Video Credit: The Straits Times
Lynlee Foo (ST): Thank you very much Minister for coming into our studio at The Straits Times. Now during the National Day Rally (NDR), PM (Prime Minister) used very strong words like “get real” and “be psychologically prepared for the possibility of conflict in the region”. Do you think Singaporeans are indeed psychologically prepared for such a conflict if it happens?
Minister: The first point I have to make is that the world has entered a very dangerous phase and when I say dangerous, I mean it in multiple dimensions. First, war on a scale and at a level which has not happened for many decades. Small risk, but a real risk, and a rising risk. Second, if you look at the global economy, we are entering a new phase of higher prolonged inflation and higher interest rates. We are entering a world where global supply chains that used to be based on efficiency are being disrupted. Third, we have just emerged from a global pandemic, COVID-19. But the probability of a next pandemic arising has risen, and the possibility that the next pandemic will have a higher mortality rate than COVID-19 is also a clear and present danger. Add to that food security and I would say even water security. We are going to face, in the near future, a food, water, and energy crisis. A further dimension, if you look at things domestically, is that societies everywhere are facing greater division, disruption, polarisation, and inability to agree on a set of facts, to agree on the right response, an erosion of trust and cohesion within society. If you add all these things up – more inflation, famine, pandemic, and the loss of trust and cohesion within societies – all these factors lead us to an unfortunate new phase of geopolitics with profound implications for all of us.
Now your question is, do Singaporeans get it? I think Singaporeans do. Singaporeans are realists. We know that we have to take the world as it is and not be wishful about what we hope the world would be. My sense is yes, Singaporeans do get it. We are real. But perhaps the extent to this risk – this is something which we need to have hard conversations on and tough discussions with each other.
Foo: Picking up on that, how can we be better prepared and how will the Government step up efforts to have us ready for such a conflict in the event of (it).
Minister: If you use a medical analogy, we need to be immunised to be prepared for the challenges which this brave new world is throwing at us. I would say number one, is to be better informed. Read the papers. I know it may not be fashionable now – or at least watch the videos from SPH (Singapore Press Holdings) (and) CNA (Channel NewsAsia). Understand what is going on, understand the driving forces behind the individual episodes and incidents which are occurring in the world. Second, after being well informed, have these heart-to-heart, open and tough discussions with one another. Seek out especially people who have different views in order to stretch our minds and expand our perspectives. Third point is after recognising and seeking out people with diverse views, understand that because Singapore is small, fragile, and facing an even greater level of challenge for the future, we need to stay united, we need to stay cohesive, we need to stay capable of making plans (and) more importantly, executing plans. Based on what we just went through over the last two and a half years with COVID-19, one key competitive advantage we had was trust and cohesion, and the fact that we instinctively looked out for one another even whilst recognising that we are diverse.
Foo: Speaking about seeking diverse views, reading the newspaper and watching all types of news, one specific challenge that PM raised was about social media and guarding against hostile foreign influence. We have so many things now on social media – WhatsApp, Weibo, WeChat, Facebook. How do we tell, if you are seeking out diverse views, how do we tell whether a message is propaganda or really authentic, legitimate viewpoints?
Minister: We are all Singaporeans. We are blessed to be citizens of this sovereign independent country called Singapore. Our first and paramount objective is to jealously safeguard our sovereignty and independence. Second principle is to understand what Singapore’s and Singaporeans long term national interests are. This is important because when you say national interest, it means all of us need to be aware of what is it that makes Singapore special. We are a tiny multiracial city state in the heart of Southeast Asia. Trade is three and a half times our GDP (gross domestic product). We depend on investments and trade with the US, with China, (and) with the EU (European Union). Increasingly now we are building bridges, economic bridges, (with) Latin America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, globally. When I say national interest, understand that we are a unique and fragile country that is only 57 years old. Everything that we measure and assess must be looked at in terms of what is in Singapore’s interests. The third point is to understand that we do not take sides, but we will be prepared to stand up and to defend existential principles; and that is another point that PM emphasised. You cannot just take cover, keep quiet, hope nobody notices, and somehow get away with it. From time to time, we have to be prepared to stand up. Say what we feel is critical for the survival and the prosperity of a tiny city state like us. But we do not take sides. We are not pro-anyone or anti-anyone, we are only pro-Singapore. Once you understand these three principles – independence, sovereignty, Singapore’s long-term interests, and that we do not take sides, then your question becomes, are people trying to influence us? Are messages coming to us with ulterior motives? The answer to it very clearly, is yes. Precisely because we are small but credible, relevant, and independent. What Singaporeans think and say, and what the Government expresses on behalf of Singaporeans does matter. So, you are right. On the whole tsunami of social media, private messaging platforms, we are all exposed to a very wide variety of messages. A significant number of which, in fact, originate outside Singapore, whose objective is not necessarily the long-term interests of Singapore, but to further their objectives. It requires certain scepticism, a certain openness to facts but not being gullible. I again want to emphasise the need to check with credible sources of information. I would say our mainstream media remains a credible source of information. It is important that we keep that reputation. Then, we have a population that is well informed, that is able to exercise judgment, and is still able to make assessments and plans, and execute those plans.
Foo: How big a threat do you see such influences?
Minister: It is a big threat. It is a clear and current danger. Let us unpack social media at two levels. One is that the social media companies are optimised for revenue maximisation. They are not necessarily optimised for the propagation of facts or even necessarily reasonable, rational discourse. What has wings on social media, if you just go by the algorithms, anything that incites, anything that makes people angry, anything that is scandalous, or raises emotional temperature, those are the messages that fly. The first point here is that by its very nature, social media is optimised sometimes for the more base nature of humanity and it is related to its profit maximisation for the companies. That is the first thing we need to understand. Secondly, it is also very clear in the last few years, that state and non-state actors have also latched on to these very powerful tools to push a view, to manipulate opinions, to divide and to erode trust and cohesion within the target societies. In Singapore, we must be painfully aware that this is what we are exposed to. So what PM is telling and reminding all of us is – please be aware, these things are going on. We are receiving it and precisely because we are a multilingual, multiracial, open society, we are more vulnerable in that sense. But I still believe that Singaporeans are also sensible, pragmatic people. We are not just going to swallow everything hook, line and sinker.
Foo: You touched a little bit on sovereignty earlier. Singapore is the only Southeast Asian nation to impose sanctions on Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine. Over the last five six months, yourself and PM have explained why it was important for Singapore to take such a strong stance. Yet, there are still some Singaporeans that are not convinced. How big do you think this group is? And do you worry about downstream effects? Perhaps like you said, eroding trust or even threatening to weaken Singapore’s unity?
Minister: The first thing I would say is that certainly, if you look at the United Nations, 141 countries voted to condemn this invasion of a sovereign independent country. An act of aggression which clearly flouted core principles of the UN Charter – respect for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity. You are right precisely because we are small and only 57 years old, when a big power threatens to or actually tries to redraw boundaries on the basis of historical errors and crazy decisions, all alarm bells go off and especially in Singapore. There was no question that we had to take a stand. I think you can argue about the tone and how tall you stand when you take a stand, but I am convinced the vast majority of Singaporeans and indeed people all over the world, are not comfortable with a world in which might is right, in which a big neighbour gets to redraw boundaries or to use force or to threaten the use of force in order to bend and subvert the will and cohesion of a neighbour. I have no doubts (that) a vast majority of Singaporeans understand why we had to take a stand.
Now, the second order issue that you mentioned – sanctions. We have been very, very careful. In normal times, we only comply with United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions. But this was not a normal time. This was an invasion, launched by a permanent member of the Security Council with veto rights, prepared to exercise a cynical vote to veto a Security Council resolution. Because of that, we felt (and) we decided that targeted sanctions especially on arms and dual use equipment, which could be used to inflict harm or death on Ukrainians, were necessary. That again, in our own way, was a principled response to what we felt was an existential threat to international law, to the UN Charter, and, ultimately, a grave danger to Singapore now and in the future. So we took a stand. We did not take a side, we took a stand.
Foo: Talking about danger, I know this is not part of the NDR, but it is a timely one, a timely question in view of your speech at the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Cambodia. You said then that there was a dangerous moment, profoundly dangerous moment. But at the same time, you expressed hope that US and China will work out an arrangement that allows for a peaceful coexistence. What kind of indicators will you be looking for in the coming months?
Minister: I stand by my assessment that this is still a moment of profound danger. As far as the US and China are concerned, things are not moving in the right direction. The risk of a mishap or miscalculation is real, and in fact, rising.
Foo: Is that your current reading of the situation?
Minister: That is my current assessment of the situation. Profound danger and risks are rising. There is another dimension to it. I can also speak based on personal observations and interactions with the leaders of America, China, the EU, and many other parts of the world.I do not believe any one of them are setting out to wage war on each other. But I do worry that there is a very real risk of each party unilaterally deciding what its national interests are, and what its response or counterresponse to the other party will be, may inadvertently set itself up for an escalatory spiral. It is not that they are out for war, but they may be locked into a spiral of measure, countermeasure, response, counterresponse which may escalate up a spiral. My deep anxiety is that it reminds me of the situation before the First World War.The major powers before the First World War did not set out for war. In fact, it was a period of great interdependence and even global trade at the turn of the last century. Nobody felt that war made sense. Nevertheless, a series of steps, incidents, mishaps and this locked-in spiral led to a very terrible situation. That is why I remain so concerned about the prospects for global peace.
Having said that, to be a diplomat, you must have some hope, some optimism. The world is not short of global challenges and examples are the pandemic, climate change, food and water security. If we could only elevate our gaze to these global challenges and immediately realise that these can only be solved if America, China, Europe and Asia, and all the rest of us come up with a multilateral, rules-based, constructive response to protect the global commons. This is the challenge of our generation and the next – to use the advances in technology, digital, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, new materials and synthetic biology. We are actually on the cusp an era of profound technological breakthrough which will equip humanity with unimaginably powerful tools. If you can just imagine or hope that we do not end up in a world war, and that all the major players understand that it is in the world’s interest and in their own long-term interests to set aside their differences, negotiate where they can negotiate, hold certain issues in abeyance if need be, be patient, have strategic patience, focus on the immediate challenges of the global commons, harvest the new tools that technology is providing with us, we can have another golden age. But hopefully without having to go through a war first.
Again, to make an allusion to history; if you think about the end of the Second World War, it was remarkable because the vanquished, the losers, were given opportunities to rebuild. Countries which were formerly colonised were given independence – that includes most of the developing world, including Singapore. Countries which were prepared to modernise and industrialise early took off in that post-World War Two scenario, and that includes Singapore. The United Nations (UN), the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), created a set of multilateral global rules which generally ensured peace and facilitated development. We had the World Trade Organization (WTO), which facilitated global trade – because Singapore is a trading hub, and trade is such a large multiple of our GDP – a world where there were global supply chains based on efficiency and multinational corporations diffusing technologies and markets and expertise globally. Especially in the last 40 years when China came online – that is why especially in the last 40 years, the world enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace, low inflation, low interest rates, great development, a catch-up, a reduction in the gap between the developing world and the advanced worlds. But it also became a hyper-competitive world. The fact of the matter is that also led to an erosion of cohesion within some of the more advanced countries, because clearly when you have a step change in technology and in the means of production, you get winners and losers. If your social safety nets, education, re-skilling and re-tooling system does not give hope to all segments of society, you see the division and polarisation which we currently witness in many advanced countries. I am spelling this out so that Singaporeans understand what an unusual period of growth and opportunity Singapore enjoyed over the last six decades. But I am also raising an amber light to say that that period has come to an end. That is what PM (Lee Hsien Loong) means by “get real”. We had better have our antenna out, understand what is happening globally, understand what this means for Singapore and better get ready. SM (Senior Minister) Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) has called this a “perfect long storm”. If there is going to be – and I believe there is – a “perfect long storm”, we had better have our umbrellas, our raincoats and our contingency plans in place. But I still believe the most important ingredient, the most important competitive advantage that Singapore has, has been our ability to trust one another, to make rational decisions and to execute it. That is the key reason for the difference in performance in our response to COVID-19, compared to many other countries. It was not a matter of money, it was a matter of social capital, trust, cohesion, unity of purpose. That note gives me confidence and hope, that Singaporeans have it; we have the wherewithal to do what needs to be done, to cope with this “perfect long storm”, this new profoundly more dangerous world.
Foo: I really like your optimism, Minister. It is obviously very important to be optimistic, but supposing there is no peaceful coexistence; what will be your outlook for Singapore?
Minister: It means the earlier decades of heavy, steady growth with low inflation are over. It means we will have to double down on the restructuring of the economy which we are already engaged in. Preparing people for new jobs – jobs of the future. We cannot defend jobs or technologies which are becoming obsolete. So, double down on our current restructuring efforts. Equally important is what DPM (Deputy Prime Minister) Lawrence Wong has emphasised: the need for us to review the social compact. Because maintaining that sense of unity, that we are all in this boat together, that we do need to look out for each other, and yet we need to do while keeping our eyes on the horizon externally, and trying to find new sources – where is the wind coming from, how do we set our sails accordingly? There is one area which is going to be very difficult for us – which we will obviously try our best to avoid – and it is that we will resolutely refuse to choose sides. I would say so far, so good – all the major powers have told us, “We do not expect you to choose sides”. How long they will maintain that position, I do not know, so I will expect the current and the future Government of Singapore to face even more geopolitical pressure in the future. One key point which I would make after my years in MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), is that foreign policy begins at home. Without a united population, without a population immunised against foreign interference or influence, you will find that the future Governments of Singapore would be constrained in our pursuit of, and our protection of our long-term national interests. I believe and I accept the challenge that we do need to educate, to have far more discussions domestically with our own people about how the world has changed, and why we take the stance we take, why we must not take sides, and why we must not be gullible. Paradoxically, I have found, at least with the current leaders in the world, that because they know Singapore is small and rational, is not anyone’s vassal state and does not wish harm on any other state; when we do need to take a stand, and when we do need to have a difference, they respect it. That, I have found to be of a unique value, and has made my job as Foreign Minister so much easier. Because when you say, “I am from Singapore”, there is already a pre-formed set of expectations – doors are open and we are able to have constructive, respectful and candid discussions.
I am just signalling that there is going to be more pressure, more push and shove in the future, but the answers are still the same. Understand we defend our sovereignty, our independence; understand our unique circumstances and therefore what our interests are. Do not take sides, take stands, but remain united, remain resolute. If we do that, the emerging opportunities of this revolution will put Singapore in a very good position. So that is my hope.
Foo: Thank you very much, Minister, for speaking with me today.
Minister: Most welcome. Thank you for launching these robust and open discussions which are so essential. Not just here publicly, but privately as well. Thank you.
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