1. Mr Chairman, in Mandarin please.
2. 林伟杰、洪月霞和颜添宝议员提及新中关系的前景。新中关系保持良好态势，两国之间不断地深化合作及巩固独特的 “与时俱进的全方位合作伙伴关系”。作为两国之间级别最高的合作机制，新中双边联委会 (JCBC) 也继续发挥作用，反映新中合作的广度和深度。在去年的第18届新中联委会，两国达成19项成果，囊括卫生、可持续发展、绿色经济、旅游、贸易安全等领域。我们在苏州、天津和重庆的政府间合作项目不仅经受住时间的考验，而且不断自我革新，以支持两国的发展重点。今年适逢天津生态城开发15周年， 正是两国更新合作策略的好时机。我们在数码经济、绿色经济、以及电子商务领域的深化合作将加强两国之间的数字连通性、促进进一步的商业合作、迈向更可持续的未来。 正是本着这种前瞻性的精神，新中双边关系可以不断增强，惠及人民及企业。
[English Translation: Mr Lim Wee Kiak, Ms Janet Ang, and Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked about the outlook for Singapore-China relations. Singapore-China relations remain excellent. We have kept up our uniquely defined “All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times”. Our apex bilateral cooperation platform, the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), continues to reflect the breadth and depth of Singapore-China cooperation. We concluded 19 deliverables spanning health, sustainability, green finance, tourism, trade security and others at the 18th JCBC last year. Our signature Government-to-Government projects in Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing have not only withstood the test of time, but also continued to reinvent themselves in support of both our countries’ development priorities. We will leverage the 15th anniversary of the Tianjin Eco City this year to refresh our cooperation. Our deepening cooperation in the digital and green economies, as well as on e-commerce, will increase digital connectivity between our countries, foster further business cooperation and better position us for a more sustainable future. It is with this forward-looking spirit that our bilateral relations continue to grow from strength to strength and bring benefits to our peoples and enterprises.
[English Translation: There is good engagement between our leaderships. Over the past year, President Halimah and PM Lee Hsien Loong, respectively, had good in-person meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Last week, I joined Minister Vivian on his visit to China. We also welcomed several delegations from China, most notably, Vice Premier Han Zheng for the 18th JCBC. Such engagements allow us to reconnect in-person with our Chinese friends, which is necessary to build and strengthen trust. With China adjusting its pandemic management approach, we believe that we would be able to resume in-person exchanges and visits. We look forward to catching up with old friends, building ties with the new Chinese leadership and further strengthening bilateral relations.]
4. Mr Chairman, please allow me to continue in English.
5. Ms Janet Ang asked what could be done to strengthen bilateral engagements with the US. Singapore-US relations are also excellent. Prime Minister visited the US twice last year – in March for a bilateral visit and in May for the ASEAN-US Special Summit hosted by President Joe Biden. Several Cabinet colleagues have also made visits to the US. In Singapore, we hosted visits by key members of the Biden Administration last year, including four Cabinet members Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai. We also hosted visits by Members of Congress, including one led by then-US Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The intensity of engagements reflects the breadth and depth of our bilateral relationship.
6. Greater engagement with the US will benefit not just Singapore but also our region. That is why Singapore participates actively in the US’ Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Singapore is working closely with the US and other IPEF members to develop an open, inclusive, and flexible framework that brings tangible benefits for our workers, businesses, and communities. The US is the chair of APEC this year and has chosen the theme of “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All”, to build a more interconnected, innovative, and inclusive APEC region.
7. Beyond China and the US, Singapore is also deepening our collaboration with many other like-minded partners. Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Ms Joan Pereira asked about our plans to strengthen cooperation with other countries and partners such as Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the UK, the EU, and Latin America, and with emerging markets such as those in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Islands.
8. High-level exchanges were frequent with Japan and the Republic of Korea in 2022. President Halimah attended the inauguration ceremony of ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol, while Prime Minister made two working visits to Japan. We also welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s first Official Visit to Singapore. Digitalisation is a recurrent theme in our cooperation with Japan and the ROK. Singapore and Japan signed two Memoranda of Cooperation (MOC) covering issues such as Artificial Intelligence, cybersecurity and digital government transformation. The Korea-Singapore Digital Partnership Agreement entered into force this January. We will continue to deepen bilateral cooperation with both Japan and the ROK.
9. Relations with the UK and EU are underpinned by strong economic ties and our common commitment to supporting free trade and a rules-based international order. We have FTAs with both the UK and the EU. We are enhancing connectivity in the digital realm. For example, our Digital Economy Agreement with the UK entered into force last year and we signed a Digital Partnership Agreement with the EU earlier this month. Looking ahead, we will sign a Green Economy Framework with the UK next month, and we are also working towards launching negotiations on a Singapore-UK Investment Protection Agreement. As the gateway to the region, Singapore can play an active role to promote greater collaboration between Europe and Southeast Asia. We welcome Europe’s interest to engage our region, including through initiatives like its €10 billion package for ASEAN under the EU’s Global Gateway Initiative.
10. With Latin America, we have concluded negotiations for an FTA with Mercosur and signed an FTA with the Pacific Alliance. Both FTAs represent significant new opportunities for us to engage the fifth and eighth largest economic markets in the world respectively. We are also pursuing other forward-looking initiatives with partners in Latin America, such as on the digital economy, food security and carbon credits collaboration. The latter will help us meet our Nationally Determined Contributions, while bringing sustainable development benefits and facilitating technology collaboration. To deepen our engagement of Latin America, Singapore reopened our Honorary Consulate-General in Lima, Peru and will open a new Honorary Consulate in Bogotá, Colombia.
11. While some parts of South Asia experienced setbacks last year, long-term growth prospects for the region are positive. In 2022, we welcomed official visits from the Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. We will continue to build on the warm ties to deepen our collaboration in areas such as food security, infrastructure development, the digital economy and connectivity.
12. We have seen an uptick in our engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa. Prime Minister made his first official visit to Rwanda last June in conjunction with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. In Kigali, Prime Minister announced the three-year Singapore Africa Partnership Package (SAPP), offering customised courses for African officials to address their development priorities in areas such as climate change, digitalisation, and smart cities. Africa has emerged as an engine of growth, and we will do more to engage the continent with 1.4 billion people. In addition, Singapore will deepen our engagement of the South Pacific and we look forward to attending the Pacific Islands Forum later this year as a newly-admitted Dialogue Partner.
13. As a small country with limited manpower, we only have resident missions in 33 countries and regions. Consequently, we depend on the excellent support of our Non-Resident Ambassadors (NRAs). Mr Raj Joshua Thomas sought an assessment of the NRA scheme. Our 46 NRAs accredited to 48 countries and four International Organisations amplify Singapore’s diplomatic outreach and nurture our ties with various partners, especially in places where we do not have a diplomatic mission. Our NRAs are reputable individuals both in the public and private sectors, who have distinguished themselves in the fields of their respective professions and have contributed extensively to the community. We assess their performance regularly as part of the NRA appointment process. We constantly evaluate our diplomatic relations and review our scope of coverage, and will appoint NRAs to countries of interest to Singapore.
14. Besides our contributions to international norm-setting which Minister Vivian had spoken about earlier, Singapore also extends our support to other countries in different ways. Mr Louis Ng asked about our contributions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Ms Cheryl Chan asked how the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) is evolving to better meet regional and global challenges. Besides the UNHCR, Singapore makes annual voluntary financial contributions to a range of UN funds and programmes and other international organisations and humanitarian mandates. Some examples are the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Development Programme, the International Committee for the Red Cross, UN Women and UNICEF. We review the quantum of our contributions regularly and have increased our contribution to OCHA this year.
15. Singapore focuses especially on capacity building in developing countries by extending technical assistance and training. 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of the SCP. Close to 150,000 foreign officials have taken part in the SCP and we have continually adjusted our courses to respond to the evolving needs of developing countries. We refined our health-related courses to strengthen pandemic resilience and gave greater focus to digital transformation. We also launched a new Sustainability Action Package to support the capacity-building priorities of developing countries on sustainability and climate change.
16. Mr Liang Eng Hwa, Mr Desmond Choo and Mr Cheng Hsing Yao asked about MFA’s consular assistance to Singaporeans. Singaporeans travel very widely and sometimes need help urgently. During the pandemic, we resolved to "leave no Singaporean behind". Consular work is thus one of MFA’s core functions. MFA officers in our Overseas Missions have worked tirelessly under challenging conditions to respond swiftly to changing local environments. For example, our Consulate-General in Shanghai partnered with the Singapore Global Network and the Singaporean community groups to distribute basic necessities to Singaporeans who faced difficulties in procuring these items during a period of strict COVID-19 lockdown last year.
17. With the easing of travel restrictions, MFA has assisted more Singaporeans overseas. In 2022, MFA facilitated the issuance of 730 Documents of Identity, a temporary travel document for Singaporeans who have lost their passports overseas to travel home. This figure was twice that of pre-COVID-19 numbers in 2019. MFA also assisted with several complex emergencies, including the evacuation of Singaporeans from conflict areas. We worked with our Thai counterparts to facilitate the departure of Singaporean mother Olivia and her baby from Ukraine, where Singapore does not have a diplomatic mission. Throughout their journey home through Romania, our MFA officers kept in close contact with Olivia to check on their well-being and provide reassurance. This reflects the human and personal touch in MFA’s consular assistance, which we endeavour to provide.
18. To ensure that MFA continues to deliver prompt and effective consular services to overseas Singaporeans, we continually review and improve on our processes. We have harnessed digital technology to launch online applications for Documents of Identity. We have also established a new consular corps of professional first responders to provide 24/7 consular response and assistance to Singaporeans. To help Singaporeans better prepare for their trips, MFA has embarked on new publicity efforts to raise awareness of MFA’s consular services. For example, the “Be Informed. Be Prepared. Travel Safe.” campaign reminds Singaporeans to e-Register, purchase comprehensive travel insurance, and provide tips on how to stay safe while travelling.
19. The safety and well-being of overseas Singaporeans is MFA’s priority. Unfortunately, our officers have occasionally been subjected to abusive behaviour or encountered unreasonable requests, such as receiving Singaporeans at airports, providing security escort services, or interfering in overseas legal or commercial disputes. MFA is legally constrained in such cases. I would like to take this opportunity to stress that our MFA officers will do their very best to assist every Singaporean with a genuine need for consular assistance, and within the permissible legal boundaries.
20. At the heart of MFA’s work is a corps of dedicated officers at the frontlines of Singapore’s diplomacy every day. Ms He Ting Ru asked about the challenges faced by and the strengths that women bring to the table in diplomacy. Half of Singapore’s foreign service is made up of women. Our women serve with courage and distinction at all levels in MFA, including in Senior Management as well as our Ambassadors, bringing to the table a natural, collaborative and problem-solving instinct. A MFA career is very challenging, for both men and women alike. The long hours, urgent demands, frequent travel and extended time away from home can take a toll on family life. MFA has in place support systems that help our officers balance the demands of their professional and personal lives. For instance, there are provisions that make it conducive for their immediate families to go on post with the officers and support them in maintaining links with their families in Singapore. MFA officers have demonstrated resilience and determination amidst all these challenges. I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere thanks to our MFA officers and their families, for their unwavering dedication and sacrifice in service of our nation.
21. Mr Gerald Giam asked how we have been engaging Singaporeans on foreign policy and what can be done to counter harmful narratives by foreign actors. Singapore is an open society with free flow of information. All countries seek to influence our people and some even interfere outright in our domestic issues. Singaporeans must be aware of this danger and not be unwitting vectors of foreign influence. It is therefore critical that Singaporeans understand our national interests and foreign policy objectives. Our domestic politics stops at the border and we forge consensus on our foreign policy. Our first and most important line of defence is a vigilant and well-informed citizenry that recognises the geostrategic forces at play and understands our national interests. Minister Vivian, Second Minister Maliki and I, as well as our Ambassadors overseas, our retired Ambassadors and MFA officers have been engaging Singaporeans overseas and in Singapore. We do so in schools, through youth organisations and other platforms to communicate Singapore’s core interests and the fundamental principles of our foreign policy. We will continue to reach out to all Singaporeans.
22. Mr Chairman and members of this House, foreign policy begins at home. If we can stay united and work together, we can make Singapore a safe and secure nation in these complex and turbulent times.
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