Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Interview with Reuters, 20 August 2021

21 August 2021

Aradhana Aravindan (Reuters): The death toll has topped thousands of people as of this week, and there seems to be no sign that the military is easing the violence. Rights groups have said ASEAN needs to step up pressure on the military. We have had the Five-Point Consensus (that) you yourself has said has been slow. (The Special) Envoy has been appointed, (and there is) no timeline yet for his visit.  Firstly, what is your assessment of how ASEAN has been doing in terms of Myanmar?


Minister: I am afraid my assessment is rather bleak. The situation is dire. Right now, as far as I know, the violence has not stopped. Political detainees have not been released. I am not aware of any direct or indirect talks between the different stakeholders in Myanmar. So you are in a situation where there is political turmoil, there is a severe economic crisis, and on top of that, you now have the Delta wave. I am not sure about the accuracy of the figures we are receiving, but there is no doubt that they are under severe stress from the pandemic as well. So you have a perfect storm. Our concern right now is especially for the people and therefore, on the humanitarian disaster which is unfolding. On the positive side, it is good that they have agreed with the Special Envoy Dato Erywan (Pehin Yusof). They have not yet agreed or given dates for his visit. Clearly, one key point which I know he is pursuing is to have access to all the relevant stakeholders. That remains to be seen. We are also proceeding with humanitarian assistance, nevertheless, because I do not believe we can afford to wait for a political resolution when people are suffering and actually need urgent assistance. That is why from a Singaporean perspective, for the past year-and-a-half, or two, we have been sending PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines, test kits, diagnostic kits, personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies. More recently, we sent an additional 200 oxygen concentrators. Over and above these ongoing efforts, we have also contributed US$100,000 to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. We expect and hope that in this next phase, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, working with the Myanmar Red Cross, will have access and will be able to deliver the much needed humanitarian assistance to the people.


Reuters: You mentioned that the (Special) Envoy has not been able to get a timeline. From whom? Is it the junta who have not agreed to a timeline yet?


Minister: I know he (the Special Envoy) is discussing that right now, and I do not want to complicate matters. But everyone hopes that his visit will occur soon. But the visit also has to be meaningful, and therefore he has to be granted good access, and that clearly depends on the military authorities. So we will wait and see.


Reuters: Has there been any discussion within ASEAN about expelling or suspending Myanmar from the bloc?


Minister: No, there has been no discussion on that point. ASEAN is trying to be helpful, trying to be constructive, trying to facilitate dialogue (and) engagement, and also trying to deliver humanitarian assistance. That is our focus. As a cardinal principle, we do not believe in external interference. If you look at events on a global level, foreign interference does not work. In the end, the future and the destiny of a country is in the hands of its own people. The citizens have to sit down, negotiate and argue. They have to go through, ultimately, a political process in order to achieve a political solution, and to arrive at a consensus which will allow their people to fulfil their great potential. Myanmar is a specific case where we know the people are capable of great work, innovation and discipline. We have all interacted with the people from Myanmar. They can do so well and their country deserves so much. Unfortunately, the last seven decades have been many missed opportunities. So that is where we are and how we are approaching this. We want to be helpful. We want to be constructive. But we do not want to interference in the domestic political process.


Reuters: The Five-Point Consensus plan, in your own words, has been pretty slow. Is there a Plan B to this if it does not move any faster?


Minister: I do not want to jump ahead of it because in diplomacy, or actually, on global affairs, there is a certain path dependency. What you say, when you say, and what you do does matter. I would prefer a step-by-step, constructive approach. I think that is more helpful. Engaging in speculation, especially publicly, is not helpful.


Reuters: So far, how effective do you think ASEAN has been?


Minister: Not as effective or as quick as we would have hoped for, but this is a difficult situation. As I have said before, the political problems within Myanmar have been there for seven decades. And before that, a difficult colonial history as well. I always approach these problems from a point of humility, and to understand that these are intractable, chronic problems; and never, never look for an instant quick fix. It does not work. I view all this as a journey; a process, hopefully undergirded by principles. The principle, certainly for ASEAN, ultimately is to uplift the welfare of the people, to subscribe with good reason to this principle of non-interference, but at the same time, encouraging dialogue, encouraging negotiation, encouraging engagement in good faith. Once a country settles its domestic matters, then the ASEAN agenda after that is to look for opportunities for economic integration, trade and investments, to create a virtuous cycle of development. People will often say that, “well, ASEAN is too slow” or “the consensus principle takes too long”, or “the adherence to the principle of non-interference paralyses you”. Those are the usual criticisms, (but) I do not accept that. In fact, I point out that principles of non-interference, decisions by consensus, and always looking for opportunities to enhance the capacity of the country – I think these are design features of ASEAN. If it means we have to do things a bit more slowly because we have to generate the consensus or create the fertile, facilitative environment for progress, so be it. Because I think this is in fact a formula for sustainable long-term development. To be fair to ASEAN, (if) we look at the past 54 years, there have been major and significant upgrades in our economic development, social cultural development, our stability, the achievement of peace within the members of ASEAN. So if you take a longer view on it, there are major achievements worth celebrating.


Reuters: What contact has ASEAN and Singapore, or Singapore had with the junta, as well as the National Unity Government (NUG)?


Minister: I do not want to go into details, but what I will tell you is that throughout all these years, we have always carefully and conscientiously maintained contacts across the political spectrum, regardless of who was in power, whether it was a military-backed government or the military itself, or during the time when the NLD (National League for Democracy) was in charge. I personally have had multiple meetings with both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Again, the point here is engagement and a constructive spirit. It does not mean we all agree all the time. But you know that we will say what we say out of good faith and hope for a better future for Myanmar and for ASEAN. We will continue that style of engagement.


Reuters: So that was in previous years. Has there been any level of engagement now with the NUG as well?


Minister: Well, we have maintained lines of communication. I am not going to reveal details, but yes, we have maintained lines of communication. This is something (with) which the military authorities in Myanmar will not be surprised. They know how we operate, and they know that we are not playing games. We are not trying to make things difficult and we are not playing sides, but they know we will engage everyone.


Reuters: What is then, your level of interaction then with the junta, with General Min Aung Hlaing? And also, what do you make of the junta’s cooperation so far?


Minister: My Prime Minister met him in Jakarta when he attended the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting (in April 2021). I had a chat with him as well. As I said, he is not a stranger to us, but he knows we have a difference of opinion – certainly on this point. But we will keep those lines open. So in the same way, obviously, I do speak to his representative, Mr Wunna (Maung Lwin). Like I said, we need to keep lines of communication open. We can and will disagree, (but) we will do so in good faith.


Reuters: Do you think they (the junta) have been cooperative so far?


Minister: I think they have been very slow. The key litmus test now will be how they engage with our Special Envoy.


Reuters: Minister, you have said that there is no timeframe that has been agreed with them for the visit of the Special Envoy. But by when do you hope the Envoy will be able to visit?


Minister: Well, our sort of internal timeframe would be the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in November. We certainly hope that there will be some progress to report before that.


Reuters: I remember in maybe February or March (this year), you said it was not too late for Myanmar to get back on a peaceful transition. Now, there has been so much bloodshed, so much violence. Is there a concern that, it could move towards a failed state or there is a rising risk of civil war?


Minister: Bloodshed is always a tragedy – a tragedy to the individuals, to the families, and even to the perpetrators concerned. The longer this goes on, with each life lost, it makes it more difficult. But again, if you look back at history, and I mentioned before, you do need to be able to overcome and achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation can only come about if you have real engagement and discussion in good faith. So my point is that it is a tragedy, and it is getting worse, but you must never lose hope, and you must continue to try. That is the only way you (can) get out of this deep, deep abyss, which otherwise confronts this nation.


Reuters: Wise words, Minister. Coming to Singapore, what more can Singapore itself do? For example, rights groups have said for years that many of Myanmar’s Generals have investments, bank accounts in Singapore, so Singapore has some kind of leverage to act against them. What are your comments on this? Can Singapore take more action, maybe freeze their bank accounts?


Minister: I think the so called “leverage” is overestimated. That is the first point I would make. But I would go back to making this point on engagement. We will continue to speak to all leaders and the people of Myanmar across the political spectrum. We have never believed in shutting them out, closing the door and breaking communications. That is not helpful. That is not constructive. That does not present a way out. The next point I would make is that you know that we have cautioned against blanket, widespread sanctions. To be frank with you, I think all of the global powers have also come round to this, because we know that the people of Myanmar are suffering, and we know there is an economic crisis and there is a health crisis. And surely, as humanitarians, the first thing is you do not want to make the situation worse. So that is a very important caveat when deciding what to do or can do, to tighten screws. Now, the next point is that we will, obviously, comply with international sanctions, rules, and certainly resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. Singapore has always strictly abided by them, and we will do so.


Reuters: What about targeted sanctions? Not widespread.


Minister: Well, that is what is in place right now. But, again, let us be realistic about it. We know from past history that the Tatmadaw has a very high tolerance for isolation and pain, particularly when the pain is actually borne predominantly by other people. So that again, acts as a limiting factor. I believe that at the end of the day, there is very limited utility for economic sanctions because on one hand, it has impact on the people, and on the other hand, is the fact that the military authorities have very high tolerance for pain and long periods of isolation. So again, it comes down to our hope and our encouragement that dialogue, engagement, negotiation, reconciliation, economic reconstruction, making Myanmar attractive again to investments – that is the way out. It may take some time, and sometimes in politics, you know that there are seasons, and we do not know how long it will take for the zeitgeist to change, but you have to hope and you have to keep pushing. I therefore do not take an absolutist, binary approach to all these things.


Reuters: Minister, you mentioned how the leverage Singapore has is overestimated. Can you elaborate a little bit, because people, like rights groups keep asking why Singapore cannot do more? Are you saying those accounts are not linked?


Minister: What I would recommend is to look at the numbers. For instance, if you ask is Singapore the largest foreign investor in Myanmar? The answer is yes. Then if you try to break down the numbers, how much of it is directly local, Singapore enterprises versus multinationals based in Singapore, who are also investing in Myanmar as part of their regional strategy? The answer to that is that – it is not all just local, domestic money. Then the next question you should ask is, when did those investments flow? You end up with an interesting answer that in fact, the bulk of those investments went into Myanmar, when the NLD (National League for Democracy) was in charge. Now, it is not just because it is the NLD. But the larger narrative behind that is that once investors view that there is political stability in Myanmar, and there is a conducive and protective environment for foreign investments, investments will flow. Those investments into Myanmar in the previous five years, for instance, went in not because the Singapore Government said so. In fact, what we said is every company should exercise commercial discipline and decide on investments on their own merits. I am making the larger point that there will be investment flows when there is political stability. And that flows not because of political pressure, but because of economic opportunity. Now in the current situation, investment flows, I am sure, have dried up. If you speak to both Singapore and MNCs (multinational corporations) who are based in Singapore, you know as well as I do, that their operations, their teams in Myanmar are now down to a trickle of what they used to do. Now, I do not consider this a sanction, but I do remind my Myanmar interlocutors that they are losing out on opportunities. And that is why, I make the case (that) they should try to achieve political reconciliation, so that they can get back to that track of national development and opportunity expansion for its own people.


Reuters: How helpful have China and the United States been in Myanmar?


Minister: I would say, if you look at it regionally, who has interests in Myanmar? ASEAN has interests because Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN family. China has interest as an immediate neighbour of Myanmar, and China clearly has investments in Myanmar as well, and therefore has investments which it has to keep an eye on, and which it will have concerns for. It will also have diplomatic and other geostrategic concerns with Myanmar. India is the other big neighbour of Myanmar. India has a long-standing and major account with Myanmar, both strategically and economically. So they also have skin in the game. That is why you will notice that, in fact, both India and China have been very careful and restrained in their public pronouncements. I have spoken to both (Chinese) Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as well as the (Indian) External Affairs Minister (Dr S.) Jaishankar, and I absolutely believe them when they tell me that actually they want a stable, peaceful Myanmar – able to attract investments, able to create jobs, able to take its rightful place in Southeast Asia, and as their neighbour. So we all want the same thing. But as I said, in the end, the key lies in the hands of the people of Myanmar. Not China, not India, not us.


Reuters: US Vice President Kamala Harris is coming in two days. This is a very timely interview. How do you feel about the level of engagement with the current US administration and ASEAN, particularly when compared to the previous administration?


Minister: I would actually take a step back and say, in fact, there has always been good engagement, certainly between Singapore and the US, and the US and ASEAN. My Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) was invited by President Obama for a State Dinner, which is a rare honour, and that was in 2016. When President Trump took over, he invited my Prime Minister in 2017. I recall staying in Blair House again, in quick succession. In 2018, President Trump was here for the Trump-Kim summit. 2019, Prime Minister Lee and President Trump met in New York, signed the Protocol of Amendment to the 1990 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) Regarding United States’ Use of Facilities in Singapore, to extend it by another 15 years. The point I am trying to make is that on a bipartisan basis, and on a long-term basis, there has always been a steady cadence of interaction. More recently, if you fast forward to today, in July, we had the visit by the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In two days’ time, we have Vice President Kamala Harris making her first visit to Asia as Vice President. Of course, we are very happy that her first stop is Singapore and then she is going on to Vietnam. I think even in this COVID times of video conferences, there is still no substitute for direct face-to-face interactions, and getting a feel of the place and the people. Her visit signifies the importance of Asia, of personal diplomacy, and I think it will be a very good opportunity for both my Prime Minister and for her to establish a good relationship. Now, in addition to the diplomatic side, I think it is worth emphasising the economic dynamics behind the relationship. I am not sure how many people are aware that the United States is the biggest foreign investor in Singapore. Its stock of investments cumulatively is 315 billion US dollars, which is more than the US has invested in aggregate, in India, China and (Republic of) Korea combined. In fact, if you add up US’ investments in Southeast Asia, it exceeds what the US has invested in India, China, Japan and (Republic of) Korea combined. These are statistics that most people do not appreciate and the implications thereof. If you look at trade, you know that Singapore is one of the early Asian partners to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. There is a backstory to that. Negotiations began with a midnight game of golf in Brunei between then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and President Clinton; signed by President Bush (in) 2003 and came into force (in) 2004. Since then, trade has doubled. The United States remains our largest trading partner for services, and I think it is about third for goods. The point is, even on trade, this is a growing account. We have pointed out that the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreementhas been of very high-quality and has set high standards. The only pity, obviously, is the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). In my view, the TPP is a strategic free trade agreement that goes beyond just trade, and if you look into the chapters on environment, on labour, it is the most ambitious, highest quality, gold standard, multilateral free trade agreement. Unfortunately, for domestic political reasons, United States despite being a key mover for the TPP, ultimately could not sign. Frankly, I do not think there is any near term prospect of that. But when Vice President Kamala Harris arrives here, we hope to make progress cooperating on pandemic recovery, on digital economy, green economy, and on cybersecurity. There are a lot of new and emerging areas where we can work closely together. The point I am making here is that it is not just feel good diplomacy, there is substantive work to be done. And it will be a good introduction for her to Asia.


Reuters: She is expected to sort of stress the significance of the region to US as well, in her visit.


Minister: Yes, the point I am making is that actually if you look at it objectively, look at it (based) on data, there is no question that Southeast Asia, the Pacific, is where the action is going to be –the growth prospects, the emergence of not just China but of India, and of Southeast Asia. This is where the action is going to be, and the United States is a Pacific power. The United States is a welcome, benign presence – it has been for the last seven decades. Its formula of trade, investment, (and) rules-based international order has been a formula for peace and prosperity, especially for us in Southeast Asia. My point to all the American leaders whom I have met has been that America has a head start here, you are welcome here, (and) you should be doubling down on your investments and your engagement here. At the same time, you should be aware that we are transiting into a multipolar world and (that) at least two of those poles lie in Asia – China and India. And do not discount Southeast Asia – 650 million people and three trillion dollar combined economy, with great growth prospects for the next 20 to 30 years. So clearly, the data and any objective analysis indicates that this is where they should be and they should continue to be. That is the point that we are making.


Reuters: At the same time, China has also been increasing its engagement in Southeast Asia. Is that a good thing?


Minister: I think it is a good thing. In the last four decades, the key story has been the impact of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up of China and plugging in 1.4 billion people into a rules-based global trade and investment regime. I mentioned just now Southeast Asia has been a beneficiary of that formula for the last several decades but in fact, the biggest beneficiary has been China. China is, in a sense, taking its rightful place – commensurate with its size, with its own internal development, infrastructure, and productive capacity of its people. So again, it should not be a surprise (that) in the last four decades, for virtually all of us in Southeast Asia, China is our biggest trading partner. But there is another factoid, which perhaps is not sufficiently emphasised. If you go now and ask China who is China’s biggest trading partner, they will tell you their biggest trading partner is not the United States, is not the European Union (EU), (but) is actually ASEAN. That just happened about maybe a year or two ago. And guess what? That account is going to grow. The trade between Southeast Asia and China will grow. The investment flows will grow. I have always found it amazing (and) remarkable that tiny Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China. I am sure as Southeast Asia continues to develop, the amount of mutual investments will grow even further. So my point is that a developed, peaceful, engaged China (that is) trading and investing – this has been a formula – in the last seven decades – for peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia. Why should this not also be the formula as we witness the rise of a new superpower? It is positive and can be constructive. We should not take it for granted, but we should help this transition to be as smooth and as peaceful as possible.


Reuters: Coming to Singapore and COVID-19 now. We are probably going to be the most vaccinated country in the world. The Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) yesterday came up with the cautious opening of the borders. I just wondered when do you think things will normalise? It is very small steps, cautious? Obviously, travel is so important to Singapore. When do you think we can go back to seeing pre-COVID levels of travel?


Minister: Well, my colleagues have given a detailed press conference yesterday, so I do not want to go into all the details, but maybe (I will) just highlight a few key points. Number one is the unique position of Singapore. If you look at the world now, you can divide it into two broad categories. Countries with high infection, who are also highly vaccinated. In a sense, they had to vaccinate because they were otherwise confronting huge numbers (of cases), and people were willing to be vaccinated because the fear was clear and present. On the other hand, you have a smaller category of countries for whom border closures were so effective. They have low infections, but they also have relatively slower rates of vaccination. Unfortunately, you have other countries with high infections and low vaccinations because of supply and organisational issues – but let us set that one aside. Where Singapore is trying to be unique, is we are trying to be a place that despite the fact that we have low infections – and really the lowest mortality in the world – we want to be the highest vaccinated place in the world. That combination is already unique. The next point I would make is that you have been here for seven years so you know (that) we are not keen on Big Bangs. We are very clear about the direction of travel – and clearly now, it is about gradually reconnecting the arteries and veins, getting blood circulating again. But to do it step by step, stitch by stitch, and that is what you are going to see over the next few weeks. One other point worth emphasising is that with the Delta variant, and in fact, with a very high likelihood of further variants evolving – and I can tell you from a medical perspective (that) when viruses evolve, they always evolve towards higher transmissibility. If you look at the R0, the basic reproduction number of the new variant, I do not think the world will ever get to herd immunity. It is not possible – the genie is out of the bottle, the virus is too widely spread and has too many human bodies in which it has opportunities to mutate. The R0 is far too high, even of the Delta variant. Even with the current suite of vaccines, you will not get herd immunity. So what does that mean? To answer your question, can we all hope that magically, a moment will come where we are back in 2019? No, we cannot. What we are trying to do is to move towards is a world where we understand that COVID-19 is endemic, is permanent. We will have to take precautionary measures and in the case of Singapore, you will know the precautions we take on mask wearing, on social gatherings, on testing, on vaccination, and even having differentiations on the basis of vaccination. All that is on this basis that we are not going to get back to status quo. Having said that, with an appropriate and flexible suite of measures, you can restore life as much as possible. In Singapore’s case, you will know that we have particular interests because trade is three times of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). So much of what our companies and multinational companies do in Singapore are really focused on regional and global functions. So we do need to restore travel, but we believe we can make it the safest way to travel. To put a label to it, we have always tried to make Singapore the safest place to be in the midst of a global pandemic. We are now also trying to construct the safest way to travel despite a virus that is never going to go away, and a world in which we will never have herd immunity. We think it can be done, but let us do it carefully and slowly. That is our strategy.


Reuters: What could we look forward to over the next few weeks from Singapore in terms of travel?


Minister: Well, you have seen yesterday’s announcements. We (have) started these vaccinated travel lanes. Depending on how it progresses in other countries – I mean, it is no secret – when we look at other countries, we look first at their overall infection rates. We look at their vaccination rates. Because we do extensive testing, we know quite accurately the level of infection amongst travellers originating from different countries. On that basis, we can then take a risk-stratified approach and you should expect to see a careful expansion of those vaccinated travel lanes.


Reuters: Any countries that we are in discussion with, that we can look forward to?


Minister: No, I am not going to name the countries, but I have given you the criteria – infection rates, vaccination rates, and real-life experience on the basis of our tests of the incoming passengers.


Reuters: Minister, you mentioned how we want to live with it as endemic. In Singapore, we have had a lot of precautions, we are so safe now. What are some of the precautions you think we will have to continue to live with for the longer term?


Minister: Well, today we have 77 percent vaccinated with two doses, (so) you know we will get past 80 (percent). But we still have a few more major decisions to make. What do we do about the children? That is a very sensitive decision that can only be made on the basis of good, sound medical advice. So that is one. Another decision which we will also have to get data on is whether boosters are necessary. There are four common coronaviruses, which over decades and probably centuries have caused the common cold. We know that immunity wanes with time, so we will need to have a decision on who needs boosters and when to do boosters. There are some other measures – for instance, mask wearing. I do not think people want to wear masks, but on the other hand, I think we have gotten used to it. I think that should be the last measure we dismantle. But the larger point, the social point, is for everyone to be a bit more conscious, that as human beings – and as social beings – we are the vectors for viruses. So we do need to change our behaviour, (like) this thing about going to work when we are not well. We need to be prepared to test ourselves far more frequently and take sensible, adequate precautions. My own sense of it is that it is possible to live with it (COVID-19), to get on with life, and to do so safely. So watch us as an interesting laboratory – how to live safely, travel safely, and do business safely. And if you take a longer term view, building a reputation for reliability, for safety, for health, for honouring sanctity of contract, for refusing to shut down in panic, for maintaining our status as a hub and a transit centre, and also wherever possible, being helpful to our neighbours (and) other countries – all this is a reaffirmation of “Brand Singapore”. In that sense, there is a silver lining to all of this and I am very grateful for the very pragmatic, phlegmatic, sensible responses of Singaporeans and other foreigners who are long-term residents in Singapore – that kind of reaction puts us in a very good position.


Reuters: Just my final question on COVID-19. The measures that we have to live with – mask wearing, maybe we have to wear it for another two years? I do not know.


Minister: I do not know about that, but I think for instance, to wear a mask when you have got a sore throat or runny nose – I think that should become a permanent feature.


Reuters: Minister, (on) TraceTogether, you had mentioned that we have to take it out, we will stop using it once COVID-19 goes away. But it is not going to go away. What is the thinking on TraceTogether now?


Minister: I would still stick by that commitment and let the science, the doctors, tell us. This should not be a political decision, this should not be politicised. Let the professionals tell us whether contact tracing to that level is necessary or helpful, and whether it secures the safety of our people. I will leave it at that. There is no need to politicise it. Again, I am very glad that in Singapore, certainly, it has not been a political issue. The opposition, in fact all the parties, at least the sensible parties, have supported the need for contact tracing and the use of new and innovative technologies which can enable us to make society safer, and enable us to carry on with our way of life. But at the same time, you realise we can only do that (because of) one fundamental ingredient – one big advantage we have in Singapore is trust. Trust between government and people in a very rational, scientific approach to these problems, and the fact that our own people are also rational and scientific. These are things money cannot buy, (and) these are things which I believe will give enduring advantage to Singapore.


Reuters: Thank you Minister, thank you so much for your time.


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