Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s dialogue at the Council on Foreign Relations, 15 June 2023

16 June 2023

David Sanger: Let me start, Mr Minister, with the observation that your training was actually in ophthalmology, if I have this right.
Minister: Yes, a long time ago ‒
Sanger: ‒ Which explains why we rely on Singapore to be so far seeing in our relations with Asia. Why don’t we just start off with the purposes of your visit, how you sort of captured this moment, not only in US-Singapore relations, but in the US relations more broadly in Asia. The President obviously just came back from the G7 and in Hiroshima, and what he had hoped to be but did not come to be ‒ a visit down to the Pacific Islands and Australia.
Minister: The first thing to notice is that Singapore is incredibly small. Imagine Manhattan having to be independent.
Sanger: There are many people in the United States who think that would be a good idea!
Minister: I would say it is a very challenging proposition to run. I would say three reasons. First, the United States has been an enduring and very close partner for Singapore in our almost six decades of independence. The second point is that, at least in our view, the United States is a Pacific power, and we much prefer and hope that the United States remains engaged in the Asia Pacific for the future, going forward. The third point is that we are also at a stage in world politics - the zeitgeist is against globalization, free trade, supply chains that are extended. You need to understand from a Singapore perspective, being small, being open, and trade is three times our GDP, this kind of political zeitgeist is a challenge to our existence and to our formula for relevance in the world in the last six decades.
There are quite a lot of issues which are on our mind. I am here because United States has been a very close partner. In terms of trade, defence, in emerging areas, climate change, cybersecurity, outer space and artificial intelligence, these are all areas which we need to focus on, which we have had a really productive relationship with the United States on, and which we want to continue. On defence, for 33 years, we have had a Memorandum of Understanding on the US’ Use of Facilities in Singapore for its military.
Sanger: Sad to say, I am so old that I covered it in 1990.
Minister: We are the second largest alien force on continental United States land. That is a vote of confidence and trust in us which we do not take for granted. Clearly, we also have access to US defence technologies, a case in point being the F-35s, which we have ordered a dozen of. The economic and defence ties are very, very close. I would say although we are not a treaty ally of the United States, we are in a category of one called a Major Security Cooperation Partner. I think the United States will find no more forward-leaning, reliable supporter and partner in Southeast Asia than Singapore. It is not just a matter of a form of words, but in terms of proven actions over decades.
Sanger: Let me press on that. If we had American officials here, I am sure they would agree with everything that you have just said. And yet, just a few weeks ago, I was with one of your colleagues, another long-time Singaporean diplomat, who said that their biggest concern right now is that the way the world is going, Singapore is being increasingly asked to choose sides. The warning that they gave was, do not make us choose sides between China and the United States. Now, if you ask US officials, they would say, we are not asking you to choose sides. We are perfectly happy to have Singapore and China to have huge trade relationships, including in high technology, except in the area of defence and national security, where there is no choice but to choose sides. So, walk us through this a little bit.
Minister: Let me take a step back. I have been Foreign Minister since 2015. That means being a regular visitor, both in Beijing, and Washington. This year alone, I have been to Beijing twice. This is my first trip to Washington this year, and there will be other trips. Both sides have taken great pains to keep telling me we are not asking you to choose sides. So, take those statements for what they are worth.
If you take a step back and zoom out on the strategic scale and go back to 1965 when Singapore had independence thrust upon us, as luck or strategic choice would have it, we were non-communist. This was the time of the Korean War, Vietnam War, and a communist insurgency in Southeast Asia. We happened to be on the non-communist side. If you think about America's role in Southeast Asia then, America gave non-communist Southeast Asia time and space to prove that open economies - the growth of multinationals, global supply chains, economic integration, and globalisation - worked. It is no accident that Singapore was a major beneficiary of this, together with the other Asian tigers - Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, of course, Japan ahead of us - but the ultimate and the biggest beneficiary of the post-WWII Pax Americana was actually China. In the last 40 years of reform and opening up, China was able to uplift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, competing and operating basically in a multilateral rules-based system, which to a large extent had been a vision underwritten by America. So that is if you go back to the 1960s.
By the time the Berlin Wall came down and the fracture of the Soviet Union, I think there was a brief interlude of unipolarity. But actually, if you zoom out in terms of decades and centuries, the world has always been multipolar. What has made the United States’ role unique was that in the last two and a half centuries of the Industrial Revolution, it was the United States that was the ultimate beneficiary, the ultimate heir of the Industrial Revolution. And the story of Asia and the last two centuries was that Asia missed the Industrial Revolution. That is why we are all speaking English today. But as we emerge into the 21st century, everyone is now operating on the same technological application stack. Our science and technology is transnational and in that kind of world, multipolarity and emerging poles are to be expected. I see us now basically reverting back to a more natural, historical trajectory of multiple poles and in particular, Asia, India and China.
If you take a 20th century lookback in history, every time China was at peace, united, and had a coherent and integrated economy, it could account for between 25 to 30% of global GDP. But when it missed the Industrial Revolution, and particularly after the end of the Second World War, China's share of global GDP shrank to as small as 4 to 5%. Today, it is back up in the high teens, but that is just a reversion to the norm. The reason for putting this extended strategic and historical perspective is that we should not be trapped by binary, forced choices, one or the other. Instead, we should understand what is going on with the means of production. We are, in fact, at another pivotal point in the industrial or the digital revolution. We are watching the emergence of a more naturally multilateral world. Everyone is trying to feel their way, to compete and cooperate without confrontation.
Sanger: Let us pick up on that a little bit. I agree with your basic argument that we are returning to a norm or as a Chinese official put it to me so wonderfully during my last visit there, which was sadly before COVID times, so we had a crummy four or five hundred years, but we are back. Again, as a big piece of the world economy, as you have suggested. But they are back in a very different way. They are back in a way where Xi Jinping has made it clear that there was an alternative way to organising the world than the one that the United States and its closest allies have envisioned. That post-1945 order that, as you said, the US benefited from, is in China's mind, designed to benefit the United States and its closest allies economically and militarily. They are out to go and try to create an alternative. What has been interesting since the Ukraine war happened is that process has sped up. You have seen Russia and China develop a depth of relationship that has many here quite concerned. It is exactly what Nixon and Kissinger were out to try to avoid having happened in the opening to China. Tell us a little bit about what worries you as you watch the US and China in particular, because Secretary Blinken, who you are seeing tomorrow, will be leaving for China tomorrow night right after he sees you.
Minister: Yes, he will. There are multiple ideas in the thesis you just put forward. The first point is that if you go back to 1945, I think the American share of global GDP would have been about 40%, and America envisioned and underwrote, in blood and treasure, the global rules-based multi(lateral) system as we know it since then. At that point in time, it was worthwhile for the United States to underwrite it in blood and treasure, because for every additional GDP generated on the world, 40% would come to the United States. Well, today, it is not 40%. Not because America's economy has not grown in absolute terms, but it is a relative rebalancing of the global portfolio.
Two sub-ideas come up there: First, it is an entirely legitimate American domestic political question for the American voter to say, hang on a minute, if I am only getting, say, 23% of that delta, why should I underwrite it unilaterally? So that is first a domestic question. The international question is that the world has not stayed still since 1945. That formula for rules-based multilateralism, open and inclusive economies, global supply chains, in our view, and I speak here as a beneficiary, has been a great formula for peace and prosperity. It allowed all boats to rise with a rising tide. The question now is: Are the multilateral institutions, rules, processes, and the operating system still fit for purpose? Does it reflect the realities of the current day and age? In our view, we still need multilateralism. We still need multilateral institutions; we still need rules. But I think the institutions, the rules, the processes, and operating system need to be updated. So, it is not a rejection. You do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. But understanding that you need to update - it needs to be patched.
Sanger: I do not think anybody would doubt that the operating system is in need of patching. What is interesting is to watch, to my mind, particularly here in Washington, how the Biden administration has been going about that. One of the things that I am sure struck you, since you were digital minister and ran the Smart Cities program within Singapore, is the degree to which the Biden administration has focused on trying to regain technological edge. In October, we saw very severe sanctions on China that attempted to deny them the equipment to make the most sophisticated semiconductors, so as to give a breathing space to the United States to rebuild its own semiconductor industry. You have seen the Chips Act and so forth in that direction. In the US, this is referred to as, as you might put it, a modest change in the operating system. In China, it is viewed as a form of containment. Tell us how you view it?
Minister: I do not go to those extremes on both sides of the equation. The first point is that I do not believe America has ever lost the technological edge. I believe America is still ahead. It is no accident. Even today, if you look at generative artificial intelligence, America is ahead. I think you sometimes have to take a realistic assessment of a situation and say America was ahead, America remains ahead.
The second point is that because we have been operating on that common technological stack, and it has been characterised, at least in the last seven or eight decades, by openness, by competition, by open standards, and by common rules, it has enabled other competitors to narrow that relative edge. Is that a design feature or a bug? I think it is a design feature that everyone works, innovates, improves, and elevates the performance of the global economy using the latest technologies. The real revolution now is in the digital and cyber space. So, I am saying that is to be expected. All continental-sized economies ‒ China is one example, India is another example  as long as you embark on a catch up, you can see considerable upside in the economy. That is what has happened in Asia and in the Global South in the last few decades.
Now, having said that, are there national security concerns? Does America worry that this is another Sputnik moment? If you go back into the history of the transistor and the digital age, it is no accident that one big political and economic incentive for the transformation of the chip industry in America was the Sputnik moment when they suddenly realised that there was a “Russian moon” circulating. That moment galvanised America. Regardless of your views on industrial policy, the fact is the government, the private sector, the research and academic sector, all focused their minds, and the chip industry, as we know it, took off. This is going back to the late 50s, mid 60s.
Sanger: I will start at the space revival, but the space revival drove the semiconductor.
Minister: Yes, it did. That is a big part of that early impetus, but even if you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, and if you asked the companies then ‒ Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor ‒ it did not take very long for the majority of their contracts to be civilian rather than military. That led to the other transformation with the global economy, and we are watching the results of that transformation back then. So fast forward to today. If you have a new foundational technology, does it have military significance or national security significance? The answer is yes. When the focus or the anxieties in the name of national security spur the development of the ecosystem, including questions of resilience, questions of some element of self-sufficiency, although that is not possible to attain in the complete sense of the word, I would say that is to be expected. But do you think we are going to stop there, and that the real stimulus, the real imperative for development in artificial intelligence is going to be confined to military use? I do not believe so. I believe in the civilian and international dimensions, the demand for these foundational technologies is going to far exceed the national security dimension. Fast forward to today, what is the public policy question? The public policy question is, how do you take care of national security without completely gumming up the whole academic, technological, and economic system that works for the world as a whole? If we can avoid those extremes, I think we will see another flowering, another big rich harvest available for all of us.
Sanger: Do you believe that the US so far, and the Biden administration in particular, has managed to avoid, that or the kind of export bans I referred to only accelerating this sense, both in the United States and in China, that each one is trying to starve the other?
Minister: Let me put it to you this way, I understand the anxieties on both sides. The ironic thing is that sometimes, each side’s anxiety about being less vulnerable creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you try to be self-sufficient, you try to create parallel or even rival systems. As an outsider to this bilateral competition, I think bifurcation will not work. I am reminded of what the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said two days ago. She said, and I am quoting her, “we have gained and China has gained from a system of trade and investments that is as open as possible, and that any attempt to decouple would be disastrous”. I think her statement has great resonance in Southeast Asia. To be fair, if you parse the comments of all global leaders in the last few months, everyone has retreated from the word ‘decoupling’. Now, I suppose the new buzzword is ‘de-risking’. Let me give you my take. I think the experience of COVID-19 illustrated the importance of supply chain resilience, and there is a premium to be paid for resilience, which means you will have to pay a little bit more. I would also say the question of resilient supply chains applies across the value chain to both suppliers and purchasers. There is a premium to being reliable, predictable, transparent, and having a system in which everyone plays by the rules, there is sanctity of contracts, and thereby you create a system which is less inflationary, less disruptive and divisive, and one in which we all gain by working together. The argument I am making is that there is still space in the middle for an updated multilateral rules-based system with economic integration, open and inclusive, rules-based, and access to peaceful resolution of disputes, contractual or even military for that matter.
Sanger: Let me use that opening to ask you one last question before we get questions here from all of our other CFR participants. President Biden likes to celebrate the fact that NATO, European countries, Japan, South Korea, others have really joined together in trying to help Ukraine push back on the Russians. They have been deeply suspicious of efforts by China chiefly to step in with some kind of armistice, if not peace accord, that would allow Russia perhaps to continue to occupy parts of Ukrainian territory. Yet, we have probably seen about 100 nations, many of them your neighbours, and to some degree Singapore itself, not wanting to declare themselves very hard on condemning Russia, or openly joining too heavily in many of the sanctions activity, arms activity, and so forth. Tell us a little bit about how you see how the Ukraine war has divided the world, and what we should make of the countries that have been largely on the fence so far?
Minister: Let me answer that on two levels. First, because Singapore is small, and we are only 58 years old. For us, when a big neighbour cites “historical errors” and “crazy decisions” as a pretext to launch an invasion and redraw boundaries, all alarm bells go off. For us, the answer is very straightforward. We condemned the invasion. We voted in the majority at the UN General Assembly. I would also have to say that we are probably still the only Southeast Asian nation to have even imposed sanctions on Russia. That is an expression of our national perspective on big neighbours trying to launch invasions and redraw boundaries. That is our position and there is no question about where we stand. It is not that we are taking sides, we are upholding a principle - the UN Charter, respect for sovereignty, independence, and especially territorial integrity. These are sacred, sacrosanct principles, and any breach of that by anyone, we will oppose, we will condemn and to the limited extent possible, we will take appropriate actions.
But actually, let me again try to zoom out and take an Asian perspective. When we look at Europe - two World Wars, the Cold War - it almost seems to me that the strategic question in Europe has been, for decades, “where is that line”? The Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, the boundaries of NATO, is Russia part of Europe? Where is that line? At one level, you could say even the fight over Ukraine is still another worked example of that question “where is that line”? Now, shift your attention to Southeast Asia and both our historical experience as well as our strategic options.  Having previously been an arena for the Cold War, we do not want lines drawn in Southeast Asia. We do not want to have to answer the question, where is that line and who is taking which side of that line? Our organising principle in Southeast Asia is to have an open, inclusive, strategic architecture, to be friends with both the United States, which is a Pacific power, which is the largest, still the largest source of foreign investment into Southeast Asia. I often remind people, America has more invested in Southeast Asia than it has cumulatively invested in India, China and Japan combined. Most people do not appreciate that, do not even realise that. In the case of Singapore, if you look at American investments in Singapore, America is invested more in Singapore than it is invested in China, Japan and Korea combined. So, do we want America to continue? We do.
Having said that, if you ask most of my neighbours who is their largest trading partner, the answer will be China. If you ask me who is my largest trading partner for goods, it is China. But if you ask me who is my largest trading partner for services, it is the United States of America. What we want is overlapping circles of friends. We want to give both the United States and China, and Europe and other emerging poles, real stakes in the peace, prosperity, and development of Southeast Asia. By giving everyone an incentive to create peace and development in Southeast Asia, we also hope that a stable balance of power will emerge. We are trying to create quite a different strategic landscape in Southeast Asia, compared to the situation in Europe. When I look at the different reactions in Southeast Asia, I think eight out of ten voted in favour of the resolution. If you look in the Global South, particularly in Africa, you get more mixed views. From my interactions there, the word which tends to float up quite often in those circles is hypocrisy. Because they say the world did not begin and end in Europe. What about all the unresolved questions in the Global South?
Sanger: So you hear that from India very strongly?
Minister: India is so big, it is a pole unto itself. It has its own considerations for the positions it takes with respect to Russia, which you have to remember, has been a long historical partner of India. Even their arms depend on it (Russia). In Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Laos depend on Russian arms. There has been decades of strategic support. You go to Africa, and many of them will tell you, they remember Apartheid, and where the West and where Russia stood on this position. The point is to understand that the world is complicated. There are historical memories. There are questions of philosophical consistency. And there are strategic interests.
Sanger: I could keep doing this, but no reason I should have all the fun here. We are going to go to questions in the audience.  If each one of you would tell us who you are, and remember that when the conversation is on the record it is not only on the record for him, it is on the record for all of you.
Minister: It is called mutual deterrence.
Maureen E. Farrell (U.S. Africa Command): Thank you for raising Global South issues. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Singapore's foreign policy with respect to the Global South outside of Southeast Asia.
Minister: We identify with the Global South. We are a small and young nation. It is true that we have made significant progress in the last 58 years. But it was not that long ago that we were a colony too. We understand their anxieties. Within the United Nations, we started FOSS, the Forum of Small States. We started off with 16 of us, there is now 108 (of us). This point about a focus on justice, on consistency, on economic development and opportunities is something which we all make common cause with. So, we understand, we support, and we stand with our brethren in the Global South.
Dov S. Zakheim (Centre for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you, Minister. One word has not come up yet. Surprised David did not raise it. It is called Taiwan.
Sanger: I was going to, Dov, but I knew I could count on you.
Zakheim: Thanks, David. I remember years ago, during the last Taiwan Strait crisis, you folks played an important role. I know about that because I was involved in that in some ways. There is a lot of sense here in Washington, that if it is not 2027, it will be 2028. It will be sometime soon that China attacks Taiwan. On the Chinese side, they are clearly buzzing our aircraft, flying too close to our ships. What is your sense? Are we really that close to some kind of confrontation? Or is this more hysteria, maybe on both sides?
Minister: The Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin was in Singapore two weeks ago. I hope I am not misquoting him, but I think he said, it is not inevitable. That is worth parsing carefully. First point, are we worried about the situation there? Oh yes, we are worried. It is a short fuse. If something was to really explode in Northeast Asia, it would be somewhere in that point. But again, it is not inevitable. The question is, what more can China, Taiwan and the US do to head off the unthinkable? That is worth spending time figuring out. Let me give you a few perspectives from Singapore Let me state for the record - we have our “One China” policy, we are opposed to Taiwanese independence, and we are also opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo. The other way of putting it is that we hope there will be peaceful resolution of differences. How that will happen, or when that will happen, we do not know. But peace is the paramount objective. Is it possible for China, Taiwan, and the US to maintain the peace while dealing with all the strategic ambiguities and sometimes even contradictions? I think as diplomats, we all try to hold contrarian thoughts in our minds at any one time, and not to let that dissonance spill over into aggressive, or precipitate action. We are all hoping for the best. I am really glad that Tony (Blinken) is going to China shortly, not because that will resolve all the differences, but because conversations, and honest-to-goodness, looking into each other's eyes, shaking hands, explaining each other's perspectives and anxieties, is essential. It is essential but not sufficient to resolving problems, but if dialogue and those engagements do not take place, we will be in trouble. I should also say from direct upfront observations because I have accompanied my Prime Minister over the last few years and even more recently, in his interactions with both President Biden and President Xi, I can state from my view that both Presidents are not spoiling for a fight, but both Presidents have domestic political considerations and international credibility to protect.
Sanger: Can I jump in on international credibility? President Biden said four times that the US would intercede with its own forces if there was effort to resolve this issue with military force. Something he has not done in Ukraine, has been very careful not to do in Ukraine. How did you read those comments? Was that an effort to restore the strategic ambiguity you mentioned?
Minister: It is not for me to try to parse the individual comments of the President of the United States. Let me take a step back and above this. It was the genius of Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Mao, and Zhou Enlai 50 years ago, to create sufficient ambiguity to deter both unilateral action and military action, and also deter a flight to independence on the part of Taiwan. That should go down in the annals of diplomatic history as an incredible achievement. Now, 50 years down the road, the strategic balance, the military balance, and the zeitgeist of the times have changed. What it calls is for both sides to find the way to thread the needle so that you have enough deterrence against unilateral actions, and also enough deterrence against independence. I try not to overreact and overread, but I try to assess what are the intentions behind the statements and the actions on both sides. What I am saying is I think both sides still do not want to go to war. But they are also trying to keep this balance by achieving dual deterrence.
Nelson W. Cunningham (McLarty Associates): So good to see you again, Minister Balakrishnan. And David, I could see you, I think crafting the first chapters of your next book there on some of the questions and his answers.
Sanger: I am sorry it was that obvious.
Minister: I am not sure I gave him any joy.
Cunningham: Your questions, David, focused, as they should have, I think on China, US-China. Secretary Blinken is heading to China after he meets with you. But next week, Prime Minister Modi of India is coming to Washington for a State Visit – one of the very few State Visits that President Biden in a time of COVID and post-COVID has granted. Singapore is literally in the middle of China and India and the United States – you trade with everyone, you see everyone's economic activity. How does Singapore view the rise of India, the attempt by India to be a replacement for China as a new heartland for investment and new heartland for commerce? Does it seem real to you being right next door there?  What is your read, not just on US-China, but your read on India and the role that plays commercially, also with China and the US?
Minister: That is another excellent question. I am going to preface my comments by saying I am reflecting the views of a tiny city state. I mentioned just now that America is the largest foreign investor in Singapore. If you ask the Indians who is a major source of foreign investment into India, you will find Singapore on that short list. If you go to China and you ask who the major source of foreign investment into China is, you will also find Singapore on that short list. If you ask America, the Commerce Department, they will say in Asia, after China, (Republic of) Korea and Japan, Singapore is the number four investor in the United States. I would say do not judge by my words but follow the money trail. We would not invest in these places unless we believe that there was real potential. India has now a population which already has or will overtake that of China. It has the most favourable demographics for a continental-sized economy. Its ability especially in the digital economy – we all know it has got great potential there. Do we see India rising as one more pole in a multipolar world? Clearly. Is it good that India is now exploring strategic and economic opportunities with America? It is good, because if you go back to the 1960s, there was a time when India would identify more closely with the Soviet Union, rather than with the United States of America. So, we welcome these moves. But again, from a Singapore perspective, if there is peace, and there is no war between the United States and China, and India continues to grow, and extends its own economic reach and engagement across the world, we are very happy because we are exquisitely placed to benefit from such a world.
Cunningham: Does Prime Minister Modi's increasing, I will not say necessarily authoritarian tendencies, but certainly tendencies to crack down on a free press on political opposition concern you? Because you are going to hear a lot in the next week here about world's largest democracy, but we also have a President who was talking about the conflict between democracy and autocracy, and they are not going to necessarily be the greatest example.
Minister: In Asia, we believe in diversity. That diversity extends beyond race, language, and religion to political diversity. We get a bit uncomfortable when foreign policy is couched exclusively in terms of ideology, or this juxtaposition between democracy and autocracy, good versus evil. It is a practical rather than a philosophical objection to pursuing foreign policy on that basis because if you approach it this way, there is no room for middle ground, there is no room for a landing zone, because it is one or the other, good versus evil, black versus white. We think this is a formula which creates more tension and does not solve things. It is better for us to be able to hold contrarian thoughts in the same mind and to accept that there will be diversity, including diversity in political forms, in each country. It is up to the people of each nation to decide what their political structures will be. There is an ongoing debate even within the United States about your political system.
Sanger: We have noticed.
Minister: We are all evolving. I think we should not rush to judgement. We should all take a step back and understand what are the meta forces and find the landing zone.
Tomicah Tillemann (Haun Ventures): Thank you for being with us, Mr Foreign Minister, we appreciate your insights. You spoke a little bit in your framing remarks at the outset about the importance of working off common stacks, technologically speaking. It is fascinating to see that India, China and Singapore have all developed very sophisticated digital infrastructure platforms that bring together digital identity, data, and payments in a very sophisticated way. You see efforts now to export that digital infrastructure across the region and increasingly, in some cases, to other parts of the world as well, on the part of those countries. The United States is not pursuing anything resembling this. We have had a big conversation in the US about physical infrastructure, we have not really had a conversation about the digital rails on which the economy of the 21st century will run. As a trade-powered nation, I would be interested in getting your take on this, and whether you think that is a vulnerability for the United States going forward.
Minister: I think that is an opportunity for the United States. Let me explain why.  I still believe America is the most technologically advanced and on the cutting edge of these technologies, especially digital technology. Having said that, I think what we have focused on is to make sure that we have invested in both the hard and the soft aspects of the infrastructure so that we can be early adopters of these new technologies and we can achieve the efficiencies and the competitive advantages that these new technologies offer us. In the case of Singapore, you will find two fibres in every home and office. Of course, it is easy because we are a small country. Yes, you are right. We have rolled out digital identity. We have financial systems which are paperless, cashless, and presence-less. I can open a bank account without having to physically sign a piece of paper or go to a branch. But I do not believe in the export model because I think every country is going to develop its own identity and financial payment systems. What is important is inter-operability. In the case of Singapore, as long as I have the phone number of any of my colleagues here, I can send money instantly with close to zero transaction cost. But we have not stopped there. We also have interconnects now with India's UPI (Unified Payment Interface). So, in theory, if I have the phone number of any one of the 1.4 billion people in India, I can send money or receive money from them instantly. Now, it is not just about that. Think of the economic impact of that - that every expatriate worker can send money home as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Every small-time business, hawker, artists, artisan, can sell me a product and get paid. It is the downstream amplification of opportunities that we are interested in. Will America get there? I am sure it will. But you need to get over the political humps to create the public infrastructure which is needed for these systems to run. There is the other part about inclusion, which means your education system, your training systems, and making sure no one gets left behind either because of age, education, race, language, or religion. These are political efforts. You need just as much attention on this as you do in building the digital rails that you spoke about. I think (you need) a combination of focusing on infrastructure, education, skills, and capacity building. Once you have got the domestic side settled, focus on interoperability, and then making sure we have on a global scale, the rules of engagement, standards, precautions, which reflect the political concerns. I still believe we need a United Nations Convention on artificial intelligence in the same way we have a Convention on the Law of the Sea and a framework convention for climate change. I see these as emerging areas. Yes, there is competition, but beware of attempts to split the poles apart. Beware of binary solutions. Aim for multilateral solutions which are fit for purpose, and which fit both the technological and political needs of the time. I remain hopeful that we will get there.
Joanne Weschler: Thank you. I wanted to go back to the issue of Singapore not taking sides as to keep to your foreign policy. I have followed your country in the context of the UN since your 2001-2002 term on the Security Council and was repeatedly impressed by the political positions that Singapore has taken. The most recent example is the April debate that was chaired during the Russian presidency by Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on effective multilateralism through the defence of the principles of the UN Charter. Only some speakers cautiously alluded to the irony that Russia would be talking about the subject given what it (Russia) is up to in Ukraine. Singapore, early on in its intervention, suggest that finally that everyone stopped avoiding the elephant in the room, and gave one of the most relevant speeches in this debate. I would like to ask you whether not taking sides means that you have the freedom that those taking sides perhaps do not have, or are afraid to use.
Minister: Because we are small and vulnerable, and yet friends with everyone, with equities across the world, we have to be very careful in what we say or do. But being careful does not mean checking out your brain or values at the door. We have a habit of calling a spade a spade, but of course, we say it diplomatically. When I say we do not take sides, it is a philosophical approach that we avoid (seeing) issues in binary terms. You will find that we always go back to first principles. In the case of Ukraine, first principles - the UN Charter, territorial integrity. The irony is that the Security Council for better or for worse, has got five permanent members with the veto power. It is supposed to be the paramount body, providing peace and security for all of us, especially the little guys. So, we express our views, clearly, unambiguously, diplomatically. But I would also say, if you pass our diplomatic record over the past 58 years, there have been times that we have said no, and we have even voted against the United States. We do say no to China from time to time. We clearly have said no to Russia this time around, and there will be others, for whom, depending on the circumstances, we will have to say no to. But we do so in a way that is not personal, that is not ideological, but based on principle. Singapore's foreign policy on most issues is almost boringly predictable. We like being boring and being predictable. In fact, we think that is a competitive advantage for us. Perhaps that is the only role that we can play.
Daniel Mandel (Council on Foreign Relations): I am wondering about Singapore's role in the world going forward. You have mentioned the context of the changing world that you spoke of. What is Singapore's role on the world stage? Does it see itself as a leader or first actor in any particular region or issue? And as a small country, what do you think of Singapore's unique or comparative advantages that it can bring to efforts to address the many issues that we are facing from great power rivalry to climate change?
Minister: We take a far more realistic and humble view of ourselves. There is no specific role that Singapore can claim to take a lead on. For small nations, if you look at history, even if we disappeared, the world would carry on without us. We never assume that we are naturally taking a leading position or necessarily salient for the world. We start from the basis of constant anxiety, whether we are relevant, useful, competitive, whether we can make a difference by making common cause and support a world based on multilateralism, a rules-based system, in which there is economic integration, global supply chains, in which we can share, and work collectively on improving the technological stack. That is how we see our role. We have to be helpful, constructive, and relevant. Not because we think we are so smart, but because only the paranoid survive. For small countries, this is what we have to do. It is not a matter of trying to be in your face, but I am just trying to be relevant and helpful.
Sanger: Mr Minister, I have had the pleasure of interviewing many people on this stage, but I think you were the first representative of a significant power who has come to the CFR and said, if we disappeared, the world would carry on without us. An act of great national modesty. I want to thank you for your comments. I want to thank all of you for your questions. I want to really thank you for your candour along the way. As a correspondent in Asia for many years before you came to office, I found that going to Singapore was refreshing not only for the food and the atmosphere, but for a really remarkable perspective on Asia and the world. I thank you for sharing that with us today. I wish you luck in the rest of your trip.
Minister: Thank you.


.    .    .    .    .


16 JUNE 2023


Photo caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s participation in a dialogue moderated by New York Times Correspondent David Sanger at the Council on Foreign Relations, 15 June 2023

Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore

Travel Page