Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Fireside Chat with Jeanne Meserve at the Global Emerging Technology Summit, 21 September 2023

22 September 2023


Minister: Thank you, Jeanne. First, let me begin with an apology. I am speaking to you all from New York. I am here for the UN (United Nations) General Assembly. That is why I am not upfront and close in front of you. But I am looking forward to a great session.


I wanted you to first understand that Singapore is a tiny place. Think of Manhattan, being ejected by upstate New York and having to be an independent nation. I know some people might actually want it. But I can tell you, I can assure you, it is a very difficult challenge. So, we tend to look at the world through a very real, realistic set of lenses. I just want to congratulate Eric (Schmidt) for getting this special competitive studies project.


There is just one point I want to start off on and I thought I will leave it for you to consider.


There is a big difference between competition and competitiveness. For instance, merely having two superpowers compete, that is competition. Having lots of small companies competing, that is competition. The real question is competitiveness. In Singapore, it is the latter that we are focused on. If you think of it through that prism, then the question becomes, what are the key ingredients for competitiveness, especially for a small, tiny city state in the heart of Southeast Asia, who has got excellent relations with both the United States and China, and whose trade volume is three times our GDP.


Having set that context, the most important ingredient for competitiveness is people. That means getting immigration policy right, getting education policy right, getting adult education right. It means having appropriate educational institutions, it means reforming university education, because quite frankly, the way university education has been delivered so far is based on the old Industrial Revolution. That is the first point; people, education, soft skills.


The second point is infrastructure. In Singapore, every single home, every single office has got two fibers leading to each home. We are now aiming to deliver ten gigabit access to every home. Of course, you pay for it, but it is cost competitive. There is no question for us on having first world infrastructure; transport, connectivity, fiber, 5G is essential.


The next point is that you need to get the right balance between government, private sector, and even civil society.  Because this is not something that one party alone can execute. Specifically for government, the greatest challenge for government innovation is not technical. It is policy. Getting the policies right, which stimulate innovation, which protect intellectual property, but in a way that does not lock down competition and competitiveness, and which encourages companies to compete and offer products and services on a level playing field. To use another example – autonomous vehicles. That has been invented, but getting the policy and the insurance frameworks right, to enable it to be rolled out and to be rolled out safely and securely, that is where policy innovation is needed.


The final ingredient I would make also has got to do with the difference between intellectual property - patents, sharing and competing globally - versus going back to the old model, which goes back a couple of centuries, of trade secrets and trademarks, where you hide your discoveries, you hope no one else gets to it, and you believe you get an advantage from it. What we enjoy in this day and age is a global, single application stack of innovation, the production of new products and services, and competition. Everybody is working and competing within that same operating system. That is why you have got patents. That is (what) modern intellectual property protection is founded on. I am making the point that this has been a dynamo for competitiveness, growth and innovation, and progress and peace that we have enjoyed for the last seven decades.


There is a difference between what happened when there was the USSR competing with the United States, where there were really two separate technological and even intellectual ecosystems. The difference with today when you are competing with China is that you are actually competing within the same intellectual ecosystem. Therefore, one awkward point which we need to decide, is even as both superpowers strive to be more competitive, what will the rules of that engagement be? We need, or we hope, that there will be a global eco-system, which is competitive, which induces innovation, creates a level playing field, creates interdependence and hopefully, maintains that formula for peace and prosperity.


Maybe let me stop there. I think I have put enough on the table for us to have a robust discussion on.


Jeanne Meserve: Indeed, you have put a lot on the table here. I want to follow up on some of the points that you made. So, Singapore has had tremendous success attracting technology firms, attracting venture capital. You have mentioned some of the factors. I would like you to dig in a little bit deeper on some of them. Obviously, you have a stable government – 


Minister: That helps.


Jeanne: Yes.


Minister: It is not just a stable government, but a government which can afford to think long-term beyond the next election.


Jeanne: Geographically, you are small, as you mentioned, which makes some things possible. You have also got a very strategic location in Southeast Asia. So that is a plus for you.


But talk a little bit more, if you would, about the immigration policies that you have implemented and how you are using those to attract talent to Singapore?


Minister: First, it helps that in Singapore, we are small, we are a young nation, we are multiracial, multilingual. We use English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil. We are comfortable hearing different languages, smelling different foods, getting on with different cultures, and engaging in cultural and intellectual arbitrage. That helps – a confident, open, welcoming population.


Now, that does not mean from time to time, you will not have political pushback against foreigners, against competition, against globalisation. But it helps that Singapore is so small and so trade dependent that we have to make a living by servicing the world. Everyone knows we need to remain open – that helps. It helps focus the mind.


The next thing is to be completely meritocratic about it. If someone wants to enter Singapore, wants to start a business or wants to enter (an) university, show us what you are made of. Why are you more valuable than the next applicant in line? I need to tell you that we have a long list of applicants in the queue. So, maintaining that rational, logical and consistent approach to immigration.


If you think about (the) Silicon Valley, you look at the success of the companies, you look at the leadership of the companies, both at the management level and the technical level, it is fueled by immigration and meritocracy. That is essential.


Jeanne: You are attracting some of the best and some of the brightest to come to Singapore to start up businesses or work in businesses. In addition, as you mentioned, you have educated your own population –


Minister: Yes.


Jeanne: To provide them (with) the skills that they need. Talk to us about how you have instituted that and how widespread it is.


Minister: My Prime Minister is a mathematician. It used to be that more than half the Cabinet consisted of engineers. I am a surgeon. So, when we talk to tech companies, or science companies, they know we get it, we understand, that we are literate in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Having a Cabinet and having a bureaucracy that gets it and is supportive of people with the skills which just so happen to be in demand right now is very helpful.


Second point, however, is that it is not all engineers. In fact, if you think about the products and services now, you do need people with artistic ability, people who are able to communicate, to persuade, to resonate at an emotional level. The key is to construct teams with a multi-disciplinary approach. The other point is that if you ever wanted to assemble a multi-national team consisting of Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, and Indians, the easiest place in the world to assemble such a multiracial, diverse, elite group of talent ought to be Singapore. Now, I should also add, we cannot compete with (the) Silicon Valley – we do not have the scale. What Singapore aims to do is to be a critical node in a global value chain, which includes America, which includes China, India, Europe, and increasingly, I see great options in South America and Africa as well. We are a node, we are a connecting point.


For the members in the audience, if you just Google submarine cables in Singapore, look at the distribution of submarine cables that terminate in Singapore or originate from Singapore. It is that map which I spend more time looking at nowadays rather than just the sea routes and the air routes.


Jeanne: As you have mentioned, you have good relations with both the US and with China. You are the Foreign Minister.


Minister: That is my day job.


Jeanne: How are you going to maintain it? If, for instance, there is military action against Taiwan?


Minister: First of all, we hope there will not be. Taiwan is the most proximate red fuse and it calls for great caution. Hopefully, cool heads and rationality will prevail.


I have spent a lot of hours discussing this issue with Henry Kissinger. The genius of Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong, 50 years ago, was to acknowledge that this was a sensitive issue. This was an issue which was not going to be solved in their generation. To create the strategic ambiguity, which maintained the peace, that China did not aim to forcibly reunify with Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan did not aim to become an independent political entity.


Now, that is 50 years ago. Time has passed. The power asymmetry between the United States and China has changed. Nevertheless, the long-term diplomatic objective of maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait remains essential.


Now, Singapore is not going to be able to solve this. We are not in the Taiwan Strait, fortunately. But what I can say from direct observation and interaction with the top leadership in both the United States and China is that neither side is spoiling for war.


But, as I said, circumstances have changed, and just as importantly, domestic politics has changed. I can tell you, as a Foreign Minister, foreign policy actually begins at home. How confident are you of your country's prospects? How unified are your people? Are the ingredients for further progress, innovation and competitiveness, stable and encouraging on your home-front?


If you have two superpowers who are confident, coherent and consistent, you have the ingredients for peace. So, I would still say that peace is possible. You have to take precautions, but the most important ingredient the two superpowers need is strategic trust. The point which I have been making repeatedly is that you need people to meet face-to-face, in person, to look into each other's eyes and shake hands. I know we are using Zoom right now, but it will not suffice for honest to goodness conversations and resolving sensitive and difficult challenges. So, that is what we encourage.


Jeanne: Speaking of conversations, you had one this week with Secretary (Antony) Blinken, in which you discussed using AI (Artificial Intelligence) as a force for good –


Minister: Yes.


Jeanne: How do you believe this technology can be used to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?


Minister: There is a lot of buzz nowadays about AI because of generative AI. Not only can Artificial Intelligence now classify cats or translate languages, it can generate even the session which we have today. But, actually, I think there is a –


Jeanne: You are real though, are you? You are not fake – 


Minister: I am real.


Jeanne: Okay.


Minister: I think there is a bigger thing waiting right now. That is, AI agents with transactional ability, which means the ability to negotiate, ability to transact, the ability to buy and sell, and convince, and to mobilise. I think that is happening sooner than people realise.


By all means, be excited about generative AI, but start thinking about AI agents with transactional ability. Now, once you start thinking about that, there are several issues which governments need to tackle. At the lowest level, it is about jobs. It is about skillsets. It is about education, training, and infrastructure. That is almost easy. I say almost easy because it is not necessarily a trivial point, but you can do that. You have got to give people confidence that they will be equipped with the skills to ride these new tools, be masters of the tools rather than to be made redundant because of those tools. That is one level.


There is another level, which is the political level, which is if you have AI agents now with the ability to transact, to mobilise, to organise, to both customise the message as well as target the message to the appropriate demographic, political groups, politics, as we know it, if you talk about democracy - it is going to be upended by technology. Again, if we do not come to grips with this impact on our politics, I think even the current dysfunction is going to make it much worse. That is the second level.


The third level, which I worry about from a foreign policy point of view, is, if you go back, again, to the contest between the Soviet Union and the United States, and nuclear weapons, and mutually assured destruction and deterrence, you got to a level where both sides knew it would be bad news to go to war. In fact, you need to set hot lines, you need to set the rules of engagement. You could even embark on discussions on strategic limitations, arms limitations.


We are now in the day and age, even in Ukraine - drones, autonomous weapons, swarms. The truth is, you are now at a level where the finger on the trigger is not a human, but it is actually a machine system. Because there are so many targets coming in at the same time, you cannot afford to have a human on every single trigger.


Now that is at a tactical, operational level. But think about it at a strategic level. How much time will a future President have to make a decision, to press the ultimate button, given the fact that AI systems will be deeply embedded in both tactical and strategic systems, and a lot of this will be outsourced? Yet we know as human beings, our decision-making ability, our time needed to think, and to arrive at a conclusion or even to use intuition, that has not changed. So, I do worry. This is something which Eric Schmidt and Henry Kissinger have worried about, and in their book published two years ago. I am deeply worried about this. Those are the three levels I think about. The impact of AI agents with transactional ability, with access to triggers and prompts, and their ability ultimately to even self-improve recursively. So, I do worry.


Jeanne: We are out of time, but in a word, given all you have said, are you excited about AI? Are you terrified by AI?


Minister: Oh, both. I am excited because I think this is the biggest technological break-through in our lifetime. But I am also sufficiently worried, to raise alarms, or at least to get people to start thinking and worrying and figuring out those guardrails. We need this within our societies, and in particular to prevent further erosion of our democracies. We also need this at a strategic level to keep the peace and maintain mutual deterrence.


Jeanne: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Foreign Minister of Singapore, thanks so much for joining us today.


Minister: Thank you.



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