Opening Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the SIF Public Diplomacy In Asia 2021 Conference on 26 July 2021

26 July 2021

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Chairman of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF)


Distinguished Guests


Ladies and Gentlemen


1. Since its inception 30 years ago, the SIF’s core mission – to build understanding and friendship across borders – has remained as salient as ever. I am delighted to join all of you at the launch of the book, “Winning Hearts and Minds: Public Diplomacy in ASEAN”.


2. There are three key themes that I have gleaned from this collection of essays. First: the importance of public diplomacy, all the more so in our digital age. Second: the need for clear, credible and consistent messaging. Third: the need to build coalitions and extended networks of support.


3. Like many aspects of politics and public life, diplomacy has also been transformed by the ongoing digital revolution.


4.    Three reasons. First: digitalisation is breaking down the barriers and pushing us towards ever-greater flows of information and opinions. It blurs the boundaries between what is domestic or foreign. In any case, we all know that foreign policy begins at home. Governments and mainstream news companies no longer have dominant roles in the dissemination of information and opinion. Instead of a common village square, in fact what has happened is that we have fragmented into disparate echo chambers. These echo chambers, paradoxically, also traverse boundaries.


5. Now, more than ever before, we need the tools to be able to analyse, to make sense of the cacophony of voices online, to discern trends and to respond appropriately and in a timely way to what people are consuming, thinking, saying, and feeling in their hearts. The fine line between democratisation and demagoguery, and the limits, are not always clear. Each of us, now, theoretically can be heard by many, many people. But are we actually listening to one another? So the question is – will digitalisation bring us closer or in fact divide us? The fundamental faultlines of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender still remain. They still shape how we perceive and are perceived. Even as digitalisation creates tremendous opportunities to build bridges and connections, it also has the ability to divide us, or even entrench hate, or promote disinformation. With the increasing sophistication of deep fake videos, this distrust will even deepen.


6. COVID-19 has underlined the importance of public diplomacy to combat misinformation, which can sow fear, suspicion, indeed hamper our recovery and prevent us from doing the right thing. We need networks to convey timely and accurate information to people, to build public support for national efforts, as well as a sense of a global community, because pandemics are not limited by borders.


7. Second: The phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan back in 1964 – “The medium is the message”. I think this phrase still applies, perhaps even more strongly. In today’s world, we need a clear, consistent message, underpinned by principles and values, amidst a very uncertain world. But we all need to appreciate that the new media alters human perception of and reaction to the message.


8. Third, it is even more important now than ever before to build coalitions and networks of support for the future. We need new and meaningful ways to engage. We need partners across a wide spectrum: the private sector, research and education, the scientific community, young people. All of us need the humility and the willingness to engage directly at a people-to-people level, at a personal heart-to-heart level. By doing this together, then we can put out what is accurate, factual, scientific, and promote harmony and human welfare instead of sowing the seeds of division and doubt.


9. Building such unity is central to ASEAN’s raison d’etre – “Unity, to forge a common purpose”. A common creed, within ASEAN, is still inchoate. But we know we have to find our own version of “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one), or in the Singapore Pledge “regardless of race, language, or religion”, or the other phrase “bhinneka tunggal ika” (unity in diversity).


10. SIF, which brings together different stakeholders, has a crucial role to play, both within and beyond Singapore. On behalf of MFA, I want to acknowledge the long and fruitful partnership with SIF since its earliest days, when it was headed by Ambassador Chan Heng Chee. It is in SIF’s DNA to build relationships across borders, since the earliest days of your projects with volunteers across ASEAN, China, and India. But it is worth remembering that the act of reaching out beyond our own borders has actually also enriched our own domestic sense of identity, of purpose and pride.


11. On behalf of MFA, indeed on behalf of all citizens of Singapore, we are honoured to have been your partner in this journey. I wish you all the very best. I am confident that SIF will continue its sterling work in the next three decades and beyond, “building friendships for a better world”.


12. Thank you all very much.

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