Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at MFA’s Committee of Supply Debate, 27 February 2023

27 February 2023



1. Mr Chairman, 2022 was a very busy year; we handled close to 200 incoming and outgoing visits. We expect an even higher tempo in the year ahead, and especially with more countries reopening their borders. The demand for consular services will intensify as more Singaporeans travel overseas, and they sometimes get into trouble. But more critically, the world has become much more complex, with a perfect storm of multiple interlocking crises in the military, security, economic, public health, climate, technological and socio-political domains. The global order which has served us so well for the past six decades is under severe strain. 

2. Mr Henry Kwek asked how our foreign policy should adapt to these evolving trends. Let me highlight four points. First, foreign policy begins at home. I think the Leader of Opposition also agrees with that. If we are not united and successful as a thriving, vital city state in the heart of Southeast Asia, we will quickly become irrelevant to the world. I am also gratified that if you listen to all the speeches by the PAP MPs, the Opposition, and Nominated MPs, and in fact, if you all exchanged your speeches, it would not be noticeable. This speaks well to the consensus on foreign policy in Singapore. Second, our foreign policy must be based on a clear-eyed understanding of Singapore’s long-term national interests and our vulnerabilities in a volatile and dangerous world. We refuse to be a vassal state that can be bullied or bought. We will not be a proxy or a stalking horse for any superpower. We will uphold principles but we will not choose sides. For instance, our principled position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which in fact has just marked its first grim anniversary, illustrates this point. We defend the right of all nations, big or small, to have their sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity fully respected. Third, we must continue to make common cause with as many countries as possible by building overlapping circles of friends. The innermost circle obviously consists of our immediate neighbours and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Fourth point, we must always uphold international law, rules-based multilateralism, and the avenues of peaceful resolution of disputes – precisely because we are a tiny city state.

Key Relationships – US-China Competition


3.  Let me now deal with the questions on US-China competition which I believe Mr Vikram Nair, Ms Tin Pei Ling, Ms Janet Ang, and Leader of the Opposition have asked about the impact of the difficult and complicated US-China relationship on our region and on Singapore. This represents a fundamental deficit of strategic trust, rooted in incompatible worldviews and aggravated by their respective domestic political pressures. Both sides wish to avoid conflict but neither side can afford to be seen as weak. The “balloon incident” reflected this dynamic. It exacerbated suspicions and tensions amidst strong domestic reactions on both sides. The incident was a setback to the interactions between the US and China. But I am glad that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and State Councilor Wang Yi did meet in Munich earlier this month. It shows that both sides recognise the necessity for dialogue and diplomacy, especially in times like this. 

4.  Effective communication between the US and China is vital to manage the risks in global affairs. Both sides need to establish guardrails, as hardened, negative views against the other side increasingly become structural features of geopolitical discourse in both the US and China. For example, there is a growing body of opinion within China that the US is a superpower in terminal decline, which is determined to contain China’s rise at all costs. In the US, there has also been a deep shift in attitudes towards China. The US believes that China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective”. It is now a settled bipartisan US view that China’s rising power is inimical to American interests and values.

5. Both sides are now locked in intense and sharpening strategic competition across multiple domains. The US has identified computing-related technologies, biotech, and clean tech as force multipliers throughout the technological ecosystem, and emphasised leadership in each of these arenas as a national security imperative. Consequently, the US has decided it needs to maintain as large a lead as possible over China in these fields. To this end, the US is implementing systematic measures, including export restrictions on advanced semiconductor technology. There are, in fact, ongoing discussions about an outbound investment screening mechanism. On its part, China is determined to achieve greater self-reliance and to prevent itself from being held to ransom. It is progressively onshoring segments of its supply chains in the tech sector. Collectively, these moves by both sides increase the danger of a grand bifurcation in the technological and economic systems, a deepening of tensions, and elevation of mutual suspicions – and these have profound implications for the rest of the world.

6.  There is a real risk that the steps taken by the US and China to reduce their mutual interdependence will adversely affect the global economy and Singapore will not escape such spill-over consequences. Our open economy is highly dependent on doing business with the entire world, and we have benefitted greatly from being a vital node in globalised supply chains. The US is the largest foreign investor in Singapore and our top trading partner for services. But we are also one of the largest investors in China, which is our top trading partner in goods. If the US and China get along, then Singapore will be ideally positioned to prosper. On the other hand, if things go wrong between them, these strengths can quickly turn into vulnerabilities for Singapore.

7.  The Taiwan Strait has become a more dangerous flashpoint. For China, Taiwan is a part of China, and Taiwanese independence is an absolute red line. However, to the US and some other western countries, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy that they need to protect, just like Ukraine, which in fact is different because Ukraine is an independent country and a member of the UN (United Nations). Meanwhile in Taiwan, more and more people are identifying themselves as exclusively Taiwanese. Whilst neither the US nor China seek a military conflict over Taiwan, the fact is that missteps or mishaps can easily trigger a cycle of tit-for-tat actions and reactions that spiral dangerously out of control. A conflict over Taiwan will have global repercussions, and a much more direct impact on Singapore than the ongoing war in Ukraine. Not only is Taiwan much closer to us geographically, but our ties with the US, China, and Taiwan are much stronger and deeper compared to our ties with Russia and Ukraine. 

8.  We have repeatedly stressed to both the US and China that Singapore and indeed the countries in our region want to maintain good relations with both countries. We do not wish to be forced to choose sides. We participate in multiple initiatives that have overlapping memberships, but do not always include both parties. For instance, whether you talk about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or the Global Development Initiative. We have always put Singapore’s national interest first and we take principled positions impartially, even if it does not always please one or the other superpower. We need the quiet confidence and the national unity to do so consistently for the long term. Given the grave implications for the world, we, like most countries, hope that the US and China work out a modus vivendi between themselves. SMS Sim Ann will elaborate on our cooperation with both the US and with China later.

Our Immediate Neighbours - Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei



9. Let me now turn to our immediate neighbours: Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei. We continue to strengthen our relations with all three countries.


10. Mr Vikram Nair asked about the significance of the Expanded Framework agreements with Indonesia. It is noteworthy that Singapore and Indonesia recently completed our respective domestic legal processes for the formal ratification of these three agreements under the Expanded Framework, namely the Flight Information Region (FIR) agreement, Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA), and the Extradition Treaty (ET). For the FIR Agreement, the next step is for Singapore and Indonesia to jointly seek approval from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and once the FIR Agreement is ready for implementation, both sides will arrange for all three agreements to enter into force simultaneously, on a mutually-agreed date.  


11. These three agreements will bring tangible benefits to both our countries. Under the FIR Agreement, Indonesia will delegate to Singapore the provision of air navigation services in portions of the airspace which are within the realigned Jakarta FIR which are nearest to Singapore. This will ensure that the present and future air traffic to Changi Airport and nearby Indonesian airports continue to be managed safely and efficiently. The DCA will enhance cooperation and interaction between our two military forces. It will provide clarity for the SAF’s (Singapore Armed Forces) training in Indonesian archipelagic and territorial waters and airspace, on a basis that fully respects Indonesia’s sovereignty over its territory, whilst preserving Singapore’s rights under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). Finally, the ET will strengthen cooperation between our law enforcement agencies to combat crime, and to complement our existing cooperation with Indonesia. Taken together, the resolution of these three longstanding issues paves the way for us to advance our bilateral cooperation significantly in the years ahead. 


12. We look forward to welcoming President Joko Widodo to Singapore soon for the next Singapore-Indonesia Leaders’ Retreat. And this will be a good opportunity for our leaders to build on the strong progress in the bilateral relationship.


13. Mr Don Wee and Ms Sylvia Lim asked about our relations with Malaysia. Our close relations with Malaysia are underpinned by strong people-to-people ties and frequent high-level exchanges. Prime Minister (PM) Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister after their 15th General Election. PM Anwar is an old friend of Singapore. Many Singaporean Ministers have known our Malaysian counterparts in fact for decades, and we have kept in regular contact. At the end of January, we welcomed PM Anwar on his introductory visit to Singapore. His delegation included four Ministers, the Sarawak Premier, and the Johor Menteri Besar. 


14. It was a fruitful visit. We signed three G-to-G MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding): the Framework Agreements on Digital and Green Economy, as well as the MOU on Personal Data Protection, Cybersecurity and Digital Economy. And these signal our commitment to work on new and emerging areas of mutual interest.


15. We look forward to welcoming PM Anwar back to Singapore later this year for the 10th Leaders’ Retreat. Meanwhile, we also have significant ongoing cooperation projects, including the Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Singapore and Johor Bahru. This project will facilitate more convenient two-way travel for the tens of thousands who cross the border every day. It is making good progress and is expected to commence operations by the end of 2026.  


16. However, as with any friendship, problems will arise from time to time. For example, whilst the issue of sovereignty over Pedra Branca has been conclusively settled, Malaysia has raised objections to Singapore’s development works at Pedra Branca. These works are needed to enhance maritime safety and security and to improve the search and rescue capabilities in that area. They also ensure that Pedra Branca is adequately protected against the threat of sea-level rise. Let me assure you that these development works are fully in accordance with international law and Singapore’s sovereignty over the island and its waters.


17. Nevertheless, in the spirit of mutual cooperation and good faith, we temporarily suspended the works in May 2022, to facilitate discussions on Malaysia’s concerns and to comprehensively address Malaysia’s queries. In December 2022, Singapore put forward proposals to Malaysia to resolve the issue and to move forward with the work. Subsequently, we agreed to Malaysia’s request for more time for them to consider our clarifications and proposals. Presently, the development work remains paused due to the monsoon season. We will manage our differences constructively and pragmatically and not allow any single issue to overshadow the entire relationship. 


18. With Brunei, our unique, longstanding, special relationship remains strong and mutually beneficial. We continue to sustain a good momentum of bilateral exchanges. Last year, we were honoured to welcome His Majesty Sultan Bolkiah on his 5th State Visit to Singapore, and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Billah for the 8th Singapore-Brunei Young Leaders’ Programme. PM Lee attended His Majesty’s 76th birthday celebration in July last year, and Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Lawrence Wong visited Brunei at the start of this year. DPM called on the Sultan and the Crown Prince, and had productive meetings with many Bruneian Ministers. We look forward to working with Brunei to expand our cooperation in emerging areas such as the green economy, agri-tech, and energy. Second Minister Maliki will elaborate further on these areas of cooperation subsequently.

Strengthening the Regional Architecture – ASEAN


19. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked about our efforts to deepen cooperation between ASEAN and the US as well as our regional neighbours. Singapore has always advocated engaging major players so that they all have a stake in the peace, stability, and development of our region, and can create a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific. This provides small countries like Singapore more room for manoeuvre than if there was only a single power dominating our region. Naturally, we do not want the major powers to make Asia their battleground or conduct proxy wars here. Instead, we want them to be engaged constructively – politically and economically – so as to enhance regional cooperation, development, and security. This will benefit all countries, big and small, in our region. 

20. This is why Singapore seeks to forge overlapping circles of friends as embodied in the open, inclusive, and ASEAN-centred regional architecture. ASEAN-led mechanisms like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Plus Three, and the Plus-One summits bring major powers including the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, the EU (European Union), and Australia to the same table, convened by ASEAN. Our external partners also want to do more with ASEAN. Last year ASEAN upgraded its relations with the US and India to Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships, after doing the same with China and Australia the year before. ASEAN also signed the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement with the EU in October 2022. We therefore welcome the interest of major powers to take clear stakes in our region and in our prosperity, and to engage ASEAN on our own merits.

21. For this to work, ASEAN must remain united, coherent, and credible. Mr Gerald Giam asked if we are looking at alternative options for decision making when consensus is difficult or hindered. The need for consensus is in fact a design feature, it is not a bug, precisely because of the great diversity within ASEAN. No other regional association has the level of diversity that ASEAN represents. Nevertheless, the ASEAN Charter does provide for decision making at the Leaders’ level, even if there are profound political problems in a member state. For example, we have not allowed the coup in Myanmar to paralyse ASEAN or to hold the rest of us hostage. 

22. As ASEAN Chair this year, Indonesia has an ambitious agenda to step up ASEAN integration in key areas including the green economy and digital field. In particular, the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement promotes our economic integration and growth. Singapore has also committed to assisting Timor-Leste in its accession to ASEAN membership, which is to be achieved through an objective, criteria-based roadmap. We urge other ASEAN Member States and our external partners to similarly support Timor-Leste. Singapore will work closely with and support Indonesia in fulfilling its priorities as Chair this year.

23. Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about the outlook in Myanmar and ASEAN’s role. Two years after the coup in Myanmar, the situation remains grave and grim. Singapore and ASEAN remain deeply disappointed with the lack of progress in the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus. We will not interfere in the domestic politics in Myanmar. But the solution must ultimately involve national reconciliation amongst all the domestic stakeholders living there. This will not be easy to achieve.

Upholding Multilateralism/Seizing New Opportunities 


24.  Mr Liang Eng Hwa asked about the continued relevance of multilateralism. As a small state, the observance of international law is vital for our sovereignty and independence. But the fact remains that we live in an increasingly fragmented world, with the erosion of shared rules for the global commons, and more frequent resort to unilateral action. It is therefore even more important for Singapore to strongly advocate adherence to international law and to actively contribute to shaping global norms.


25.  Mr Alex Yam asked about the implications of the war in Ukraine. Let me state for the record: Russia’s invasion is a clear and egregious violation of international law and the UN Charter. The UN Charter enshrines the core principles of peaceful settlement of disputes, the non-use of force, and non-interference in a country’s internal affairs. Russia’s invasion sets a very dangerous precedent that jeopardises the security and existence of small states, and especially small states like us. 


26.  There are many other pressing global challenges such as food security, emerging diseases, and threats in cyberspace that all require collective action. The most salient and urgent is climate change, and which Singapore is particularly sensitive to this as an alternative energy-disadvantaged and low-lying island state.


27.  Singapore must continue advocating for multilateralism and globalisation, and support for the UN. We do our part to contribute to the multilateral governance of the global commons. We are helping to develop fair, inclusive, and well-functioning global carbon markets. Singapore has been co-facilitating Article 6 negotiations on developing carbon markets at the Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), and concluded carbon market collaboration agreements with Ghana, Peru, and Papua New Guinea at COP-27 (27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) last year. 


28.  We have a significant role in developing international oceans law, as well as new global norms in cyberspace and even in outer space. Ambassador Rena Lee serves as the President of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Intergovernmental Conference, which aims to enhance the sustainable use of our maritime global commons. Singapore, represented by our Permanent Representative to the UN Mr Burhan Gafoor, chairs the UN Open-ended Working Group on security of and in the use of information and communications technologies, to build a safe and secure cyberspace for all. Singaporeans are also taking the lead in other international organisations. Mr Daren Tang serves as Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation – this is the first time a Singaporean has led a UN agency, whilst Mr Raja Kumar serves as the President of the Financial Action Task Force – he also happens to be the first Singaporean to have assumed this role.


29.  Strategic and geopolitical tensions are also undermining the multilateral trading system. Singapore depends on a stable, functioning, and free international trading system to make our living, centred around a common set of rules for all. Remember, our trade volume is three times our GDP. So, we do need to continue to uphold such a system as embodied and represented by the World Trade Organisation. We also diversify our trade relationships through regional agreements such as the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) – that is ASEAN plus China, Australia, New Zealand, the ROK (Republic of Korea), and Japan. We have also substantially concluded negotiations for the Mercosur-Singapore FTA (Free Trade Agreement), and we have also signed on the Pacific Alliance-Singapore FTA. Mind you, all these have been signed during the last couple of years when there was a pushback against globalisation and against free trade, and in fact with the world being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But we have been able to double down on the cause of free trade.


30.  So, we will need to continue to seize opportunities in global integration and also seize opportunities in emerging areas like the digital economy and sustainability. We have concluded Digital Economy Agreements with several like-minded partners. For instance, we have signed the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, or “DEPA” for short, with Chile and New Zealand, and in fact right now this agreement with only three small countries – Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore – we are now reviewing accession requests from the ROK, China, Canada, and Costa Rica.


31.  We signed the landmark Singapore-Australia Green Economy Agreement in October 2022, the first-of-its-kind agreement that will facilitate trade and investment in environmentally sustainable goods and services, and such collaborations are crucial as we work towards keeping Singapore sustainable and economically vibrant.

Conclusion: Realism and Quiet Confidence 


32.  Let me conclude. We are entering a period of intense superpower rivalry, global economic disruption, and looming climate change, and all these within a more fragmented, turbulent world. It is worth recalling the words of Mr Lee Kuan Yew: “We have to live with the world as it is, and not as we wish it should be.” Singapore and Singaporeans must approach all these challenges with a combination of realism and quiet confidence. Do not underestimate the external dangers, but neither be overwhelmed by them. We do have significant strengths. We are one of the few countries whose unity has in fact strengthened after the pandemic, and that is why there is strong interest from businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs from elsewhere queuing up to come to Singapore and plug into our ecosystem. They recognise and appreciate the stability and consistency with which we run our affairs, both internally and externally, and this reputation for consistency and stability, and high levels of public trust and unity provides us with the strength and the resilience to manage our foreign policy challenges in a very hazardous world. 

33.  Thank you. 

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