CNA "In Conversation" Interview with Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, 23 June 2020

24 June 2020

Presenter (Diana Ser): From tit-for-tat accusations over the coronavirus origins, to current talk of cutting of ties from each other, these few months of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated US-China relations. We could emerge from the throes of the pandemic into the poorest relationship between the two superpowers in decades. At the same time, travel restrictions and broken supply chains have upended the cogs of globalization.


Hello there, I’m Diana Ser. In this special edition of In Conversation, I am joined by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.


Minister: Thanks.


Diana Ser: Minister thank you for joining me on this rainy day. Let us start with the two elephants in the room, the US and China.  Some observers are already calling it a “new Cold War”.  What is your assessment of the new US-China reality?


Minister: Well I’m afraid we’re going into a very difficult phase. It is a zero-sum game. One appears to want to remain on top. Question is whether the US will compete and collaborate with China in order to solve the larger, longer-term problems of the world, or whether it will do everything in order to keep China in secondary position. On the other hand, China feels its time has arrived. It wants to take its rightful place. It still bears the scars of centuries of humiliation. These two perspectives makes it very difficult for them to agree on fundamental issues – trade, investments, technology, cybersecurity and for the longer-term problems like climate change, even future pandemics where cooperation is absolutely essential. If they cannot get together and they cannot see beyond a zero-sum game, I am afraid it is going to be a very difficult moment for the world.


Diana Ser: Do you think this is due to real ideological differences? Or is it a distraction from domestic responses to the pandemic?


Minister: Neither. I think it’s neither. This is not just ideology. This is strategic rivalry on a global stage. And as I said, the US has a choice to make. And so does China. China also has to learn to wield soft power in a way that does not elicit pushback from other countries. So both these superpowers have some tough strategic choices to make, and also have to decide how they will relate not only to each other, but to the rest of the world. And in particular, their attitude to multilateralism and trade. The reason this is so important is that the last seven decades after the Second World War actually were decades in which we had peace and prosperity, particularly in Southeast Asia and in Singapore, because the world was converging. Integration, free trade, flow of investments, ideas. Technology was being built on a common stack. If that formula breaks apart, if there is less interdependence, less trade, less investment, it means that there will be less incentive to maintain a stable equilibrium. Less incentive to avoid a tough fight. What we are hearing right now are harsh words. But this is still only the beginning.


Diana Ser: Do you think that the world can rule out a confrontation between the two superpowers?


Minister: We cannot rule out confrontation. I still think it is unlikely, I think it would be most unwise, but we need to be prepared for all eventualities.


Diana Ser: How does a small state like Singapore navigate this space?


Minister: Well, it will be difficult, and let me set out why. We have excellent relationships with both China and the US. The US is the largest foreign investor in Singapore. In fact the US has more invested in Singapore and Southeast Asia than it has invested in China, Korea and Japan combined. This is a fact which most people do not appreciate or realise. Secondly, as far as trade is concerned, the US is actually our largest trading partner for services, and third, for goods. If you look at the Chinese account, China is our largest trading partner, and, to our surprise, since 2013, we have been the largest foreign investor in China. So we are in a position where we do best, and have the most opportunities, if the US and China get along; if there is continued growth in free trade, and we are part of a global supply chain. So a rupture in that relationship, a downgrade in free trade, a splitting of supply chains, a bifurcation of technology; all have profound implications on us. So that in a sense is both the opportunity and the difficulty for us. Now, your question comes to how do we cope. The first point is that we must, to the maximum extent possible, avoid being forced to make an invidious choice. To be confronted with a false dilemma that you are either for us, or against us.


Diana Ser: How do you do that?


Minister: We do that by being frank, honest and transparent with both of them. When we deal with both Beijing and Washington, they know that we will speak truth to power. We do not say different things in different capitals. We do not say something to please one, and then try to say a different set of things to please the other. They know that we will give them how we see the situation. First thing, speaking truth to power.


The second point is that they both know that when we take a position it is after a careful assessment of our long-term, enlightened national interest. We will never be a proxy or a vassal state for either of them. That independence, that integrity, is crucial. And in a sense, it has also made us useful and relevant to both of them. It means that from time to time we will have to say no. And to say no - not in a confrontational way, but in a principled way. It also means that when we say yes, and we participate and support, that becomes more valuable. I have found – in my experience in the last five years – this ability to be totally transparent and straight, and the willingness to say no if I have to, and at the same time to be a constructive partner in all the many projects that we have embarked on, both on a bilateral and multilateral basis, makes a big difference. Our relationship right now, with both of them individually, is excellent.


Diana Ser: What you have just said, about us being unwavering, transparent, and there is integrity – I am not a diplomat – but it sounds almost like that is premised, and that will be good, if we count on the good sense of both parties, both superpowers. Can we still count on that?


Minister: We do not control their agenda – and whilst we may have our views and may express our hopes – have no illusion that we are decisive in their calculations. It is important to understand that. But having said that, even small states have agency, which means we have choices. We can exercise those choices. We must be clear about the implications. That is why again if you look at the last few years – there have been times when we have been under pressure. There have been times when they have expressed disapproval, either overtly, or more subtly.


Diana Ser: Can you give us an example of that?


Minister: If you look just within the last five years, there were questions about the South China Sea, which are still “live”. Fortunately we are not a claimant, but we have stated our long-term interests – peace and stability; freedom of navigation and overflight; peaceful resolution of disputes; maintaining ASEAN unity. There have been times when taking that stand has put us under pressure, but they know why we take the position we take. They know that we will hold fast to our position. And there have been incidents in the last five years. For instance, people will still think about the Terrex incident. Without getting into details, but you think about that. We quietly, firmly, resolutely held our position. We did not engage in megaphone diplomacy. At the same time we did not make any backroom deals. In the end it was resolved on the basis of international law and mutual respect. In the fullness of time, each of these incidents establishes a certain sense of who Singapore is, and how we will approach problems or disputes. I think we both emerged with a deeper understanding and mutual respect. That is an example. At the same time, if you look on the trade and investment front, it has been excellent. If you look at our projects in China – they are all doing well. They are all strategic projects, and they will have long-term benefits, both for Singapore and China.


Diana Ser: In these volatile and difficult times, how do we continue to seize opportunities to stay relevant?


Minister: First thing is that we need to stay united and we need to be successful. A Singapore which is divided, a Singapore which is an economic failure, will be completely irrelevant to the world. So the first thing is that it starts domestically, in house. Second, we need to continue to remain oriented outwards. Which means, we need to be sensitive to both the opportunities and the challenges – the real dangers on the global stage. And it means we need to exercise those choices very, very carefully. Thirdly, it means being prepared to defend what is ours. And here, I am not just talking about superpowers, I am talking even about regional countries. They must understand that when Singapore says no, we mean it. When we say yes, the sanctity of the contract is worth the ink that is used to sign it. When we commit to a project, it is a 100 per cent. This reputation for reliability and knowing that we cannot be bought or intimidated is very valuable. In this particular COVID-19 crisis, we never panicked, we never impounded resources. We continued to be a reliable portal for trade. And more than trade: for the movement of essential supplies, protective equipment, medication. All this may not have been noticed in the heat of the moment, but in the long run it puts us in a very competitive state because investors in other countries will know that we are reliable. How you behave in a crisis has got profound implications on the way people look at you.


Diana Ser: We will take a quick break now, but when we come back, a fun question about how you conduct diplomacy in the COVID world.


. . .


Diana Ser: Welcome back. We are still in conversation with Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. So you are Singapore's face to the world, you fly around everywhere to shake hands and put us and other countries agenda. How do you conduct diplomacy during the COVID period?


Minister: Well, it has been quite different. I do not think I have ever spent so long in Singapore continuously as I have in the last four months. That is first thing. Second thing is that we have all become experts at video conferencing, using Zoom, WebEx, Skype, which we never really had to use before. I mean, the tools are not new, it has been there. But now there has been a real, added sense of urgency to use it.


The third point I would make is that however, very frankly, whilst I have met and interacted and spoken with more of my counterparts in the last four months than I would have normally – and these technological platforms work  – I do feel we are actually living on accumulated diplomatic capital. The fact that we had previously met, that we had argued, we had discussed, we had shaken hands, we had interacted, we knew each other, it makes it so much easier now through technology.


But if we had never met, and there was really a difficult problem, I think it would be impossible without that face-to-face interaction, that ability to look into each other's eyes, to shake hands, to get a feel for the person and his team, and what we stand for, what their key hopes, aspirations and vulnerabilities are. So for now, it is okay. But I think there is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction. It is like that in everyday life too.


Diana Ser: Let us stay on the theme of travel. When several countries, Singapore among them, banned travellers from China. Chinese media and officials were quick to criticise the decision. How did the Foreign Ministry react to those negative reactions?


Minister: Well, the first thing I would say is that it was necessary for the sake of public health. And in fact, events since then have shown that border restrictions were necessary, and in fact, the whole world is locked down. So that is the first point. There was a good public health reason for that.


The second point I would make which perhaps people do not realise is that in the last few months, I have spoken to State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi several times. I spoke to him both before and after we made that decision on closing. And because we have a good relationship – and as I said a frank, sincere and open relationship – I was able to explain to him why we needed to do that for public health reasons, because we are so small, so dense and so compact. And the other reason is because we are such an international travel hub, and we needed to do that to protect ourselves and also to make sure that Singapore did not become an amplification point for COVID-19.


Diana: And what was the response?


Minister: To be frank with you, at that stage, the commentators in China were unhappy. But actually, at the senior leadership level, they understood our circumstances. And that is the point I am trying to make, you see, the fact where we have had an open relationship, no sugar-coating, and they know sometimes we will have to do things either earlier, or do things which they do not necessarily agree with. But they know that we will do so out of carefully calculated considerations. So that enabled us to proceed. And you will realise at that same time that things were happening, and at a time when the situation was worst in China, we were also able to provide some assistance in terms of supplies to them. And of course, later on when our own cases rose and their own stock supplies had increased, they also provided assistance. So you see, we can disagree, but we can understand. We can help each other at the point of greatest need. And this understanding, this mutual support actually builds trust. And that is why I am confident that at a strategic level, at the most senior level, we have an excellent relationship.


Diana Ser: Now that we are looking to reopen borders, what are the key considerations?


Minister: Public health. Again, it is no accident that we are the first country in Southeast Asia that China has agreed to arrangements for what we call a Reciprocal Green Lane. It is no accident, because they know us, they can see beyond the numbers, they know what the real situation is on the ground, and more important than that, they know we are reliable and trustworthy. So, we started with China but we are also negotiating similar, special reciprocal travel arrangements with other countries.


Diana: How do we decide which countries to establish these arrangements with?


Minister: It is countries where we have strong diplomatic ties with, countries where we have strong business and economic interest, countries where our public health systems – their systems and ours – are familiar with each other. We understand their tests, they understand our tests, we have a mutual appreciation of each other's concerns, and we are able to synchronise, for instance, our testing regimes. So that is the way it proceeds. And you must understand that these arrangements have to withstand the test of time, meaning, in the next year to 18 months, I do not think COVID-19 is going to disappear. There will be ups and downs, not only in Singapore, but in other countries as well. So these arrangements have to be flexible enough to deal with changing circumstances. But the key thing is communication, trust, openness, and reliability. And I have to tell you this, we have to be very, very careful that as we open, we do not reopen Pandora's Box and the virus gets out on the rampage. A very delicate operation.


Diana Ser: Some scientists are warning of a second wave. How do we ensure that we manage our border controls effectively? If there is a second wave, or should I say, when there is a second wave?


Minister: I would say that there is a clear and present danger of recurrent waves of infection. This virus is endemic now, meaning I do not believe it is ever going to completely be eliminated from humanity. Second, we do not even know, even if a vaccine is created, whether it will have long lasting immunity. So we will have to learn to live with this virus. Specifically, in the last three months what we have done on the key health front – three things. We have ramped up our medical capacity. Although today, we only have one patient in ICU, I can assure you the Ministry of Health has ramped up both the actual and potential supply of ICU beds. So on the health front, medical facilities side– we are ready.


Two other ingredients – to increase the ability to test and identify patients early, and to treat and isolate them. And you know that in the case of Singapore, we have already said in the next few months, we are going to increase our daily testing capacity to 40,000 a day, which is a significant number.


The third element is contact tracing. You need to be able to identify the contacts of a patient, and because you can now test early, you can even go and check secondary contacts of contacts. What this means is, even if the virus pops up, even if you get a cluster, we can identify early, ring-fence it, prevent it from becoming a super spreading event, a mega cluster. So you need these domestic capacities to be ready, before you open up both the economy or even begin to open your borders. So that is what we have been focused on, and I would say that on all three fronts, we have made significant progress. And because of that, we are now in Phase Two. Because of that, we can look seriously at gradually, step by step, opening the border.


Diana Ser: Let us take a short break, but when we come back, I would like to know when I can go to Johor Bahru and eat and shop again.


. . .


Diana Ser: Minister, let us now turn our attention closer to home. The weaknesses and some strengths of bilateral and multilateral efforts to deal with a pandemic were highlighted, particularly in the earlier stage of the crisis. For example, when Malaysia first announced its Movement Control Order, there was very little clarity on the ground as to what was going to happen to Malaysian workers who are stranded here, those who commute daily between Singapore and Johor. Were we caught off guard?


Minister: Well, first of all, let me say this. I am, actually, very sympathetic to the Malaysian leadership, the enormous pressure that they were in, and the rapidity with which they had to make those decisions. Bear in mind, they were still undergoing a very volatile political transition. The pandemic was unfolding very rapidly in Malaysia. So they had both a political and a public health, and if I may add, an economic challenge on their hand. So I completely understood, and sympathised with their situation. So that is the first point I will make.


The second point is that throughout this entire crisis, fortunately, there has been a lot of interaction, phone calls, video conferences, at all times of the day and night, at all levels of leadership. And that communication has been very useful and has helped to build trust.


Now, turning to the events of those first few days, yes, they were making decisions under pressure, they were making decisions quickly. And it is true that not all details of the arrangements had been settled. But fortunately, because we were in touch, we were able to respond quickly. If you actually think about the outcomes, it is actually a pretty good record. And let me give you some data to make that point. Throughout this Movement Control Order and our own circuit breaker, the supply chains between Malaysia and Singapore continued to flow. You may not have seen tourists and buses queued up at the Causeway, but I can assure you the trucks, the lorries, the vans, the supplies, continued to flow. That is the first point. Secondly, for essential medications, supplies, we made sure that continued to flow. If you look at the air services, air cargo continued to flow. In fact, sometimes, passenger flights which were empty, were in fact carrying cargo even on passenger seats.


Third point is that on the health authority side, our Minister for Health, their Minister for Health, and both at the federal level, and even the state level, continued their consultations and coordination. And another point which people may not have noticed is this was also the time when both Malaysia and Singapore were trying to deal with our own citizens coming back for safe refuge. And I can tell you, for both Malaysia and Singapore, we mutually “tompang” each other's repatriation flights, which means there were Singaporeans on Malaysian flights from other parts of the world returning. And when we had space, we also provided seats to Malaysians who were also trying to return. In other words, not only were we mutually providing consular services to our citizens, we are also acting as a transit centre for citizens desperately trying to go home. So you put aside the headlines and the frenzy of those first few days, but look at the actual outcomes. Communications continued, supplies continued, essential medical supplies continued, people flow, repatriation, consular services continued, and we cooperated very effectively.


Diana Ser: So that's the work of the Foreign Ministry behind the scenes.


Minister: Yes.


Diana Ser: So I just have to ask this as a follow-up question. When we decided to impose our circuit breaker, did we give them due notice?


Minister: Yes, I informed our counterparts. We are on WhatsApp and phone contact. In fact, not only my immediate counterpart, but all my ASEAN counterparts, we have our own group chat.


Diana Ser: We will talk about ASEAN in a minute. But earlier on, you touched on the political situation in Malaysia. How has the change of government in Malaysia impacted the way we deal with the crisis – has it?


Minister: Well, this is a sensitive question. Clearly there is a different prime minister, a different team, but people whom we are all familiar with because we have interacted with them, we have dealt with them either when they were previously in government or in the opposition.


Secondly, I think the more recent events and in particular COVID-19 has reordered the agenda. So that, in a sense, has also given us greater opportunity to work together rather than to squabble about difficult issues.


The third point is that there are ongoing projects, the RTS (Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link), the HSR (Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail), for which we have got extended deadlines, but the deadlines are coming up soon – in the case of RTS, end of July, for the HSR, end of December. And I can tell you intensive negotiations are going on right now, and I hope we will be able to meet both deadlines. So all in all, the last few months, we have been able to communicate, we have been able to collaborate, we have been able to take action, joint action where necessary. Negotiations are ongoing, and I would say our relations are actually in a good and stable state at this point in time. But we have to watch the domestic political situation there. And it is not for us to get involved, but we watch it very carefully. They know that we will be careful. We will not complicate matters, but at the same time, we do need to defend Singaporeans’ interests, and we do need to defend the sanctity of contract.


Diana Ser: Travel between Singapore and Malaysia could resume soon. Although Putrajaya has signalled that it needs to be reciprocal, we understand that the Foreign Ministries are in talks with each other. Is there a timeline for this to happen?


Minister: I would hesitate to put a timeline; maybe what I can express it is in terms of what our key considerations are. Number one, public health. We need to protect the public health of both Singapore and Malaysia. We need to understand that the world's busiest land crossing is between Johor and Singapore. So, we have to work out a lot of details: testing, tracing, supporting the economy. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, we have kept the supply chains open throughout this crisis, and we have got to keep that going. So, to be frank with you right now, literally, you know, there are papers and phone calls being exchanged. We are trying to sort it out.


Diana Ser: Are we talking about weeks or months?


Minister: I would prefer – the sooner we can arrive at some agreement, but the agreement is likely to take a step by step approach. So I do not see it possible to have a big bang – complete, no holds barred, no restrictions, no tests. I think that would be unwise, but we can open up in steps, have the appropriate measures to test people, contact trace people, because when you open up, your risks will inevitably increase. And we have to work out those protocols and to make sure those protocols are effective on both sides of the causeway. So just give us some, give us a few, I would say days to weeks.


Diana Ser: Days to weeks?


Minister: Yes.


Diana Ser: Okay. Well, let me just move on to talk a little bit about ASEAN as well. The ASEAN response to the pandemic has been roundly criticised, with each country having its own measures, and very little coordination, particularly during the earlier period of the crisis. What would you say to criticism that ASEAN Unity has once again proven unconvincing?


Minister: I think it is unfair. And again, let me give you some data on why I think it is unfair. First of all, all of us, not only at the Foreign Ministry level, but at the leadership level, were in touch. Now, clearly in the depths of a crisis, the most important thing is for everyone to get their own house in order. So, I think that is completely understandable, completely justified that everyone is focused on settling their domestic circumstances. But there was communication, advance warning given of moves or measures that needed to be taken. There was a virtual summit, joint statements issued, first point.


Second point, look at supply chains. The supply chains within ASEAN, intra-ASEAN and between ASEAN and the region, continued unabated, supplies continued to flow.


Next point is, did the different ASEAN members provide assistance to each other when they could, and when it was needed? The answer is an unequivocal yes – in the very early phase, we were supplying test kits. We were supplying, sometimes when they ran short of personal protective equipment, we helped our immediate neighbours, of course those, especially those closer to home. This was proof that, never mind about the words, but in terms of actions, we were able to work together, we were able to mutually support each other. I also mentioned that even though tourism had to come to a halt, air services continued, air links, airports, ports remained open. That is a crucial thing because you need to make sure that your arteries remain open. There may be less blood flowing, but there is a healthy flow to keep those chains open. Now, we are also in discussion with each other about how to open safely and to have agreed protocols, so that we can do so in a stepwise fashion and reboot our economies for the future, for the new normal. So, I think you should measure ASEAN in terms of actions rather than just pronouncements.


Diana Ser: We will take another short break, but when we come back, I want to talk about the adrenaline rush, if you like, that the pandemic has given to digitalisation, and which Singaporeans will be left behind.


. . .


Diana Ser: Recently, parliamentary debate also focused on the digital divide between Singaporeans. Minister, you are also in charge of the Smart Nation initiative. Has the pandemic given the government an opportunity to reassess the digital divide and what are you learning?


Minister: Well, first of all, COVID-19 turbocharged our digital efforts. Both of us have sons who are doing home-based learning, literally today. And it was essential to make sure that not only the hardware, but that the pedagogy, the software, was also available, and available not only for some, but available for all. COVID-19 underlined the importance of digital inclusion. So, you would notice that we have made enormous efforts. We are now appointing thousands of digital ambassadors. We are trying systematically to reach out to seniors or to families which may have been less exposed, less well-off, or less aware of the need to go digital. This is something which we are very aware of, and which we intend to close and to close urgently because we need to. I would make this further point that although our efforts have been turbocharged, the technology actually is not new. But suddenly, all of us have had to learn to use video conferencing tools, to understand cameras, lights, microphones, to understand or even learn a new etiquette. My point here is that it is not really a technological question. It is education, culture, inclusion. It is these aspects that we need to focus our minds on.


Diana Ser: How are we going to turbocharge our response?


Minister: Well, first of all, fortunately, many of the essential ingredients are already in place. For instance, the fact that we already have fibre to every home. Then it is a matter of telling people or enabling people, and especially families, which are less well-off, to provide the subsidy so that they can get onto the digital bandwagon. Next, in the days when we used to think one computer per household was sufficient, suddenly, with home-based learning, you discovered, well, every child needs a device. And the Ministry of Education had planned for that. But now they have had to bring forward that programme. Instead of years, it now has to be weeks and months for that to happen. So, the point is that with a sense of urgency, the existing plans had to be rolled out more quickly. We have a very strong foundation. The infrastructure is there. The systems are there. The technology is there, but it is teaching people to use it, to use it effectively. And it is to remind everyone, both policymakers, as well as people on the ground, that digital inclusion up, front and centre must be a part of the agenda.


Diana Ser: Which group or groups do you think will be most at risk of losing out in this digital race?


Minister: Again, if you think about the last few months, we had to have a circuit breaker primarily to protect seniors. Because seniors were most at risk, they were also most at risk of isolation – social isolation. We know that to some extent, technology can help. So that is why I am very, very concerned with making sure that our seniors have the tools, have the skills, have people figuratively hold their hand, show them how to use a phone, how to conference, how to message and to stay in touch with loved ones and friends. This has really highlighted the urgency of looking out especially for seniors. And we really must make sure no one is left behind. No one is excluded.


Diana Ser: We say that a lot, that no one is left behind, but realistically, is it almost inevitable? I will give you an example. Some years back, I was doing a story and I met this sweet little old woman. She was in her 80s, and the social workers were trying to get her to learn to use a very basic phone. You just have to press that button, and whoa, it is magic, you get to speak to someone. And it was beyond her. So how realistic (is it) that no one is left behind?


Minister: I think it is realistic, and I think it is essential. And here is how I would approach it. First of all, technology also has to improve. For instance, with seniors, if keys need to be larger, if fonts need to be larger, screens need to be brighter, you can do those. But we need to make special efforts to understand the needs of seniors. And then you have quite rightly highlighted, it is not something you can ask them to do remotely. Someone does need to sit with them, explain to them, repeatedly. The other difference is that today, there is a real need for it. In normal times pre-COVID, the person will say “Actually, I do not need it. I can meet my friends, I can meet my family members. I do not need what you are trying so hard to encourage me to try.” Now, there is a need. So, I think the fact that the technology is available and improving, that we are organising it so that there will be digital ambassadors to literally sit down with seniors – face-to-face, but of course with appropriate health precautions – there is a need. I think this is an opportunity for us to make a breakthrough and to really, truly ensure no one is excluded. It can be done.


Diana Ser: As a result of this crisis, some experts are calling for Internet connectivity, that it should be like a public utility good, everyone should have access to it. Is free universal Internet access a pipe dream here?


Minister: I will put it to you this way. I do believe Internet access is as essential as water, and we have pipes to every home, we have water flowing to every home. Is water free? It is not free. But do we make sure with carefully targeted subsidies and schemes that no one is deprived of water? Yes. I believe we can take the same approach for Internet access. And in fact, if you look at the prices for Internet access over the last few years, the unit costs have been coming down. I want to stress this is not a question of resources. It is not just a question of prices. It is a question of access, education and encouragement. We should focus on that. I am confident that we can do it, we must do it, and we will do it.


Diana Ser: In the early days of the pandemic, Singapore was held up as a shining example of how to flatten the curve. When the infections in the foreign worker dormitories started to spike, some foreign media began to use Singapore as a cautionary tale, if you like. How has this impacted Singapore's international reputation?


Minister: Well, first of all, I think we must accept that there will be ups and downs. And we are still at the beginning phase of a global pandemic. So that is the first thing, to understand that these things will happen. The second point is to understand why and what happened. Basically, what the last few months have shown is that whether you stay on a six-star luxury cruise liner, or are working on an aircraft carrier, or living and working in dormitories as migrant workers. As long as people interact, share meals, sing, cry, live in close proximity in households, you will be at risk. So that is what happened. If you think back now, you rewind time, could it have unfolded differently? I think it would have been very difficult without a circuit breaker, without stopping workers from going to work, from interacting, from going shopping, from cooking together and interacting as one extended household. I just leave that as the fact that it was a very difficult situation and it happened everywhere.


The key thing was how we responded. We responded completely transparently. We did not, in any way, try to obfuscate the fact that we were having a problem. Second thing is, responsibly. These migrant workers have built Singapore, literally with their hands. When the cases arose, we took our responsibility seriously, and in fact, we treated them the way we would treat our own citizens. And, you know, I have spoken to the foreign ministers of each of these countries.


Diana Ser: What did they tell you?


Minister: I can tell you this. I did not actually have to say very much, because they knew and they had listened to our prime minister make that assurance that we will give you the best possible medical care, we will treat you like a Singaporean. That assurance, which I may add, no prime minister anywhere in the world has made to migrant workers, was very powerful reassurance.


Diana Ser: Let me bring it down to the ground level. I have Singapore friends who said that “Oh you know, our overseas friends are asking us ‘What happened to you Singapore?’” What would you say to them?


Minister: Well, at least in all my interactions, they could differentiate the numbers. That yes, we know you had a problem in the dormitories, but if we look at your community cases, it is really very, very few and most importantly, your mortality rates are the lowest in the world. And they told me, we still know that the safest place to be in the world is Singapore. And if I ever had COVID, actually, I would want to be in Singapore.


Diana Ser: Thank you very much for your time, Minister.


Minister: Thank you.



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