Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Post-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat Doorstop Interview in Indonesia with Singapore Media, 4 February 2023

04 February 2023

Minister: Good afternoon, everyone. We have just concluded the first ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting for this year, chaired by Indonesia. I will start off by making remarks on three themes. First, on Timor-Leste; second, Myanmar; and then more specific details on the ASEAN agenda itself. 


First, what made this meeting different was the participation, for the first time, of Timor-Leste as an observer. You may recall that our leaders gave in-principle approval for Timor-Leste’s (ASEAN) membership, and they are in the process of transiting through an objective, criteria-based roadmap. On a bilateral basis, I reassured the foreign minister of Timor-Leste that Singapore stands in full support. In particular, we have got an ASEAN Readiness Support package for Timor-Leste, basically to help them enhance their capability, human resource development, as well as both diplomatic and economic tools so that Timor-Leste eventually can participate fully in all the responsibilities and obligations of ASEAN membership. Their presence at this first meeting was important. I think they were very pleased to have this chance.


The next topic, which consumed a fair amount of bandwidth, obviously is the situation in Myanmar. Unfortunately, it is not getting better. In fact, our ground reports indicated that the situation may actually be worsening. Within ASEAN itself, we reaffirmed the importance (of) the centrality of the Five-Point Consensus that our leaders agreed upon, in April 2021, here in Jakarta in this very building. I think it is worth emphasising that there will be no resolution unless there is an honest to goodness attempt at national reconciliation. The violence must stop, political detainees need to be released. In particular, President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi need to be released. That is an essential prerequisite for national reconciliation to occur amongst all the stakeholders. On the part of ASEAN, Indonesia is Chair and now taking over as Special Envoy. It is committed to continue to try to engage all stakeholders. I think this is critical. Without the participation and active engagement of all stakeholders, you are not going to get peace, you are not going to get national reconciliation. So, we will have to wait and see. One key point which we all emphasised is that the rate limiting factor for progress is not ASEAN – it is really the stakeholders within Myanmar itself. So, we will have to wait and see. But on our part, ASEAN will do our best to facilitate, encourage, promote, and also in the meantime, do our best to deliver humanitarian assistance because we know that many people in Myanmar are actually suffering.


The next area that we focused on is ASEAN itself. We start first from an optimistic position. This is a bustling, dynamic region – 661 million people, (and) 60% of us in ASEAN are below the age of 35. The combined GDP is at US$ 3 trillion but in fact, it is set to double within the next two decades. If we succeed in that, ASEAN, as a whole, will become the fourth largest economy in the world. We start with great potential.


The more specific pillars which we are focusing on – first, the digital pillar. We are looking at advancing negotiations on the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework (Agreement). What this means is internally, first, enhancing digital literacy in our population. Next, improving digital connectivity between our countries. Further, to enable cross-border flows of data because that is an essential element of a digital economy. The purpose of all these ultimately, is to integrate our digital economies to enhance opportunities in an inclusive way for both big and small businesses, as well as our external partners who want to participate in harvesting the many bountiful opportunities that the digital economy provides for Southeast Asia. Ultimately, what we should see as part of digital integration is further interoperability of our systems. For instance, digital payment systems, trade facilitation, customs clearance, and all the other elements and ultimately, (to) also create within ASEAN, an atmosphere that promotes start-ups, entrepreneurship, and innovation. On digital economy, there is a lot going on, and it is an area replete with opportunities.


The next pillar that we looked at within ASEAN is the green economy. All of us need to decarbonise or at least reduce the carbon footprint of all our economies, and in particular, to help facilitate the transition towards renewable energy. One particular project, the power integration project (involving) Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, which has already begun – we really hope that this will be a pathfinder, ultimately, to an ASEAN energy grid. If we look at Southeast Asia as a whole, there is more than enough energy resources, and in particular, renewable energy. But getting the connectivity, getting policy frameworks, getting the bilateral and multilateral arrangements that will bring us across the threshold into a vibrant green economy for ASEAN – it is a very tantalising prospect.


The other area which we are looking at is what we call the blue economy. This is about the sustainable, resilient approach to using, conserving, and developing our maritime resources. This is important because so much of Southeast Asia has a great maritime heritage and resource, and developing this in an inclusive, fair, sustainable, and resilient way is crucial. It is another engine, another area replete with opportunities. So, looking at the digital, green economy and blue economy – our homework is set for us.


We of course, also reviewed developments beyond our region. In particular, the fact that the hot war in Europe, in Ukraine is still on, (and) the superpower rivalry between (the) US and China still continues. Our pitch to the larger world and to ASEAN’s external partners is – look at ASEAN, look at Southeast Asia, on our own merits and not just as another proxy arena for contest, but on our merits. 


In particular, in Southeast Asia, what we are interested in is trade and investment. We hope that all our external partners that I have named: US, China, Europe and beyond look to Southeast Asia as an arena where they can invest, where they can trade and in a non-binary, non-exclusive manner; because our organising principle is overlapping circle of friends.


It has been a very useful first meeting to kick off the year. We will see how things develop. There will always be surprises in the way the events unfold.


Hariz Baharudin (ST): My question is on Timor-Leste: you mentioned it earlier, but I wanted to ask you a bit more about it. This has been the first meeting they are attending, and the first they have been attending after they have been granted observer status. Your thoughts about their presence in these ASEAN meetings and what this means for the bloc? Also, what the reaction has been from the other ASEAN ministers, your counterparts, and how Timor-Leste has added onto ASEAN?

Minister: It is significant that they are here, participating as an Observer and having full access to all the ASEAN discussions and topics of interest. Just that presence is important.

Second, in terms of reception, I think everyone is fully supportive of their full participation. We look forward ultimately to their full membership. But membership of ASEAN carries with it heavy responsibilities and obligations. I think Timor-Leste is also now getting a better and deeper appreciation of just how heavy that load of responsibilities and obligations will be. I would say that everyone is welcoming them, but we know that it is quite a steep climb up that hill. Certainly, in the case of Singapore, we are fully committed to helping Timor-Leste climb that hill, and to have the capacity to fulfill all the obligations and responsibilities.

Tan Min-Wei (Mothership): We were wanting to ask whether the crisis in Myanmar was affecting ASEAN unity, particularly with a fear that there might be different opinions on how to handle the situation, and whether blocs might emerge from that?

Minister: Let me address that head-on. I think all of us are acutely aware of the need to maintain ASEAN unity. I would start off by saying that the way the crisis unfolds in Myanmar, and the impact. For instance, if things get far worse and you get heavy flows of refugees, obviously it affects the immediate neighbours more than it affects those who are further away. To say that there are different levels of anxiety and concern is a fair statement. Having said that, and I can tell you that I can tell you that we discussed this quite directly amongst each other, (and) we also agreed that there is a need to maintain ASEAN unity and certain common purpose. What we agreed on is that that we all double down on the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus. We are all completely united in our calls for cessation of violence, for national reconciliation, for the need to engage all stakeholders, and on the need to continue to support people of Myanmar through the delivery of humanitarian assistance. To summarise, there may be different emphasis on concerns, but there is certainly unity, and a common purpose in affirming and in fulfilling and implementing the ASEAN leaders Five-Point Consensus.

Leong Wai Kit (CNA): You mentioned that neighbouring countries may be concerned about the overflow of refugees. And this is quite in line with what UN Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzer has said. She has been rallying for ASEAN to do something together to give them better protection. Can I ask Minister, what do you think Singapore can do in that respect? She also mentioned that within that framework, there is also a possibility of a violence monitoring system. How do you envision such a system to be such that it can reduce the violence there?

Minister: I would take a step back and say the most important thing is to stop the violence internally, to begin the process of national reconciliation, for everyone within Myanmar to sit at the same table as equals and to have sincere dialogue. Let us not lose sight of the critical importance of that. If that can be achieved, or at least make progress starting that process, I think that will lower the temperature, it will lower the level of violence and certainly lower the probability of outflow of refugees. That must still be our focus. Having said that, I do not know how long it will take before we reach that. We do need to be acutely aware of the humanitarian (aspect) and to the extent that we can deliver the assistance within Myanmar in a fair, open, transparent and inclusive way also will help to ensure that people do not need to leave Myanmar to seek safety, security and the necessities of life. These are areas in which ASEAN can help in concrete ways and we will continue to look for opportunities. But I must emphasise we do need the military authorities to cooperate in this process as well. It is an area of ongoing work.

Yun Zhou (LHZB): I would like to draw your attention to the broader region which ASEAN is situated. Just yesterday, Secretary Blinken announced that that he will be postponing his visit to Beijing after the US detected a Chinese surveillance balloon in their airspace. I would like to get your thoughts on what bearing will these developments have for Sino-US relations and for ASEAN, how does it see itself maintaining agency and centrality between the two superpowers?

Minister: I think it is a pity that this long-anticipated visit by Secretary Blinken to Beijing has been postponed. It illustrates how easy it is for unexpected incidents – in this case, it was a balloon that was drifting across continental United States – how easy it is for unexpected incidents to derail scheduled occasions for meetings and engagement. And this is why ASEAN is paying such close attention to the fraught relationship between the US and China. Speaking from a Southeast Asian perspective, the more they engage, the more they meet, the more open lines of communications, the better. It reduces misunderstanding.

Hopefully both sides exercise sufficient self-restraint and reduce the prospects of such incidents. Even as we saw in December, two aircrafts the J11 aircraft from the Chinese Air Force and the US reconnaissance – the RC135 came within 6 metres of each other. The less there are of such incidents, which bring with them risks – both known risks and unknown risks – the better. We need less of them. We hope that in the medium term, at least, the US and China can achieve a modus vivendi.

From a Southeast Asian perspective, not only do we hope that they achieve a modus vivendi, we want them to engage us on our own merits and not through the prism of rivalry between the two superpowers. Our clear and consistent message to both the US and China is that trade and investment is strategy in Southeast Asia. That is what we are looking for. Southeast Asia is replete with opportunities for more trade (and) more investments by both China and the US. This is not a zero-sum game. It is one in which, the more both sides and Europe are engaged with Southeast Asia, the more opportunities – truly a win-win formulation for everyone. That is the message which we are trying to convey, and of course, our hope that they do achieve a modus vivendi and overcome this current danger of actions – sometimes deliberate, sometimes unintended, leading into an escalatory spiral of action, reaction, and unnecessarily raising temperature.


Again, it is just a reminder that the world is not in a settled, calm condition. There are still many things that can go wrong in the course of the next year or two. We all need to be vigilant, careful, and to focus both on dealing with immediate problems, whilst also expanding opportunities for the medium and long term.


All in all, ASEAN remains relevant. ASEAN maintaining unity and centrality is crucial. I would say, from this meeting at least, the sense of the interactions with my colleagues, is that everyone recognises this, and that is positive. But bear in mind the fact that globally, we are still living in a dangerous world and there are many things that can go wrong – collisions and bumps in the night. You just need to be careful. But remember that there are great prospects for growth in Southeast Asia.


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