Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Interview With CNBC Asia’s Squawk Box, on 26 August 2021

26 August 2021

Presenter (Martin Soong): Minister, great to see you. I have to say, this is such a nice change because you are the first live guest we have (had) in person in about 18 months.



Minister: Great to be back after 18 months, and in person.



Martin Soong: Indeed, what a nice change. So positive. Let us start with (United States Vice President) Kamala Harris’ visit to Singapore. How did that go?



Minister: It went very well. It was a very substantive, engaging, and really a great visit. In a sense, she is building on the past, enduring relationship the United States (US) has always had with us. We reviewed the economic ties – the Americans remain the largest source of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) into Singapore. Our trade volume doubled since the signing of the Free Trade Agreement between the US and Singapore (USSFTA), which by the way, was the first Asian country they signed a free trade agreement with. On that front, it has been all positive. Needless to say, on the defence front, it has also been excellent. We had a visit by (US Defense Secretary) Lloyd Austin just a couple of weeks ago – that was reviewing the current account. But equally, there was a good focus on future elements of that account, (our) relationship – what we are going to do together on the pandemic, what we are going to do on the digital economy, on cybersecurity, the green economy, and even in outer space. It was a good visit that looked at both the excellent state of economic and defence ties, and also looked prospectively at some very good and interesting areas.  



Martin Soong: That is good to know especially the space part which we might be able to get into a little bit later. But all this overshadowed her visit by the situation in Afghanistan, which was happening as she was here and continues through now. Sri (Jegarajah) and I are very curious, and also very pleased to note that Singapore has offered assistance with a A330 tanker/cargo aircraft. Has that been accepted? Are they going to use it?



Minister: Yes, it (A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport) has been accepted. This trip was planned even before Afghanistan descended into the current situation. But I think the Americans also wanted to show that they could walk and chew gum –



Martin Soong: At the same time.



Minister: – and it was good that they proceeded with the visit. I am also very happy that the Vice President dealt with the issue upfront in all her interactions, both private and public. The point is this – President (Joe) Biden actually inherited a very difficult situation. I think now there is no doubt that the outcome was inevitable. What was surprising was the speed at which events unfolded. The point therefore – which she emphasised repeatedly, to quote her own words– was “laser-focused” on fulfiling their commitments to get their own citizens as well as the Afghan citizens who have worked closely with the Americans and their allies out of Kabul. 



Martin Soong: I do not mean to put you in a tough position, but you are the Foreign Minister. The speed with which the Taliban literally took over the country in just a matter of weeks and also the process, the execution of withdrawal, has been attracting a lot of criticism and that falls on President Biden. In your discussions with the Vice President Kamala Harris, did this whole issue of “What on earth happened with intelligence? Was this a failure?” – did that come up?



Minister:  We did not get into intelligence details. But I would say everyone was surprised at how quickly things unfolded, things went wrong. If you take a step back, let us go back 20 years – why did this happen? It happened because of 9/11.  It was clear and we were convinced too, that Afghanistan at that point in time, was a safe haven for terrorists. It is worth remembering, even in our case, that our own local terrorist groups had links with Al-Qaeda. That was why America had to go in. But I will let you in on another point. Mr Lee Kuan Yew – and I remember him all the way back, I have been in politics now for almost two decades – he always made this point that the terrorists are going to cause a lot of pain, are going to cause us to shed a lot of blood. But actually, it is a strategic cul-de-sac, meaning they are not going to change the world. It is not as if there is some new technology or (a) new business model, or a new way of organising society which would bring us to new horizons. And therefore, in fact, he subsequently said publicly as well – a nation-building effort in Afghanistan would be a distraction and not a strategic imperative. I think somewhere along the way, events have unfolded and confirmed his view. As to why things moved so quickly, I think it really illustrates that once a fighting force loses its resolve, forgets what it is fighting for, and then equally the question of leadership, then things will collapse, and they will collapse precipitously. And that, in fact, is what we have witnessed. 



Martin Soong: Literally, if the president absconds, what are the rest of the people to make of that right? 



Presenter (Sri Jegarajah): Absolutely. Minister, in the here and now, if I can get back to Singapore’s commitment in the international airlift – if the RSAF (Republic of Singapore Air Force) aircraft is deployed, will it be used to evacuate at-risk Afghans from Kabul? What would be their end destination? Or would it be used to refuel or offer logistical support to this international effort?



Minister:  You know, it is a very versatile aircraft. It is an A330. It is called a Multi-Role Tanker Transport, so it is capable of multiple missions and that is why it is relevant for this mission. I think right now even (if) you follow the CNBC reports, you will know that there is a whole logjam of people stuck in Qatar and trying to get across into Europe. Without getting into operational details, we will work with the Americans as to how best to deploy that aircraft and to be useful.  The key point is, there is a humanitarian disaster unfolding. I cannot even dream of the nightmare the Afghan refugees have been through. And we just want to help.



Sri Jegarajah: How far will that commitment go, Minister? Have you had conversations with your allies, and within the Ministry about offering at-risk Afghans safe passage and safe haven here in Singapore?



Minister:  You know we cannot take refugees. We are perhaps the densest, most tightly packed place in the world. But we are certainly assisting our partners in helping to reduce the humanitarian burden on these very unfortunate people. It is very tough. You know people yourself.



Martin Soong: Yes, of course, some. Minister, you know, the head of the UN (United Nations) World Food Program (WFP) David Beasley, talking about this unfolding humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan – starvation, disease, not least of course, potential persecution of the people who are not able to get out. What kind of assistance is Singapore – is the Government – considering rendering to help ease the burden on the people, because they have already had several years of, obviously conflict, drought (and) economic deterioration. There has been a run on the currency. I mean the place is literally falling apart.



Minister: Well, and do not forget COVID-19.



Martin Soong: Of course.



Minister:  They (Afghanistan) too, are facing a perfect storm. But at the end of the day, the Taliban is in charge. They have got to take responsibility for the people. If it is one other lesson that we have learned, is that foreign interference does not work. In the end, the destiny of a people lies in the hands of its own people, and its own leaders. We will wait and see. We hope Afghanistan will not revert to becoming a haven for terrorists. We hope the Taliban will fulfill what they have said, at least in the last few days.



Sri Jegarajah:  Do you personally think that they (the Taliban) are reformed, as they say they are?



Minister: I am not in a position to assess that. You do realise 20 years means it is a new generation. The people who are speaking on TV now, on behalf of (the) Taliban were probably little kids when this evolved. I think you will have to judge them by their actions.



Martin Soong: A foreign affairs question that I need to at least attempt – is Singapore in any way in contact with any of the leadership of the Taliban, or in terms of rendering assistance, are you basically working through intermediaries and taking a leaf from the West or from NATO?



Minister: No, we are not in contact. But you know that we keep open channels, and in due course, we will see. But as I said, let us judge people by their actions rather than words.



Martin Soong:  I need to get to this very blunt question now. This is very relevant to Singapore, if not Southeast Asia. US has exited, there is a vacuum. Let us leave aside the risk of what China may or may not do in Afghanistan, I think they are assessing a very fragile and unstable situation as well. With the US exiting and withdrawing from Afghanistan, does it leave Singapore more at risk, more vulnerable, does it leave the region – Southeast Asia – more at risk and more vulnerable to terrorist attacks? Because as you suggested, look, they are in Afghanistan, they are based there right? They could mass even further, and there are local sort of options or affiliates in existence already, (in) Southern Philippines, (and) Indonesia. Are we more at risk?



Minister:  Terrorism remains a clear and present danger. The difference perhaps if you go back 20 years, is that this is a disease that has metastasized. And you are right – in Southeast Asia we are facing a clear and present danger.



Martin Soong:  More of a clear and present danger now with the US out of Afghanistan?



Minister:  I would not relate it directly to the US’ presence or absence in Afghanistan. But the point is within Southeast Asia, this is a clear and present danger. If anything, over the past two decades, I think it has grown. So we cannot take this for granted.



Sri Jegarajah:  Minister, can I get back to another crisis abroad, a crisis, the global crisis, which is the pandemic.



Minister:  Yes, we are not short of crises.



Sri Jegarajah: Well, of course. The current – how do I characterise this – round of vaccine diplomacy that we are seeing play out in Vietnam as an example. Is that vaccine diplomacy or “vaccine one-upmanship”? What is going wrong with the COVAX and the GAVI platforms that were set up to avoid any mismatch and any deficits in the supply chain, especially for developing countries?



Minister: Well, I would frame it slightly differently. First, it is a vaccine necessity. I think with the advent of a Delta variant, its basic reproductive number is far higher than the original form. First point is that vaccines are essential. This other point that has arisen is the fact that even countries which hitherto, like Vietnam, has successfully prevented major waves through basically very tight border closures, those measures alone are not sufficient.  I would say – and I have been to Vietnam, I was there just two months ago – they do need vaccines, they do need to roll it out urgently. I am sure they are very happy that they are able to get vaccines from both the US and China. In fact, the Vice President’s additional one million (doses) – do not forget, they have already been given five million doses from America – so in fact, it is six million doses from America over the last couple of months. They will need it, they will need to deploy (them). I do not think this is a question of vaccine diplomacy – it is vaccine necessity.



Sri Jegarajah:  For Singapore, specifically, are we turning the tide on COVID-19? Or is Delta and possibly new variants the clear and present danger and a big risk to the recovery here?



Minister: I am very reluctant to say we have turned the tide because this virus, every time you think you have got it, it evolves (into) something and the situation changes. It calls for eternal vigilance. What I would say (is) the biggest plus that we have, is that we will very shortly reach 80 percent full vaccination, which is quite an achievement if you think about it. Because we are unique in the world in trying to be a low infected but high vaccinated regime. Most parts of the world, if you have been previously successful (in containing the virus), vaccine rollouts have been rather slow. On the other hand, in other parts of the world – US and (the) European Union (EU) – where infections have been high, vaccination rates have also been high. The first point is that what we are doing in Singapore is unique. The second point, however, is that even with 80 percent (fully vaccinated), that is still a million people (in Singapore) without vaccines. Therefore, as we try to gradually and safely reopen society and reopen our borders, we will have quite a fight on our hands to keep the numbers down.



Martin Soong: What is the (Singapore) Government thinking? I would assume that it would be slightly north of 80 (percent) and it is really going to be hard to push it much higher. And then, is the Government considering or thinking about a booster shot, a third shot, in six to eight months or whatever?


Minister: Our doctors and scientists are looking at that. I cannot remember if I have told you this before, but the coronavirus which causes the common cold in all of us – we know that usually, immunity wanes. Now, I would not be surprised if the same thing happens with this particular coronavirus. The point is,we will be guided by science and we will make decisions accordingly. Fortunately, in the case of Singapore, both in terms of our logistics, in terms of our population’s acceptance of making decisions on the basis of science – that is very high. That is a big advantage.



Sri Jegarajah:  Do we have to accept, Minister, that this virus will be endemic?



Minister: I said that 18 months ago and I am afraid I am right. It is endemic because the genie got out of the bottle. It infected too many of us. There are too many millions of people acting, literally, as a petri dish for the virus to continue to evolve.



Sri Jegarajah: The issue, the challenge is really controlling the spread and ensuring that it is not life threatening?



Minister: To minimise the loss of life. That is why we do need to figure out how to live with this, how to operate with it, and how to do things safely.  It is possible to do so but it requires a high level of vigilance, of discipline, of cooperation, and again as I have said 18 months ago, it is a test. Test of not only your medical facilities, your logistics capability and supply chains, but ultimately, of your social capital. Trust within a society.



Sri Jegarajah: But herein lies the challenge, surely. Because if this is such a dynamic situation, then when you look at recent action that the Singapore Government has taken in easing certain travel restrictions to certain countries, albeit low risk countries or no risk countries, is there a risk that in hindsight, that could be premature?



Minister: Well, that is why we are not going to go for a Big Bang. You realise we state our principles. For instance, we will only open to countries where there are relatively low infection rates (and) high vaccination rates. We have got pretty accurate data because you know we track everyone who enters Singapore. We have got test results. It is a fairly mathematical, rational, risk management exercise. But we need to be prepared that at any time, things can turn, and we need to be able to react appropriately.



Martin Soong:  Minister, I need to ask you – I mean, there is a classified intelligence report sitting on President Joe Biden’s desk as we speak.



Minister: Which, I have not read.



Martin Soong:  Which you have not read, I am sure you have not – which tries to get to the origin story of the virus. At this stage, is it useful or is it a distraction – I mean, whether or not it ends up being from bats or labs – to know? Or do you think the portion (that) is going to become declassified and made known to the public, is going to be so, not whitewashed, but watered down, is really not going to make any difference at all? It could potentially be explosive if the declassified part points to China and to labs, rather than bats.



Minister:  Well, let me speak as a scientist, or as a doctor. What we need is radical and complete transparency. Without everyone sharing their data, and being able to analyse it critically, it will be almost impossible to really get down to the bottom of this. Now, it is important etiology is important not for political or diplomatic reasons, but for the future. You need to know how these things happen, where the next outbreak is going to be, what the likely dynamics of these future pandemics will be. It is in the collective interest of all humanity, and I just wish that we could take politics and superpower rivalry out of this and just focus on science and health, and human welfare.



Martin Soong:  I could not agree more.



Sri Jegarajah:  If I may, Martin, on a very human level, what would be your message, Minister, to the many Indian, Malaysian, overseas workers, (and) the work pass holders who have not been able to return home, because of the restrictions in their countries and the restrictions on returning as well. Some of them have not returned home for almost two years now.



Minister: It has been a very traumatic period for everyone, all over the world. You know, as Foreign Minister, I have lost count of the number of emails I receive heart-breaking emails “my father, my grandfather, dying alone in (an) ICU (Intensive Care Unit), and I cannot be there for that final (moment)”. Beyond the numbers, there is a human story behind every single one of them. We are trying our best, but again, we have to respond to the way this pandemic evolves.  So yes, we have strict controls. We have as I said just now, a very mathematical risk-stratified approach, and we hope people understand and will cooperate. Ultimately, people will not be queuing up to enter Singapore if we were not so safe to begin with. That is the point.



Martin Soong:  If we could just very quickly go back to Afghanistan, we do not have that much time left. Picking up on this theme of the importance of knowing for the future. You know, the US pulling out of Afghanistan in terms of eyes, ears on the ground, senses etc., leaves them a bit blind, right? They are trying to let people think that look, this over-the-horizon capacity from the UAE (United Arab Emirates) or Kuwait, etc., that is going to be good enough to track how the terrorism threat develops in Afghanistan. I am not so sure. In Singapore's case, 500 troops at one stage, part of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). A good six, seven years, it was training their dentists, I know that. Reconstruction and other auxiliary forces, but also intelligence analysis. Does this therefore leave Singapore as well, a bit blind to the terrorism threat that could build in Afghanistan again?



Minister:  Well, as I said, the threat is not just from Afghanistan. It is global.  Certainly, within Southeast Asia, there are significant hotspots. Without getting into details again, believe me, we have got eyes open, certainly for the clear and present dangers that we face. The point I am leaving is that we are not taking this for granted.



Sri Jegarajah: Minister, Vice President (Kamala) Harris' visit just underscored how closely and deeply aligned Singapore is with the US. How then would you characterise the relationship with China?



Minister:  We are in a somewhat unique position. The US is the largest foreign investor in Singapore. They are the third largest trading partner in goods. The US is the top trading partner for services with Singapore. China is our biggest trading partner. We are also the largest foreign investor in China. So we have got skin in the game on both sides. The key message which we left with the Vice President was that it is essential for the US and China to have very high level discussions, at the top level, in order to build a working, viable constructive relationship, and to start to rebuild some of that strategic trust. If they are unable to do that, it will be a very difficult situation, not only for Singapore but the rest of Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world. We do not have a say. We have hopes and all that little Singapore tries to do is to be relevant, to be useful, to be an honest broker, to convey suggestions if they are required or if they are willing to listen, and to show and to remind America and Americans that they are a welcome presence in Southeast Asia. They have a headstart in terms of soft power and goodwill. They in fact have a headstart, economically. There are 5,500 American companies in Singapore which generate over 200,000 jobs. Conversely, American exports and trade in (Southeast) Asia, (support) 600,000 jobs back home.



Sri Jegarajah: I have to cut you off. But the message is Singapore can punch above its weight, diplomatically and commercially as well. Thank you very much indeed for joining us today. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs.



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