Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview with Singapore Media Following the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Week in New York, 22 September 2023

23 September 2023

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: I thought I would start by just giving you a sense of the mood and issues that were on the top of people's minds.


First, I would describe the mood as somewhat sombre. There are multiple crises facing the world. The war in Europe continues to grind on - no sense that the conflict is going to end anytime soon. Although (the) COVID-19 (pandemic) is over, its long-term sequelae (on) health care, on education, global economy, and even on the sense of global solidarity continues to weigh on the mood down here. A third factor is that the world is clearly behind its achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is that sense that COVID-19 took people's attention away, so we are behind time in achieving that. There is anxiety about a food crisis looming in the near future. We have also had the natural disasters, the earthquakes in Morocco, earlier in Turkey, and the floods in Libya. On top of all these combinations of natural and man-made problems and tragedies, there is also the ongoing threat of climate change, and in the background, superpower rivalry. What all this (does) is that it sets the mood. This is a world beset with multiple problems, which need global leadership and solutions, where every country and all countries are pulled together. But because of distractions, because of conflict, because of rivalry, there is this gnawing anxiety that the world will not be able to get its act together. Because this is the United Nations, the ultimate body that represents the world and multilateralism, this is where all the anxieties come to roost. So, that was the general mood.


Let me just say a few words about Singapore's participation in this. First, I want to acknowledge that it was not just me. (Health) Minister Ong Ye Kung has been here. (Second Foreign) Minister Maliki has been here. Minister Maliki was representing Singapore in the G77 (Group of 77) meeting in Cuba. We managed to persuade him to fly up here to New York. Together with him, we were able to engage about 70 foreign leaders and counterparts. We attended multiple sessions – I think each of us had at least one to two speeches at conferences to give every single day. Minister Ong Ye Kung attended three high level health care conferences and was fully engaged.


I also want to give a shout out to other Singaporeans who have been heavily involved. One is Singaporean Ambassador (for International Law) Rena Lee, who presided over the Intergovernmental Conference which led ultimately to the BBNJ (Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) Treaty. This is the treaty that sets out how to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. In fact, this treaty was the one bright spot of this year's General Assembly. Because it was a treaty which Rena was able to achieve universal consensus on at the time when the world is fractured – to get a global treaty with universal consensus is a very big achievement. So, full marks to her for that. On top of that, when we opened it for signature, I signed it on the first day. By the second day, we had almost 80 countries who had already signed on to this treaty. This, again, was another vote of confidence in multilateralism. Under proper conditions, leadership and persuasion, the world is still capable of coming together, committing itself to solving the problems of the world and creating solutions. So, that was the one bright spot.


Other Singaporeans I want to mention – Professor Winston Chow, who was elected to co-chair one of the Working Groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As you know with climate change probably accelerating, my worry is that we have been reaching tipping points, which will cause further major problems. To have Singaporeans participating in the apex scientific body for the world that is monitoring the progression of climate change, measuring the parameters, providing prediction models for the world, is absolutely critical.


Earlier this week, the Director-General of Enterprise Singapore, Choy Sauw Kook, was also elected to the International Organization for standards (International Organization for Standardization) – ISO Council. This is a council that sets standards, which enables productivity, standardisation and innovation. It is another very good example of Singapore and Singaporeans stepping up to the plate, making contributions on a global stage. All in all, it has been a very hectic but meaningful and fulfilling week. I just want to say a big thank you to all the Singaporeans, including the team here in New York, led by Ambassador Burhan Gafoor. Every year when we have the (UN) General Assembly, we also assemble a team of civil servants from other Ministries who come up here to participate in the intensive discussions, which will go on till the end of the year, on a variety of topics.


All in all, a world beset with problems. But the United Nations remains absolutely essential, salient. Although we may be a small city state, I would say Singaporeans are contributing and we are making a difference, helping to make this world safer, fairer, and to show that sustainable development is possible. In fact, it is essential. I will stop there and take questions.


Bhagyashree Garekar (ST): One quick question regarding the mood, you mentioned it was rather sombre, but may I ask about your own mood? Walking into it one week ago, and now walking at the end of it? Are you more optimistic or less optimistic?


Minister: I have to be realistic. I think I must have done seven (UN) General Assemblies now. And as I said, this sense of multiple crises, all coming together, and that there is a gray cloud above all of us, is more real now than ever before. But as I said, the fact that we could get the BBNJ Treaty done shows that when push comes to shove, and you can get the right constellation of forces, and alignment, it is possible to solve problems.


All diplomats need to have a somewhat optimistic streak. You have to be hopeful, otherwise, you would just give up. I approach this with realistic eyes, but always trying to maintain that sense of hope and optimism in the heart, and then try to infect others with that hope. What makes me most proud is the contribution of so many Singaporeans to the United Nations and to the process of multilateralism.


I should add that there was one other issue which also captured attention this time around – that is artificial intelligence (AI). I participated in a couple of sessions on that as well. ChatGPT, generative AI has captured public attention. But I think everyone knows this is just one more step. You think about the development of AI in the last few years – deep learning or the machine learning first became good at classifying and recognising objects and songs. Next stage, very good at translation, interpretation in real time.  You now are at this current stage where systems are capable of generating text, music, images, and even videos. But in fact, the next step is already waiting in (the) wings. That is what I refer to as AI agents with the capacity to negotiate, to transact, to communicate (and) to mobilise. These agents will interact with other AI agents as well as with human beings. Sometimes, it will be impossible to know whether the entity that you are negotiating with on the other side is an AI agent or human being.


Once you get this, where systems are capable of negotiating, transacting, and even having the computer – what people would say – access to the command prompt, and even potentially engaging in recursive self-improvement. I just want to make the point that we are at a major advent of an exponential increase, not just in capability of AI systems, but the profound impact on societies, on politics, on economy, and even on humanity itself.


The sense here was that we do need to be aware of these developments, be well aware of the risks as well as the potential benefits. Then the question comes – how do you minimise the risks? And how do you distribute the benefits fairly? I would say these are early days. Conversations are just beginning. But I am glad that it is happening in a multilateral global stage. Because these are challenges that cannot be solved just by one country alone, or by one bloc on its own.


The point is that this is a world that is replete with both high risks and large opportunities. For Singapore, our attitude is – multilateralism, working together, trying to achieve consensus, having appropriate regulations, treaties, international law. This is the better and safer way to a fairer, safer, more prosperous, and hopefully more peaceful world.


Brenda Khoo (Mothership): What is your opinion on how Singapore will be affected by the competition on AI technology between India, China and the USA (United States of America)? And how should the Singapore government respond?


Minister: That is a very profound question. First of all, I have already explained at some length that AI presents both opportunities and risks. I have also made the point that there is a need for global, multilateral rules, regulations, standards, and norms. These sorts of standards and norms, or even rules and regulations, are best developed in a multilateral context, negotiations done at the UN.


The first problem is that if there is intense competition, particularly viewed in zero-sum games, then it is very hard to get all the players to sit down in the same room and arrive at the appropriate compromises and (with) a level of transparency and good faith and trust in order to generate these rules. That is the first problem – zero-sum competition makes it very hard to generate global solutions based on principles of multilateralism and international law.


The second point is that, the other danger of AI systems is the fact that if you have autonomous weapon systems – you see that now even in the war in Ukraine – you have got drones, sometimes you have got swarms of drones. Your defence systems have to track multiple objects in real-time, decide which ones are dangerous, which ones are not. You have got to fire off countervailing defence mechanisms. What this means is we are already in the age (where) very often, you cannot even afford to have a human finger on the trigger. It is automated systems. One impact this has is that it reduces dramatically the decision time for not just military commanders in the field, but even for Commanders-in-Chief, Presidents and Prime Ministers to determine the appropriate strategic response. It even upends the concept of strategic deterrence. This is another very large and dangerous field that we are entering as humankind. That is where, again, your question on competition (is), particularly if this competition veers into confrontation and there is insufficient trust to build the appropriate guardrails around all of humanity. That is the second level of anxiety which I have.


Having said that, if we can get together and achieve some safety guidelines, and certainly from the level of strategic clarity, have enough transparency so that people know what the other side is doing, and what precautions both sides can take, so at least you avoid accidental wars or unnecessary escalations, then you can get a somewhat safer world. The analogy is, if you go back in the past, mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons was sufficiently horrendous to act as a deterrent, as a restraint, although there were a few close shaves in the last 50 years.


I think we are entering another phase, where weapon systems will need to have some discussions, (and) transparency and safety precautions put in place. Beyond that, if competition leads to us all innovating and contributing to that single, shared ecosystem of technologies and applications, then this might be another period where you have a significant case of human invention and progress. That is something to be welcomed. Watch this space. I think the next two to five years will be critical, and we will get a clearer indication of which way the world is going – towards a more dangerous use of these frontier technologies, or towards a more collaborative, productive and safer use of these new technologies. The answers will be clear within the next two to five years.


Tan Ke-Yang (LHZB): You have previously discussed the necessity for the two superpowers’ top leaders to meet in person and build strategic confidence. I have heard there have been many missed opportunities over the past year. Do you think current conditions favour President Biden and President Xi Jinping to meet up in November during the APEC Summit?


Minister: I am not in a position to make a prediction about whether they will meet. But certainly, we do hope they meet. I think this is a time when you do need direct human to human interaction, face to face, handshake to handshake – not because that one meeting or two meetings will solve all the problems between the superpowers, but because you do need to build from ground-up some strategic trust. You do need for them to discuss how to assemble those guardrails that prevent both sides from going off the edge. I am convinced that neither China nor the United States is actually spoiling for war. Therefore, the key intention is to assemble the precautions so that they do not accidentally veer into or end up in an escalatory spiral. So, the more they meet, and not just at the top level, but their officials – and to be fair to China and the United States, in the last few months, there have been several ministerial level meetings between the two sides, and that is to be encouraged. I hope they do more of that, and beyond that, to find opportunities to work together. If we are going to deal with the next global pandemic, climate change, (and) to accelerate our achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, we need the two superpowers to be engaged. Let us hope, wait and see.


Heidi Ng (CNA):  After all these meetings and discussions at the UN General Assembly, what are your immediate priorities in Singapore?


Minister: I think from a foreign policy point of view, I would say there are several priorities back home.


The first is to remind everyone that foreign policy begins at home. Singapore and Singaporeans need to know the state of the world. We need to understand the implications that has on our economy, on our standing, and both the risks and the opportunities. My colleagues in MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Ambassadors – those who have returned home and even those who have retired – they are spending a lot of time engaging Singaporeans in schools, in universities and in workplaces, to explain the state of the world. This understanding of the forces and the trends that will affect our future is absolutely crucial.


We also need Singaporeans not to be discouraged by the clouds hanging over the world, but to know that even a small city state like Singapore does have agency. We do have autonomy, we do have choices. To understand that it means first focusing on ourselves, our education, our training, our skills, (and) preparing our Singaporeans to face the future with confidence. Next, to work with our neighbours, particularly our immediate neighbourhood and especially in ASEAN. The more we can make common cause, the more we can act as a convening centre for powers, big and middle, to collectively develop a stake in Southeast Asia’s progress, peace and prosperity, rather than make Southeast Asia an arena for superpower contestation.


Beyond that, on the global stage. I am so proud of the Singaporeans who are making their mark on the global stage to show that Singapore and Singaporeans are capable of building bridges, or being constructive partners, and in our own small but hopefully significant ways, contributing to global solutions. So those are some of the things which I would say are the domestic aspects of Singapore’s foreign policy.


Bhargyashree Garekar (ST): (I am) wondering if you might have a comment on the UN Secretary-General’s leadership style. He made some headlines this time. Of course, he has very ambitious plans – the Future Summit that is coming up next year, but also the Climate Summit to which he did not invite the US and China because he said he wanted to invite people who are contributing, who are movers and shakers in the area of climate change. What is your impression – does he offer leadership in the way he is steering the UN?


Minister: I must confess to being rather fond and supportive of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He is a good man, he has got a good heart. He has been trying very hard to deal with both urgent and long-term problems. For instance, his work on trying to get the Black Sea grain deal in order to help alleviate the problems of the hunger and food crisis emanating from the Ukraine crisis. I have personally witnessed him making phone calls in between meetings, connecting the two sides. That is an example of (him) dealing with a current and belligerent problem. His commitment to climate change, his commitment to improving the plight of vulnerable people all over the world – I have seen up close. You are not going to get everyone to agree with all his decisions. But he is trying his best. As I said, because this is a very difficult moment in global affairs, there is a lot on his shoulders.


Singapore’s attitude to all these things is, we cannot solve global problems. In fact, small states are the majority of the membership of the United Nations – that is why we formed this grouping called the Forum of Small States, by banding together, by sharing expertise and experience, by helping (to) invest in building up capability development. We are showing that small states can count, small states can be part of the solution. I daresay the small states are also some of the most avid supporters of the agenda of the UN Secretary-General. He obviously has my vote of confidence.



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Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan’s doorstop interview following the 78th UNGA High-Level Week in New York, 22 September 2023

Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore


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