March 3, 2017
Singapore Foreign Policy Update
by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
2016 was a tumultuous year for the world and a very busy year for (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) MFA staff. The previous global consensus on the benefits of free trade and, on economic integration is broken. And unfortunately, political discourse in many countries, unlike in this House, has become increasingly nationalistic, anti-incumbent and even sometimes xenophobic. The threat from terrorism, radicalism and extremism has increased, and new media has also amplified this threat far and wide.
Quite frankly, we have to anticipate even more of such external challenges and challenges that will test our resolve, our unity and our agility. As a small city state, Singapore has no option. Isolation and protectionism is not an option for us. In fact, the world is even more interconnected than ever before. So we have actually to double down on globalisation. The economic headwinds and the global protectionist sentiments are not going to go away soon, and they will have serious implications on our trade-dependent economy. We are probably the only country where our trade volume is three and a half times our GDP. So for us, free trade is not a debating point – it is our lifeblood. So if you think about it, the larger context of this budget debate, of the COS, and of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) is that we have to enhance the competitive position of Singapore and Singaporeans. That is the only way we can survive and thrive in this uncertain world. Add to that, the fact that major power interactions and rivalry will impact the region, and will impact us and we have seen evidence of that.
So the question, therefore, that all of you have posed is: How will we navigate these challenges? Our fundamental realities remain. We are still a tiny island in an uncertain neighbourhood, we still have to try our best to build a wide network of friends. We have to be a relevant, valuable, reliable partner, and at the same time, be realistic about our place in the world. As former British PM and Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston once pointed out, nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.
Tenets of Singapore’s Foreign Policy
Our key foreign policy principles therefore have not changed. First, we conduct an independent sovereign foreign policy in order to safeguard our independence and the interests of all Singaporeans. Second, we promote ASEAN unity and centrality. And third, we have to remain committed to a rules-based international system.
Finally, foreign policy begins at home. And the effectiveness of our foreign policy depends on us being a successful nation-state and on the continued support of a united citizenry. And one point which I want to commend today – I’ve listened to the very thoughtful speeches from Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Pritam Singh, and I am grateful for the bipartisan support that we have in this House. This unity of purpose is essential for us to pursue our foreign policy goals in this uncertain and volatile environment.
So all the Members of this House understand and appreciate these key tenets of our policy.
Long-Term Value Proposition and Relevance to Other Countries
Many of you have asked questions on Singapore’s long term value proposition and the relevance of Singapore to other countries. Ms Sun Xueling asked about Singapore-China relations. Mr Cedric Foo asked about US-Singapore relations under the new Trump Administration. Mr Amrin Amin, Mr Chia Shi Lu have asked for updates on our relations with Malaysia and Indonesia. All of these are key relationships.
Singapore and China
Let me deal first with China. Singapore has been a steadfast and longstanding friend of China. Our bilateral relationship, right now, I will describe it as in “good working order”. In November 2015, when President Xi Jinping came here, we signed an agreement which characterised our relationship as an ‘All Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times’. Putting aside the words, the point is historically, our relationship has been built on the strong foundations laid by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping.
And over the decades, Singapore has supported and demonstrated in action and investment in China’s peaceful development and its progressive engagement of the region and the international community. And we do so because we believe that China’s success is good first for the citizens of China. It is also good for the region and it is good for us.
I am always amazed that tiny Singapore currently is China’s largest foreign investor, and we have been so since 2013. China is Singapore’s largest trading partner, also since 2013.
Several Cabinet members including myself just accompanied DPM Teo to Beijing. We came back just two days ago. We attended the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC). It was a very good meeting and it gave both sides opportunities to explore ways to deepen cooperation especially in this flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s, the “One Belt and One Road” initiative. I also had a very good meeting with my counterpart, and I can say that this again is a reflection of the deep resilient nature of our relationship.
Our third and latest Government-to-Government project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, has been designated a priority demonstration project for the “Belt and Road”, and will play a catalytic role in linking up Western China – both to Southeast Asia as well as across to Central Asia and beyond.
Besides the JCBC, we also have candid exchanges and sharing of experiences through established platforms such as the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership; and the Singapore-China Social Governance Forum.
The various projects, the business engagements, the people-to-people ties – you’ve heard 2.8 million Chinese tourists to Singapore and I think for us, it would be 800,000 or so Singaporeans who have travelled to China in a year. The high frequency of interactions at senior leadership level have conferred a very high degree of resilience and I would add strategic trust in our relationship.
Therefore, even when we have differences over some issues, as I said in an earlier session, we should not overreact and we should, in a sense, anticipate that these incidents are not unusual even amongst close friends and neighbours, and we must recognise that our shared interests far exceed these differences. So we must not be distracted from the larger strategic imperatives or allow incidents to derail the substantive, longstanding and mutually-beneficial cooperation.
let me turn now to the US. There is a new Administration. It is settling in. There’s always a period of uncertainty, a period of adjustment that goes on both domestically when a new Administration takes over, and also at the international level. Basically because the US is such an important superpower.
As far as Singapore is concerned, we believe that our many decades of consistent policies and interactions with the US, have created trust and I believe they consider us a reliable partner. I am confident that we will be creative and adaptable in developing win-win partnerships with the US even as President Trump pursues a new set of policies.
We have had a strong and enduring base of relations for the last 51 years. These mutually-beneficial ties have spanned five Republican and four Democratic Administrations. On the economic front, the US is Singapore’s 4th largest trading partner in goods and our top trading partner in services. The US is also Singapore’s largest foreign direct investor. And Singapore is the US’ 4th largest Asian investor (after Japan, Australia and the ROK).
On the defence front, our Air Force has training detachments in Texas, Idaho and Arizona. The US is a significant user of both Changi Naval Base and Paya Lebar Air Base. And Singapore also supports the rotational deployment of US Littoral Combat Ships and P8 Poseidon aircraft. These fundamentals of our relationship remain unchanged and their value is recognised by both Republican and Democratic Administrations.
Similarly, the strategic and economic imperatives that have underpinned America’s longstanding engagement of our region actually remain unchanged. We have to constantly look for new areas of convergence for win-win cooperation with the US. So for instance, one of the more recent things we are working on is cybersecurity, and we signed an MOU on Cybersecurity in 2016.
Mr Nair and Mr Low Thia Khiang also asked some searching questions about how the relationship between China and the US will impact Singapore. And indeed, this is the key bilateral relationship that will affect peace, security and prosperity in our region and indeed in the world.
Whilst competition between the US and China is inevitable, but what is different in historical terms is that never before have two powers been so interdependent, so intertwined economically. Even in the depths of the Cold War, remember, that the American and Russian economies were never intertwined to the same degree that the US and Chinese economy is. So therefore, we hope that both sides, after they have measured these imperatives will come back to the same conclusion that a constructive engagement and win-win cooperation is the right formula. If they can achieve this, this will provide space for countries in the region, including Singapore, to be part of a common circle of friends, and achieve win-win outcomes for all.
This is in fact a key reason why for the last 51 years, Southeast Asia, in particular the founding members of ASEAN, have enjoyed peace, security, prosperity over the last five decades. So we hope that they would arrive at this conclusion. But we should also bear in mind that we have no say. We cannot determine the dynamics of that relationship. Mr Low asked, “what do we do, if they don’t get along”. And the answer, is that number one, we have no say. Number two, we should avoid being forced to choose sides for as long as possible.
“Relationship with Malaysia is actually as good as it ever has been.”
Now, closer to home, our relationship with Malaysia is actually as good as it ever has been. More recently, we reached a milestone by signing the Agreement on the KL-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) in December 2016. And this is a landmark agreement that will transform the way both countries interact and do business. It will bring our two peoples and economies even closer together. In addition to the HSR, we are also looking to sign a bilateral agreement on the Singapore-JB Rapid Transit System (RTS) this year. The RTS will improve the flow of people and business between Singapore and Johor, and bring both sides closer together. On the whole, our bilateral relations are excellent. Other than these connectivity initiatives, the economic, the people-to-people ties remain strong. We will continue to cooperate on security, defence and counter-terrorism.
Mr. Baey Yam Keng asked about the Pedra Branca case and how this impacts our bilateral relations. Part of what underpins our good relations with Malaysia is a commitment by both sides to resolve disagreements amicably in accordance with international law, while allowing mutually-beneficial cooperation to continue in the meantime. So you will recall that in 2003, Singapore and Malaysia agreed to submit the case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In its judgment dated 23 May 2008, the ICJ found that sovereignty for Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore, sovereignty over Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia, and sovereignty over South Ledge belonged to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located. On 2 February 2017, Malaysia applied for a revision of the judgment under Article 61 of the ICJ’s Statute.
Under Article 61, an application for a revision of judgment must satisfy several criteria. These criteria include: first, it must be based upon the discovery of facts which were unknown to the court and to the party claiming revision when judgment was first given. And these newly-discovered facts must be decisive, and of such a character as to lay the case open to revision. An application for revision must also be made at latest within six months of the discovery of the new fact, and within ten years of when the judgment was given.
Our legal team has studied Malaysia’s application carefully, including the three documents relied on by Malaysia to support its application. Our legal team strongly believes that the documents relied on by Malaysia do not satisfy the criteria under Article 61. We will submit to the ICJ our comprehensive and compelling rebuttal to Malaysia’s application by 14 June, which is the time limit fixed by the ICJ.
We are confident of our legal team and our case. We are very fortunate to still have Professor Jayakumar, and we have Senior Judge Chan Sek Keong, and Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh who led our original Pedra Branca team. They are also working very hard now, very enthusiastically, I may add. They are also working with a younger team of bright legal minds in AGC. This way, we are also using this episode as an opportunity to build up expertise and experience in the next generation. Succession again. This is important as I am sure there will be more international legal issues in future. And equally, we must ensure that the same whole-of-government spirit of unity prevails. These are crucial ingredients in order for Singapore to punch above our weight at international fora. Singapore is committed to resolving this issue amicably and in accordance with international law.
Bilateral relations with Malaysia therefore are good, will remain good, and we will continue with all our mutually-beneficial bilateral programmes. Singaporeans should not be disconcerted by these developments, because even with the best of diplomatic and personal relationships, we must expect other states to act in their own self-interests.
Relations with Indonesia
Our relations with Indonesia are also strong. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Jokowi (Joko Widodo) had a successful Leaders’ Retreat in Semarang last November. They jointly witnessed the opening of the Kendal Industrial Park, and agreed to set up an Indonesia-Singapore Business Council and to explore cooperation in the energy and tourism sectors.
The positive and stable partnership that we have enjoyed in recent times has been mutually-beneficial. Business ties and tourism continue to grow. Singapore remained Indonesia’s top foreign investor in 2016.
This year, we celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Indonesia. The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ibu Retno Marsudi, and I jointly announced the start of these celebrations last month during her official visit to Singapore.
We also marked a milestone in bilateral relations through the exchange of instruments of ratification for the Eastern Boundary Treaty on 10 February 2017. This was a demonstration of how both countries can work together to resolve bilateral issues in areas of mutual interest, in accordance with international law. This is an important principle that both sides share, because as neighbours, we must expect disagreements to arise from time to time, but what matters is how we resolve these disagreements.
Bilateral Relations with Brunei
Singapore and Brunei, of course, share a long-standing and a special relationship, anchored in deep mutual trust and respect, which has been built up over decades, over generations of leaders. This is epitomised by the Currency Interchangeability Agreement, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. We will continue to build on this special relationship with the younger generation of Bruneian leaders though platforms like the Singapore-Brunei Young Leaders Programme.
Singapore in ASEAN
More broadly, Southeast Asia is our immediate hinterland. And as many of you have said, ASEAN serves a crucial role as the main platform for regional cooperation. ASEAN has kept our region peaceful and allowed our Member States to focus on growing our economies and improving the lives of our people. Dr Teo Ho Pin, Mr Liang Eng Hwa, and Mr Low Thia Khiang asked very timely and important questions about ASEAN’s relevance, the pace of integration, the future of ASEAN unity and the key achievements as we celebrate its 50th anniversary. Mr Cedric Foo and others also asked about our coordinatorship of ASEAN-China dialogue relations.
ASEAN enables us to more effectively shape our external environment and to have our views taken into account by bigger players. In an often turbulent world, ASEAN is, as Mr Low puts it, Singapore’s anchor and a cornerstone of our foreign policy.
ASEAN has a strong value proposition. We are now already the seventh largest economy in the world and barring any mishaps, we are projected to become the fourth largest economy by 2050. Today we have 628 million people, our combined GDP US$ 2.5 trillion, and by sometime between 2030 to 2050 we hope that this will quadruple to US$10 trillion. What’s important also is that we will have the third largest labour force in the world, and more important than that, more than half of the population of ASEAN is under the age of 30. So we have a demographic dividend that is not yet harvested.
To maintain our relevance, ASEAN must continue to be neutral, united, and committed to an open and inclusive regional architecture, and that means that we will continue to consolidate and to deepen our economic integration. We adopted the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and the three Community Blueprints in 2015.
We must do more to help Singaporeans better understand and to identify with ASEAN. We must also explore ways for ASEAN to ride the technological wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
We will continue to partner with organisations like the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to help our businesses maximise the economic opportunities that ASEAN presents.
Working closely with Philippines as ASEAN Chair
We will also work closely with the Philippines to ensure the success of its Chairmanship this year, and to begin preparations for our own ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018.
It is important that we strive for an integrated, outward-looking and confident ASEAN. To that end, we also hope to build new links with other regional organisations, for instance the Pacific Alliance and the Eurasian Economic Union.
At the same time, the events unfolding in the EU are also a salutary reminder for us not to reprise their problems, and ASEAN must remain pragmatic and practical in managing the pace and the scale of the implementation of our economic integration. The sequence, the pace and the scale – the implementation of all of these are very important.
ASEAN’s cohesion and unity, to be frank with you, have been tested by difficult issues, not only just last year but many times before. Nonetheless, we have endured and we have even thrived over the past 5 decades.
Looking ahead, I can tell you that ASEAN will become more, not less, critical to our foreign policy. I totally support Dr Teo Ho Pin’s three suggestions on strengthening unity, promoting partnerships between businesses and encouraging more people to people ties.
Now let me turn to our role as the dialogue relations coordinator between ASEAN and China. Again I want to stress that we have to be honest brokers and we have to do our best to manage this strategic partnership based on mutual benefit and respect. We upgraded the ASEAN-China FTA in 2015 and we facilitated a successful and substantive ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit last year. We will continue advancing other initiatives such as enhancing connectivity and making progress on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in the remaining one and a half years of our coordinatorship.
Relations with other countries – Japan, India, Australia and the EU – are also important, and I am glad to report that relations are also good and will deepen.
Singapore-Japan 50 year partnership
We commemorated 50 years of diplomatic relations with Japan in 2016. We had a series of high-level exchanges including a State Visit by President Tony Tan. We are working towards upgrading the Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement and our Air Services Agreement, and we hope to strengthen bilateral cooperation in air, land and sea transport and infrastructure through the inaugural Vice-Ministerial Transport Forum this year.
In India, steady progress has been made under the Strategic Partnership signed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited us in November 2015. The Strategic Partnership has allowed us to broaden and to deepen relations in diverse areas, both at the central level as well as in selected states in India.
And this was reaffirmed during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to India in October 2016, when he launched the Centre of Excellence for Tourism Training (CETT) in Udaipur. The master-planning of Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city, Amaravati, by Singapore experts has been completed, and a Singapore Consortium is now bidding to be a participant in the “seed development” of this brand new city.
Bilateral Relations with Australia
Singapore has a close and longstanding bilateral relationship with Australia. This was elevated in June 2015 with the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), and this is a substantive undertaking with over 40 bilateral initiatives that will be delivered through the period to 2025.
We have moved quickly to implement the CSP. Key agreements were signed during PM’s visit to Australia in October 2016. The MOU on Military Training and Training Area Development gives the SAF significant enhanced access to training areas in Australia over the next 25 years. Areas which, I may add, are multiples the size of Singapore. This will add significantly towards addressing the SAF’s evolving training requirements.
The upgrade to the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement is expected to come into force this year. It will create many more opportunities for Singapore businesses and professionals to access the Australian markets.
Brexit notwithstanding, we continue to engage Europe and the EU, for example through the EU-Singapore FTA. Yes, it has been delayed by certain legal hurdles that we have to go through, but so far all the countries that we have engaged within Europe have expressed support for this free trade agreement. We are also working on the EU-ASEAN Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement.
Singapore will also continue to seek economic links and opportunities for our companies in emerging markets such as Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and SMS Maliki will elaborate on this, after I finish my contribution. But let me just say the following short points on the Middle East.
We are one of few countries that engages in a principled way with all of the protagonists in the Middle East. In the short one and a half years I have been here, I have accompanied the PM to Jordan, to Israel and to Ramallah, under the Palestine National Authority (PNA). We have gone to the Temple Mount, visited the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, been welcomed by all parties. And it is amazing again if you think about it: us, tiny little Singapore is welcomed by all parties. I believe we have this special position because we take a principled position. And we also work in a win-win way to support all parties. So for instance, with the Palestinians we have extended our technical assistance with the PNA. But more importantly I think one of the key secret ingredients is the fact that Singapore itself, is a successful model of multi-racial multi-religious integration. Because that gives us a special moral standing to be able to engage, and to speak, and to interact with all parties. Very few countries have this special role that we have.
And so, apart from all these engagements, bilateral and regional, we need to continue to support international groupings and arrangements. These arrangements increase opportunities for Singapore companies and Singapore to do more in the face of a world which is sometimes at risk of insularism and protectionism.
We will work towards the expeditious conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and will continue to further the development of the ASEAN Economic Community. We will explore ways to take the TPP forward, despite the US’ withdrawal.
Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) attended the G20 Summit in China last year at President Xi’s invitation, and he will attend the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July this year at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation. This will be the seventh time that Singapore is invited to attend a G20 Summit.
An Independent Foreign Policy
The next aspect that I want to talk about is about how we pursue an independent foreign policy. This means having a foreign policy that serves Singapore and Singaporeans’ interests first and foremost.
Mr Sitoh Yih Pin spoke about the importance of a rules-based international system. And this is critical for a small state like Singapore. And you asked how we can strengthen the multilateral system. As a small country, the rule of law is crucial for our survival. The UN, and other international organisations and fora are key components of a rules-based international system. They create a stable framework for cooperation, for managing tensions and addressing global trans-boundary problems. The multilateral system must become more inclusive, more transparent. Global solutions must have broad-based support from countries to be effective. On our part we play our role by initiating or by catalysing the work of organisations like the Forum of Small States (FOSS), that we actually initiated, and the Global Governance Group (3G), and we work closely with many other small states to have a greater collective voice on the international stage.
We also contribute to the multilateral system through technical assistance to developing countries. I think we have trained over 112,000 officials from many other countries because they want to understand how Singapore works, and how these lessons can be brought back home. And humanitarian assistance is important and we do contribute when there are disasters and actually it is this training, this development that makes a longer term impact on many other countries.
Foreign Policy Begins at Home
Finally, I want to stress and repeat that foreign policy begins at home. We need the support and understanding of a united citizenry. Ms Joan Pereira’s question about how MFA can better engage the public on Singapore’s foreign policy is very timely.
While MFA takes the lead in foreign policy, the issues are becoming more complex and cross-cutting in nature. Other Ministries and government agencies play an increasingly vital role in Singapore’s external front. MFA must therefore act as a coordinator to work closely with other Ministries and agencies to pursue a ‘Whole of Government’ foreign policy and to strengthen our domestic resilience in the face of an uncertain and sometimes hostile external environment.
This also means convincing Singaporeans of the need for consistent and principled diplomacy for our long term interests instead of taking the path of least resistance in order to achieve short term gains. The events of the last six months actually is a reminder of this. And I am grateful for the support of Singaporeans and of members of this House.
So we will continue to work with all stakeholders to raise awareness amongst our fellow Singaporeans of the stakes for us, of the principles behind our policy, and of the sometimes difficult positions that we have to take, despite the pressures we will face from time to time.
Terrorism–A Real and Present Threat
Terrorism still remains a real and present threat. This is evidenced by the high-profile attacks in parts of Europe and Southeast Asia, and we are actually at even higher risk, even as ISIS loses its strong hold in the Middle East. So MFA and MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) will continue to monitor security and terrorist threats, and we stand ready to assist Singaporeans in distress overseas. We have had Singaporeans injured or otherwise involved in terrorist incidents overseas. Singaporeans are one of the most widely travelled people in the world. One of our top challenges is to strengthen our consular assistance. Dr Maliki will elaborate more on this later on.
A united citizenry allows us to pursue effective foreign policy. We may be small, but the unity of our people is a source of strength. Our stability, our consistency,our reliability are all the more valuable in an increasingly fractious world, and people respect Singapore for that. Such respect is hard-earned, but it allows our voice to be amplified and heard on the international stage.
I am grateful to Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Pritam Singh for your support for the staff of MFA and for adequate resources to be provided in the light of all these challenges. I totally agree with you that MFA staff must be well staffed and must be well resourced. Our MFA officers actually are the real key assets. Our budget may be, I think, the second smallest or the smallest budget of all the ministries but I think you will agree with me it is the staff of MFA.
We have a rigorous selection system. We continue to recruit high-quality people. But we also provide continuous training to nurture our staff and to develop their leadership potential. We also regularly review our manpower resources and our work functions to ensure that this precious manpower is deployed in an optimal way.
The work in MFA is very demanding and very labour-intensive and eats up all hours of the day and night. Our officers work under very challenging conditions and at great cost to their personal and perhaps even more so to their family lives. I would like to express my appreciation especially to the spouses, of MFA staff and to the children who probably have absentee parents because their parents are out there looking after the longer term interests of our nation and they sacrifice so much for Singaporeans.
But our officers have proven themselves to be dedicated and professional. They are driven by their mission to advance the interests of Singapore. They understand our vulnerabilities and what we need to do in order to remain relevant. I think Members of this House who have ever travelled with MFA staff – I am very sure you can attest to their professionalism and their hard work and I want to thank Members of the House for your continued support of MFA.
Let me conclude. The events of the past year have been a stark reminder of the reality that Singapore faces. But it has also provided lessons on how we can overcome these challenges. I think in a way, the pressure that we have come under has made us stronger and more united. So we will face another year of uncertainty ahead, MFA will continue to enhance Singapore’s long-term value proposition and relevance to other countries; we will maintain our commitment to an independent and principled foreign policy in a rules-based global order; we will continue to work with all Members of this House to build a deeper appreciation of the hard truths that underpin our foreign policy.