leaders’ Retreat in April last year.


29 I have explained all this in some detail so that both Malaysians and Singaporeans will appreciate that we are taking a consistent, constructive and mutually beneficial approach to the development of water infrastructure in Johor. Both sides have benefitted from these arrangements, and need to continue cooperating effectively and urgently to meet the future challenges. But ultimately, water is but one issue out of many bilateral areas of cooperation. We must not let any single issue to colour the overall positive and multi-faceted relationship.  We should look ahead to see how we can cooperate and resolve issues for mutual benefit, and for the benefit of future generations. We therefore hope that when Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s Cabinet is formed, we will be able to pick up where we last left off and continue our discussions on the outstanding important matters, including water.





30 Let me turn to Indonesia. Mr Vikram Nair and Seah Kian Peng both asked about Singapore’s relations with Indonesia. With Indonesia, our deep and multi-faceted relationship is rooted in the belief that cooperation is beneficial for both sides. We convene an annual Leaders’ Retreat between our Prime Minister and the Indonesian President, and these retreats involve many Cabinet Members on both sides. Singapore remains the largest investor in Indonesia with strong economic cooperation and our security agencies maintain close and regular contact.

31 However, there are issues that arise from time to time. As the two leaders announced at the Leaders’ Retreat last year, Singapore and Indonesia have agreed on a framework which provides a sound and comprehensive basis for discussions on two sensitive issues: the management of our Flight Information Region, and military training. This framework sets out the core principles and considerations concerning these two issues. On the basis of this framework, discussions on these two issues are proceeding separately but concurrently. No deadline has been set for the conclusion of these talks.

32 We will address these issues in accordance with first, international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) rules and provisions; second, respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty over its territory; third, respect for Singapore’s long-standing rights to conduct military training in accordance with UNCLOS; and fourth, the long-term needs of Changi Airport. This will be a major round of work for our negotiators and we will update the house accordingly in the future.



33 For Brunei, MP Chong Kee Hiong asked about our bilateral relationship. Our longstanding special relationship is built on strong strategic trust at the leaders’ level, and the pillars of strong defence cooperation and the Currency Interchangeability Agreement. You would remember that the Bruneian dollar and Singapore dollar are interchangeable.


34 We are working together to explore new areas of cooperation, for example agri-food cooperation and FinTech, while also continuing to deepen ties between the younger generation of leaders on both sides. We continue to explore opportunities for younger Singapore leaders to engage the younger generation of Bruneian leaders through platforms such as the annual Young Leaders’ Programme.



Major Power Relations


35 Let me now turn to major power relations. If you look beyond our immediate neighbourhood, Singapore continues to be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a rapidly-evolving and uncertain global environment in the throes of a digital revolution.


The United States


36 MP Baey Yam Keng asked about the mature and multi-faceted links between Singapore and the US. While these links reflect the vital role the US has played in this region for both security and economic development over many decades, a rules-based global order with free trade and flow of investment have been a formula for peace and prosperity across the globe for more than seven decades since the end of the Second World War.


37 Singapore, in particular, has been a clear beneficiary, like many other emerging economies in our region. Therefore, we continue to believe in upholding international law and a global rules-based system, even as we recognise some of these rules will need to be updated to suit a rapidly evolving multi-polar world.


38 Although this is a Presidential Elections year in the US, the US continues to maintain its ties with our region. PM Lee met President Donald Trump in New York last September and you would recall from our earlier discussion, signed a renewal of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation between our two countries. The US had intended to convene an ASEAN-US Special Summit in Las Vegas next week, and PM has agreed to go. However, the meeting has now been postponed because of the COVID-19 situation.


39 We look forward to resuming the interactions at a high-level when the situation improves. The US has major equities in our region, particularly in Singapore. It bears repeating that the largest investor in Singapore is the US. In 2018, the US’ investment stock in Singapore stood at S$289 billion, making us, in fact, the largest recipient of US FDI in Asia.





40 Let me turn to China. Since opening up 40 years ago, China has undergone tremendous growth and transformation. In fact, it has been the biggest beneficiary of globalisation and free trade. Our Government-to-Government projects in Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing are icons of success that reflect Singapore’s complementary role at various phases of China’s spectacular development; and even though we are so small, Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor since 2013.  Minister of State Sam Tan will elaborate on our bilateral cooperation with China later.


41 MP Vikram Nair has highlighted the need for us to maintain good relations with both the US and China. Actually, the key variable is the relationship between the US and China. And that determines how the rest of us will have to arrange our affairs. Members will be aware that both the US and China signed what they called a Phase 1 trade deal in January this year. But frankly, thornier issues between them have been left to Phase 2. And we hope that both countries can continue to make progress on this front. But more fundamentally, a trade deal, even a comprehensive trade deal between them, will not resolve all the strategic contradictions between the US and China.


42 Going forward, both sides must make strategic choices. The US has to decide how to deal with China. It can work with China in the global order, get China to participate within a rules-based system, and compete with China on a fair basis. Or the US can strive to remain the dominant power in all arenas, in all areas, at all costs, and seek to arrange international rules so as to limit China’s power and influence.


43 On China’s part, as China seeks to increase its influence globally, China has to decide whether it wants to be a benign superpower, welcomed and respected by other countries including the US, and projecting soft power. If so, China must be willing to make adjustments to participate within the international rules-based system and give space to others, especially other small countries. There should be room for all countries, big and small, to have their interests represented fairly. Doing so will reflect China’s enlightened and inclusive view of its own long-term interests, and enhance China’s standing and influence in the world.


44 However, if China does not give sufficient attention to the interests and concerns of other countries and is not sufficiently restrained in wielding its growing strength, then it may get its way on the international stage in the short-term, but in the long-term, this will seed resentment and pushback. This is not in the interests of China or the rest of the world.


45 The strategic choices of the US and China will shape whether the two superpowers reach a mutual understanding and foster a stable global order where the rest of us will have peace and prosperity and fair opportunities. Or they could end up at odds with each other and leave other countries scrambling to avoid the fallout. This would be a big step backward for humanity, not only because every country will be less secure, be less prosperous, but also because it will be a more troubled and less stable world, as mutual suspicions and anxieties build up. It will be much harder to deal with global issues like climate change and even public health emergencies, not least the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.


46 Southeast Asia has long been a theatre of major power competition. This is not new. While Singapore may find ourselves squeezed in the middle, we must avoid choosing sides. Instead, we must find ways to deepen and enhance our cooperation with both China and the US, including in new areas of mutual interest, and encourage all parties to act in accordance with international law. As I have previously stressed, we want to be friends with both the US and China. We hope wisdom and restraint will prevail on both sides. We do not want to be caught in their crossfire or to be seen as taking one side or the other. Both the US and China must know that although we want to have good relations with both, we do not do things at their behest. Ultimately, we act in a principled way, and we will only do what is in the best long-term interests of Singapore citizens.




47 55 years ago, our founding Foreign Minister Mr S Rajaratnam declared to this House that the “primary task of our foreign policy will always be to safeguard our independence from external threats”.


48 The sweat and toil of our predecessors has ensured that we retain this independence today – a very precious thing that we cannot take for granted. It means we, today, have freedom of action in both domestic, and internal and international policy. It means we are no one’s proxy, no one’s stalking horse. It means we are able to exercise our sovereign rights in a rules-based world order governed by international law. And it means that our distressed citizens overseas have a country, a city-state, and a home to come back to. We must thus continue to invest a fair share of our resources in diplomacy, so that we have the capacity to protect our sovereignty, and most importantly, keep Singapore and Singaporeans safe.


49 I thank Members of the House for your support of this Mission, although as I said earlier, we are actually asking for a little bit less money this year.


50 Thank you.


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