Ramesh Ramachandran (Interviewer): Hello and welcome. I am Ramesh Ramachandran, and you are watching a special broadcast here on DD (Doordarshan) India and with me is a very special guest, the Foreign Minister of Singapore, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Mr. Minister, welcome to DD India.
Minister: Thank you, I am glad to be here. COVID-19 kind of kept me away from India for an unusually long period. So I am glad to be back here in-person to meet colleagues and of course, the media.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Thank you so much. Now, my guest needs no introduction. But just for the benefit of viewers tuning in from India and abroad, Minister Balakrishnan has been a lawmaker since 2001, the Foreign Minister from 2015. He has had a number of portfolios in the past. He was Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, and Entrepreneurship, Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Community Development, Youth and Sports, the second Minister for Trade and Industry, Information, Communications and the Arts. If you are wondering what a Second Minister is well, he is one who holds a portfolio other than their own, to help the primary Minister discharge their duties. He is also Minister of State for National Development. By the way, he is a trained physician and medical doctor. He practiced Ophthalmology in the UK and Singapore, and in the 1990s, he even hosted a TV show on health. It was called Health Matters.
Minister: Yes, I have been on the other side of the camera.
Ramesh Ramachandran: He is of Indian origin; a Singaporean of Tamil origin in particular. Do you speak or understand Tamil at all Mr. Minister?
Minister: Not enough for interviews.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Fair enough.
Minister: My great grandparents left India – this was more than a century ago. On my maternal side, they left southern China also more than a century ago. I literally would not exist if not for Singapore and for the fact that there was both an Indian and a Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Talking about Indian origins, the name Singapore itself comes from the Malay name Singapura, which in turn derives from Sanskrit, meaning “Lion City”. Mr Minister, Singapore and India elevated its ties to a Strategic Partnership in 2015. A joint statement called it “Nayi urza, Naya josh” in Hindi, meaning renewed spirit renewed energy. It was signed in November that year, and you became a Minister in October that year. So in a sense, the Strategic Partnership is coterminous with your tenure. How has the journey been? How would you describe Singapore – India ties today as we speak?
Minister: The key word there is “renew”. Meaning it is not new, because in fact, as you just alluded to, our ties go back millennia. As you said, “Singapore” is a Sanskrit word. Culture, language, religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, even Islam was vectored into Southeast Asia by India. There are multiple layers of history and tradition in society, and of course, economics. I think the important point to understand (is) that it is on a very long and wide foundation. What we are really doing is renewing, reaffirming, (and) building on top of this foundation.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Talking about the bilateral ties, Mr Minister, maybe in terms of defence and security, trade and investment, in fact, both parties signed a bilateral FTA way back in 2005?
Minister: Yes, before they became fashionable.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Indeed, and connecting with the physical and digital, how would you describe ties, the state of play in Singapore-India ties today?
Minister: One word – excellent. First, because of history, because of cultural and linguistic familiarity. What many Indian citizens have told me when they visit Singapore, is actually you know, this could be an Indian city or what an Indian city should be. Therefore, there has always been a special bond of affection at the people-to-people level. Economically there is no question. In fact, there is another historical anecdote. When Stamford Raffles, this British East India Company official, decided to find a free port at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, he really did it as part of the British East India Company. In fact, Singapore was administered out of Calcutta. The point here again, is that it is a long-standing relationship.
But what happened in 2005 is that we signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. As I said, this was before globalisation and free trade agreements were fashionable. In fact, now we are even dealing with a push back. The point is, we were ahead of time. When Prime Minister Modi came to Singapore, we then elevated it to a Strategic Partnership. Let us look at a few figures. If you were to ask me, well, the last two and a half years with (the) pandemic, what did that do to economic ties? The answer is that bilateral trade between Singapore and India grew by almost 35%; it grew during a pandemic. I will let you in on a little secret; although I have not been to India in the last four years, I have been in contact with (External Affairs) Minister Jaishankar, I think five times in the last two years. I have lost count of the number of messages and telephone calls. A little-known thing is that during the time when things were darkest during COVID, both countries provided support for each other. I cannot get into details, but I can tell you that a friend in need builds and expands the reservoir of trust. So it is a special relationship.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Absolutely. Let me know ask you about ASEAN-India ties, Mr Minister. Singapore is the country coordinator for ASEAN-India dialogue. You co-chaired the just concluded (Special) ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ meeting in New Delhi. 30 years on – is the ASEAN India relationship fit for purpose?
Minister: It is growing. It has been 30 years since India became a Dialogue Partner, which is in a sense, stage one and a half. It became a Strategic Partner of ASEAN 10 years ago, and we just had a special meeting of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN with Minister Jaishankar. What we are working on right now is making a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Again, just look at the data, look at the economic ties, the trade, look in terms of the flow of people, ideas, capital, (and) talent. There is no question that when India talks about looking east or acting east, the first area you are going to engage with is ASEAN. Of course, Singapore is a special city-state with a special relationship with India. I would also say, quite categorically, Singapore has always advocated for India's inclusion, India's integration with our economy, and at a strategic level, in Southeast Asia. So, economics – great. But there are now new opportunities which in fact, play to India’s strength – the digital economy, digital services, new FinTech, financial inclusion, and now even in the green space, sustainable development, exploiting new technologies to reduce carbon footprints, (and) establish carbon markets. There is a lot more that can and should be done with Southeast Asia. The other point is, if you come around to Southeast Asia, you will see Sanskritic names, you will see not just archaeology, but you will see temples, cultural relics and museums, which again makes this point that it is a renewal of an old, vibrant relationship.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Staying in the neighbourhood, Mr Minister, I want to ask you about the situation in Myanmar now. Will the crisis be resolved anytime soon? Does or should ASEAN have a role in it? And is it the end of the road for Aung San Suu Kyi?
Minister: Let me start by telling you that I am gravely disappointed with what happened in Myanmar. Things were looking up, especially after the transition to the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yes, there were teething problems, there were challenges. But the economy was growing, foreign investments were coming in. If you personally know the people from Myanmar, they are some of the most wonderful, courteous, hardworking, talented people who have been doing very well in many parts of the world. There is no reason to assume that they cannot replicate that success. The coup was an enormous setback. It is caused by a breakdown in communications and dialogue between the military authorities and the civilian authorities. I do not think it is going to be resolved quickly. Because unless the violence stops, and honest to goodness direct communications and heart to heart talks occur between Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on one hand, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the other hand, I do not see the different pieces of the jigsaw coming together. The first point is it can take a long time. In fact, if you cast your mind back, remember they had problems in the late 80s. It took more than 25 years for that to be overcome, and at least a glimmer of hope for the transition. I hope it does not take another 25 years. But really, it depends on the decisions of first, the military authorities and then second, whether they can get a dialogue going with all the stakeholders. One further point I will make on Myanmar is the younger generation today in Myanmar, because of the internet, with social media and new ways of mobilising – it is not what happened in 1980s – I do not think they will have the patience.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Mr Minister what is happening in the South China Sea is also another cause of concern. You have said that for Singapore, the bottom line is territorial integrity and sovereignty. Now you said that in the context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, no doubt. But what is Singapore's position on the Chinese actions in the South China Sea, that have put ASEAN Member States’ territorial integrity in jeopardy, be it Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia or even Brunei?
Minister: That is a very complicated topic, so I am afraid we are going to have some time to unpack it. The first piece of good news is that Singapore has no territorial claims in the South China Sea. So, I do not speak as a claimant state. I have no disputes in the South China Sea, which is a very fortunate position to be in. Having said that, that does not mean we have no interests at stake. First, the South China Sea is a key maritime artery; more than $5 trillion worth of trade flows. For one, we want peace, stability, and to continue to be the arena where prosperity, economic development and opportunities abound. Even if there is no active shooting war, just tension, or the threat of tension raises insurance premiums, it immediately has an economic impact. So that is the first (point). The second point is the primacy of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which in our view, sets out the maritime entitlements and the rules and the norms of behaviour in the sea. We want all the claimant states as well as all the other stakeholders who have economic interests in the South China Sea to exercise self-restraint and to behave in accordance with the rules of international order in particular 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). The third consideration is that we want peaceful resolution of disputes. Therefore, the use of force or the threat of force is very unwelcome. It is ultimately self-defeating. Instead, we should just remind everyone that we are all better off if there are sufficient reservoirs of trust, if there is adherence to international law, in particular, the principles there of freedom of navigation and overflight, and that we forswear the use of force, and to take full advantage of diplomacy and the avenues for resolution which are provided for under international law under UNCLOS. That is where we stand. Is the situation getting better or getting worse? Well, let us put it to you this way. As far as Southeast Asian nations are concerned, we are engaged in negotiations, complicated and difficult negotiations, but nevertheless, active negotiations with China on a Code of Conduct. How long more that will take? I cannot give you a deadline. But it is good that we are talking and negotiating and making progress. It has been slow, but there has been progress. The other dimension, of course, the backdrop to this, is the complicated relationship and attention between the United States and China. That is something which they will have to sort out. My quick recommendation would be number one, they need to increase communications at the top level. Number two, engage in some confidence-building measures. Because one way of thinking about this is that America and China – in game theory, there is this thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma. It is basically a scenario in which two protagonists are better off if they cooperate, (and) they are worse off if they do not. But the key determinant is the lack of trust. At the diplomatic level, it is a similar scenario. We need trust to build up between the two superpowers, and then hopefully, to work out peaceful ways of coexistence and even better still, mutual prosperity, and to give the rest of us much, much smaller countries in comparison to them, opportunities.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Talking about China Mr Minister, you have also said that there are times when your adherence to principles is more important than friendship. Now, you demonstrated that by imposing sanctions on Russia. These were sanctions that were not adopted by the United Nations, mind you. By the same token, will principles prevail over your friendship with China? Or will you allow compulsions of trade or economics to trump your foreign and security policy towards China? I asked you this because I am sure you must be worried by the way China has been behaving of late in the region and beyond.
Minister: Let me just reflect the perspective of a tiny city-state, an island city-state, whose trade volume is more than three times its GDP. The first thing is to understand that if you are a small city state, international law, the United Nations (UN) charter, the principles of independence, sovereign equality, and territorial integrity – these are not debating points. Small states have no choice but to plant our flag on these principles. You need to understand that is where we are coming from. The next point is that in the case of Ukraine, what we saw, we saw through the eyes of the small state. A big neighbour using force on a small neighbour, citing historical eras and crazy decisions immediately raises alarm bells. In the case of the debate at the (UN) Security Council, if not for that self-serving veto cast by Russia, that resolution would have passed even with India’s abstention. In normal circumstances, we do not engage in sanctions unless it is approved by the Security Council. But this was one instance where it was so egregious and where even inaction by the Security Council was a blatant self-serving veto. We felt we had to do something which we do not normally do, which is to announce the application of targeted sanctions. Mind you, the important word is “targeted”. It is sanctions which would ensure that we do not contribute to Russia's military operations which would inflict harm and injury to the Ukrainian citizens. So that is where we are at. The point I am making is you need to understand these are the perspectives and actions of a tiny city-state. We will operate on principle. The other point which you may have noticed about Singapore's foreign policy, (is) we have to accept the world as it is. It is grounded in realism. There is an aphorism in diplomacy that there are always permanent interests. I view diplomatic friendship as important to improve communications, reduce misunderstanding, and to help find solutions when possible. But never forget that at the end of the day, our job is to protect the interests of our respective countries. In the case of Singapore, we will stand on principle, we will defend our long term enlightened national interests. We have been quite fortunate that actually, we have got great relations with the United States, with China, and with India. It does not mean we agree with you all the time. But so far, I would say when we have had to defer, they understand why we defer. The ability to have mutual respect, and to continue to engage has been present.
Ramesh Ramachandran: If I could ask a quick follow up question Mr Minister, how worried are you by the tensions across the Taiwan Strait, for instance, and you have said that Ukraine illustrates that nobody will shed blood for you. Did you have a message in there somewhere for Taiwan, maybe?
Minister: No, that message was for Singaporeans. At the end of the day, if there is no national identity, cohesion, and will to defend, there will be no nation. It will be a pushover when push comes to shove. No alliances, no diplomacy, no treaties, will protect that nation. In fact, what Ukraine is illustrating, if there was any doubt before that there is now no doubt that there is a people called Ukrainians. They believe in their independence and sovereignty, and they are willing to fight for it. So, that was a message directed to Singaporeans. Your question is, are we worried about what is happening in cross strait relations? The answer is, yes, we are. Taiwan is an absolute red line for China. They have said so. I believe them, and you have to take it seriously.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Even if they take Taiwan by force, if necessary as they keep saying?
Minister: I think you have to read the nuances carefully. There is no leader in Beijing, in history, who can afford to say I give up that piece of territory and expect to remain in power. I completely believe them when they say it is not negotiable. Having said that, what I think everyone hopes for is that whatever changes will occur in the future will occur peacefully without the use of force against basically your own people. Now, how that will come about? Time will tell. You have to hope for cool heads in all parts across the straits and also across the Pacific, so that there will be a peaceful resolution. That is a hope. What will happen? I don't know. Are we worried? Yes, we are worried.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Last couple of questions, Mr. Minister. You studied and practised medicine but you are a full-time politician now. What is your first state of mind, if I might ask you, is it ophthalmology or politics?
Minister: Let me let me first answer the question with a Singaporean perspective. In Singapore, we have no professional politician. Every Singaporean Minister you meet has had a life before that. Whether he was a mathematician or a military officer or an engineer or a doctor or a surgeon. Every one of us has had a life. We think this is a system which is useful, beneficial because it gives all of us a certain grounding. I think having had the privilege of being a doctor and a surgeon, let me put it to you this way, I will still meet people on the street who will shake my hand warmly, and pat me on my shoulders and say you operated on my child, you operated on my grandmother. The warmth that you get from that is wonderful. Quite frankly, you do not get the same dynamic, that same human warmth in politics. But politics also enables you to treat more than one patient at a time. Because you can make a difference to society. In life, you make your best possible decision at that point in time. Do not look back, look ahead, do your duty, do your best. This is the way we operate in Singapore.
Ramesh Ramachandran: Finally Mr Minister, seven years on as a foreign minister, does anything at all keep you awake at night, and what keeps you awake at night?
Minister: At an intellectual level, this is an exhilarating period of time. As a journalist, as a Minister, as a diplomat, we are living through a revolution. Just think about it. The digital revolution completely upending the means of production, and therefore economies and societies and politics are being transformed. The threat of climate change is a multi-generational challenge. The situation in Ukraine, in fact, signals the end of the last eight decades of the peace dividend, when many parts of the world could take peace for granted, could spend very little on defence, and could assume that war would not break up on a continental scale. Now, those easy presumption is eroded. The next point is never before in human history have you had the rise of America followed by China, a peer power. Do not forget India who is about to overtake China in terms of population; GDP still probably maybe one third to one quarter. But India with 65% of the population below the age of 35, an India with a demonstrated capability in digital technologies. Never before in the world have billions of people come online at the same time with new tools. What I am saying is, this is a moment in time at an unprecedented scale of danger and opportunity. So yes, I do get kept up awake at night, but sometimes it is a combination of both fear and excitement. It is a wonderful time to be alive. I am privileged to have a ringside seat into this revolution.
Ramesh Ramachandran: On that note, Mr Minister may I thank you so much for making time for us here at DD India. Thank you, appreciate it.
Minister: Most welcome. Please come to Singapore.
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