Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan during the Committee of Supply Debates, 29 February 2024

29 February 2024



Mr Chairman,


1 Thank you for all the contributions, questions, and suggestions from Members of Parliament. Again this year, I was struck by the fact that the speeches from Opposition, Nominated, and PAP Members of Parliament were entirely fungible. I do not take that consensus for granted and I express my gratitude on behalf of all my staff for your support for MFA. I hope it is not just because MFA has regained its position as the lowest cost ministry in the Government Budget this year. Let me start by making three points. First, the world has become an even more dangerous place. If you look at the situation over the last couple of years, it has progressively become more dangerous. The second point, foreign policy begins at home. Domestic unity, cohesion, and consensus within and outside this House are essential for us to conduct effective foreign policy.The third point is that our foreign policy must continue to be based on a realistic assessment of our national interests and vulnerabilities. It cannot be driven by sentiment, emotion, or even affinities with external groups. Let me emphasise this. When we pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language, or religion, the MFA dimension to that pledge is that when we engage with foreign countries or foreign citizens, we must also do so regardless of race, language or religion, no matter how close our hearts and affinities are. This is a point that we need to bear in mind.

A Dangerous World

2 Let me expand on the dangerous world. Last year, I spoke of a “perfect storm of multiple interlocking crises”. I was referring to contestation between the US and China, the Russia-Ukraine war, climate change, global economic disruptions, and the erosion of multilateralism.

3 Today, the situation is worse. The war between Russia and Ukraine is headed into its third year, and the meat grinder – the casualties – mount on both sides, and there is no end in sight. Tensions between the US and China have calmed somewhat at a tactical level, but the deep strategic rivalry and lack of strategic trust continues apace. The bifurcation, or what some people would call decoupling or more euphemistically de-risking, of global supply chains continues. That unravelling is continuing apace. This type of situation is particularly worrisome for Singapore because, after all, the US and China are our major strategic investment and trading partners. The lack of strategic trust between them means that the risk of miscalculations that could easily spiral into a larger conflict cannot be discounted, especially over flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea. The threat of climate change continues. I think 2023 was the hottest year on record for the past 174 years. We also stand on the precipice of a technological and economic revolution with the advent of generative Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), and even the possibility of artificial general intelligence and its impact on jobs.

4 Mr Chairman, the tragic conflict between Israel and Hamas is the latest addition to this litany of woes. Given the appalling humanitarian tragedy, this conflict has quite understandably elicited a very strong response from both the international community, as well as Singaporeans from all walks of life, from all our communities. It has ignited a debate over Singapore’s foreign policy and how we should respond as a country. Indeed, in this contested, fragmented, and dangerous world, events in many faraway places over which we have absolutely no control will often have a profound impact on our economy; and in fact, sometimes put our domestic cohesion to the test.

Foreign Policy Principles

5 Let me come back to first principles. Singapore’s foreign policy is based on several fundamental objectives. First and foremost, to protect our independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Second, to secure our access to essential supplies – energy, water, food – and to keep air and sea lines of communication open. This is existential for us. Third, to expand economic opportunities and maintain our relevance to the world. Mr Henry Kwek and Mr Chong Kee Hiong have emphasised this. I want to quote Mr Lee Kuan Yew in a speech he gave at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture in 2009. Mr Lee said, “We have to live with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We must remain nimble to seize opportunities that come with changing circumstances, or to get out of harm’s way”. We are a small country with no hinterland, no natural resources, and in fact, no intrinsic relevance. We have to make our relevance to the world. We have an open and trade-based economy that will always be vulnerable to external forces and trends. We remain a multiracial, multireligious, and multilingual society in the heart of Southeast Asia.

6 To ensure our best chance for survival, there are a few things that we have to keep doing. First, we have to advocate for a rules-based order and full respect for international law. This is not an ideological position; this is a practical response. It is the only way that small states will have a chance to live in peace without the constant spectre of invasion from bigger neighbours. This House has just passed the Budget for the Ministry of Defence, and I stand in full support of that because as Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen said last night: we do not expect anyone to come to our rescue to shed their blood for us. In fact, I can even add, I do not think we can bank on any superpower exercising their right of veto at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on our behalf. We are on our own. Sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity is and must be sacrosanct for Singapore. What this means is being prepared to stand to stand up and call out all violations of international law whenever and wherever it happens, even if it displeases some of our stakeholders, partners, or even neighbours.This is why we opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. We remain, in fact, the only Southeast Asian nation to even have sanctions in place against Russia for that egregious act. We also spoke out against the American intervention in Grenada in 1983. On a more sensitive point closer to home, we opposed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978. The reason we took those positions was not because we like to stand up and stake out a position. But if we had stayed quiet, we would have implicitly agreed that might makes right and that powerful states can do what they can, and the weak must suffer what we must. This goes against the very principles that undergird our existence as a sovereign independent city-state.

7 But today, we are witnessing the erosion of multilateralism. We are seeing less cooperation across the world, less unity on the global stage, and less ability for the world to respond to planetary problems. In its place, we are witnessing the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, protectionism, fragmentation, and in the political arena, frankly, populism. This is inimical to Singapore domestically and globally. In fact, if you reflect upon the almost six decades of our independence, we have been beneficiaries of a rules-based integrated global economy. This has been one of the key dynamos for our success.

8 International legal frameworks like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea protects the right of all states to freedom of navigation and overflight and to maintain open sea routes and sea lines of communication. These are vital to Singapore. This is why Mr Vikram Nair raised the issue of the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. We are not taking sides, but if anyone – state or non-state – for whatever excuse or pretext interdicts maritime safety and maritime navigation, it affects Singapore. Members of this House may need to be reminded of our basic geography that if you cannot navigate through the Suez Canal and Red Sea, if that route is closed, then the shortest route between Europe and Asia around the Cape of Good Hope is not the Straits of Malacca. You have to go further south and through the Sunda Strait. Again, I am trying to make the point that we take a position for our long-term national interests. That is why we contributed personnel to the multinational Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect freedom of navigation and key sea lines of communication in response to what we assessed to be unlawful attacks on commercial shipping by the Houthis.This is about upholding principles and not about taking sides.

9 Second, we must make common cause with as many partners around the world as possible. That means we will work with all countries on the basis of sovereign equality, mutual respect, and mutual benefit. To do this, we need to always bring value to the table. My job as Foreign Minister is so much easier because I stand on the foundations laid by the pioneer generation, who showed the world that we would stand up, would not flinch, and would defend Singapore’s national interests. We would add value, act transparently and honestly, could be relied upon to be honest brokers. That has opened the door for today’s generation of diplomats. We also make sure that in any diplomatic conference, the Singaporean diplomats would be the most well-briefed, most erudite, most persuasive, and the most constructive people in the room. Another big advantage that makes my job so much easier is that when any Singaporean Minister or diplomat takes a stand on the international stage, it has been coordinated. He speaks not for himself or for MFA, but for the whole of Government and the whole of Singapore. This is the way we have conducted foreign policy over decades and how we have achieved a certain branding and reputation for being consistent, constructive, and to look for “win-win” outcomes on the basis of mutual respect. So we have made a difference and are continuing to make a difference on the international stage, whether it is frontier issues like Generative AI, climate change, digital economy, new energy, or sustainability. These same habits and attributes keep recurring. That is why we must continue to be a credible and honest partner, especially and even in the face of great power rivalry. Many people ask us about the US and China. Implicit in their comment or question is “Which side would you take?” I have to keep reiterating that we will not become anyone’s cat’s paw or pawn or Trojan horse. We will be useful, but we will not be used by any other power. We will look at issues, as and when they arise, dispassionately and will always choose on the basis of Singapore’s long-term national interests. That means, from time to time, we will face pressure from countries, almost always bigger than us, who want us to bend to their will or at least to endorse their positions. But we will need to stand firm and be prepared from time to time to say “no”, not in a gratuitous and provocative way, but because they know that we have done our own calculations, and we take a stand based on our assessment of our long-term national interests. There is no point putting pressure on Singaporean Ministers and diplomats. If anything, we will dig in and hold the line even firmer. This makes us relevant and gives us a degree of respect and ability to contribute on the global stage.

10 These are principles that have always guided our dealings with powers and partners. This has enabled us to maintain good and significant equities with both the US, China, Russia, Europe, and all the middle emerging powers like Australia, India, and regions like Africa and South America. This year, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Suzhou Industrial Park – our first Government-to-Government project with China. This year is also the 20th anniversary of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the first FTA the US signed with an Asian country. We continue to reinforce our status as a trusted partner to both superpowers, even as we find new areas to deepen our cooperation. It is important to be able to do that even while the two superpowers do not get along, do not have strategic trust, and have not yet reached a modus vivendi. We are trying to deepen cooperation and maintain separate relationships with them that are still based on trust. I hope you can understand and appreciate the nature of that diplomatic challenge. Of course, we will continue to prioritise our relations with our neighbours, especially our two immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as with ASEAN, and with regional players and the emerging middle powers. I will leave Second Minister Maliki and SMS Sim Ann to give you more details on this later.

Foreign Policy Begins at Home

11 Let me come back to foreign policy beginning at home. I have already mentioned the essential need for domestic cohesion and unity. This is absolutely essential and existential. If we cannot be united at home, how do we face the outside world with all its dangers, challenges, and risks? At independence, we were a society riddled with racial and religious fault-lines. Our forefathers overcame this by setting aside their differences. Not erasing them; those differences are still there, but making sure they did not become a source of internal tension and conflict. Our pioneer generation chose to put Singapore and Singaporeans first. They worked together for the collective good, to build not a Malay nation, or a Chinese nation, or an Indian nation. They chose to build a nation that all of us equally could call home.But this is always work in progress. Our ethnic identities, our legacies, our connections are still useful for maintaining friendships, and for establishing and expanding business connections. But fundamentally, even as we parley our multilingual, multicultural, and multireligious ability, we must remember to look at issues and respond as Singaporeans first. Every time I go to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing or the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, I am always reminded that if my great grandparents had not left India or China, I would not be there as a guest of India or China. Then I look around at my delegation and look at the faces, and I always point out to my interlocutors that we are multiracial, multilingual, and multireligious. I speak on behalf of Singapore and Singaporeans, not as an Indian, or Chinese, or Malay, or on the basis of my religious identity. I am reminded of that every time I go the White House, or any palace or Istana in the world. This is the way we have to continue dealing with all countries. Both those whom we have good and friendly relations with and those whom we may temporarily have perhaps a little bit of tension with because of disagreements on issues. The point is that external issues and events will always have the potential to sow disagreement amongst us. It is hardcoded into our identity. Our diversity is both a strength and challenge. The same windows of opportunity also serve as windows for discord. This is not a bug but a design feature of Singapore. So long as we remember that we must not allow centrifugal pressures to threaten our harmony and cohesion, we can continue to take advantage of our diversity. It is both a defining strength and a potential source of division. A variety of opinions is healthy and it provides a foundation upon which we can make collective decisions as a country. But remember that we must always find that middle ground. Make the compromises. Arrive at the consensus. The moment we fracture, we are irrelevant.

12 External issues can certainly polarise us. Russia’s war with Ukraine was a precursor, a preamble for us. We took a position to condemn Russia’s invasion because it was a clear violation of international law. But there were competing narratives that were opposed to the position we took. They wanted us to choose a side instead of upholding principles. The war in Ukraine had significant economic impact. It certainly affected the price of energy, fertilisers, and food. We felt it. It was part of the story of inflation around the world. But, actually, did not have all that much emotional resonance. Given our makeup, the sense of affinity or identity was much less. But now, let us get real. The next episode - what is happening in Gaza. The Israel-Hamas conflict may actually have less economic impact, but it has got a very major emotional impact. We should recognise that. The fighting in Gaza has resulted in a humanitarian crisis that is appalling.Anyone with a heart must ache with every picture, every video, every news report you read. Far too many innocent lives have been lost or maimed forever. The conflict in the Middle East is a complicated one. It goes back decades, centuries or even thousands of years. It is chronic, difficult, painful, tragic, and enormously difficult to resolve problem. What happened on 7 October 2023 – and I know I have had this debate with the Leader of the Opposition before.We had to condemn that specific episode when Hamas launched an attack on civilians and took hostages. This was a blatant and abhorrent act of terrorism which cannot be justified by any circumstance, context, historical reason or justification. Why are we so obsessed with calling out terrorism wherever we see it without any excuses, pretext, or justification? The reason we take this stand is not because we are taking sides, correcting history, or rewriting history. We cannot. We are talking about a conflict of thousands of years while we are only a country of 59 years. We have taken a categorical stand because terrorism is a clear and present threat to Singapore. To excuse terrorism now, for whatever reason, puts Singapore at risk. Every time I read about rockets being fired, or an insurgent force killing, maiming, raping civilians, or taking hostages, my thoughts were not so much in Gaza. Instead, I was thinking about what would happen if rockets landed in Bukit Panjang, if an insurgent force entered Woodlands, if 1,200 Singaporeans were killed, if 200 Singaporeans were kidnapped. That is what I was thinking. When I say that foreign policy begins at home, I tell you that your Foreign Minister spends more time thinking about what if that happened in Singapore. What would we need to say, what would we need to do, what would be the job of diplomats, especially our Permanent Representative in New York, especially if we had to face the UN Security Council (UNSC). I hope you understand why we have to be so categorical at times like this, even though we know it is an emotionally fraught moment.

13 After the 7 October attacks, we said we recognised Israel’s right to self-defence. It is not because I was thinking of Israel or taking sides. We recognised Israel’s right to self-defence because we will assert Singapore’s right to self-defence if we ever faced a situation like that. Have no doubt about that. It is not just our right to self-defence but I think Members of this House would agree that it is our duty is to protect our citizens. But even as we say that there is a right to self-defence, we have consistently insisted that Israel must comply with international humanitarian law. Israel’s conduct must abide by the principles of necessity and proportionality. Israel must comply with the laws of war, including the principles of distinction and humanity enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

14 Unfortunately, Israel’s military response has gone too far. For avoidance of ambiguity, I am going to repeat that line. Israel’s military response has gone too far. The catastrophic situation in Gaza demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to alleviate the unbearable suffering of the civilian victims and to enable humanitarian assistance to reach them immediately. We are also concerned that there may be a potential ground offensive into Rafah which will only worsen the situation further. We have made our position clear, both in my conversations with Israel and all our Arab friends and partners, and at the UN. We voted for the two UN General Assembly resolutions on the “Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations” which called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

15 Some people have told me – that is not enough. We want you to sever diplomatic ties with Israel and recall our ambassador; engage in other performative diplomatic actions. I need to tell everyone that we manage our international relations by remaining engaged with the international community and maintaining ties with as many countries as possible that are willing to maintain ties with us. As a small country, this is in our national interest. Ceremonially breaking ties with countries every time we disapprove of their actions, in my view, is not constructive. Whatever we say or do diplomatically will not change the situation on the ground. Nor will it influence Israel to suddenly change its policy or will it necessarily immediately reduce the suffering of the Palestinians. None of the Five Permanent Members of the UNSC have broken diplomatic ties with Israel. Even the Arab countries like Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan continue to have diplomatic relations with Israel. I checked last night during a phone call. While the Ambassadors may or may not be present, their staff are present and their embassies are open and functional. Neither have ASEAN countries like Thailand, the Philippines or Vietnam broken off relations or closed their embassies in Tel Aviv.

16 Ms Rachel Ong asked how Singapore’s relations with Israel would be impacted by the position that we have taken on the conflict. Clearly, they know that our position is not identical to theirs. I would say that we have been able to maintain good and respectful relations with the state of Israel. But I would also say that we have good and equally respectful relations with the Palestinian Authority. All sides know that Singapore will always speak our mind, not provocatively, but because these are dearly held principles that we uphold. We will continue to maintain these positions guided by Singapore’s long-term national interests and our unique circumstances. Whether or not you agree or disagree with us, it is not personal. It is a carefully considered national position. Quite frankly, I have never had to get into any shouting matches or disagreeable phone calls with any other foreign minister, regardless of circumstances. It is not because I am such an erudite and charming man, but because I am just the latest, current Foreign Minister of Singapore, behaving true to form and holding fast to principles that have stood the test of time.

17 I want to make one more point about the Israel-Hamas conflict. As I have said just now, this is a longstanding conflict with a complicated history. But it is worth emphasising that this is not a religious battle. Religion is actually a veneer covering the heart of the conflict. What is the heart of the conflict? It is an age-old conflict, a fight over land, identity, and power. This is an issue that goes back a very long time. In fact not just by tradition, and not just because they all claim Abraham to be their father, but even the latest genetic data. The Israelis and Palestinians are both Semitic tribes who have been fighting over this same sliver of land for such a long time. It is not possible for outsiders like us, no matter how we feel or do not feel about their identity, culture, and religion, it is not possible for Singaporeans to decide or determine who is right or who has a stronger historical claim. This long-drawn fight has been a tragedy, but this is only the latest chapter of a long saga of tragedy. Our hearts quite rightly ache at the bloodshed but it is essential for Singaporeans to understand and appreciate that this is not our quarrel. While we may feel a diversity of emotions on this, the worst thing would be to let this quarrel polarise and divide us as Singaporeans.

18 Both Israel and Palestine have a right to exist. Israel has a right to live peacefully within secure borders, but the Palestinian people also have a right to a homeland. This is why, way back in 1988, we welcomed the proclamation of a Palestinian state.

19 We are under no illusions that the path to an enduring peace will be easy. There is so much distrust and animosity, and recent events have only made things worse. For what it is worth, I tell all our friends and partners in the Middle East that Singapore continues to believe that a negotiated two-state solution, consistent with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, is the only possible basis for durable peace. Anything else will just condemn them to repeating the cycles of violence and tragedy. We have consistently expressed our support for a two-state solution at the UN. We have consistently opposed moves that undermine a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. For example, we view Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law and we think that proceeding with the way that they have proceeded over the last couple of decades, after the failure of the Oslo Accords, will only make things worse. It makes it much more difficult to arrive at a two-state solution. We have voted in favour of every UN resolution that calls on Israel to rescind unilateral measures to change the status of Jerusalem. Not because we have a view on how to settle the Jerusalem question, but because we believe this can only be done through direct negotiations between the two semitic tribes – the Palestinians and the Israelis - directly arriving at a consensus, however long and difficult that will be.

20 Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim asked how we have contributed to the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Singaporeans have contributed generously with humanitarian assistance. Singaporean NGOs and the Government have raised more than S$10 million for relief operations to Gaza so far and I am confident more will follow. Our strong ties with partners in the Middle East have allowed us to collaborate with them on the delivery of this aid. So far, we have sent two tranches of life-saving aid for the civilians in Gaza. Minister Maliki was in Cairo in early November last year to personally hand over the first tranche to the Egyptian Red Crescent. A few weeks later, we sent a second tranche that was delivered directly to Al Arish, an airport in Egypt, near the Egypt-Gaza border.This was delivered by an RSAF aircraft. In January 2024, we also sent an SAF medical team to serve onboard a French Navy ship to treat casualties from Gaza.

21 I spoke to the Jordanian Foreign Minister last night. We have agreed that we will donate a third tranche of aid for Gaza and this time we will work through Jordan. We will also continue our long-standing support for the Palestinian Authority’s capacity building efforts through our $10 million Enhanced Technical Assistance Package (ETAP). As I said before, we have good ties with the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Lee, Senior Minister Teo, Minister Maliki, and I have visited Ramallah on multiple occasions. We have met our counterparts there. Even during this crisis, I have been in phone contact with the Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister. We do all this because we look forward to the day when there is peace and a functioning, capable Palestinian state, and that the Palestinian people get the peace and progress which they so richly deserve. I mentioned earlier that we have also established a representative office in Ramallah in 2022.

22 I appreciate that many Singaporeans feel deeply about what is happening in Gaza.But I also hope you can understand my point that foreign policy cannot be driven one way or the other by sentiment or affinity to any external group. Our foreign policy must be based on understanding our core interests and acting consistently in accordance with the principles that safeguard our independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security.

23 Looking ahead, because of the state of the world, there are going to be many more foreign policy issues that are difficult, sensitive, prickly, and controversial. The Israel-Hamas war is just the latest chapter. Can you imagine if there is a war between the US and China, or India and China, or between our neighbours, or in the South China Sea? Then it will not just be economics or just emotion. Everything will come to bear at the same time, both the economic and the emotional impact. If that happens, if Singapore splits, polarises, or divides on the basis of affinity, history, identity, race, language, or religion, we will be sunk. Singapore will be divided, weaker, and vulnerable. We will not be independent; we will not have autonomy. I am very glad that our community and religious leaders have tried to help our people better understand the conflict. This is a very dangerous and difficult exercise but it is an essential exercise. Where else in the world can you see the Chief Rabbi and the Mufti come together in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous attack and catastrophic response, in a public display of solidarity, to call for stronger bonds between the Jewish and Muslim communities, and express their hopes and prayers for long-term peace. The Mufti and Chief Rabbi have both come in for criticism. They are brave and principled people and they have stood up, not just for their communities, but have made Singapore a stronger, safer and better place. This is a wonderful example of Singapore unity, cohesion, and compassion at its best.

24 Let me end again by quoting Mr Lee Kuan Yew.He said this in 1967 when speaking to some university students: “We must be realistic. We cannot afford to indulge in emotional outbursts or in wishful thinking. We must face the hard facts of life and deal with them rationally and objectively”. Mr Chair, we have tried in MFA, and all our diplomats, to abide by this.



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