Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview Following the Working Visit to the Middle East, 25 March 2024

25 March 2024

Minister:  We have all come back to Singapore safely after a very hectic regional tour of the Middle East. It was tiring, exhausting, but necessary.


First, we needed to make this trip to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the innocent civilians in Gaza. We had already sent two earlier tranches through the Egyptian Red Cross through land-based routes. But because of the dire situation, which is still getting worse, there was a need to supplement that with air drops. I am very grateful to the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) because the air drops are ongoing. Several missions have been conducted. It is not sufficient. The real solution is to have a significant expansion in the land-based routes to deliver humanitarian supplies. But there was a need to coordinate this with both the Egyptians and the Jordanians. I want to express appreciation to both governments for facilitating this humanitarian assistance. I should also add that additional supplies have also reached Amman and we are grateful for the fundraising as well as the collection, packing of supplies, which we are also sending to the Middle East. Primarily, I would anticipate (in the) future, we will continue to rely on our partners in both Egypt and Jordan. So that was first reason for the trip.


The second reason was to consult and get a direct download from our Arab partners in the Middle East. I am very glad that they gave us full access at senior levels, and gave us very candid, open views. I will not be able to reveal details of each country's position but I would say that every single country in the Middle East has its own strategic calculus and their own national interests to protect. They do not all see the issue in exactly the same way, although certainly there are some common themes. The key things where I think everyone agreed on is to stop the violence, the release of the hostages, the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance, more so than what has been available so far; and also some thoughts on the day after, and the long term configuration, which I will expand on later on. Nothing beats direct, face-to-face interaction and listening to what are the concerns of our Arab partners in the Middle East. 


Third, it was also an opportunity for us to convey our views directly to the Israelis. We have had a long relationship with Israel but on this particular incident, we have a divergence of views. I was able to express that, clearly, unambiguously, that whilst we agree that what happened on 7 October (2023) was an act of terror, and that Israel has a right of self-defence. Nevertheless, our view is that their current level of their military response has gone too far and we were able to convey that and also to convey, additionally, our concerns for humanitarian assistance. One key reason for engaging Israel is that if we want, especially both now and in the future, to step up humanitarian assistance, we need Israel’s cooperation. So, keeping that link open in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies was essential.


You will notice that I brought a group of MPs (Members of Parliament) with me, which reflect the diversity of Singapore. I included Mr. Gerald Giam from the Workers Party to also show all our partners there that Singaporeans are united; we want to hear and listen to them. We also all had the chance to convey our views, and to show the fundamental cohesion, unity of all Singaporeans, and that this was not a matter for partisan politics. I should also add that the additional benefit of this trip and including the participation of MPs was the chance to engage our students. Currently, the students who are studying in Cairo, in Al Azhar as well as the University of Yarmouk in Jordan. Our students have been there, and I think it was important for us to touch base with them, listen to them as well as offer them avenues for constructive contributions, and to give them an avenue to express their care and concern for the civilian victims of the war. So, I thought that was another very essential aspect of our trip and I certainly found it very fulfilling to be able to speak to them, and so did the other MPs.


Beyond the trip, let me just reflect on where I see this situation evolving. I am afraid I start from a position of pessimism. Let me try to explain this in three phases. First, the immediate phase, then, the day after. The day after is the situation in the immediate aftermath when the hostilities cease and then the long term. In the immediate phase, we need an immediate ceasefire for humanitarian reasons, and we also need the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. Without these things happening now, or as soon as possible, more lives are going to be lost tragically and unnecessarily. I believe the negotiations in Doha are ongoing. So far, I have not heard of a breakthrough. Every day, I hope and pray for a breakthrough. Every single day makes a difference to lives lost on the ground. That is for the immediate (phase). The day after (phase), is far more complicated and that was the subject of a lot of our discussions with our Arab partners. Gaza will need some governing structure, some people with both moral and political authority. They will need a functioning civil service or at least municipal services, food, healthcare, education, to keep the lights going, to keep water supplies going. There will have to be a lot of emergency rebuilding, as well as longer term planning for the infrastructure, which two million people will need. This will be a complicated thing which the Palestinian Authority has readily told me they will need help externally. Primarily, I think they will get assistance from the Arab neighbours, but they will also be looking towards America, Europe and other partners.


On our side, because we have had a long-term relationship with the Palestinian Authority, particularly focusing on human talent and capacity development, we will step up our interactions with the Palestinian Authority to help them, enable them or to facilitate them doing this job of governance and rebuilding in the immediate aftermath. For the long term, and this is a point which I stress repeatedly to everyone, including the Israelis, you cannot have security without peace. If you just focus on security alone, it is ultimately brittle (and) from time to time you will get incidents like this. Incidents like this, like what happened on 7th October can easily flare up and become a regional conflagration. We still believe that a two-state solution is needed. Direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution where the two people can live in harmony, dignity, safety and security is the only long-term solution.


Frankly, my sense of it is that both the Palestinians and Israelis right now (are) perhaps too traumatised, too angry (and) too distrustful to begin these conversations, but nevertheless, even when the night is darkest, you must still look forward to sunrise the next day. This is something which will be a much longer-term project.


But let me step away from that and now come home, maybe some reflections for us. In Singapore, I think the first point is for us not to take for granted the peace, the security, the harmony that we have in Singapore. Amongst a very diverse, multiracial, multilingual, multi religious (population), and the need to conduct politics and political discourse in a rational, enlightened, careful (and) considerate way.


The Middle East is an example of what happens when history, religion and politics mix into a very combustible field and too many lives are lost. Although the Middle East may be very far from us, we should never take what we have here for granted. The first thing is to reflect on what we currently enjoy. The second reflection is if you look at the Middle East, and you compare it to Southeast Asia, I think we should be very grateful that we are in Southeast Asia, and we have ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). From time to time, there will be differences with our neighbours, but we have been able to negotiate those differences, deal with those differences, and arrive at agreements. More importantly, we stick to international law and we honour our agreements. What we have in ASEAN is a zone of peace that is focused on economic development, competition - but not conflict - and partnership, in order to achieve a greater good. Again, I want to stress that, we should not take for granted the peace, the stability and the focus on economic development, and the bright prospects for Southeast Asia.

The third point is for us to also reflect that Singapore will never be insulated or immune to conflicts elsewhere. It can affect us economically, prices can rise, energy, food, etc. It can affect us culturally, emotionally, or even on the basis of religious and other ways in which we define our affinities. You cannot ignore that, you have to accept that that is part of our multiracial, diverse nature of our society. But we still have to make sure we don't let these things divide us or import foreign quarrels into our domestic politics. This is just the nature of Singapore's diversity. It is a strength, but with that strength, means also open windows. We will have to deal with issues in a mature, careful and deliberate way. I could not help feeling that it is also that identity plus our track record of success, not just economically but as a society, which has also made us a country of some fascination in the Middle East. And I think that is why they all opened the doors to us, they wanted to look at this unusual looking delegation. It clearly looks different, diverse, and yet united, and yet successful. This is our unique, comparative advantage, and we should preserve and protect that.


Li Si Miao (LHZB): My first question is with regard to the ongoing negotiations. Some would describe it as a stalemate. Where do you see the breakthrough? My second question is in the longer term, how would you assess the prospects of normalisation of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia?


Minister: In the short term, the negotiations right now are in a very delicate phase. Whether there is a stalemate, or how close you are to a solution, it is in the nature of negotiations - it is never done until everything is settled.  So, I will not want to jump the gun. 

Your point on normalisation (of ties), I think by now everyone knows that if 7 October had not occurred, there would probably have been a major strategic realignment in the Middle East. The most significant country there is Saudi Arabia. The strategic concerns of Saudi Arabia, the weight of Saudi Arabia in realigning and even reconfiguring the Middle East, to prepare for the future.  They have a very young Crown Prince who is very ambitious with a very long-term vision, who is looking 50 years, 100 years down the road, looking even at a post-oil future, and also wanting to get to the peaceful phase and overcome these conflicts. I am not in a position to tell you when and how normalisation will occur. But my sense is, it is in the strategic interests of the entire Middle East, in fact for all countries, to reach the point where they can normalise ties, in a way to reach the blessed situation that we have in Southeast Asia. I think the logical imperative is there, I would say even the political hope for it is there. But do not underestimate the depth and gravity of the problems that they have to overcome, both in the immediate term and in the short term.


Fakhurradzi Ismail (Berita Harian): Other than helping victims in Gaza, what is the intended outcome of the airdrop for Singaporeans? What are the expected benefits for Singaporeans considering Singapore’s active involvement in humanitarian efforts? From feedback on the ground so far, has that outcome been reached? My second question  – Singapore seems to be punching above its weight this time round in providing much needed humanitarian aid. Is this an indication of how Singapore wants to position itself on the world stage in times of crisis?    


Minister: I am not fond of phrases like  “punching above our weight” or whether this is all planned for Singapore to play a disproportionate role.


I will start from the point of Singaporeans. I think Singaporeans have a heart. Singaporeans have an instinctive sense of what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad. Singaporeans have views and Singaporeans want to be helpful, to be constructive. Our reason for sending repeated tranches of humanitarian assistance is not because the government wants it or the government says so. But I really, truly believe it is what our people, Singaporeans want. Our funds were raised from the community and from a wide range of people. I see our role as channelling, funnelling, facilitating and expressing the care (and) compassion of Singaporeans, and making sure the aid reaches the people who need help as quickly as possible. And also to make sure we work effectively with our partners in the Middle East so that this aid can reach the people who need help. The airdrops are just one small component of that because the real solution is to open up the land routes. It has to be increased by several fold. I think, right now, maybe 150 to 200 trucks get into Gaza each day. Before the war broke out, it used to be about 500. If you consider the state that Gaza is in now – most of it destroyed, supplies depleted, you are starting with a deficit. You need hundreds, if not more than 1,000 trucks a day to flow. So the air drops are a temporary, emergency procedure. But what we need is the land-based routes to open. That is why we are continuing to send supplies in the expectation that the land-based routes will open and we will be able to truck these supplies across, either from Egypt or from Jordan. But either way, we need those links and to work closely with our Israeli friends so that they can let it through. That is what we are focused at. Every life that we can save is worth it. Maybe it is my bias as a doctor, I just want to save every life as quickly as possible. I think all Singaporeans share that hope. It is my duty to translate that hope, that care and that activism into a concrete action on the ground that saves lives.


Sherlyn Seah (CNA): Minister, you spoke a bit about your pessimistic outlook for the situation and also about the long journey ahead. So, what does it mean in terms of Singapore’s possible future engagements with the Israelis on what they are doing, given the fact that we have also heard that they are not going to bow under international pressure? How do you balance out the fact that they have been making some pointed comments online?


Minister: We will continue to engage all parties, even across the conflict. We should not underestimate the fact that we have been able to engage everyone. You have been with me through all the destinations, you know I am saying exactly the same thing in every destination. They listen to us, they obviously do not agree on everything that we say. But we are able to have constructive, respectful relations. Having said that, we should also not over-inflate Singapore’s importance. We are a small city state far away from the Middle East. We are not going to change the trajectory of war and peace in the Middle East. That is beyond us. But I think we are still able to say what we believe, to do what is helpful, to engage partners who may, in fact, be on opposite sides. We do what we can, and be rational, be credible, be constructive, and have mutually beneficial relations with everyone possible. I think this trip was an example which you could all see the reality of. We are not going to change the trajectory, but we have access, and we can be helpful. So let us continue doing that.


Kok Yufeng (ST): Would you consider this trip a success? Have you achieved what you wanted to achieve on this trip? And today, we saw there was a post from the (Israeli) Embassy that has been taken down. Can you share any details about that?


Minister: Last night, I read it, it was wrong. We communicated to them (that it was) highly inappropriate to make references to sacred texts in order to score political points. We told them, and they complied (and took down the post) immediately. But again, it is just a reminder – please be careful how, and what you say, and bear in mind the fact that we are in Singapore. In Singapore, we do things differently. With all due respect to foreign countries, we think that on the management of race, language and religion, for what it is worth, I think we are a positive example. That is all I need to say. 


Daniel Ho (Mothership): Earlier in the trip you shared about your pessimism. Now, having met almost all the major players in the Middle East, has it made you more pessimistic or less?


Minister: No, I am still pessimistic in the short term. Because as I said, every conflict eventually ends at the negotiating table. Every conflict. Whether there is victory or defeat, or a ceasefire or an armistice, everything always ends at a table. As a diplomat, what I feel more sorry about is that oftentimes, in order to secure more leverage, conflicts are prolonged. When conflicts are prolonged, more innocent people suffer, lose their lives. The problem is not just in the short term but every family that has lost a child, a parent, grandparent – they are scarred for life. We also have to think, and this is a point I made to the Israelis as well – beyond a certain point, you are actually storing up problems for the future. That cannot be in your own interest. So, I remain pessimistic in the immediate term. 


But diplomats have to have hope. So, you have to keep trying. Everyone I met, still expressed the hope that maybe in this darkest hour, maybe we can find a new configuration, a new energy, a new commitment to make peace. But have no illusions, this is going to be a very long and tortured journey. For Singapore, let us just reflect on ourselves, and what we can do in our own small way, and protect our own precious, fragile nation. 


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Photo captionMinister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s doorstop with media following his working visit to the Middle East, 25 March 2024

Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore

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