Minister: Good evening, everyone. It has been the usual long series of meetings, typical of ASEAN meetings. Obviously, this year (it was) entirely virtual, but I do not think it was any less exhausting just because it was virtual. I thought I would give a brief quick summary of the major points that were discussed, and then take questions from all of you.
The top-line series of issues. Number one was COVID-19. Number two, Myanmar. Number three, the elevation of the UK (United Kingdom) as a dialogue partner of ASEAN; included in this are the achievements in the ASEAN-EU relations. There were also discussions on the South China Sea – the Code of Conduct (COC). The other noteworthy point would be the engagement with the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken. With your permission, I will go down one level of resolution through each of these.
On COVID-19, Southeast Asia remains the epicentre of the Delta variant tsunami right now. You just have to look at the number of cases being reported within Southeast Asia to know that this is the clear and present danger. With respect to ASEAN’s response to this, (there are) a couple of points worth making. Number one, we have the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, which we have made a donation of USD100,000. This fund is going to be used to purchase vaccines for distribution within ASEAN. The other thing is that although Singapore is entitled to an allocation of vaccines under the COVAX Facility, we will be donating our entire entitlement to other countries because there is a clear and present need. Singapore cannot be safe and really open up until our neighbours (have) also made significant progress in dealing with this. Another topic related to COVID-19 is (the) further discussions on the mutual recognition of health certificates, especially vaccine certificates, because without a system of verifiable checks on documents, both in terms of vaccination and test results, you cannot really facilitate travel within ASEAN itself. There are quite a lot of discussions internally within ASEAN on these points – vaccine distribution, donations, and humanitarian assistance. I think you are all aware of Singapore's support to our neighbours, even down to the distribution of oxygen tanks, oxygen supplies and test kits. That took quite a lot of our bandwidth.
The other issue that took a lot of bandwidth was Myanmar. The violence, unfortunately, has not stopped. There has been no release of the political detainees. There has been no dialogue going on between all the stakeholders in Myanmar. On top of the political turmoil, the economic standstill, and to make things worse the very dire COVID-19 situation, you have got a perfect storm, unfortunately, in Myanmar right now. I would say the main two points of some progress, with respect to Myanmar and on the ASEAN response is one, we (have) settled the question of the Special Envoy of the Chair, and that will be Dato ErywanYusof, who is the Second Foreign Minister of Brunei. The other issue is also the humanitarian assistance that will be provided to Myanmar through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). I think you are aware that in the case of Singapore, we have already made bilateral extension of support to the people of Myanmar. We are working through the Myanmar Red Cross.
With the UK, this is ASEAN’s first new dialogue partner in a very long time because of the ongoing moratorium. Nevertheless, (this is) because of the special circumstances of Brexit and the fact that the UK clearly has been deeply engaged with our region for such a long time. There is no doubt that it has been a major player, contributor, investor, trader, and strategic partner with ASEAN. In that sense, admitting them as a dialogue partner, was an obvious thing to do, and was something which Singapore clearly supported. On the European Union (EU), this marks the end of our three-year term as coordinator of the ASEAN-EU relationship. We were able to end on a high note – to elevate the relationship to a strategic partnership, and to sign off on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement. You may be aware that the EU in the last couple of years has settled the EU-Singapore FTA, and the EU-Vietnam FTA. I know Thailand is also trying to settle one. But we have also made the arguments for an ASEAN-EU FTA. Clearly, that is far more difficult to negotiate at a regional-to-regional level. Nevertheless, the fact that these two regional blocs – the EU and ASEAN – are taking a stand in favour of free trade and economic integration, is worthwhile in its own right.
On the COC – the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea – this remains an area of significant concern. Although Singapore is not a claimant state, as a city state where trade is more than three times our GDP, peace and stability in the South China Sea remains absolutely essential. To be frank with you, the progress on the COC was initially slowed down because of COVID-19 and the inability to have face-to-face meetings. But I am glad that in June this year, our senior officials were able to get together in Chongqing and made some progress. We have settled the Preamble section of the Single Draft Negotiating Text (announced at the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting on 3 August 2021), and further discussions have occurred in a virtual format. I would say things are moving, but I would also caution that these are complex issues, and I would expect prolonged negotiations will be needed in order for us to arrive at a substantive and effective Code of Conduct.
With the US, it was a good engagement. This is the second time Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken has engaged all of us (in ASEAN). He has put down some useful items on the agenda which are positive, and which we can look forward to in terms of COVID-19 response, and further American engagement in our region, investments, technology, and standards. It is a good start, and we will see how we can maintain this momentum going forward. Maybe let me stop there and take questions.
Tan Hui Yee (The Straits Times): I have got a question about Myanmar. The situation in Myanmar remains highly complex. What would you consider to be the key deliverables for the Special Envoy Mr Erywan Yusof by the ASEAN Summit this year?
Minister: The key question is the level of access that he will be given. The real imperative behind appointing an envoy is that he should be able to engage all stakeholders across the political spectrum – to the extent that he can act as an honest broker – and hopefully encourage, facilitate (and) enable ultimately, direct, constructive, and hopefully positive negotiations and dialogue within Myanmar. That is the paramount test – will he be able to gain access to all the stakeholders in the Myanmar political system and entity?
Leong Wai Kit (CNA): Minister, the US has engaged formally with the shadow government – the NUG (National Unity Government). In the spirit of dialogue, would Singapore or ASEAN be engaging the shadow government, and if so, what would be conveyed to them?
Minister: Well, I am not in a position to give you details. What I can say is that we have engaged across the political spectrum in Myanmar. Let me first reiterate a couple of principles. Singapore, as you know, believes very firmly that there should be no external interference in a country. A country's ultimate destiny is in the hands of its people. That is an important point that needs to be emphasised. The second point that I would make is that, unfortunately, the situation in Myanmar is not something that just happened yesterday, or even in February (this year). In fact, Myanmar and the people of Myanmar have got great potential. The people of Myanmar who work all over the world, including in Singapore, have done very well. Their country deserves so much more. The point I am making is that for more than seven decades, Myanmar has been lagging behind in fulfilling its true potential. I say that so that you understand that political solutions, whilst essential, are difficult, and will take, in my view, prolonged negotiations and discussions. Therefore, I would avoid trying to put unrealistic timelines. That is the second point – it will take time. The third point I would make, and in this, I speak from a humanitarian perspective. The political turmoil contributes to the humanitarian disaster which is unfolding right now. There is a need for us therefore, to extend assistance to the maximum extent that we can, to the people of Myanmar. As I have said, in the case of Singapore, we are currently working through the Myanmar Red Cross. We hope to do more through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). We hope that the assistance provided to Myanmar will reach the people on the ground with urgent and dire needs because of COVID-19. This remains our focus right now. Without getting into details on exactly whom we have spoken to, which I am not in a position to reveal at this point, I would say that we have engaged across the political spectrum in Myanmar.
Tan Ke-Yang (CMG NewsHub): Minister, we understand that you shared on the progress on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. You also mentioned there was some delay initially. Looking forward, I understand that there is consensus that everyone wants to get it done as soon as possible. Do we have an updated timeline for that, and would it be a key agenda for the ASEAN Summit in October (this year)?
Minister: Everyone wants to see progress. I am not sure that we have a situation where we want progress at the expense of ambition or quality of the negotiations, or of the final agreement. I do not think we are going to lock ourselves into a deadline, but we will have to see how things progress over the next few months, including with the change of coordinatorship for the ASEAN-China relations, and to see how that pans out. I would say that there is a political desire to have progress, but it is not hasty progress, and it is not progress at the expense of an agreement which ends up being less substantive and effective than it ought to be. Nevertheless, I think the fact that China continues to engage ASEAN on this point is positive in its own right. It is always better to maintain dialogue, even in the midst of divergence and differences, rather than for the whole process to come to a halt, or worse, for a breakdown in the political relationship and communications. My bottomline would be that there has been some progress, but we would want to be cautious and realistic in our overall assessment of how quickly this can go.
. . . . .