Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Live Zoom Interview on CNBC Asia’s Squawk Box Asia, 10 May 2021

10 May 2021

Presenter (Martin Soong): Over the weekend, Singapore re-entered Phase 2 restrictions to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. The cap on social gatherings was brought back down to five people; it was eight before. Places with high transmission risks such as gyms have been closed. In the meantime, employers have been asked that 50% or half of their employees work from home. The Government says the initial measures will last till May 30. This comes as the city-state reported 10 new community cases of COVID-19, taking the total to past 61,000. For more, let’s bring in Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister. He joins from elsewhere in Singapore. Minister, great to see you again and always appreciate your time. So, we are back to tighter restrictions in Singapore. Ten new community cases were reported yesterday and over the last week or so. I want to know how concerning is it that when this fresh wave started, it included infections among at least one person who had been already vaccinated before, and that these new clusters that are emerging happen to be in hospitals as well.

Minister: Well, thank you. Good morning, both of you. How concerning it is? We are concerned. Let me just make three quick points. The first point is that COVID-19 is endemic in humanity, which means it is not ever going to go away completely. The reason it is not going to go away completely is because it is widespread throughout the world. There is sufficient critical mass – the rate of mutations and new variants will keep going. The level of human immunity will also wax and wane. So that is the first point, it is permanent. Second point is that vaccination is absolutely critical. It is essential, but it is not a panacea. You cannot vaccinate your way out of an epidemic exponential explosion. That is the second point, (that vaccinations are) essential but not sufficient. The third point is that, therefore, we must anticipate oscillation over the next two years. As waves come, there will be necessity for social restrictions, tightening at borders; these measures will have to come and go accordingly in response to these successive waves. So we are just going to have to get used to it. Specifically now in Singapore, we obviously have some level, low level, of community transmission. That is what we are trying to clamp down on very hard, and that is why (we have) the recently announced social restrictions. As far as vaccinations are concerned, we vaccinated about 20% of the population. To be honest with you, it is not really the vaccinated people I am worried about. It is those who are not vaccinated. Our recent experience in the hospital cluster shows that people who are vaccinated have fewer symptoms, have less severe disease, have not yet needed to even have oxygen therapy. That is not the case for those who are not vaccinated. So right now in Singapore, and in fact, throughout the world, as we go through this phase where some people are vaccinated, and others are not, it is a more dangerous period for people who are either going to be complacent on one hand, or for people who are not going to have the protection from vaccination, on the other hand. This is something we are going to have to watch very closely.

Martin Soong: Indeed, all your points there (are) taken onboard, Minister. Let me ask you then, in terms of reaching herd immunity for the Government of Singapore, how do you define that? Is it 70, 75, 80 (percent) and do you have a timeframe target (on) when you would want that herd immunity level, that percentage, to be reached – of the populations that is? 

Minister: We do not have a defined threshold of herd immunity, and let me explain why. First, as new variants keep evolving, and as these new variants appear to be more infectious than the original strain, the level of herd immunity, mathematically, will change. Second reason is we know now, with the benefit of one year's experience, that even the immunity to natural infection appears to wane with time. Although it is too early to be definite about vaccination, it is likely that the immunity from vaccination may also wane with time. So the point is, you cannot expect to say you have reached a magic figure and you are suddenly immune, and it is “mask off”, and no restrictions. The point I am making is that this current oscillation between restrictions, relaxation, and the necessity for masks and the necessity for vaccinations – these imperatives will remain. So there is no magic threshold.

Martin Soong: Understood. You know, Singapore's numbers, relatively speaking are still low, including the new cases, the new surge. But, does this increase the risk that the country and the population will be more vulnerable to mutations of the virus? It seems to happen wherever there are surges happening, obviously, in India, although that is not a comparison. Also, can you confirm that the double mutation, the B1617 variant, has been detected in Singapore?

Minister: Yes, it has. I mean, that is not a surprise. We know that the variants are the ones, which in other parts of the world, have become the majority strain. Therefore, it is no surprise for a tiny city-state, which needs to continue to have some level of opening at the borders, that we are going to be exposed to these new variants. So this is not a surprise at all. The only question is, how much more contagious is it and how much more virulent is it. Therefore, the question for each country is, how prepared are you? What is the level of your vaccination programme? What is the level of your preparation in terms of your healthcare facilities? The main problem with this is that it is an absolute tragedy when your healthcare systems are overwhelmed, and people who should recover and should have been saved, are not saved, because you are overwhelmed. This is where the question of scale and of numbers come into the picture. We have got to always take this seriously and perhaps lean towards overreacting, rather than to underreact and to do too little, too late. That is the key lesson from this pandemic.

Presenter (Sri Jegarajah): Minister, understood. So you are operating through a clear abundance of caution. I wanted to ask you, what are the implications then for quarantine-free travel under the travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong? Is that still going to go ahead as planned on 26 May?

Minister: Well, if I come back to my third point that there will be oscillations; what that means is that bubbles can grow or burst very quickly, and we need to just take that onboard. So as of now, the plan is yes, but we will have to watch how the situation evolves over the next few days. You will notice that the arrangements that we have made with Hong Kong, and the other arrangements that we are discussing with other countries, will have these pre-set thresholds at which the level of opening will have to change, or even temporarily stop. So we will just have to get used to these oscillations.

Sri Jegarajah: Singapore has deep connections, historical connections with India, Minister, we all know that. What is your message to the country that is undergoing this devastating crisis at the moment with a resurgence? Are you standing by with more support and assistance, and where does this leave travel between Singapore and India?

Minister: Well, right now, you know that we have severely restricted travel between India and Singapore. That is because of the tragic situation that is unfolding across India. You know that we are very deeply concerned. I received a message from (the Republic of India Minister of External Affairs Dr. S) Jaishankar on the 22nd (April 2021). Within the next day or two, we facilitated the sending of cryogenic tanks via the Indian Air Force to help India. A few days after that, we sent additional oxygen cylinders. Then a week after that, even our private sector and the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, sent additional supplies of thousands of oxygen cylinders via Indian naval ships. So there is no question about our concern, no question that we stand with India and we will do our bit to help them overcome this current problem. But I want to say that this is a very significant and major tragedy that is unfolding. It is still early days. It is going to take quite some time before the situation resolves.

Sri Jegarajah: Minister, there is also a narrative over whether vaccinations should be widened – the programme that is – to include a younger demographic of children between the ages of 12 and 15. This is a conversation that is happening on a global basis. Is Singapore closer to a decision, Sir?

Minister: We are certainly looking at this. We are waiting for the results of the studies on vaccinations in children or in teenagers to come in. If it is proven that it is safe and efficacious, we will certainly do so. If you watch the early data on the variants, it is clear that it is more infective, it is also clear that younger people are susceptible to the variants. There is also some preliminary data that it also seems to be clinically more severe than the original strains, especially in younger people. So all this means we have got to keep an open mind and be prepared to vaccinate even younger age groups once the data is in. So we are looking at this, very, very actively.

Sri Jegarajah: If we just turn the picture back domestically if we can, how serious is the risk of these new clusters of re-infections? You were talking about re-infections, Minister. How serious is it that the foreign worker dormitories could once again become a cluster themselves or have we learned the lesson from what happened last year in 2020?

Minister: The key lesson is not to be complacent. So far, we do not have a problem, but we need to be very, very watchful. What is different from a year ago, is the fact that we (now) have got expanded testing capacity, both PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) and antigen rapid tests, and that we are testing everyone at least once every fortnight (in the dormitories). Second, our tracing capacity also has been upscaled. Our digital contact tracing system now covers more than 92% of the population. They are very quickly able to identify all close contacts and to take the appropriate actions to isolate and to clamp down on any clusters very, very early. There is some reason for hope but never, never be complacent. We cannot afford it.

Martin Soong: Minister, if we could move on and talk about another vexing issue for your portfolio specifically, which is foreign affairs. This has to do with the situation in Myanmar. It was not that long ago that Singapore, as part of ASEAN, managed a rare achievement – that is sitting down with the military government of Myanmar and agreeing to, look, these killings, this violence must stop. Obviously, it has not. It has continued, if not increased. I mean the country is on the brink of, if not civil war, potentially being a failed state. What do you think should be done, one, and two, realistically what do you think can be done?

Minister: Well, in terms of what should be done, you just need to look at the ASEAN consensus a fortnight ago. Number one, the violence must stop. Number two, you need to release the political detainees. So that, the third point,honest, direct negotiations between the NLD (National League for Democracy), the civilian government on the one hand, and the Tatmadaw, the military authorities, on the other hand, can proceed in good faith. Without this national conversation and reconciliation, you are not going to see any progress in Myanmar. Indeed, the signs of a potential civil war are there. In fact, it is worth remembering that Myanmar has gone through more than seven decades of ethnic conflict. But now, the problem is that even the Burman majority themselves are restive, are unhappy, are restless. Every day, it is heart-breaking to see the reports on fatalities and injuries. All this is so unnecessary. All this is so tragic. ASEAN stands ready to help. We have offered to send envoys there. We have offered to play the role of an honest broker. We have also offered humanitarian assistance. But the ball is now in the court of the military authorities and they have got to decide when and how we can constructively play a role to help this national reconciliation occur.

Sri Jegarajah: Constructively play a role. Minister, would sanctions pressure be part of the response from ASEAN? Or do you feel that would be counterproductive?

Minister: Well, we have taken the stand that broad-based, indiscriminate sanctions would be counter-productive, basically because that would hurt ordinary people. But targeted sanctions, which is what many countries have already announced, I think that is part of the menu. But we need to understand that the Tatmadaw has withstood decades of isolation, of sanctions. They have got a very high threshold for pain, especially if the pain is being felt by the people, rather than themselves. So sanctions, I see as part of the menu, but not sufficient to achieve a solution. In the end, you still need a political outcome. In the Myanmar body politic, both the military and the civilian poles of power are integral to any future solution. You need both poles to talk, you need to engage, and they need to work out a suitable compromise, or a suitable formulation, in which there is sufficient reassurance to both sides and this process of democratic transition can occur. This is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you know, they will just continue doing what has happened over the past seven decades. It is really sad because we all work with colleagues from Myanmar. We know what wonderful people they are, how hardworking, how disciplined (and) how imaginative. Myanmar and its people deserve so much more, and we hope that they get what they deserve – the people of Myanmar.

Martin Soong: Indeed, I think a lot of people would agree with you, Minister. As you know, obviously, the West is attempting more targeted sanctions on businesses – very big businesses – controlled by the military, the Tatmadaw, in Myanmar. We will have to see whether that works and whether or not they end up being counter-productive and hurting the people of Myanmar instead. As far as Singapore goes, I do not mean to back you into a corner, but this is going to be controversial. At least anecdotally, many military leaders in Myanmar, not just the current generation, but previous generations, have looked at Singapore as a haven for their commercial interests, for, bluntly, their money, for their families, for their children, for their education, for their homes abroad, et cetera. Is the Government considering or should the Government consider specific sanctions on current generation individuals in the Myanmar military, which (would) hit them in the pocket, as opposed to hurting the Myanmar people?

Minister: Well, let me first put things in context. Singapore is an open city-state. We are a financial centre, we are an excellent healthcare centre, and our academic institutions are top notch. So there is no question that people from our region often look to Singapore when they are looking for a place to educate their children, or to access healthcare, or to access financial services. This is not something unique to the elite in Myanmar. This applies across the region. Second point is that if you look at the current situation, none of the coup leaders or their immediate family members are in Singapore. We have had the Monetary Authority of Singapore conduct financial surveillance – there are no significant sums from individuals or corporate entities of Myanmar here in Singapore. So I think we need to look at it in context. Now, the additional point I would make is that we believe in engagement. We believe in engagement with all sides, because as I said earlier, the only way you are going to get a solution is if all these parties sit down at a table and talk to one another in good faith. Now, to the extent that we maintain open lines of communication and have reservoirs of trust and goodwill with all parties, this also enables us to play a constructive role. We will play the role of an honest broker. We would of course comply with all international sanctions decided by the United Nations Security Council, and we will also advise all corporations to be very careful when dealing with sanctioned individuals, in order not to get into trouble on the corporate front. We are very careful in playing this role, but we believe that Singapore can therefore be an honest, reliable broker for real national conversations to occur. So let us wait and see. You will notice that we call a spade, a spade; it is a coup, a coup has occurred and we have said so. This is a tragedy and we have said so. We have condemned the violence, no question about that. But we have still continued to talk. That is why the ASEAN leaders invited Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to attend the ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Jakarta a fortnight ago. That is the role, and that is how we hope that we can play a constructive bit to bring national reconciliation in Myanmar.

Sri Jegarajah: Minister, if we can bring it back and circle back to Singapore and the domestic economy, do these latest restrictions act as a setback on the recovery here, and what is your best estimate Sir, on when Singapore’s economic activity can return to pre-pandemic levels?

Minister: Well, our current restrictions, we have said will apply till the end of the month. We will continue to review the situation very, very carefully. This is a setback, there will be some impact. But actually if you zoom out and take a longer view, our assessment is that this year should certainly be much better than last year. But even then, it is really about recovering to where we were before, making up for lost ground. What happens over the next one or two years will depend very much on the global situation. If you look carefully at our economy, certainly tourism, aviation, those are very severely impacted. But there are green shoots of growth, certainly on the digital side of the economy, on finance, on logistics, (and) on e-commerce. It is a matter of trying to restructure our economy whilst dealing with the immediate and urgent oscillatory problems posed by the pandemic. I would characterise our posture, as one of very careful watchfulness whilst continuing with the hard work of restructuring the economy, doing whatever we need to do to keep the epidemic at bay, whilst enabling our people to continue getting on with their jobs.

Martin Soong: Minister, several minutes ago when we were talking about Myanmar, you were talking about Singapore wanting to act as an honest broker as it were. Obviously, Singapore is not the only country attempting that. Indonesia, if I am not mistaken, is very assertive and reactive on that front as well. But in terms of Singapore's involvement with other Southeast Asian nations and with regard to Indonesia, you have the tragedy, not too long ago, of an Indonesian submarine being lost at sea. All hands lost at sea, in fact, 53 crew on board. Singapore sent a search vessel to aid, to locate and find the wreckage. What I am trying to get at here is, and this is cross-portfolio because obviously this has implications for defence as well, are you concerned that there is an arms race in this part of the world, in Southeast Asia, with so many Asian (countries) acquiring submarines, one, and two more specifically, and this is more for the Defence Minister but while we have you, I would like to get your thoughts, whatever you are going to be able to tell us. If I am not mistaken, I think the Navy was set to take delivery of their first, new fresh submarine this month, to start replacing the pre-loved ones that the RSN [Republic of Singapore Navy] had before. Given the Indonesian tragedy, is that delivery still on track?

Minister: Well, I cannot get into operational details. But let me answer your question. First, is there an arms race? No, there is not an arms race. Second point I would make is that the governments across Southeast Asia, and in particular since your question is about Indonesia and us, we are close and we are in constant communication. We will help each other especially when crises occur. This reflex to reach out, to extend a hand and to be present whenever an emergency occurs, these are all positive indicators of the strength of the relationship. I would characterise our relations as excellent and in fact, this goes across ASEAN and Southeast Asia. The greater problem is actually at the global level. The biggest dynamic competition, or potential for trouble, is between the United States and China, and Southeast Asia wants to ensure that we do not become an arena for negative competition or worse, a conflict or confrontation. So that is our concern.

Martin Soong: Minister, I am so sorry, we are just out of time. Always love talking to you. Thank you so much for sharing your morning with us. Keep safe and we will do this again very soon.

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