Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Live Interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, 20 September 2023

21 September 2023

Christiane Amanpour (CNN): Now, Singapore and its Southeast Asian neighbours navigate a tricky middle ground in a very tense relationship between China and the United States. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is the Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs and he is joining me now.


Tell me about this then. Neither (President) Xi Jinping nor the other Permanent Five Members are here, except for President (Joe) Biden. How much are you feeling the pressure in your Indo Pacific region as this sort of tempo escalates between the two powers?


Minister: First thing you need to understand (is) Singapore is a tiny city state – multiracial, multilingual - in the heart of Southeast Asia. We feel this troubled world in a very real sense. The war in Europe is still going on. There is food and energy insecurity, climate change, the digital revolution, the promise and the risk of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – all these things are happening. Now more than ever before, we need global leadership. The problems are beyond that of just the United States or China or Europe. In fact, you need the whole world together. What we are seeing here at the UN (United Nations) now is an organisation that is showing it is capable of walking and chewing gum. That is why you have got to deal with all these crises.


Amanpour: Even without the big leaders?


Minister: Even without the big leaders, but their teams are here. We live in a day and age (where) you can transmit messages live.


Amanpour: Okay. Do you believe some of the conversation around how the Russian illegal war against Ukraine is kind of sucking the oxygen out of many, many other important issues?


Minister: I think that was the fear last year. This year, particularly if you look at what has happened in the last three days, it is part of the theme. It has not gone away. It is a direct frontal assault on the UN Charter, a risk to small city states like us. Territorial integrity is sacred, but the litany of other problems – the fact that we are behind time in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the fact that we are not meeting the Paris Agreement commitments, the fact that climate change with extreme weather events is a clear and present danger, all that is on the foreground too.


Amanpour: For you particularly they say, you are one of the fastest heating, urban, I mean, you are a city state. 


Minister: We are a city state, an island –


Amanpour: But it is hot.


Minister: One degree north of the equator. We could not stand here at midday in Singapore without being completely drenched. So, a world which is hotter is a world which is hostile to a place like mine.


Amanpour:Tell me how you navigate what I described as a rather tricky bridge between East and West at this particular time in the Indo Pacific.


Minister: First point. We have got great relations with the United States and with China. It is not just a form of words. The United States is the biggest foreign investor in Singapore, (and) also the biggest service trading partner in Singapore. China is our biggest trading partner for goods. We are a significant investor in China as we have also investments in the United States. For us, the best possible world is one in which the two big boys get along.


Amanpour: And how will they get along?


Minister: That is not something you and I can wish on or impose on President Biden or President Xi. But let me just say, for someone who has been there, interacted with them – neither side is actually spoiling for war. But the fundamental problem is the lack of strategic trust. What that means is both sides have to assume the worst of each other. They have got to take precautions, and that precaution is viewed as a potential threat, and you take a counter precaution. The danger is an escalatory spiral. Our recommendation is there needs to be a lot more direct face-to-face interaction. There is no substitute (for) eyeball to eyeball, handshake to handshake, and having honest to goodness conversations. 


Amanpour: This apparently is going to happen at the important meeting in San Francisco.


Minister: I hope so.


Amanpour: What are your hopes for that?


Minister: That they meet, that they engage –


Amanpour: What is the best that could happen out of that?


Minister: The beginning of a real strategic conversation. If you go back four decades, you had the Soviet Union, you had the United States of America. As far as nuclear arms were concerned, they were peer powers. There was strategic restraint, there was deterrence. You could have conversations about arms limitation. Today, because the situation is still evolving so rapidly, neither side has really sized each other up and said, “Look, guys, we better put some guardrails, and not guardrails in a negative, aggressive sense, but guardrails around both of us, so we do not lose the plot.” Now, that can only happen if they meet, interact, generate some strategic trust and then get to do a few things together. There is a lot to do together; the pandemic, climate change, AI – do we need regulations? What about the SDGs? Can that be done without the United States and China? The answer is no.


Amanpour:And yet, there seems to be a hardening of the political structure in China, and most certainly the President is under very strong political pressure to sound tough on China. I want to ask you, how seriously does your Government take reports that China is trying to influence ethnic Chinese populations across Southeast Asia, including in your country, your city state? Former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry says, “If too many Chinese Singaporeans are foolish enough to subscribe to Xi's version of the China dream, the multiracial social cohesion that is the foundation of Singapore's success will be destroyed. Once destroyed, it cannot be put together again.”


Minister: Let me put it to you this way. Singapore is a young city state, multiracial (and) multilingual. We are not Chinese, we are not Indians, we are not Malays, we are certainly not Americans. I am confident that there is a very strong sense of a Singapore identity. We may speak different languages, have different colours. But if you come to Singapore, and I hope you do –


Amanpour: I have been.


Minister: You will realise there is a strong sense of identity.


The next point is, we do not look at the world in binary terms. Cultural pride, linguistic proficiency, being able to understand and to appreciate opportunities, both in the West and East, in India and in Europe, is a strategic advantage for us. The fact that we understand and therefore some people may think they have opportunities to influence us, that is baked into our cultural DNA.


Amanpour: So, you have detected it and you are deterring it?


Minister: It is something which we need to be aware of. It is something which we take appropriate precautions on. But my fundamental point is this – I trust Singaporeans. We know our identity and most importantly, we understand what our long-term national interests are. It is not to be anybody's vassal state or proxy. The way we navigate this nexus between the United States and China is to be straight with both of them.


We tell them we have our own long-term national interests. Both of you are critical to our long-term national interests. I do not have the luxury of saying sweet nothings in Beijing and sweet nothings in Washington. We play a constructive, honest broker role.


Amanpour: Can I ask you a human rights question?


Minister: Yes.


Amanpour: Amnesty International has noted the resumption of executions in your country for non-violent crimes like drug-related offences. Last year, major criticism after the execution of a Malaysian man with a very, very, very low IQ, according to his lawyers. Five women, first woman in twenty years executed in the summer. Why?


Minister: We are extremely draconian for drug trafficking.


Amanpour: Even for somebody who is barely at 69 IQ?


Minister: It gives me no joy for every case that is executed for drug trafficking.


Even in the United States, the drug problem is real.


Second point. If you look in my neighbourhood, that is where the stuff is grown, is processed.


Third point. Singapore is a place where our trading volume is three times our GDP. Can you imagine, if we did not take a strong stand on drug trafficking, we would be a nexus – the process in which it would reach even your shores.


So, I take no joy in this, but I am just making the point that we take a very, very harsh position on this.


Amanpour: I am glad to have you on the record on this. Foreign Minister, thank you very much indeed. Appreciate you being with us.


Minister: You must come to Singapore again.


Amanpour: Will do. Thank you.


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