France 24's "The Interview" with Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

19 June 2020

France 24 (Political Editor and Senior Anchor Marc Perelman): Hello and welcome to The Interview here on France 24. Our guest today is Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. He is Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs and he joins us from Singapore. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Minister: Hi, good morning, pleased to join you.

France 24 (Perelman): Dr Balakrishnan, as of this Friday Singapore is entering the second phase of its reopening. Small gatherings of up to five people will be allowed, people will be allowed to go back to restaurants, and also to shop at retail outlets. Does this mean that this is the end of the pandemic in your country?

Minister: No, it's not the end of the pandemic. But I would say today is a very special day and people are very happy because it marks the day that almost all economic activities resume. People are going to work, getting the opportunity to meet with friends, to dine. You will see a lot more faces on the street, more happy faces. But it's not the end of the pandemic.

In fact, reopening is a time that you need to be even more vigilant. If you look at what has happened in many other places in the world, this is precisely the moment when if you let your guard down, you will get subsequent waves. We spent the last two months preparing for this. In particular, stepping up our medical facilities and especially stepping up the ability to test at scale and test quickly, and also in the field of contact tracing. Because what happens is that if you get any resurgence anywhere, you want to be able to identify it early and go in quickly to clamp it down to make sure it does not become a supercluster. So it's a time of anticipation on the part of the people but also a time of greater vigilance and some anxiety on the part of authorities. We are keeping a very close watch.

France 24 (Perelman): Obviously, your country had over 41,000 cases. Clearly, you went after the virus by massive testing. Are you planning to step up in this very delicate phase as you just described it?

Minister: Absolutely. In fact, we intend before the end of the year to reach the ability to test 40,000 a day. If you look at our testing rates in Singapore, I think on a per capita basis we are one of the highest in the world. It is this combination of meticulous, quick testing, at scale, and contact tracing, which is the only way to prevent this virus from having a strong resurgence. The ultimate solution is a vaccine, but at this point in time, it's anybody's guess. It could take a year, 18 months or even longer. But you have to resume life, you have to go back to some sense of normalcy. But it will be a new normal. And I expect this new normal to persist for at least a year or longer.

France 24 (Perelman): Right. Obviously you mentioned contact tracing. You know there are debates including in your country about privacy. You've decided, essentially, to be very aggressive when it comes to contact tracing. Is there a risk for privacy because you want to know exactly who's meeting whom? But up to what point can you go?

Minister: Well, first of all, these are exceptional times. In normal times, I don't think any population would countenance contact tracing at scale. That's the first point. This is an emergency. This is a crisis. Secondly, the way we have done it is to avoid the two extremes: where it's a completely decentralized anonymous system on one hand, versus a completely centralized system where the government knows everyone's interactions. In our case, it's a hybrid. In fact, that data resides in a person's app or device. It never leaves a person's possession, unless and until, in the unlikely event that he's diagnosed to be positive. At that point, and only at that point, is that data then uploaded in order to identify close contacts so that they can be warned, they can get testing done, and in turn we can have a second round of contact tracing.

In a sense, you have to go after contacts of contacts. It was not possible in the past when you didn't have sufficient testing facilities and you didn't have sophisticated contact tracing. But with these two limbs available, you can now get back to some semblance of a normal life, and still live with the virus and deal with it aggressively when we have to. It's about getting the balance right. I think every society has to find the right balance between respect for personal privacy on one hand and protection of public health on the other hand. Every society will have a slightly different answer. It depends on your national circumstances, it depends on your history, it depends on the strength of your social compact and trust within your society.

France 24 (Perelman): I want to now get to the consequences. Clearly, Singapore has been a hub for trade; trade is a big part of your economy. Clearly, the consequences will be drastic. Are you concerned that this might be even worse than the pandemic?

Minister: We're very concerned. This is not just a public health disaster. This has been the biggest economic slowdown – I think for all of us – in our lifetime. There's no question that this is a major, major disruption. In the case of Singapore we estimate that our economy will be affected by somewhere between minus 4 to minus 7 percent. This will be the worst recession that we've ever faced. If you look in terms of the government's response, in particular the fiscal response, you know, we've put almost an extra hundred billion Singapore dollars to support our people, to increase the level of health facilities, to protect jobs, to keep cash flows for companies going, to extend credit lines, legislative changes. These are unprecedented interventions, but we believe these are essential. You need to keep your workers and your enterprises viable and ready for the time that the pandemic recedes, and then you can rebound.

That's the immediate response. There is another longer term agenda. COVID-19 has not altered the course of history, or even of economic development, it has accelerated it. The longer term changes, for instance, the impact of digitalization of the economy, its impact on jobs, its impact on the sort of skills that people need: all these require a massive restructuring of your economy, a reskilling of your workforce, and you do need to spend the resources and invest the time and the effort to get this restructuring done.

The biggest mistake, would be, first, not to do anything in which case you'll have a massive crash and it'll be impossible to reboot your economy. The second mistake would be to simply apply an analgesic and an anaesthetic, while everyone hopes and waits for things to get back to normal. What we need to do is a combination of providing pain relief, but at the same time performing surgery on the economy so that we restructure ourselves and rescale and upskill our workforce for the opportunities that will emerge in the future. We are confident that there are opportunities, and we're confident of Singapore's position, strategically – location-wise – our role as a trading hub, as a safe and trusted repository for people, ideas, talent, finance. All this puts us in good stead.

I'll share with you a point with many investors have told us; they said, “we are watching how countries behave in the depths of the crisis.” Because if you don't panic, if you continue to respect the sanctity of contracts, if you do not resort to impounding and confiscating data or goods or essential materials, it puts one in a competitive advantage after the epidemic recedes. We've been very careful. We've been focusing a lot of our efforts on helping our people, on restructuring the economy, maintaining our hub status, maintaining our reputation for reliability and for honouring contracts.

I would share with you that even in all these past few months, our airports and ports have continued to function. Obviously tourism has fallen off a cliff. Many flights, even the passenger planes, are in fact carrying cargo. This has been very important to keep lines of communication open and for Singapore to continue to act as an essential airbridge, a hub, for goods, food, medication, essential services, and also equally, since you're calling me from France, for people who have been stranded all over the world who want to get back home. Many of these people have transited in Singapore. We've quietly but effectively played this role as a bridge.

France 24 (Perelman): Right, I want to get to the rising tensions between the US and China in the region. Many are speaking, including the Chinese Foreign Minister, of a new Cold War. How concerned are you? Clearly this will have an effect on your country.

Minister: We're very concerned. And let me explain why we're concerned.

America is the largest foreign investor in Singapore. In fact, America has more invested in Singapore and in Southeast Asia than America has invested in China, Korea, and Japan combined. I always remind the American administration that they have got real stakes in Southeast Asia. And this is a relationship which benefits the people in America and the people in Singapore. Secondly, America is our largest trading partner where services are concerned and our third largest trading partner for goods. Now, if you look at China, China is our largest trading partner. Ironically, or rather paradoxically, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China. When you add all these data points, Singapore does best when the relationship between America and China is good, strong, and constructive. Then we play a role, adding value, being a connector, being a hub and being part of global value chains. Now clearly, if that relationship breaks down, then it will be a very tough time for all of us, not just in Singapore but for the rest of us in Southeast Asia, so we're watching this very, very closely.

France 24 (Perelman): Are you concerned about a breakdown? Are you really concerned?

Minister: Of course we are concerned, but for what it’s worth, we keep counselling for cool heads, for more dialogue, for a recognition that for both China and America they will have to learn to both compete and to collaborate. Let me give you examples of that, because you know, I used to be involved on the climate change circuit. The biggest problems the world is going to confront in the future are climate change, pandemics and terrorism. These are all transboundary problems. Without the two biggest resident powers in the world, and I would add Europe to that equation, without that cooperation, openness and collaboration we will not solve any of the existential transboundary problems the world is going to face. It's absolutely essential.

Now having said that, because of the dynamics of the relationship, it is unrealistic to assume that they will always get along well, lovey-dovey, and there will never be any problems. There will be problems and there will be occasions when they do need to compete robustly, but our hope is that they will continue to compete and operate within a rules based multilateral system. But this is a hope, this is not something that we can impose on them. For now, we have to watch very carefully what they do. We have to make sure that we continue to retain a value proposition to both. We continue to remind them that we do not want to be forced to make invidious choices because to a large extent this is a false dichotomy. We want to be able to trade. We want to be able to have constructive, good relations, both economic and political, with all powers. That, if I may add, includes Europe.

You know that Singapore has signed a European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA). In the case of France, France is a strategic partner. In fact, France and Singapore tend to look at the world pretty much the same way. I think both of us are strong believers and proponents of multilateralism. We believe in free trade. We believe in mutual investments. There are many French companies here in Singapore who are doing well and they know that this is a safe and secure base for them, not only in Singapore, but to operate as a base for their regional expansion.

So, those of us who continue to believe in multilateralism need to speak up, need to make the case for it, and need to operate on that basis. These are not just words, but we have to show through our actions, and particularly our actions in the midst of a crisis. We need to speak even more loudly rather than offer just mere bland pronouncements.

France 24 (Perelman): Foreign Minister, I want to thank you very much for granting us this interview here on France 24. Thank you for watching it.

Minister: Most welcome. Catch up again some other time.


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