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

29 February 2024



Leader of the Opposition Mr Pritam Singh: Thank you, Chair. Thank you to the Minister for a very broad ranging speech which I thought was very helpful. I refer to one of the points which he anchored his speech on, which is about foreign policy beginning at home and the importance of a cohesive and united society in Singapore. I subscribe to those points. I think perhaps it is best to describe it through something which happened some years ago. Minister gave me a call. It pertained to, it does not matter which country, race, or embassy, but basically a particular embassy had reached out to Singaporean Members of Parliaments (MPs) of a particular race and invited them for an event. Minister shared with me that at least the People Action Party’s (PAP) position was that they will not be going for this event because of the particular way it was organised for only one particular race of MPs. It did not take long, in fact, hardly a few seconds, for me to tell the Minister: I think that is something we (the Workers’ Party) will follow suit. Because we are Singapore. And I think there is something quite pregnant when I say that we are Singapore. I want to share this episode to set the tone of the conversation in the right spirit.


Two points which Minister raised. One was self-defence. I have no disagreement with the Minister about how important it is for Singapore to retain our right to self-defence. The only issue in the case of the Israel-Hamas conflict was that the conflict had a history. I do not mean a long history, but a far shorter history of four conflicts in a short period of about two decades. And almost every time, it is a case of one side going too far. And this was what I sought to share in my speech in November 2023 when Mr Vikram Nair and his colleagues filed a motion on the subject. The second element, which I think is important to talk about, and I think that Minister made the nuance very well in his speech when he talked about the events of 7 October, is that they are certainly acts of terror. The only issue, sir, is that language shapes narrative.  And in a conflict that is critical insofar as shaping minds and shaping the information landscape, and when you have a situation where one party is likely to dehumanize another party and which they have done in the past, its senior leadership and people in government continue to do so. The language that is used is important. I recall Minister in November being very careful, and he said, notice I am just referring to what happened on that day. I think that is important. Those are the points I feel compelled to share with the Minister notwithstanding my broad agreement with what he has shared today.


But I have two questions that I think can be helpful in terms of the public conversation and in terms of engaging with Singaporeans on foreign policy. One, on the Israel-Hamas issue, I have received emails. I am sure the ministry has received the same emails. I think some of them are from Singaporeans. I cannot speak for every email that comes through. But there was a view that we should cut relations with Israel. That is a separate question, but I think it would be helpful to understand the nuance of how foreign policy is determined when you have a situation where one party does not believe in the two-state solution and that is our national position. I think that the current Israeli leadership does not believe in the two-state solution. I think that they have said so publicly. I think a few of the Ministers have said so publicly notwithstanding a motion that was passed in the Israeli parliament last week. It would be helpful to understand how we traverse, how we move on a foreign policy issue, when we take a particular position and one of the other parties take a diametrically different position. This was a similar question that came up in activities on the ground insofar as the Russia-Ukraine conflict is concerned with individuals asking why do we go so far as to sanction when we can actually make our point by saying we disagree because this goes against international law? I think some understanding for the public about how we move vis-à-vis our own position would be helpful. I am not putting these questions to suggest that I disagree with the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on these matters. But I think that understanding is something that can move the conversation in public forward, because as the Minister has shared, a lot of people in Singapore are talking about it for various reasons.


Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: First, thank you for your cooperation in the past. You have revealed a private and sensitive conversation that we had. I am not going to go through the details, but I want to affirm that yes, I do have private and sensitive conversations with the opposition. And I will also affirm that to date, we have arrived at consensus. We arrived at agreement for that particular issue. I would also say that I think as a matter of habit, we have been able to make sure our politics stops at the water's edge. And for that, I thank you.


Since many of your questions are about the problems in Gaza, I am going to start, and I welcome you to correct me if I am wrong, by listing where we agree. I think I have heard you say that you agree that what happened on 7 October was an act of terror. You have also affirmed that there is a right of self-defence. You have highlighted the danger of words used or misused or used without sufficient thought or caution. And you have also highlighted the dangers of dehumanising someone who you do not agree with. I can say that I agree with you on those points. For your question on diplomatic ties, and I think that we both received the same emails, I detect from your question that you agree with me that we should not sever diplomatic ties even when the government of the day of another country may have quite a fundamental disagreement with us on policy. I am saying that I detect that you are agreeing with us. Can I seek confirmation that you agree with us?


Mr Pritam Singh: Sir, short of re-characterising how I put my question, which I have thought through carefully. My query on diplomatic ties is that I would rather be in communication with the party, rather than not be in communication with the party. But the point I think was about how you respond when the other party takes a diametrically different position from your national position.


Minister: I will interpret it as you agree.


Mr Pritam Singh: No need to interpret. I agree.


Minister: Thank you. On policy and on action and position, I think the Workers Party agrees with the position that we have taken. But your question is please share what is your thinking behind the policy? Because the Workers Party and the PAP can arrive at the same decision but for completely different reasons and different rationales. I think that it is a fair question to see how and what are our principal considerations and how do we arrive at a decision like this? Specifically for diplomatic ties, and I stand ready to be corrected by Prime Minister, I do not think that we have ever broken ties in 59 years. Or at least in the 20 years that Prime Minister has been around. I will get my staff to check. But I cannot recall a single time when we have broken ties. So that is just a matter of fact-checking. From time to time, will we have disagreements, even standoffs, even close to kinetic action with other countries? The answer is yes. And will a performative gesture of formally breaking ties necessarily be helpful? That will be the first question I will ask myself and I will ask my staff and I will ask my Prime Minister. Do we want to go through this performative gesture? And will it help? My own inclination is to say in times of tension, in times of divergence, in times of conflict, the more you can engage and communicate and keep multiple channels of communication open, the better. That is my first point.


In the case of Russia and Ukraine, we have not broken ties with Russia. Without spilling state secrets, have I continued to meet informally with my counterpart in Russia? Yes, I have continued to meet informally. I have told my Prime Minister that I have had to inhale second-hand smoke, and I have drunk good whiskey for the sake of Singapore. And why do I do that? Because I am not engaged in performative gestures. I want to hear, I want to understand, at the same time, I want to communicate to him and his country, so they know why we had taken a different position from them. It is not personal. It is not bilateral and even when we go, as far as to levy sanctions, these are targeted sanctions. These sanctions say that we will make sure that Singapore is not a portal for arms or dual use equipment which can be used against Ukraine and Ukrainian civilians. The Russians have had to say certain things about us. But in fact, if you observe the acts and the actions and the conduct between Russia and Singapore, it has been mutually respectful. It has been constructive. And I look forward to the day when the war in Ukraine ends and relations and the conduct of business can get back to normal.


Coming to Israel, I think it has been a rare privilege that our diplomats and Ministers have access to all the countries in the Middle East, especially during this time of crisis. We do not agree with everything that every counterpart in Israel and the Arab countries say, but they listen to us. They respect our positions. They work with us to deliver assistance.  And even for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, we will need to work with Israel. The fact that everyone knows we do have good relations with Israel also gives us a special ability to contribute and to be more effective in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. So that is basically my thinking.  There will be disagreements from time to time. That is normal. Having more channels open in general is good. Do you have to sometimes take actions to signify your disapproval? You do, but in your choice of actions and diplomatic gestures be very restrained and be very careful.  Focus on outcomes. In this case, Singapore has no say in what will happen between Israel and Palestine. But we have an opinion for what it is worth. And both the Israelis and the Palestinians know our position is not identical to each of them. But they know why we take the positions that we take, and that has not stopped us from having mutually respectful and constructive relations. I do not take it for granted. When I share notes with my counterparts in ASEAN and in other countries, very few people have access that we have had. We have been to Jerusalem and to literally every capital. When we went to Jerusalem, and Prime Minister will recall, the way in which the Israelis, the Jordanians, the administrators of Al Haram Al-Sharif, the way they treated us and access that they gave us, Prime Minister will agree, it was unprecedented. I do not take that for granted. I think that we had that because we have conducted foreign policy in a principled, consistent, respectful, and constructive way for decades. That gives us access. That gives us some relevance. But never overestimate our weight. We remain small, remote, and multiracial.


The purpose of most of my speech today was not about the technicalities of foreign policy, but to reflect that our very foundation and our identity are based on diversity. It is our identity and our strength, but with that strength comes portals of vulnerabilities.  What we are trying to achieve here is not peace in the Middle East. But for us Singaporeans, we are able to say that we may have different opinions, deeply held for a variety of reasons, but it will not divide us.  We will still make common cause. We will still be constructive partners with our friends across conflict zones. Whether that conflict is in Myanmar, which is a civil war, or between neighbours like Ukraine and Russia who also have a complicated history, or the interminable rounds of violence in the Middle East. The fact that Singapore has access and respect, and has a small and constructive role to play, is something which we should be grateful for. But my main point today is that so long as we stay united, so long as we are able to truly respect diverse opinions, and still operate as a united whole. For that, I thank the leader of the Opposition, the members of the opposition, and the Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) for what I believe today is consensus on our foreign policy.





MP Murali Pillai: Mr Chairman, Sir, may I seek a response to my cut speech on improving consular services for Singaporeans. Thank you.


Senior Minister of State Sim Ann: Mr Chair, thank you for the opportunity to address Mr Murali’s cut and also Mr Xie Yao Quan’s cut on how MFA has leveraged technology to improve our consular services. One of the most important roles for MFA is to provide consular assistance to Singaporeans who are abroad. The volume is growing as more Singaporeans live, work, and travel abroad. In 2023, MFA handled 4,419 consular cases and facilitated the issuance of 1,535 Documents of Identity. A Document of Identity is a temporary travel document for Singaporeans who have lost their passports, which enables them to return home. With diplomatic representation in just 56 countries, a constant challenge we face is how to provide assistance where we do not have a ground presence. To mitigate this, we continue to build a pool of professional first responders in MFA headquarters who can render 24/7 consular support and assistance to Singaporeans overseas via phone and email. We also partner with other countries. For example, we worked with the Republic of Korea (ROK) to help evacuate five Singaporeans from Tel Aviv to Seoul in October 2023. We also partnered the Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese governments to evacuate Singaporeans from Northern Myanmar last year. Mr Murali has asked how MFA assesses Singaporeans’ satisfaction with consular services rendered. We place great importance on feedback that we receive from members of the public., We are encouraged by positive feedback that we have regularly received from citizens, but we continue to actively evaluate comments and suggestions on areas that we can improve on. We are also embracing technology to help improve the quality of our services. We have developed a Consular Case Management System that connects our Overseas Missions and HQ digitally, which allows us to better track consular cases and better coordinate the provision of assistance to Singaporeans. We will also use this data to analyse trends and thereby sharpen our ability to deliver timely assistance. Thank you.





MP Nadia Samdin: Thank you very much Chairman and to each of the MFA Ministers for your response, especially Minister’s sharing at the start of clarification time which was helpful. I would like to build on the earlier point of how ultimately foreign policy begins at home and seek clarification on the Israel-Palestine crisis. I appreciate the Minister taking great pains to explain and address concerns, reiterating some of Singapore's positions regarding acts of terrorism, the votes you have taken at the United Nations (UN) and correctly reminding us of our fragile place in the world and the importance of unity among our people, all of which I agree with. I can also understand Minister’s explanation as to why we have not cut off ties, including with Israel, because at the end of the day, bearing in mind our size, maybe having a seat at the table and a chance to have dialogue is better than closing off the chance to raise concerns. Not cutting off our ties also allows our aid to be seen as more trustworthy, as medical supplies are more likely to be able to pass through borders. The question I have sir, which many on the ground also have, is how are we translating our position that, according to Minister, in this case, maybe Israel has gone too far, and we are supportive of a ceasefire to prevent further humanitarian tragedy in Gaza, to how foreign policy begins at home in a congruent manner across all of government. For example, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the case of permits for events, Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) for dialogues, Ministry of Education (MOE) for the way we educate our students, and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) in the case of the airshow. Thank you.


Minister: Chair, I do not think it is appropriate for me to respond on behalf of MHA or MOE. Let me try to confine my answer to MFA. First, I thank you for your understanding. I thank you for your agreement with the elements of our foreign policy that I have expounded on. Thank you for that. Specifically, your question on how our stand, given that it differs from the Israelis, because I am sure the Israelis will disagree with me and with us when we say that the military response has gone too far. Similarly, in my conversations with my Arab counterparts, their interpretation of events will not be identical to ours. I would say that the first point is to accept that these differences are in the nature of things. But what has been good is that it has not stopped us from communicating, from working together, and in the more specific case now of even delivering humanitarian assistance and more to come. I am glad therefore that you agree particularly that we should not break ties, and that we should maintain those links despite the differences of opinion that we have. More specifically for this issue we have voted for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire which is necessary. I should also have added that the hostages taken on 7 October should be released completely, immediately, and unconditionally. What we are witnessing, frankly, is a cynical calculus in blood. We do not want any part of that because we are not party to that quarrel. We are simply taking a stand on principle that terrorism is wrong, and that hostage taking is wrong. Please release the hostages immediately. Do not use any excuse, historical or whatever, to cover for that. At the same time, two wrongs do not make a right. And even when you pursue self defense, there are limits and please stay within those limits. At the end of it all, despite all the diversity in the world and even the discordance, we are all human beings and we must feel something for innocent civilians. Every innocent child, every civilian who loses his life or has a family member dead, is in fact storing up tinder for the next cycle of violence. Even if you want to take a completely amoral attitude to this calculus, this is counterproductive. I again reiterate and I am very grateful for, I believe, the consensus that we have achieved here.  It enables me to speak to my counterparts with greater confidence that I have the support of members in this house and of Singaporeans when we pursue a foreign policy that is principle-based, that is consistent, that is constructive, and that is able to operate in the midst of diversity both internally and external to Singapore. Thank you.





MP Raj Joshua Thomas: I thank The Honourable SMS Sim Ann for her elaboration on our relations with the middle powers within the time constraints that she had. Our relations with the middle powers are increasingly more important as we navigate the complexities of today’s global order. I have two clarifications. Sir, the first is as regards the European Union (EU)-Singapore Trade Agreement. There are two subsidiary agreements, the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement (EUSIPA) and the EU-Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EUSPCA), which have yet to be ratified. Could I ask SMS if she could give some updates on what is the status of that, and when we can expect them to be ratified and come into force. The second is as regards our ties with Germany. Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and PM issued a Joint Declaration in 2022 entitled “Partners for a Resilient and Sustainable Future” which included enhancing cooperation in various economic areas. May I ask if SMS could give us some insights into how we are pursuing cooperation with Germany in new and emerging areas, such as renewable energy, the digital economy, and cybersecurity. Thank you, Mr Chairman.


SMS: I thank Mr Joshua Raj for his questions. On the ratification of the EUSPCA as well as the EUSIPA, we are constantly working with the EU Member States to have these agreements ratified because we negotiated them together and we believe that these are very important agreements that will complement the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in bringing about greater certainty for companies on both sides.  At the same time, this will enhance the cooperation that we have at all levels with the EU. Progress is ongoing.  I am not able to give a timeframe, but this is something that we regularly bring up with our EU Member State counterparts whenever we meet them. As for Germany, we are pursuing cooperation in emerging areas such as the green and digital economies with many partners. Germany is one of them. But I am happy to share with the Member that we have a very strong foundation with Germany, because we have already welcomed more than 2,200 German companies to Singapore, which have created more than 4,500 jobs here. We also share close defence ties. This existing foundation enables us, I believe, to collaborate more effectively on new and emerging areas such as sustainability and innovation. This is something we look forward to.





MP Sylvia Lim: Thank you, Chairman. I have a clarification on Israel for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I understand that late last year, Singapore appointed a resident Ambassador to Israel, and it was the first time that Singapore has a resident Ambassador despite having diplomatic ties with Israel for more than 50 years. I would like to clarify what was the significance of this move now? And is it in any way related to the 7 October attacks, or is it part of a long-term strategy?


Minister: Thank you, Mr. Chair. And thank you for that question. The timing of our resident Ambassador taking up post had nothing to do with 7 October. It was just fortuitous or ‘unfortuitous’, depending on your point of view. The answer is that yes, it was part of a long-term plan. Beyond the travails that Israel has gone through and, if you stop thinking about the conflict and look at their achievements, Israel has many economic and technological achievements, especially in cyber, water, agriculture, and in many of the advanced technologies. It is a place with talent and technologies that we want access to. Our diplomatic ties with Israel go back a long time, but we do not have enough people to place all over the world. At present, I think we have only approximately 40 resident ambassadors. If you include our consulates, we have maybe about 50 Missions in a world which has (193) Member States. The short answer is that it has everything to do with long term plans and long-term opportunities.




MP Xie Yao Quan: I just want to come back to my cut about how Singapore is helping other countries to build capacity. Can I seek some clarification from MFA please. Thank you. 


SMS: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to also address Mr Xie Yao Quan’s cut, and I hope also, some of the points raised by Ms Usha Chandradas. In terms of our support of other countries’ capacity building efforts, this is something that we are committed to. We want to be a constructive partner in supporting the development of other countries because we recall how Singapore benefited from the assistance of others during the early years of our independence. We do this by sharing our development experiences through the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP). In the last 30 years, over 150,000 officials from more than 180 countries, territories, and intergovernmental organisations have participated in our SCP in a wide range of capacity-building courses, among which we are giving greater focus to sustainability. We have a Sustainability Action Package (SAP) to support efforts by developing countries to build resilience in water and food security, to manage and finance green projects, and to develop sustainable infrastructure and carbon markets. For example, we are working more with the Pacific Islands who are fellow Small Island Developing States. Minister Vivian attended the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in November 2023. During the Meeting, we announced the launch of the “Singapore-Pacific Resilience and Knowledge Sharing” technical assistance package. This is a customised three-year programme that aims to help the Pacific community build capacity to address some of the most pressing challenges that they have identified.





MP Mark Lee: Thank you, Minister for Foreign Affairs, for the clear and comprehensive explanation. I have two supplementary questions (SQ). The first is that there seems to be an increasing demand amongst young people to be more involved in engaging and hearing out their views. Therefore, I was wondering if MFA would consider getting young people involved by developing youth leaders – pardon my pun – as ambassadors on the ground, as well as creating more spaces for organised discussion so that MFA can thoroughly explain their policy formulation. My second SQ is in regard to what DPM Lawrence Wong said yesterday, about nurturing, supporting, and providing more Singaporeans who wish to go overseas to work and grow their experience. How does MFA plan to support and provide reassurance to Singaporeans working and living overseas, particularly in this volatile global landscape, in ensuring their safety and well-being, so that we can inspire confidence among these Singaporeans and families to pursue their global opportunities boldly, knowing that the Ministry has their back. Thank you.


Minister: Thank you. On your first point. I agree with you. I think that young Singaporeans do want to have access to the facts, the narratives, and they do want to have spaces for structured discussions. But particularly when you are dealing with a live issue, it becomes that much harder, not just in terms of urgency, but because emotions are raw, the chief protagonists are still in play, and it is not possible always to have a dispassionate, remote discussion. Frankly, I think that in a pre-social media and internet age, it was easier to say: “wait a minute, this is a live issue. Let us give it some time, and then discuss it.” I do not think that option is available today because if we do not actually provide safe places for structured discussions, and deliberately try to lower temperatures and have discussions that shed more light than heat, what will happen in the absence of that is you will see unbridled and sometimes unhinged, unfair, and inaccurate portrayals in social media dominating. So I just want to say that I agree with you.  It is in that spirit, and again, I am not speaking on behalf of Minister Chan, that we have to support the efforts of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, in the months and years to come. We need to do far more than we used to do in the past. In the case of MFA, I told my staff, and they all agree with me, that we have to do far more what of what we call ‘retail diplomacy’ - meaning that diplomacy is no longer just travelling, meeting, and engaging our counterparts, but we also have to make the case back home. It means every ambassador is not just an ambassador overseas, but I have told my ambassadors every time they come back for midterm consultations or for meetings that we will have to deploy them in schools and universities, and Institutions of Higher Learning. So, I agree with you. The second point is, you will be amazed at how widely and well-travelled Singaporeans are. I get to know about it when they get into trouble, and a phone call, message, or email comes. So the first point is that Singaporeans are some of the most widely travelled people in the world. And that is a good thing. Good because first, Singaporeans have opportunity. Second, because Singaporeans are also broadening their minds and horizons, and are looking for opportunities overseas.  The fact that you are Singaporean with the red passport, one of the most accessible passports in the world, that is a strength. But having said that, I must also confess to sometimes being worried when Singaporeans turn around and say: “I need you to give me a warranty”. My answer is yes, I do have your back and I will do my best. But I cannot give you a warranty that the rest of the world is as safe, secure, and peaceful as Singapore. So, during those rare occasions when MFA actually issues a travel advisory or travel notice, I appeal to Singaporeans to please pay attention to it. Do not go to a trouble spot if you really do not have to. If you do, for whatever reason, please register with us and we will do our best. The final point I will make also relates to ASEAN. We have a very good, informal, but functional relationship within ASEAN, that even when our people or citizens need help and we do not have a mission on the ground, we reach out to our ASEAN networks informally to provide assistance. I should record my thanks that there have even been occasions when evacuating Singaporeans from war zones, we had to ‘tompang’ convoys led by, or organised by ASEAN neighbours. So that is another plug for ASEAN and why we must get into this habit of looking out for each other. Thank you.


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