Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at MFA’s Committee of Supply Debate, 3 March 2022

03 March 2022


Mr Chairman,

1 It has been a very busy year. As always, we are trying to secure our place in a very volatile and, I would say, dangerous world. The key issues confronting us: first, COVID-19 and its aftermath; second, navigating major power rivalry, fostering peace, upholding international law, strengthening multilateralism; third, protecting the global commons, including addressing non-traditional challenges; fourth, nurturing Singapore’s relations with our neighbours; and fifth, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).


2 First, let me deal with COVID-19 because Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Desmond Choo and Mr Lim Biow Chuan have asked how COVID-19 affected our foreign policy. The pandemic has impacted - in fact, disrupted – the lives of many overseas Singaporeans. MFA’s duty in the last two years has been to make sure that we left no Singaporean behind. I say that again, we left no Singaporean behind. We have helped to bring home more than 4,600 Singaporeans who had difficulty getting back for some reason or the other, in the last two years. MFA also supported the launch of Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) and the mutual recognition of health certificates in order to facilitate the safe resumption of international travel. 

3 Singapore has also supported global COVID-19 vaccination - because no one is safe until everyone is safe in the world. We have contributed to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment and the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. I would add that we donated our entitlements to our neighbours. We also responded quickly to urgent medical needs by sending medical supplies, including more than 500 tonnes of liquid oxygen to Indonesia through our “Oxygen Shuttle” programme and 120,000 vaccine doses to Batam and the Riau Islands, as well as 100,000 and 200,000 vaccine doses to Malaysia and Brunei respectively. We also sent a consignment of 256 oxygen cylinders to support India’s pandemic response at the height of its second wave last April.

4 I wish to commend the dedication of all MFA staff, both those serving in Singapore as well as in our Overseas Missions. Over 300 MFA officers have served Singapore at our Overseas Missions during this period and I am very proud that not a single officer has asked to leave their posts because of the risk of the pandemic. Despite our best efforts and health precautions, about 40 of our officers serving overseas as well as another 150 foreigners who are employed by our Missions overseas did succumb to COVID-19. Fortunately, they have recovered. But again, it is a symbol of their commitment and their willingness to sacrifice for the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans. We owe them a big debt of gratitude.

5 COVID-19 will not be the last or even the worst pandemic faced by the world. So, we will continue to work with the international community, including and especially through the WHO (World Health Organisation), in order to strengthen global health architecture and to enhance pandemic preparedness and resilience and the ability to cooperate as a single world. 

6 Let me move on to the next aspect - major power rivalry, fostering peace, upholding international law and multilateralism. The ongoing developments in Ukraine are a stark reminder of the vulnerability of small states when confronted by a larger and more powerful opponent. 

7 Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Mr Eric Chua, Ms Janet Ang and Mr Baey Yam Keng have all asked very salient questions about multilateralism, about the world order and about big power rivalry. In my Ministerial Statement on 28 February, I explained why we have to be such a staunch supporter of international law and the principles enshrined in the UN (United Nations) Charter. We must take a stand against actions that clearly violate the sovereignty, political independence and the territorial integrity of another country, of all countries, because ultimately, this is also about us as a tiny city state. When push comes to shove, smaller countries like Singapore must be prepared to defend ourselves and not get caught up in the geopolitical games of big powers. We do not take sides. But we do take a stand to uphold existential principles. We make common cause with our neighbours and our friends, within ASEAN and in the UN General Assembly to the maximum extent possible. So for instance, last night, there was an overwhelming vote - 141 countries at the UN General Assembly voted in favour of the resolution. In ASEAN, all our Ministers, I can tell you, were up until 1.00 am to 2.00 am last night communicating and we will shortly be issuing an ASEAN statement calling for an immediate ceasefire. We continue to try to get humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and, of course, we continue to monitor the evacuation of Singaporeans in Ukraine. We have got another further three out; there are still six left there. 

8 Let me say a few words about the strategic competition between the US and China. This has intensified across multiple domains and, quite frankly, the strategic choices of both these countries will shape the emerging international order profoundly. 

9 Under President (Joe) Biden, US foreign policy has become, in a sense, more predictable. However, its fundamental approach and the policies of the US towards China basically remain unchanged. In fact, the sanctions against Chinese entities have not been relaxed but have become even tougher. Both political parties in America as well as the business community and even society at large have come to generally view China as a direct threat to the United States’ interests. This is compounded by the fact that the US has never in its history faced a peer competitor on such a scale.

10 On China’s part, there is a growing perception that the US is a declining power reacting defensively and aggressively to China’s inevitable growth and progress. China is promoting its own constructs to broaden and deepen its relations with other countries in the world through international schemes, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and more recently, the Global Development Initiative. However, China will want to avoid being seen to be pressured into making concessions in its policies or posture, out of a concern that any concession on its part will only lead to continued or even increased pressure from other countries.

11 US and China’s relationship is fraught with many spiky issues and this is complicated by domestic considerations, and the distrust, (and) the rivalry have intensified over the past few years. Trade and economic issues can be negotiated and compromises found. However, disagreements cast in moralistic or ideological terms on issues like human rights or political systems quickly lead to deadlocks where no compromise is possible. We hope both countries will accept that there is a need to reset their postures, to work out a new modus vivendi, and to reduce zero-sum competition. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for them to cooperate constructively, even where their interests are aligned. 

12 How the US and China compete and cooperate will determine not just their trajectories, but that of the rest of the world. It would be disastrous for both powers to focus on what they call “extreme competition”, or even outright confrontation. And the old Cold War strategy of containment will not be viable. We therefore welcome efforts by both the US and China to engage at the highest levels to cooperate on global challenges like climate change and the digital age, and we encourage greater people-to-people engagement as travel restrictions are removed, in order to foster generations, especially younger people in both the US and China, to understand and to appreciate each other’s values, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses. We hope that these interactions will encourage greater trust and pave the way forward for a more constructive relationship. As the former Secretary of State George Shultz wisely observed, he said – and this is worth remembering, “Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”

13 On Singapore’s part, we enjoy excellent ties, and in fact, I may add, high levels of trust with both the US and China. And we have been able to maintain high level interactions even amidst COVID-19 over the past two years. In 2021 alone, we welcomed visits by US Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, (and) Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. I also made a working visit to Washington where I met with my counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. President Biden will be hosting an ASEAN-US Summit in Washington later this month. We have also maintained intensive engagements with our Chinese counterparts, including through mutual support when we both needed it during COVID-19 at its worst moments, as well as bilateral cooperation at the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meeting co-chaired by DPM Heng Swee Keat in December last year. Since 2020 - and I double-checked this number - I have met or spoken with my counterpart State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on nine occasions. So, that is about once every three months. And our most recent engagement was in Beijing last month, when I accompanied President Halimah Yacob to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. And there is a standing invitation for President Halimah to make a formal State Visit to China.

14 It is in Singapore’s interest to continue to foster stronger ties with both the US and with China, and to be a consistent and reliable partner to both for the long term. We will continue to engage both powers through diplomacy grounded in fundamental principles such as adherence to international law, the resolution of disputes by peaceful means, respect for sovereignty, the sanctity of borders and upholding a rules-based multilateral system. However, we make decisions based on our long-term national interests, and we make it clear to both that we will not be a proxy, vassal state or a cat’s paw for one side or the other. And we have not shied away from standing up for ourselves and disagreeing on issues when necessary. And we do not have the luxury of saying different things to different partners. So, Singapore strives to be straightforward, consistent, reliable, trustworthy. To this end, we will also work with all parties to uphold an open, inclusive, stable, peaceful, rules-based international order.

15 There were questions just now about the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework by Mr Dennis Tan. Quite frankly, I have told my American interlocuters on numerous occasions, (that) it was a mistake for the US to pull out of the TPP. It is still the highest level and most ambitious free trade agreement with safeguards not only for trade, for labour, for the environment, intellectual property, and the rest of it. But all my interlocuters in America have said they cannot do it because of domestic political reasons. In a sense, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is an alternative which they are trying to put beef on this framework. Let us see and let us encourage them. But as I said, the key point I keep making, and in fact, the Prime Minister has made to multiple Presidents – in Asia, trade is strategy. So, let us watch how progress is made on this front. And I think it is also no accident that now you have got the UK, China, and Taiwan applying to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).

16 Mr Liang Eng Hwa asked why Singapore continues to place such heavy emphasis on multilateralism, given that powerful states are often perceived to wield outsized influence at multinational platforms, and he asked whether we should just focus on bilateral and regional arrangements. Ms Janet Ang asked how Singapore’s foreign policy can remain independent while balancing and advancing our own national interests, as opposed to, and I think she even asked why should we be our brother’s keeper? Well, let me address these thematically.

17 With global economic integration and the expansion of cross-border capital and trade flows over the last century, the fortunes of all countries and all peoples are now increasingly interdependent. Small states like Singapore value a system where sovereign states, regardless of size, have equal rights, and disputes can be settled peacefully in accordance with international law and agreed rules, and not to be subject to “the rules of the jungle where might is right” or to be forced to make invidious choices between big powers. In fact, multilateralism and economic integration has been a formula for peace and prosperity for many decades, since the end of the last (second) World War, and (is) especially critical for small states like us. You notice I said “last World War”; I am betraying my anxieties. 

18 We have spared no effort to strengthen the rules-based multilateral order so that it continues to provide us with a platform to safeguard our interests. And that is why we worked with a cross-regional group of countries to establish the Forum of Small States (FOSS), which in fact celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. In today’s charged geopolitical context, it is even more important that small states continue to stand up for a stronger UN and a robust multilateral system that levels the playing fields, (and) takes all countries’ interests into account.

19 The rise of protectionism amidst COVID-19 has also underscored the importance of: one, upholding a free, open and rules-based multilateral trading system, as embodied by the WTO (World Trade Organization); second, deepening economic integration at multilateral fora such as APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and G20 (Group of Twenty); third, diversifying trade relationships through regional arrangements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and our latest free trade agreement, the Pacific Alliance-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. These regional agreements facilitate more efficient, more diversified and resilient supply chains. They increase access to global markets, encourage rules-based trading activity and foster greater connectivity. Even in Singapore, as we face pushback from some people against economic integration, it is important to redouble and reaffirm that this is an essential pillar for our economic strategy. 

20 Third, let me deal with our international work on the global commons and non-traditional security challenges that have been raised. Countries are grappling with geopolitical flashpoints, insularism and major power politics. Mr Seah Kian Peng reminded us and asked about Singapore’s approach to these emerging issues at multilateral fora. 

21 Well, there are certainly no shortage of emerging non-traditional issues. The ones which often come to mind: climate change, food security, emerging diseases, the challenges and problems of the digital economy and threats in cyberspace, and eventually and in fact, emerging, outer space as well. Again, our approach is that we believe in multilateralism, and we believe that these issues should best be pursued at multilateral fora, including the UN, APEC, G20 and ASEAN. Basically, an opportunity for us to work together, address the challenges, the opportunities, deal with the dangers, establish common standards, establish norms, rules, and ultimately, (and) hopefully, norms for state behaviours. And this is the way, in a sense, we have to protect the global commons, public health, the oceans, the environment, cyberspace, (and) outer space. And actually, Singapore has a history of outsized contributions in protecting the global commons.

22 For instance, in cybersecurity, which is a clear and present threat right now, we clearly need to work with the international community towards arriving at a global consensus, including through the creation of a multilateral architecture in cyberspace. We are members of both the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Cybersecurity- in fact, this is chaired by Singapore, and the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Cybersecurity to foster understanding and collaboration on the development of new governance principles, frameworks and standards. 

23 Climate change, we all know is an existential threat to mankind, and as a small city-state, we are exquisitely vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Encouraging progress was made at the most recent 26th Conference of the Parties, and I am sure Minister Grace Fu will explain. But in case she is too humble, let me say that she and her team have continued this tradition of being excellent ministerial facilitators, being honest brokers, and arriving at consensus and making progress for the world.  

24 Similarly, this year, I would also add, marks the 40th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And amidst all the oceans-related challenges today, we will continue to affirm the primacy and the universality of UNCLOS, which sets out the legal framework for all activities in the oceans. And notwithstanding our small size, our pioneers, including Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh, played again an outsized role and helped to bring UNCLOS to fruition 40 years ago. So, we continue to play a constructive role in oceans-related issues and right now, Ambassador Rena Lee has been the President of the Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction Intergovernmental Conference since 2018. Most people may not be aware of this, but this is another offshoot of UNCLOS.

25 Fourth, peace and stability in our immediate neighbourhood (are) absolutely critical. Our relations with our closest neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, will always be of special importance. 

26 Ms Rachel Ong asked about the outcomes of the Singapore-Indonesia Leaders’ Retreat in January and how this would affect the trajectory of our bilateral relations.

27 I think you all know that Singapore and Indonesia are close partners. We enjoy a substantive and multifaceted relationship. The Leaders’ Retreat held in January marked a significant milestone in our bilateral relations and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean delivered a Ministerial Statement last month explaining the significance of the agreements that Singapore and Indonesia signed to address longstanding bilateral issues, namely, the Flight Information Region (FIR), the defence cooperation, and the extradition of fugitives. The FIR Agreement will uphold the safety and efficiency of air traffic in our region in a manner that is consistent with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) rules and meets the civil aviation needs of both countries. The Defence Cooperation Agreement will strengthen cooperation between our two armed forces. It will provide clarity on the arrangements for the SAF’s (Singapore Armed Forces) training in the Indonesian archipelagic and territorial waters and airspace, which is conducted with full respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty, whilst preserving Singapore’s rights under UNCLOS. The Extradition Treaty will enhance cooperation in combating crime and send a positive signal to the investors. Both countries also exchanged letters to undertake that all these agreements will enter into force simultaneously. This set of mutually beneficial and durable agreements shows the strength and maturity of our bilateral relationship. It illustrates our commitment to resolving longstanding bilateral matters in an open and constructive manner, for the long-term benefit of our peoples. Prime Minister Lee and President Joko Widodo both expressed the desire to ratify and bring these agreements into force soon.

28 Prime Minister Lee and President Joko Widodo also had good discussions on new areas of collaboration, including green economy, renewable energy, (and) human capital development. And we look forward to making progress on all these fronts. The key point is that we can steadily resolve all issues and we can open up new areas with win-win outcomes.

29 Mr Chong Kee Hiong asked about Malaysia. For Malaysia, I want to tell you that we have maintained our very close relationship. And I would say, it has probably even been strengthened by our shared experience of COVID-19. Malaysia is our closest neighbour and bilateral engagements continued both formally and informally throughout this pandemic. Our Ministers have been communicating: WhatsApp, letters, phone calls, and video calls. And most importantly, at times of greatest need, we are available for each other. 

30 And one thing which I want to cite is that we made sure our supply chains both ways never failed, even in the depths of the crisis. We were still able to facilitate the safe movement of goods, services, and people. In fact, trade in goods and services increased in 2021. We collaborated closely with Malaysia to restore connectivity, launched Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) for both land and air travel on 29 November 2021 and helped restore some – I say some, because it is still a very small fraction of the pre-pandemic flow of tourists and businesspeople. We have also helped to reunite families on both sides of the Causeway and I know we all look forward to expanding cross-border travel progressively and safely, and hopefully at some point back to pre-pandemic levels.

31 On ASEAN, let me just quickly say that Mr Henry Kwek asked about the concerns with Myanmar.  It is still a very dire situation. The ASEAN Leaders had a meeting in April 2021 and arrived at a Five-Point Consensus. Unfortunately, there has been no significant progress at all. We will continue to work with the ASEAN Chair – Cambodia this year – as we did with Brunei last year, and indeed with our fellow ASEAN Members  to continue trying to promote, persuade, cajole, and reach a peaceful and durable resolution of the situation in Myanmar through the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus. 

32 Mr Chairman, since MFA’s establishment in 1965, our Mission has always been to uphold the independence and sovereignty of Singapore, to protect and advance the interests of Singaporeans, both at home and overseas. And we must thus continue to invest in this effort of diplomacy, even as the Government tackles all the immediate challenges of the day. Just as supply chains are moving from “Just-in-Time” to “Just-in-Case”, for a small city-state like Singapore, we must always prepare for all possible scenarios. It is in our fundamental interest to ensure that our partners around the world have a stake in our continued peace and prosperity. We must never take our independence, sovereignty, peace and security for granted.  

33 I thank Members of Parliament for your continued support of MFA’s work and for the wonderful, dedicated service of every single MFA officer.

34 Thank you. 

Travel Page