Edited Transcript of Joint Doorstop Interview with Minister (Foreign Affairs) Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein on 23 March 2021, 1330hrs at Putrajaya Marriott

23 March 2021

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (Hisham): Good afternoon, how is everybody? It’s just a very, very casual press conference that Minister Vivian and I are going to give you. Let me start by thanking Vivian for being able to come and visit us today.


Hisham: I just want to inform you that we had a very good, frank, candid bilateral discussion today, it's a lot easier when you are discussing with a friend.


Minister: An old friend.


Hisham: An old friend. I feel that even in the situation that we are facing right now, post-COVID-19 or with COVID-19 present, there are always opportunities. And when we are faced with challenges, if you have friends that can see eye-to-eye on navigating the way forward – we feel that there are a lot of things that Malaysia and Singapore can do, looking forward.


So, just a bit of a taste of what we discussed today. This exchange of visits of our leadership, both Prime Ministers. Secondly, on travel lanes and arrangements, the post-COVID-19 vaccination rollout and vaccine certification. Moving forward, how COVID-19 affects the global situation, regional issues, interests.


So, I leave it to Vivian, to maybe share with you what was discussed, and I will wrap up immediately after him. So over to you.


Minister: Thank you, Hisham. Hisham is an old friend. We've known each other for 20 years. And we've been through, I think, both at the personal and political level, a very long journey with all kinds of challenges. The last one year has been a very challenging year, for both Singapore and Malaysia.


The first thing I want to say is that the two of us have been brothers and friends in need. I don't just mean personally, but the two countries, Malaysia and Singapore. And let me give you some evidence for that statement. Cast your mind back a year ago, when people – Malaysians, Singaporeans – were stranded all over the world. We helped each other tumpang transport to bring Singaporeans and Malaysians home. A clear example.


When we had to have our Circuit Breaker and the Movement Control Order (MCO), the Conditional Movement Control Order, in Malaysia a year ago, suddenly, there was a scramble to figure out where people were working, where people were living, whether in Johor or Singapore. And literally overnight, arrangements had to be made – where they were going to be housed, looked after, and how they were going to move across. And we did that. And we were in constant touch throughout.


As another example, throughout the depths of this crisis, our supply lines never shut down. Whether it was the flow of vegetables, essential goods, medication. More recently, even the supply chains for vaccines have flowed across the Causeway or from Changi Airport to KL International Airport (KLIA). Again, it is proof that things have continued to function effectively.


I hope you can see that this proves the vital nature of our relationship and why we must never take it for granted, and that we must continue to invest in it, to grow it. And to make sure we produce and deliver the services which our people, Singaporeans and Malaysians, have every right to demand.


I have come today to see my old friend and also to convey an invitation from Prime Minister Lee to Prime Minister Muhyiddin to come and visit Singapore, which we hope to announce soon in the near future. I think the two Prime Ministers – although they did sort of get to meet each other face-to-face at the Causeway, with the Boundary Line in between – we would like to invite Prime Minister Muhyiddin to pay an official visit to Singapore and to have a deeper, substantive conversation with my Prime Minister. So that's the first thing which we need to deliver.


The second area where we spent a lot of time discussing and which we will continue to work on, is in the post-COVID-19 recovery phase. And in particular now, as the COVID-19 situation both in Singapore and in Malaysia is stabilising and as both of us roll out our vaccination programmes, we have to think through carefully how to safely reopen the economy, the borders and travel between Singapore and Malaysia. I think you will know that last year we had already negotiated both the Reciprocal Green Lane, and the PCA, the Periodic Commuting Arrangement. Although the Reciprocal Green Lane is currently suspended, we are going to review it and we will look at the arrangements which we may be able to implement from May onwards. We are also looking specifically, now that we're rolling out the vaccination programme, for mutual recognition of certifications, as well as the tests – both the serology and the PCR tests – so that we can rely on each other's certifications. And all this is with a view to facilitating cross-border flows, especially of people who have been vaccinated, tested, and who can travel safely. So there's a lot of staff work that needs to be done.


But watch this space. I hope by the time our two Prime Ministers meet, we can make some significant announcements, which will allow those of us with family members on both sides of the Causeway to meet again, which will allow businesses to resume, which will allow hopefully, tourism – safe tourism – in due time. And we can look forward to a busier Causeway and airport.


You know, today, when I left Changi, it was empty. When I arrived at KLIA, it was not the KLIA that I used to visit. We need to get past this. So, we have a lot of work in this post-COVID-19 recovery phase. And I think Malaysia and Singapore should be the first ones in the world to show what really effective partnership based on trust, on openness and mutual support can demonstrate.


Hisham: Yes.


Minister: So that's what we look forward to. I think the other area, perhaps less happy, that we discussed is the situation in Myanmar. I think, here, I take the risk of speaking for both of us. Both Malaysia and Singapore are gravely concerned with the situation there. It is a humanitarian disaster. In fact, it aggravates an already existing humanitarian disaster. We believe that violence against unarmed civilians is inexcusable. We hope they will exercise restraint. We hope reconciliation, national conversation and dialogue between all the parties, the stakeholders in Myanmar will come about. We still believe that there should be no external interference in the domestic affairs of the country. But to the maximum extent possible as members of ASEAN, we stand ready to do our best to support the people of Myanmar, who in fact deserve so much better in the future.


So all in all, we've had a very good, productive set of discussions, and we hope to be able to announce more good news in the months to come.


Hisham: Fair enough, great. I just want to say that nothing can replace a physical face-to-face meeting. I have had so many virtual meetings with Vivian and our colleagues in ASEAN.


Minister: And he is on WhatsApp all the time.


Hisham: I’m on WhatsApp with him and on a phone call with him every other day. Since Myanmar, it has been every other hour. But meeting like this really reinforces something which we already have built for so long. And it is so easy to be able to discuss even sensitive and disputed issues if you are talking to a friend, someone that is willing to listen and willing to navigate it together. And this is what I have with regards to my relationship with Vivian, and Malaysia and Singapore. So, based from your visit today, my friend, I think we have a lot of work to do.


Minister: Yes.


Hisham: But I'm confident that based on the foundations that we have built, there is a great future, with regards to the bilateral relations between Malaysia and Singapore.


He has got many more appointments today. We will take a few questions quickly.


Question: [inaudible question regarding vaccinations and health certificates]


Hisham: Well, Vivian will be speaking to Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) Khairy Jamaluddin later today. On the policy side, we have come to some understanding. But on the operational side, we need to coordinate all the stakeholders. Whether it is the ministries on our part – there's not just MOSTI, but also the Health Ministry, and we would need to speak to the state government with regards to Johor-Singapore travel. So, all these need to be coordinated. But I am happy to report that as far as the two Foreign Ministers are concerned, we have come to some agreement on moving positively forward.


Minister: Thank you. I think you know that Malaysia and Singapore are inseparable. I gave you examples just now. And of course, for us in Singapore, the state of Johor is our immediate neighbour. And it is truly an interdependent relationship. So, I see the simultaneous rollout of vaccination in both Malaysia and Singapore as presenting us with an opportunity. Hopefully, in the near future, as the health situation stabilises and hopefully equalises, that makes it easier to re-establish the interconnections, the travel, which I think our people really want.


I suppose I should say that there's one additional agreement we forgot to mention. This was the agreement for compassionate travel.


Hisham: Yeah.


Minister: There are people on both sides of the border – relatives, parents, grandparents. Sometimes when a person is critically ill, their families need to visit urgently. So I am glad that our two sides have arrived at an in-principle agreement, and we hope to be able to operationalise this next month, in April.


Question: Your Excellency, this question is about cross-border movement. Especially for the workers in both countries, how soon can they see the resumption of cross-border movement?


Minister: First of all, currently, the PCA, the Periodic Commuting Arrangement is in effect. Every day, there's probably a couple of hundred people flowing across the border. That continues to be the case. But what I am looking forward to, as the epidemic situation in Johor stabilises and improves, and as vaccination rolls out, I would expect to see that number increase accordingly.


But as Foreign Minister Hishammuddin has mentioned, this is something which involves multiple ministries on both sides – the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Trade and Industry. I see the role of MFA and Wisma Putra as facilitators to bring people onto the table, to achieve common understanding, and then to work out the detailed protocols and processes.


But the clear message to our people, both in Singapore and Malaysia, is that as the situation improves, we can look forward to brighter times. We can look forward to getting together again, enjoying each other's company, and each other's food.


Hisham: I just want to add, the earlier arrangements which Vivian and I worked on, whether it is the Reciprocal Green Lane, or the Periodic Commuting Arrangement, now we are adding the compassionate movement of citizens. The added value that we can put into the formula is the vaccination rollout.


Minister: Yes.


Hisham: We are now discussing how that could facilitate what we already have, allow travel, and build on what has been announced and is operational at the present time. The vaccination rollout in both countries, I think, has added value and made our life slightly easier, in getting and coordinating all the different ministries and agencies within our countries, and getting the two countries to find an understanding, moving forward.


Minister: And I would add that it is not just vaccination alone, but also sharing data on test results.


Hisham: Yes. That’s true.


Minister: For either of us to travel, you need to show vaccination records, test records, and potentially your serology records. But getting those records recognised, and to be able to share the information securely, transparently and reliably, makes the difference. Otherwise, the two of us can't even travel. So, in a sense, the same systems that we are generating here, must apply to everyone.


Question: Minister, you have spoken about certification of vaccinations  [inaudible]


Minister: Yes. We were just discussing just now. If you are thinking in terms of a deadline, I think by the time our two Prime Ministers meet, we should be in a position to make some announcements.


While I am here, I will be seeing Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. We will go through more operational details. I think, as I said, the overall structure is that vaccination programmes are being implemented and rolled out in both Singapore and Malaysia right now. Some of the vaccines we are using are identical. The tests and the test regimes are very similar. We are seeking to ensure that there's an adequate exchange of reliable information, in particular between our two Ministries of Health, which would be helpful.


And that will help build confidence, which in turn can be used to safely open our borders and to allow travel again. I think the point to emphasise is, we have to be guided by public health. That is still the paramount, overriding concern. Having said that, by having a more transparent and interoperable system, we can protect public health, safely reopen the economy and safely enable travelling.


So, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done. We will work through all the details. And hopefully, our Prime Ministers will be able to make some announcements in the near future.


Hisham: I agree.


Hisham: Let us have the last question.


Question: When are the Prime Ministers meeting?


Hisham: We are going to discuss in about an hour’s time.


Minister: Yes, let me go and see the Prime Minister.


Question: Compassionate travel can be allowed you think by June?


Hisham: Yeah.


Minster: We are going to try to get some details, operationalise next month. Yes, April.


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