Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Doorstop with Singapore Media via Zoom at the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, on 25 September 2021

26 September 2021

Minister: Let me start with a few opening remarks. Last year, we did not have an in-person UN (United Nations) General Assembly. This year, in a sense, marks the resumption post-COVID-19. It has been a very hectic week. I think in the last five days, I have met leaders of almost 60 countries. Discussed a very wide range of issues. I would say that, I think, top of everyone's mind remains COVID-19. Second, this anxiety over the looming climate crisis. Third, anxiety over jobs and prospects from the digital revolution. Fourth, of course, the concern with how the evolution of relations between the superpowers is unfolding and its impact on all of us in different parts of the world. It has been really a very hectic, very fascinating time. Discussions were candid, open and I think constructive. I just completed my speech at the General Assembly itself. I think you will get the video soon, so I will not go through all the details of that. Maybe I will stop at this point, take questions and then we can go on with it.


Lee Li Ying (CNA TV): Good evening. When it comes to digital development, you know, what are some strategic issues that are especially important for small states? On that note, how will Singapore's new “FOSS for Good” package help members navigate those interests?


Minister: Well I think first of all, everyone knows that the digital revolution is underway. Everyone knows that this has got impact on jobs, impact on the economy, impact on relations within the groups within countries, as well as relations between countries. There is no question that there is a fair amount of anxiety over this. The next point is that there is a lot of focus on the digital divide. You may find it hard to believe but even today, we still live in a world where something like 3.8 billion people are not fully connected to the Internet. In the midst of this pandemic, the lack of connectivity means a lot of parts of the world are deprived access to education, to health care, to essential information, and of course, on jobs and job prospects. There has been quite a lot of focus on trying to overcome the digital divide, on how to raise and mobilise finance for digital infrastructure, and then equally, the question of skills, retraining, education, so that people have the necessary capability to take advantage of the opportunities which are emerging from the internet. This has been an area of concern. The Secretary-General has launched what he calls a “common agenda”, which sets out the ambitious goals of, basically, making the world future ready. On behalf of Singapore, I have expressed our support for this agenda.


Now, whether this takes the form in future of a new convention for digital technologies in respect of sustainable development, or it takes a softer form as a set of guidelines or as a roadmap, I think these are conversations which will have to evolve on the international stage. Watch this space. It is not only in Singapore that people are concerned with the impact of digital revolution on jobs and prospects for the future.


Yeo Chun Hing (LHZB)US President (Joe) Biden and Chinese President Xi (Jinping) both spoken at the UNGA (UN General Assembly). Mr Biden told world leaders that he did not have any intention of starting a new Cold War. Mr Xi also said that one country’s success does not have to mean another country's failure. What do you make of the speeches? Do you think it is just rhetoric or is there actual political will on both sides to ease tensions?


Minister: I listened to the speeches from both (President) Biden and President Xi. I think they both gave very careful speeches. For instance, President Biden said you know we must not, we have to be careful not to tip from competition – responsible competition – into conflict. President Xi said, well, one country's success does not mean failure on the part of another country. In a sense, I think they are both setting up the scenario, so that there can be both competition and cooperation, whilst hopefully avoiding conflict. Now, having said that, I think we are still in the very early stages of this strategic rebalancing, readjustment, recalibration of the relationship. You cannot assume that things will always be smooth sailing, and nothing can go wrong, or that you cannot actually end up with another de facto another Cold War or even sometimes, a hotspot. This is something which I think everyone is aware of (and) concerned with, clearly on the part of Singapore and many other small nations in the world. If there is real trouble between the two superpowers, we are all going to be affected and affected severely. Let us see how this evolves. On our part, and I think I would say on the part of all the other countries and regions of the world, we have indicated that we believe in multilateralism, we believe in a rules-based world order. We continue to believe that trade, investments, common standards, level playing fields – these are the formula for peace and prosperity for the long term. We hope that even as the superpowers feel their way around each other, they will still subscribe to this model of multilateralism in today’s world. After all, that really is the raison d’être for the United Nations. I think especially now, in a post-COVID-19 world, it is essential for people to get together to meet face-to-face, have conversations – both private as well as public, build reservoirs of trust, cooperation, and hopefully get into a habit where we can collectively deal with common challenges of the world, which include the pandemic, which include climate change, which include the digital revolution.The more we can get into a habit of solving problems collectively, instead of causing problems, the better for all of us. 


Aqil Haziq Mahmud (CNA Digital): Good evening Minister. You mentioned just now that you have had a hectic week, with some of the top topics being the evolution of the relationship between the superpowers. Minister, we have heard many countries, especially in the region, weigh in on AUKUS. Can I find out from you Singapore’s stand on this agreement, the implications for ASEAN, and whether you will discuss it during any of your meetings in the US.     


Minister: Yes, a few countries did bring up this topic of AUKUS but actually, it was not really the centerpiece of concern. The real strategic question remains the relationship between the US and China, and how they manage this strategic realignment, rebalancing and recalibration of that relationship. Everything else, in a sense, are secondary issues to them. Question is, will the US and China be able to both cooperate, compete, and also avoid conflict? That remains the primary question. Specifically, on AUKUS and this new arrangement between the US, the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia, Singapore’s position is very clear. First point, we and when I say “we”, I mean Singapore, have had a longstanding relationship with all three of them – the US, UK and Australia. The fact that we have a longstanding and constructive relationship with large reservoirs of trust and alignment is very helpful because it means we are not unduly anxious about these new developments. The second point is hope. We hope that these new arrangements will contribute constructively to peace and stability in our region, and of the world.  The third is that we hope that these arrangements will also complement the regional architecture, which has ASEAN as a center and a united ASEAN at the heart of it all. That is an expression of hope. But we will have to see how this evolves and how other neighbours and other powers respond to these arrangements. I think the key point to understand is that this is really part of a larger geo-strategic realignment, and we have to take these things in our stride. We need to understand what are the primary forces acting on these tectonic plates. In the case of Singapore, we have to be very, very careful, and make sure we do not end up in a position which is unviable or dangerous, or one which can have adverse consequences to us. But the fact that we are friends to everyone, we are able to speak honestlyconstructively and they know that we are not against any party, that also gives us a slightly unique role, and to engage in constructive conversation with all parties. Again, this is something which is evolving, even as we speak, and I am making the point that we will be careful. We will retain our relationships. We will continue to build those circles of trust. We will encourage our partners to make a constructive contribution to regional peace and stability.


Shahida Binte Sarhid (Berita Harian)Hello, himorning Minister, I mean evening Minister. I wanted to ask you about the vaccination programme how Singapore has, and will play a role in the world's COVID-19 vaccination programme.


Kayla Wong (Mothership): Hello Minister, my question is about Singapore's vaccine contributions under the COVAX initiative. Singapore has pledged to donate excess vaccines, but vaccine inequality remains a common topic at the UNGA, with the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi saying that there is a shortage of vaccines and the vaccines available are not evenly distributed. I would like to askto what extent has Singapore's contributions under COVAX, helped to alleviate vaccine shortages in developing countries, and is Singapore planning to donate more? Thank you.


Minister: Thank you. Well, vaccine access has actually been a very major issue at the UN General Assembly this year. Everyone, and some even more so than others, has been desperate to get hold of vaccines in order to vaccinate (their) population, in order to minimise the impact on mortality and morbidity from COVID-19This has been a clear priority at the(UN) General Assembly. Singapore has been very fortunate. We were fortunate because we made advance purchase arrangements very early on in the course of this pandemic. We also contributed to the COVAX Facility. Even now, as the COVAX Facility is in a position to start delivering, we have been in a very fortunate position to say we will donate our allocation to our neighbours who may have (a) greater need for them. I think you may be aware if you have been following the news of the last two monthswe have been making arrangements to donate or to swap vaccines which we have on hand with our immediate neighbours, and going as far as even down to Australia. This is our way of being a responsible global citizenof being a helpful and constructive neighbour, and of being a reliable, trustworthy partner and supporterI would also point out that EDB (Economic Development Board) has also been very successful. I think sometime next year onwards, you will see the construction of facilities by BioNTech, by Sanofi, (and) by Thermo Fisher (Scientific), so that there will be indigenous vaccine production in Singapore. But again, because we are a very small market, everyone knows that those facilities will really be designed to produce and to make available vaccines to a much wider neighborhood. This is the way Singapore will be a constructive, helpful, and reliable partner. The main problem in the world right now is access and distribution. You are right. If we look at a global scale, it is still very unevenly distributed. Nevertheless, we are in a fortunate position – in (that) where we can help, we will help.


Nirmal Ghosh (ST): Good evening Minister, thank you for doing this. On the subject of the pandemic again, what are the prospects for relaxation of restrictions on cross border travel in ASEAN and for that matter, beyond ASEAN as well?


Minister: Well, I think these are issues that are being actively discussed. For a start, we have got to settle mutual recognition of health certificates, vaccine certificates, that is in a sense making sure our digital systems, our ability to verify records are in place. The second step is to actually decide when and how you can liberalise and allow travel. Now, this is a much more difficult point because as you can see, even in the case of Singapore, these decisions on whether to open (up) or tighten (our borders) depend very much on the domestic situation at that point in time. Right now is the time to be careful. Although I am away, I am aware of the situation back home, and the Government has had to introduce more measures in order to slow down the spread of the virus, in order not to overload our medical facilities. That is our priority right now. It is actually a domestic priority, (to) get to grips with this situation. And then as we can, we will also look at (the) careful reopening of our borders, especially for Singaporeans who want to return home, or to our key business partners who need to visit Singapore in order to continue operating their businesses, especially their regional businesses. But I just want to emphasise again (that) our priority number one must remain the protection of Singaporeans, ensuring our healthcare facilities do not get overwhelmed, and then, when we are sure we have that in place, then sequentially and safely, carefully, open up the borders. Watch this space. We are not out of the woods yet as far as COVID-19 is concerned, both within Singapore (and) in fact, at a global level.



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