Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Live Skype Interview on CNBC Asia's Squawk Box Asia, 29 June 2020

30 June 2020

Presenter (Sri Jegarajah): Joining us today for a CNBC exclusive interview is Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.  Minister thank you very much indeed for your time this morning.


Minister: Good morning.  Great to see both of you.


Sri Jegarajah: Good morning to you sir.  Is a second wave a risk for Singapore?


Minister: A second wave is a risk all over the world.  In our case we are now on the road to recovery, but I must add, carefully and with great vigilance.  This is a clear and present threat, and we need to be very, very careful about it.  What you are watching now is extensive vigilance, keeping a very close watch on the situation.  And if any cases pop up, identifying them, isolating them, ringfencing them closely.  That is the way we are going to have to manage this over the next one to two years, until a vaccine is found.


Sri Jegarajah: How confident are you that clusters will not reoccur in foreign worker dorms?  When you look at the recent numbers, does that imply that this is happening?


Minister: No, actually what is happening is we have about 300,000 in dormitories, and we are testing every single one of them, including those that are asymptomatic, never had symptoms or never will have symptoms.  So that is where we are still getting the tail end of those tests coming in.  The key point is that, prospectively, if and when cases pop up to make sure you do not get a mega cluster.  That is really the focus of all our efforts at this point in time.


Sri Jegarajah: How then would you describe Phase Two reopening Minister?  Is the public here in Singapore by and large keeping their guard up, and does this mean that Phase Three is on track?  Could it happen even earlier, or could it get delayed?


Minister: Well, I would say the economy is reopened.  The only restrictions are on mass events, rallies, bars and other high risk activities.  Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, we are open for business.  I think Singaporeans are really keen to get back to work, to get back to some sense of normalcy but it is a new normal.  We are watching the numbers very carefully.  Frankly, after you reopen and when you have social interaction again the risk actually goes up.  So the question now is our level of vigilance, our identification of cases and ring fencing of cases, so long as we can do that.  What we are really trying to show is how to live with the virus in this intervening interval until a vaccine is created.  So I do not want to have artificial deadlines.  I think the key thing is the posture, the attitude, the precautions and also a very important point is psychologically being prepared that there will be ups and downs.  And that, even now as we have gone back to work, to realise this calls for increased vigilance and not for letting our guard down.


Presenter (Martin Soong): Minister, this is Martin let me quickly jump in.  In terms of opening up and pushing the boundaries of that, literally two national boundaries.  A big test case is going to be, when, if and when thousands of Singaporeans, as well as Malaysians who ended up getting stuck in Singapore are allowed to cross the border again back into Malaysia.  I know you as foreign minister are deeply involved in negotiations with the Malaysian government to make sure this happens as safely as possible.  What more can you tell us?  I think one of the key things a lot of people were looking for is – Singaporeans, and also permanent residents who end up being allowed into Malaysia – are they going to be able to come back to Singapore when their shopping or whatever is done, and not have to serve, say, two weeks of quarantine?  What can you tell us?


Minister: The first point is to understand that this is the world's busiest land crossing.  Before COVID we used to have more than 300,000 people crossing, literally, every day.  Clearly that has dwindled down to a tiny, tiny trickle right now.  At this point in time we are still engaged in negotiations with the Malaysian authorities.  We have not settled all the modalities yet, but as you have indicated earlier, there are two things which we are working on.  One is the Reciprocal Green Lane for essential travellers, business and official, and maybe some compassionate cases.  The other point is what we call a periodic commuting model.  This is not a daily model, but for people who are going to come to Singapore, work for a few months, go back for home leave.  We are trying to make those arrangements.  The key point is this – to do so safely, to make sure everyone is tested, everyone is monitored, everyone is isolated only if they need to be.  And if any cases arise, we have got extensive and accurate contact tracing.  We need to do this on both sides of the border.


Martin Soong: Indeed.  Minister can you update us on negotiations with other countries other than Malaysia, in terms of setting up green lanes and also travel bubbles?


Minister:  Well you know we have made those arrangements already with China.  In a sense, each agreement forms a base model from which we negotiate with other countries.  Actually there is no rocket science to this.  It is identifying people who need to travel.  It is testing them before they travel.  It is testing them after they arrive.  A short period of isolation until the test results are available.  Then keeping detailed track of what we call a “bubble wrapped” itinerary – which means you know where they are going, you know who they are meeting.  You have good contact tracing so that in the unlikely event that anything goes wrong, you identify, you move in quickly.  So there is no rocket science to this, but getting authorities on both sides to have systems which are interoperable, to have mutual confidence, that is the more important point.  I see these initially bilateral, and I hope eventually they will expand to multilateral arrangements – what some people call “bubbles”.  But really I would say there is no real rocket science.  It is about confidence, it is about negotiating fairly, and making sure that these are reciprocal arrangements.


Martin Soong: Yeah, and about safe and efficient execution as well.  So Minister, as though yourself and your colleagues at the MFA, the Foreign Affairs ministry are not busy enough with all these negotiations trying to open up and connect again safely, the government is also going to be in a position where it will be defending itself in in elections coming up in just a few short days.  Nomination day is tomorrow.  The Prime Minister has made his case for the timing.  Why now?  Why call an election now – an early one – in the midst of probably Singapore's biggest public health crisis ever?  Let us set that aside and take his words at face value.  Let me ask you though, how crucial, how important are these elections going to be for what is called the fourth generation leadership, yourself included?


Minister: First of all, on timing.  The first point I want to make is that we do not believe that this crisis is going to recede in the next one year or maybe even two years.  It depends on when a vaccine is created.  Secondly, by the Constitution, our Parliamentary term expires in January.  And if we do not have a parliament in February next year, we will not have a budget.  Third point is that we are now in a reasonably safe space where the infection is under control, people are going back to work, interactions are beginning.  If we cannot hold an election now, it will be very difficult, and probably far more dangerous to try to hold it later on.  So that is the point on timing.  As to what is at stake, I will be very frank with you.  A lot is at stake.  This is the greatest crisis that has confronted Singapore in our 55 years of independence.  And it is not just Singapore, it is global.  Second point, this is not just a health emergency.  This is also the deepest global recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  So, there is no question that we are facing a clear and present threat to our lives and our livelihoods.  So a lot is at stake.  The other point in the case of Singapore – that there is also a leadership transition – adds to the fact that there is so much already on the table.  The fourth point is that we are also, not just Singapore but globally, grappling with the challenge of transforming our economies to catch up with the opportunities and the challenge of the digital revolution.  There is so much going on, we need to make some fundamental choices, tough choices.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, there will be many first time voters, including a millennial vote, a youth vote.  What is your message to them, particularly given the current environment, since many of them are going to be seeking a job and job security is in question?


Minister: Absolutely.  In fact, the central focus of our campaign will be jobs, jobs, jobs.  And jobs for all segments of our society.  People who have just graduated, entering into the greatest depression that the world has seen, their number one concern will be jobs.  If you look in history, the prospects of blighting a young generation’s future because they face unemployment in their early years has got profound long term implications.  Next, you also have to look, in our case, at the people between 40 to 60.  This is a generation that has got ongoing commitments, and yet is facing the brunt of the economic restructuring that is going on.  And we also have the challenge with seniors who also want to work, and also want to have a job, an economic sector that provides job opportunities for them.  We need to address it on all fronts.  Specifically for young graduates, we have started what we call a national Jobs and Skills Package.  In the next one year, the National Jobs Council chaired by Senior Minister Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) has to generate 100,000 opportunities – that’s jobs, attachments, and traineeships.  We're focusing on the young, and we're focusing on the middle age workers, as well as the seniors.  Let's put it this way, if you graduate now, if you can get a job, take it.  Important to get experience, even at this time.  If you cannot get a job and you can continue in university, go on training.  If you need an attachment, actually, the government is going to provide 80% of the allowance or the salary for that period of attachment.  The company only pays 20%, gets a well-qualified young person, that young person gets to pick up experience.


Sir Jegarajah: And Minister for those Singaporeans who are in a job and as the COVID-19 afterburn does linger on here, what is the risk of retrenchment and must workers here gear up for further job losses?


Minister: Absolutely.  We think, because of the prolonged nature of this crisis, there will be retrenchments, there will be disruption to the job sector.  That is why we are focused so obsessively with the situation on jobs.  Job creation retraining, upskilling, and as well as supporting our companies.  You live here so you may be aware that in the last few months, because of the Job Support Scheme, the government has in effect paid three quarters of the salaries, up to the median wage.  This is a huge commitment.  In fact, the major bulk of our hundred billion fiscal stimulus into the economy has been focused on keeping companies afloat, and encouraging them, incentivising them to employ local Singaporeans.  That is why our unemployment rate has gone up by such a small fraction, about 0.1%.  But in the next few months, this will be under significant stress.  That is why we do need to use this downtime.  Train, upskill, keep companies afloat.  Get them to restructure, upgrade their capabilities, make them more competitive.  There is really a lot of work that needs to be done.  If we play our cards right, our sense of it is that we can emerge from COVID even stronger, more competitive and with a more compelling value proposition to the world.


Martin Soong: Minister, as Foreign Minister, I was going to ask you about rising US-China tensions, and America going crazy and China getting more feisty militarily, etc.  But that might be too expected.  What I really want to know is, John Bolton's new book, which I am sure you have read.  In it, he is saying that during the first Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore, of course, you actually managed to get the President’s, President Trump's ear, and told them three things, which he probably did not take well.  One, that, you know, maybe you should not have had the Summit in the first place.  Two, that he is taking his eye off the ball totally on the real story which is China.  And three, his whole campaign of maximum pressure, he just threw that out the window.  Can you confirm or deny that you actually told President Trump these things?  And if so, what was his reaction in response to you?


Minister: Well, Martin, I think you know as well as I do, I can neither confirm nor deny the contents of private conversations that we had.


Martin Soong: We had to try.


Minister: You had to try, but I hope that you respect that.  We have excellent relations with the United States, I will say that.  It is a relationship based on decades of trust.  Trust also means being able to be open, able to be constructive and helpful.  So we have got a great relationship and I want to keep it that way.


Martin Soong: Okay, let me try another tack.  Just a couple of days ago you spoke to about 100, a roomful, about 150 Foreign Service Officers.  People in the employ of the Foreign Ministry.  People who report to you, basically, and you told them that Singapore's foreign policy needs to start at home.  A very, very different take.  What did you mean by that?  Can you explain?


Minister: Well, I have always worked on the principle that foreign policy begins at home.  Let me explain.  First, Singapore is a tiny city state.  If we were not united, if we were not successful, we would not be relevant to the world.  There is nothing Singapore does that gives us an innate, inalienable value to the world.  That is the first point – we need to settle our domestic matters first.  Be successful, be united, be able to defend our interests.  Particularly because we are so intimately engaged with the superpowers of the world and the major regions of the world, that ability to pursue a principled foreign policy, where you can speak truth to power, where from time to time, I have to say no, whether it is to Americans or to the Chinese or to my immediate neighbours.  The ability to pursue that kind of principled foreign policy, depends entirely on unity, success, cohesion and the fact that, in our case, politics ends at the border.  So I have always believed that foreign policy begins at home.  After all if you think about it, the purpose of foreign policy is to advance the long-term, enlightened interests of your own citizens.  This period with COVID has also underlined the fact that we have embarked on the largest consular operation in our history because people are rushing back for refuge, for safety and security in Singapore.  My officers have been working their guts out over the last few months to make sure that no Singaporean is left behind.  It has been an exhausting, but fulfilling journey for all of us because, in a very real sense, it gave meaning to what citizenship is – that citizenship has its privileges.  It was a good session which we had to review the fundamentals of our existence, of our role in the world.  And also, it gave us at an emotional level, real fulfillment that we play a role in giving meaning to citizenship.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, can I circle back to July 10th and the general election here.  What in your opinion will be the most hotly contested seats on July 10th, and do you think the opposition is going to put up or a tough fight?  Because there is a sense that they are not going to be a pushover.  To what degree do you think this is going to be a tough contest for you?


Martin Soong: Or as some reports have put it, Minister, one of your colleagues suggesting that this could be the election where we could see the opposition wiped out entirely?


Minister: No, no.


Martin Soong: If that is your feeling, is that necessarily a good thing?


Minister: I think this is going to be a very, very tough election.  Never, never take people for granted.  Never assume that you have got their vote.  With each election, all parties have to make their case.  And I have been in enough elections to know that elections have a dynamic of their own.  It is not possible to predict.  Until the day that you open the ballot box, the ballots come out, and in our case it is all manual so we can see with our own eyes.  That is the only time you know the outcome.  My point is it is going to be a tough election.  There are a lot of fundamental choices at stake.  There are consequences.  People have to decide.  I have confidence in our electorate, but I do not take it for granted.  I will not speculate as to which seats will be most keenly contested or not, but I will say that it will be a tough election.  That is my read, and I think that is the correct attitude to go into any election.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, do you think that there is a certain demographic amongst the Singapore electorate that can be described as a swing voter, those that are on the fence?  If so, how would you characterize that demographic and what are the issues that resonate with them, and that could tip the balance either way?


Minister: The majority of Singaporeans voters are swing voters.  That is an assessment based on experience and that is what I meant when I said that at every election you have to make your case.  We have to convince voters that not only have we got a great track record, the more important point is what do we stand for, what are our values?  Are the promises that we make credible?  Are we fit for purpose, for the challenges that are emerging around us and in front of us as we move into this new normal?  We have to explain, we have to convince, we have to win and maintain that level of trust.  You know one key advantage that Singapore has had is trust and cohesion.  If you think about it, this is trust and cohesion that does not come about by coercion.  You have got to win it and you win it on the basis of what you have done, you win it on the basis of who you are and what you stand for and you win it on the basis of putting forward a credible plan.  That is how it is.  I never, never take people for granted.  It is a fact that the majority of Singaporeans are swing voters.


Martin Soong: Good to know, noted and I agree as well.  Minister I have to ask you this, and I am warning you this could be sort of a testy question, but really, it is the question on the minds of a lot of Singaporeans, if not most of them right now, ahead of Nomination Day tomorrow.  That is whether former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, is going to stand for these elections.  If he does, the worry is it could overshadow all the substance, all the issues about managing the virus about reinventing Singapore etc.  It could cast what is essentially still a family feud, front and center in these elections, which is not anything that anybody wants, but that is what could happen.  How do you feel about that?


Minister: Well, thank you for asking what you have described, is a testy question.  Let me give a very frank answer: I do not know whether he will run.  He has never showed political interest in all the previous decades.  Second, if he runs, he will have to explain to the electorate why he is running and what he stands for.  My own sense, and here I will be very frank, is that Singaporeans are sophisticated voters.  They know what is at stake.  I do not believe we will be distracted by what is essentially a private family feud.  We will see what happens, but I believe Singaporeans know what is at stake and we will keep our focus on the key issue.  And the key issue: jobs, relevance, security.  Making sure we are trying to seize the opportunities that are emerging.


We have been through a tough time but what does not kill us makes us stronger and I believe Singapore will be stronger –  our position as a hub, as a trusted, reliable place where people, ideas, talent, services come.  People know that in a crisis we never panicked, we never confiscated or impounded properties, tangible or intangible.  Our position as a key hub for air services, all those things are going and I think I am confident that Singaporeans know what is at stake so I am not too worried on that front.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, Crazy Rich Asians is just part of the story, isn't it?  There is incredible hardship here if you scratch below the surface.  How stark would you say the income inequality is in this country and what more can be done to narrow the gap?


Minister: Income inequality is a clear and present danger in all societies and we take it very seriously down here.  One key reason for Singapore's success has been the fact that we have been a fair and just society, replete with opportunities and everyone is regarded equally, and equally well.  But as we move through time, every society faces this risk and the first point I want to make is that we acknowledge this risk.  Next point, is that if you look at our programme, that is the reason why we are so focused on families which are less well-off, and in particular on their children and even at a very young age.  Why are we doing this?  Because we believe the solution to income inequality is to uplift people who would otherwise be at risk of being left behind.  All our programmes, all our funds, our transfers, our redistribution, education, job support is specifically for that purpose.


Martin Soong: Fantastic.  Minister, appreciate your time.  Lovely talking to you. Come back soon.


Minister: Thank you.  Always appreciate your questions.



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