Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Live Interview on Channel 5's News 5, 28 August 2020

29 August 2020

Otelli Edwards: Welcome back to News 5. The Foreign Affairs Ministry says that COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of Singapore playing an active role internationally. It did so in its Addendum to the President’s Address in Parliament. For a closer look at the statement, we are joined now by Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. A warm welcome to News 5, Minister.

Minister: Hi Otelli, great to join you.

Otelli Edwards: Let us just kick things off with what President Halimah has been stressing about Singapore being at an inflection point, with the new term of Government starting under the shadow of COVID-19. I am just wondering, what are some of the urgent tasks for your Government now?

Minister: We are still confronting the greatest downturn since our independence. We have got to get over this pandemic, and you know to be frank with you, there will be ups and downs. But in the midst of this, first, we need to protect jobs, especially and obviously for Singaporeans. Second, we need to strengthen our social safety nets, and in particular, to make sure that we do this in a sustainable way for the long-term. Beyond that, we also have to have some very honest, candid discussions on the Singapore identity. Issues of race, language, religion are ‘live’. Whilst we do all that, we also need to make sure that even as we look after Singaporeans – and being a citizen has privileges – we must not become xenophobic. We must not succumb to the lure of racism. So we have got our work cut out for us over the next couple of years.

Otelli Edwards: There you have mentioned about the importance of the Government partnering with Singaporeans. What are the other ways we can help?

Minister: Think about the challenges facing us. They are complex, they are long-term, and there are no simple easy answers. As I have said earlier, we need to have some heart-to-heart conversations with our own citizens. That is why we have the Emerging Stronger Conversations series. This will enable us to put the issues on the table, to get multiple perspectives brought to bear, to look at the trade-offs honestly and candidly, and then make those decisions. The key thing in the future is not just about finding the right decision, but implementing it, and implementing it with partnership, cooperation, trust, and confidence with the population. This partnership, it is not just jargon. This has to be a lived reality in the years to come.

Otelli Edwards: Just moving on to the global stage now. COVID-19, what does it mean for us and the role that Singapore is playing in this collective fight against the pandemic?

Minister: Let me put this in context. The COVID-19 pandemic has not altered the course of history. In fact, what it has done is to accelerate pre-existing trends. Now what do I mean by that? If you think about it, since the global financial crisis, the problems of growing debt all over the world, growing inequality, the pushback against globalisation and free trade, all those trends were there even before COVID-19. But what the COVID-19 pandemic has done is to accelerate the tensions, accelerate the trends which were already in place. Make no mistake about it. This is a dangerous phase. This is a volatile and very challenging period for us as a tiny, open city-state.

What are we going to do about it? The most important thing – and this is something I need to emphasise repeatedly – is that we need to stay united, cohesive, and stick together as one people. Because without that unity, without that cohesion, we cannot pursue foreign policy. We cannot pursue the economic restructuring that is needed. We cannot make those essential changes to our social safety net. So that is first: unity and cohesion.

Specifically, for my ministry and for our diplomats all over the world, a couple of things. Number one, we have lived up to our pledge to leave no overseas Singaporean behind. Wherever you are in the world, if you need help, there will be a Singaporean, a voice, someone you can lean on, someone who can advise and provide help. That is number one. That is a privilege of citizenship. Second, if you look in our immediate neighbourhood, Malaysia, Indonesia, ASEAN, we have been very focused on keeping these relationships productive, constructive and on a balanced and even keel. Even in the depths of this crisis, we have maintained the security of essential supplies. Even when there were lockdowns and Circuit Breakers – trucks, lorries continued to move, and we were not short of essential supplies. Even in the midst of this crisis, we have continued to have discussions, negotiations on bilateral projects and on cooperative projects, for instance, the Rapid Transit System. Right now, we are discussing the High Speed Rail as well. If you look at ASEAN as a whole, we have been able to help each other with supplies, with tests. We have been able to maintain open travel and the movement of essential supplies within ASEAN, and we have continued to work on projects like the Smart Cities Network, greater integration of trade, finances and the rest of it. So that is work that has continued despite this crisis.

If you look at a global level, Singapore has continued to support the UN (United Nations), the WHO (World Health Organization), the WTO (World Trade Organization), all these international organisations because we believe in a multilateral rules-based system, where all of us have a stake in each other’s success. In particular right now, we believe in what we call “vaccine multilateralism”. There are many vaccine candidates being developed, but which one will work, which one will be most effective, only time will tell. We are in a situation where no one country is going to be safe unless everyone, all over the world is safe. In a paradoxical way, this pandemic has reminded all of us that all of us, the entire world, is on one single boat. We need to protect and look out for each other. So we continue to do our part as a responsible member of the international community.

Otelli Edwards: Just before I let you go Minister, just want your thoughts on the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he just announced his resignation today. What is your reaction to that?

Minister: We are sorry for his resignation and for the fact that he had to do so under pressure because of his health. To be candid with you, Prime Minister Abe has been a very positive, constructive force for relations between Singapore and Japan. He and our Prime Minister get on very very well, and that has been one big stabilising factor. Another thing I would want to give him credit for, is the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). When America pulled out, it was Prime Minister Abe’s leadership that got the other eleven members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to proceed, and now today, the CPTPP has been brought into force, ratified by most of its members. This is a compliment to the efforts and the leadership of Prime Minister Abe. Of course, within Japan itself, I think everyone will recall Abenomics, and the way he has tried to restructure and to strengthen the economy within Japan. He deserves full credit for it. We will be sorry to see him go, but we wish him all the best and hope he makes a full recovery.

Otelli Edwards: It has been good speaking with you. Thank you very much for spending your Friday evening with us.

Minister: Thank you Otelli.


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