Minister: I have just about concluded a very busy and successful visit to Vietnam. I think you all know Vietnam is a very key member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and a very close partner of Singapore.
In this visit, which is the first visit by a foreign minister after their recent election of the new leadership in Vietnam, they gave me very good access. I met President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who of course is a dear and close, old friend of Singapore. The new Prime Minister (Pham Minh) Chinh, the Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who of course we know well because he was the former Foreign Minister. Then of course, my counterparts, the newly appointed Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son. On the party side, the Chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Commission for External Relations (Le Hoai) Trung, who also is very familiar with us because he was very active on the ASEAN and regional circuit. I also met Hanoi Party Secretary (Dinh Tien Dung), who is a very dynamic man with lots of ideas for the development of Hanoi. Hanoi is a 1000-year-old city. Lots of history, lots of culture, beauty, but it is also a big and expanding city with eight million (people) and is growing rapidly. It has been a very fruitful and very busy visit, and I will just quickly summarise some of the themes that we discussed.
First, obviously, was on COVID-19. You may be aware that Vietnam itself has had its own strict version of a “circuit breaker”. In fact, they only just relaxed some measures yesterday, when restaurants opened again for dining-in. Both Vietnam and Singapore’s tactical approaches to COVID-19 are actually very similar. But one key difference is that we are very fortunate in Singapore, because our vaccination programmme is well underway. Whereas here (in Vietnam), they still need to source more vaccines from overseas in order to roll out vaccination effectively. But like us, they also agree that there is a need for intensive testing. There is a need for quick isolation. We are also discussing ways in which we can prepare, in the next few months hopefully – hopefully by the end of the year – how we can gradually and safely liberalise, particularly business travel, and perhaps selected tourist sites. But the key thing first is Vietnam needs some time to step up its vaccination program, so we will wait for them to be ready. In the meantime, we are working at the staff-level to resolve things like mutual recognition of vaccine certificates, testing and results, to build up the level of confidence in each other’s systems because this is essential before we can open up and liberalise travel later on. They also expressed interest in some of our technologies, for instance, the breathalyser test for quick and rapid identification of people who may have COVID-19. I told them we will help them source these new technologies and evaluate them, and see whether they would apply in this context. So, that was on COVID-19.
On the economic front, it is good news. You know that our trade with Vietnam has been growing, and even last year despite COVID-19, our trade was stable. In fact, it grew by 0.1%. On the investment front, our cumulative stock of investments in Vietnam now exceeds about US$56 billion across 2600 projects all over. This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the VSIP – the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks. There are seven of them and they have all been a great success, so much so that the Vietnamese keep reminding us that they look forward to establishing even more industrial parks. These industrial parks have been very useful for bringing in foreign direct investments into Vietnam and have also generated over 270,000 jobs – good jobs – for the Vietnamese people. So, on the economic front, we are also going to form a working group to explore particularly, opportunities in the digital economy. As Vietnam restructures its economy and takes advantage of new breakthroughs available on the digital side including AI (artificial intelligence), robotics and data analytics, this is an area in which they want to work closely with us. We are exploring signing a Digital Partnership Agreement, just as we have with some other countries, and if we do so, it will be the first with an ASEAN country. So, on the economic front, things look good with great potential for the future. We, of course, covered other multilateral, global and regional issues. On the multilateral side, I want to say that Vietnam and Singapore in fact have a very similar strategic outlook. Both of us believe in international law, both of us recognise the essential role and primacy of the 1982 United Nations Convention Law of the Sea, as well as the need for peaceful resolution of disputes in our region. This is a long-standing position, and Vietnam and Singapore continue to work very closely, both within ASEAN and at the UN (United Nations) to uphold these principles. On the regional side, within ASEAN, both Vietnam and Singapore are completely committed to maintaining ASEAN Centrality, ASEAN unity, and the need for ASEAN’s role to be emphasised, to be accentuated. Amidst regional developments and global development, and superpower rivalry, it is even more important to double down on ASEAN. And on this front again, we look at it in very much the same way. We, of course, have had some discussion on Myanmar, and here again I can say (that) there is very good congruence of our positions. We both hope for peace in Myanmar, we hope violence will stop immediately, we hope there will be reconciliation or political dialogue amongst all the stakeholders, and Vietnam and Singapore stand ready to do what we can, without interfering, to improve the situation in Myanmar.
All in all, it was a good visit. It illustrates that long-term relationships must never be taken for granted. We need to tend the garden, we need to continue to build relationships with new leaders, and that reservoir of trust and goodwill which we have in Vietnam is absolutely essential.
Vanessa Lim (CNA Digital): Hi Minister, I just want to follow up on what you said about Singapore-Vietnam travel. You did say that this could take a few months or hopefully by the end of this year. So, did discussions cover specific benchmarks that need to be achieved in order to allow, particularly, leisure travel between the two countries to resume, and if so, what are those benchmarks? And how soon can mutual recognition of health certificates be introduced as a way of helping to facilitate future travel?
Minister: We have not yet defined specific thresholds, but what we have agreed on is an approach. As I said, one key difference at this point in time is that vaccination is well underway in Singapore, but it is still in progress in Vietnam. And in fact, they have recognised that there is an urgent need to step up vaccination in order to protect their own people, and until they can reach that stage, they have to be very careful with their borders and I completely agree with this approach. What we are working on, as I said earlier, is that we will open up our systems to each other so that we can interoperate mutual recognition of test results, of vaccination status, and all these are essential prerequisites before we can open up. We had some discussion, although obviously we have not arrived at the conclusion yet, but some discussion on whether they can have a selective opening for some of the many beautiful, wonderful tourist sites that Vietnam has, and they are exploring whether they could do, perhaps a trial, opening one or some of these sites later on in this year. And I have expressed our support, because I am sure and I know many Singaporeans do want to resume travel. But please be patient, we want to open up safely.
Nam Yunzhou (LHZB): You were at the Asia-Europe Meeting for the trip this time round and you had the chance to meet with leaders from both regions. I would like to get your assessment of the current global cooperation momentum. You also talked about this crisis of global governance. What areas do you think nations can better coordinate to achieve a desired level of multilateralism and global governance?
Minister: You know that Vietnam hosted the High Level Policy Dialogue for the Asia-Europe Meeting. It was a good meeting. Some of us were present and the others were dialled in through a videoconference platform. I think there were a few key themes which came through. Number one, even as we transit to a multipolar world, and in the midst of a digital revolution – which upends the economy, politics and society – superpower rivalry, COVID-19, and the threat of long-term climate change, the need for multilateralism is even more urgent than ever before. I think there is clear recognition of that. The next point is that because this was a meeting between Europe and Asia. This emphasis on multilateralism, a rules-based system, and access to peaceful resolution of disputes, were instinctively agreed on by both sides. The third dimension that was emphasised is trade. In Asia, trade is strategy. We want to expand trade not just with the superpowers but across to Europe, to Africa, to South America, and particularly between Europe and Asia. If you just look within our region, both Vietnam and Singapore have ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP); both Vietnam and Singapore have signed on to the RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership; and within the last two years, both Vietnam and Singapore have free trade agreements signed – in our case, ratified with the EU (European Union). The point is, even at this time where there has been political and domestic pushback against free trade and against globalisation, Asia and Europe have in fact reaffirmed the crucial importance of economic integration of free trade as engines of growth, as stabilisers for the global multilateral system. Of course, the latest agreement that we arrived at was the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement between the EU and ASEAN – the first bloc-to-bloc regional air travel liberalisation agreement ever signed. Given the state of the aviation industry, you will appreciate that this is a very welcome boost, and again, sets the stage for what I hope will be a very robust post-COVID-19 recovery. The next few months are going to be crucial. In the case of Singapore, the next two months will be when we step up vaccination. In the case of the rest of ASEAN, the next six months will also see our neighbours step up vaccination, as they come to grips with COVID-19. Then the key thing is to prepare for the recovery – get our systems interoperable, get our economies restructured, restart, reboot, get the jobs, and then look forward to a much better year the next year. At the same time, maintain global peace and build those relationships. As I said just now, for diplomacy and relationships, there is still no substitute for meeting people face to face. Being able to have a quiet drink, relax, and expose each other to our deepest hopes, anxieties, and plans for the future.
. . . . .