Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview with Singapore Media at the Conclusion of His Official Visit to Malaysia, 17 January 2023

18 January 2023

Minister: I am really glad to be back in KL. Actually, I have been visiting every single year, even during the past three years of COVID-19. This visit comes in the immediate aftermath of the most recent general elections. I have engaged five prime ministers from Malaysia in the last five years and four foreign ministers. But what has been very helpful is the fact that the leaders in Singapore and Malaysia, despite all these changes, are very familiar with each other. In some cases, I have known them for almost two decades. That level of familiarity in the midst of such political change has been reassuring, has been helpful.

The second point I would make is, the last three years of COVID-19 has been a confidence booster for our bilateral relations. Both Malaysia and Singapore supported one another mutually, effectively. Despite the MCO in March 2020, and the unprecedented closure of the Causeway and the Second Link at Tuas, we kept supply chains open. Goods, vegetables, food, pharmaceuticals, industrial supplies, and later even vaccines continued to flow both ways. Even in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, both countries maintain(ed) that connectivity and that link, and we did not drop the ball. It was a confidence booster. It just shows on one hand, the close intertwined dynamics of our relationship, but also the fact that there is a large reservoir of trust and mutual support.

The third thing is that now, as we emerge from the COVID pandemic, our immediate priority has been to restore connectivity. The KL-Singapore flight is one of the busiest in the world. Right now, we are only at about 85 (percent) capacity. The plane that I was on was full, and we look forward to full resumption of air links, as well as to all the other destinations in Malaysia and going beyond KLIA. So, that is one set of agendas. 

The other thing is to look forward as both Malaysia and Singapore restart our economy. Firing on all cylinders, to look for new opportunities, particularly in the digital space and in the green economy, in terms of renewable energy, carbon capture, new options to co-invest with one another, and to facilitate trade. It is worth pointing out that despite COVID-19 in 2021, our trade with Malaysia increased by 24% between 2020 and 2021, and this is in the midst of COVID-19. Similarly, Singapore remains one of the top investors in Malaysia. As the Malaysian economy matures and transforms (in) the future, we look forward to even more opportunities for investments, for collaboration, for partnerships and mutual stakeholding in both countries.

This was a very useful visit. I am very grateful to the Malaysian authorities. I had the honor of an audience with the King, the Agong. I also had a very good discussion with Prime Minister Anwar (Ibrahim), whom as I said earlier is someone whom we are familiar with and we have known for a very long time. I also met five other ministers – the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Defence, Minister for Transport, Minister for Economy, and the Minister for the Environment. Most of them are old friends. In the case of the Minister for (the) Environment, Nik Nazmi, and for Economy, Rafizi (Ramli) – these are new friends. But this is the nature of the relationship with Singapore – we are building on a strong foundation, and we are looking for new opportunities. 

I think it is also worth pointing out that 2023 is in fact, the 60th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia when it included Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore. Of course, we left two years later. So, this will mark our 58th year for Singapore as an independent and sovereign state. I would say despite all this, our relationship remains vital, remains strong, (and) mutually supportive. Of course, there will be issues from time to time. But both Prime Minister Anwar and my own Prime Minister, have emphasised that these long-standing issues can be resolved, hopefully, comprehensively. There is a good window of opportunity to do so now with the current batch of leaders on both sides of the causeway. Both countries can look forward to the future with confidence. 

Zunaira Saieed (ST): Was the revival of HSR (High Speed Rail) discussed during your meeting?

Minister: No, we did not discuss that. We focused on the RTS, the Rapid Transit System that will connect Johor to Singapore. That will be a significant boost for people and workers on both sides of the Straits of Johor. It will provide for 10,000 passengers every hour. So far, based on my discussions with the ministers in Malaysia, they have assured me that they are going all out to ensure that we can meet the deadline of it being completed by the end of 2026. So, that is something to look forward to.

Other projects, we will wait for proposals from Malaysia, and we will keep an open mind. We are on the lookout for new projects or additional projects, which are of mutual benefit to both countries. 

Zunaira Saieed (ST): Mr. Anwar is also coming down at the end of this month.

Minister: Yes, we are looking forward to that. Our prime ministers have already been in contact with one another over the phone, but nothing beats a face-to-face meeting between two old friends. There will be significant discussions which will set the stage, set the agenda, and set the timetable for the respective ministers to follow up.

Zunaira Saieed (ST): What kind of issues will be discussed?

Minister: Connectivity, some long standing issues, which we think are ripe for resolution, hopefully, and opportunities for the future in both the digital and green economy space. I expect it will be a very useful, significant meeting. As I said, it will set the agenda, set a timetable for the ministers and the respective ministries to follow up.

Tan Si Hui (CNA): Malaysia has had a new prime minister many times and this is the fourth Prime Minister in the last three years. Any concerns from Singapore (about) the projects that are still in the middle of construction, any concerns about that? Because there may be political turmoil in the coming years or even coming months?

Minister: The dynamics of the politics in Malaysia is something for Malaysian citizens to resolve. As a close, interdependent neighbour, what we hope for is stability, continuity and consistency in policy so that we can continue our projects. I have engaged five prime ministers from Malaysia in the last five, six years. But the fact that all of the Prime Ministers are familiar figures, the fact that the long-term interests of our two countries are intertwined and aligned. Yes, from time to time, the projects will have to be reviewed. So long as the projects make economic sense, makes strategic sense for the long term and are sustainable, I would expect to see significant progress. (For) the current configuration, Prime Minister Anwar has emphasised to me that he has a significant majority, and he expects to be able to deliver on his commitments and to pursue ambitious negotiations with goodwill and good faith. I am optimistic.

Mohammad Noor Abdul Rahman (Berita Harian): Now that Malaysia has a new government under Anwar Ibrahim, what are the new areas that Singapore and Malaysia can work on to strengthen the bilateral ties?

Minister: First, I want to reflect that even on the so-called “old” areas (such as) trade; we continue to be the second largest trading partner with each other, and trade has continued to grow even during COVID. On investments, Singapore remains one of the top investors and continues to look for opportunities to invest in Malaysia. I would add Malaysia also invests in Singapore; so it is a two-way, bilateral, productive, constructive account. 

What we are looking for in new areas, particularly in the green economy as I said just now – renewable energy, carbon capture, carbon markets – both countries need to transform our economies and to prepare to do our part as global citizens to reduce climate change, to reduce our carbon footprint. I think this is an area where (our) two countries are very synergistic. Malaysia has land, has resources, has energy. For us, we clearly will be a buyer on global carbon markets. I think that is an opportunity for both Malaysia and Singapore. 

Similarly, as we move into the digital age and the fourth Industrial Revolution, semiconductors, artificial intelligence, these are very fertile areas where mutual investments, mutual support and creating an ecosystem of interoperability between Malaysia and Singapore will be very productive for the future. 

There is quite a lot to pursue, but the important point is that we are now, I believe, at the stage at which the old emotional baggage has dissipated. We still have experienced, senior leaders on both sides with goodwill and the sensitivity to negotiate in good faith, arrive hopefully at agreements which will be supported by the people on both sides. I believe that the people of Singapore and the people of Malaysia want us to have good relations. Having settled, hopefully, the old issues, we can also look forward with greater confidence to the future, and to the new opportunities that both the digital and the green revolutions offer us. 

Nam Yunzhou (LHZB): First, can I just confirm that PM Anwar will be visiting Singapore later this month, and that President Halimah will be making a State Visit in March?


Minister: I can confirm both of those (visits), but for the dates, we will confirm with you later. But both visits are imminent.


Nam Yunzhou (LHZB): Right. So, the question that I have will be what is going to be on the agenda when both leaders meet? Also, you mentioned that there are some sensitive issues between both countries. In particular, Pedra Branca comes to mind. How would Singapore view PM Anwar’s comments on Pedra Branca? What effect will this have on bilateral relations?


Minister: Like I said, these are not new issues. But clearly, there is going to be quite a lot of conversations that will go on behind the scenes. I am not going to give you details right now. But what I am saying is that you have leaders on both sides who are keenly aware of both the historical background as well as why we should resolve things and move forward. I am confident in the next few weeks and months, you will see significant progress. I cannot get into details of the negotiation right now, except to say that I am hopeful that we will make progress. The objective is to make as much progress as possible, and not let us be held hostage to the past. Let us be able to look forward to the future with confidence, good faith, and mutual support. To emphasise the point that the past three years of COVID-19, in fact, was a confidence booster for our bilateral relations – that we stood by each other, we supported each other. I can share with you the number of phone calls, video conferences, messages, and not just at ministerial level but at (the level of) permanent secretaries, civil servants, technical agencies. All this gives me confidence that we know what needs to be done, and there is goodwill, good faith, and (there is) commitment on both sides to make it work. I am hopeful, and I am very pleased with this visit. I want to thank the Malaysian government for giving me such full access.



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