Good ministers matter in external relations

This is an excerpt from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech on Sunday. The speech recounts Singapore's "exhilarating journey" in the last 50 years and looks at how Singapore can stay special as a country. This segment reproduced here focuses on the external environment and the need for capable leaders.

How do we stay special?

First, we have to be alive to our external environment. That is a fundamental reality for a "little red dot". We will always be a small country in South-east Asia.

This is an exciting place to be, but also a rather dangerous place to live.

I have not spoken much about the external affairs in recent rallies because we have been focused on domestic issues. But I think I have spoken too little because big things are happening around us and they are bound to affect us and unless we keep track of events and stay on top of developments, we may be overwhelmed.

We have good relations with our neighbours, much better than 50 years ago and our neighbours have done well and we have prospered with them. But it may not always be like this. Even in the next 10 years, we cannot be sure. Certainly, in the next 50 years, nobody can rule out instability, tension, or even war in Asia.

MALAYSIA

Take Malaysia, our closest neighbour, our very close partner. We watch what is happening in Malaysia very closely. What are the Malaysians worried about? I can tell you what they are worried about. They worry about ISIS and terrorism because Malaysian citizens are becoming radicalised, going to Syria and Iraq to fight, including members of their armed forces going to become terrorists. Some have already gone, dozens are there. When they come back, they will bring back violence, the know-how and the extremist ideas.

The aftermath of the clash between Chinese and Malays at Low Yat Plaza in Kuala Lumpur last month. If Malaysia is troubled, unstable or divided, Singapore's economy, society and security will be affected.
The aftermath of the clash between Chinese and Malays at Low Yat Plaza in Kuala Lumpur last month. If Malaysia is troubled, unstable or divided, Singapore's economy, society and security will be affected. PHOTO: CHINA PRESS

This year alone, the Malaysian authorities have arrested nearly 100 citizens suspected of links with ISIS. That is one thing they worry about which we should worry about. They worry about racial and religious tensions, about society being divided along racial lines. They have had incidents recently like the riot in Low Yat Plaza, between Chinese and Malays, which have prompted soul searching. If they have racial problems, it will affect us across the border.

They worry about money politics. 1MDB is in the news every day and Prime Minister Najib (Razak) has just set up a national panel to develop laws on "political funding with integrity" because everybody knows this is the problem. These are Malaysia's problems.

Fortunately, we are a different country, having separated from Malaysia 50 years ago. But our two societies and our two economies remain very closely intertwined.

So their problems can easily become our problems. And if Malaysia is troubled, unstable or divided, it will affect our economy, our society and our security too. And the closer we work with them, the more we are concerned that things go well for them.

INDONESIA

Indonesia is also important to us. It is the biggest country in South-east Asia, it sets the tone for the whole region. When Indonesia is stable, all its neighbours benefit. If Indonesia is in a state of flux, South-east Asia will be affected, as it was during Confrontation (Editor's note: Confrontation lasted from 1963 to 1966; it was Indonesia's hostile and militant response to the formation of the British-backed Federation of Malaysia that included Singapore).

We have enjoyed good relations with Indonesia for many years. With President Suharto since the 1970s, then with President SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) over the last decade, and now I look forward to continuing these good relations with President Jokowi.

But Indonesia is a big and complex country and there are different views within Indonesia about its neighbours. And one common Indonesian view about Singapore is that we are a small neighbour enjoying undeserved success at their expense.

On our National Day, just recently on the 9th of August, one Indonesian newspaper published an overview of the relationship between them and us. And they quoted a senior Indonesian politician on what he said about the haze. He said: "I would only consider apologising for the haze if Singapore and Malaysia are thankful for the oxygen from Indonesian forests for 11 months each year." So you know where you stand and please know your place in the world. Do not get uppity.

We are friends with all the
major powers, with
America, with China, with
Japan– all three. And
people are amazed that
we can be friends with all
three and they ask how
this is possible. Well, we
tell them just good luck
but, partly, it’s also
because of adroit
diplomacy, because we
have good officers in the
MFA. But we have been
lucky, we have been lucky
that the big powers have
been at peace with one
another. And so we don’t
have to choose sides with
one against the other.
But will it be so easy to
maintain this happy state
of affairs in future? Will
the stars always be so
neatly aligned? What if
relations among the
powers sour and hot up?

This may not reflect the Indonesian government's view, but we have to take note of it. It is a deep-seated mindset - that a little red dot should know its place in the world - and this mindset will not disappear for a long time.

I once met a group of Indonesian journalists. We invited them to our National Day to understand us and to write about us. So they asked me the usual questions which Indonesian journalists ask us about - smuggling, about money laundering, about sand, about us taking advantage and so on, I gave them explanations. At the end of it all, they were persuaded, then they said to me: "Do you feel discouraged that you keep on explaining and at the end we keep writing the same thing?"

I said no, I am not discouraged at all, I am quite used to it. But I think that's the fundamental reality and it is not going to change for a very long time to come.

MAJOR POWERS

We also have to watch relations between the major powers in the region. We are friends with all the major powers, with America, with China, with Japan - all three. And people are amazed that we can be friends with all three and they ask how this is possible. Well, we tell them just good luck but, partly, it's also because of adroit diplomacy, because we have good officers in the MFA. But we have been lucky, we have been lucky that the big powers have been at peace with one another. And so we don't have to choose sides with one against the other.

But will it be so easy to maintain this happy state of affairs in future? Will the stars always be so neatly aligned? What if relations among the powers sour and hot up? There could be a miscalculation, there could be a mishap. There could be a misunderstanding.

If American and Chinese airplanes collide over the South China Sea, or Japanese and Chinese ships clash near the Diaoyu Dao or the Senkaku Islands. Then tensions will go up, countries will press us to take sides. You are either with us, or against us. Which are you? We have to decide which are we.

 

It's not so easy to decide and these are imponderables and risks which we have to be aware of and which Mr Lee Kuan Yew was very concerned that Singaporeans may not be adequately aware of and wanted to speak about, even into his extreme old age. It was that important to him. It is, in fact, that important to us.

We have been able to maintain our security, and our standing in the world because we have a strong SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) so others do not fool around with us.

Because our economy is successful, so others find it worthwhile to cooperate with us.

Because we have good diplomats and good leaders, who talk sense, command respect and can defend our interests abroad. These are important advantages for a small country which does not have aircraft carriers to go sailing around, keeping the peace and keeping ourselves safe. And we must keep these advantages to sail through the next 50 years safely.

Team Singapore and good ministers

Let me just give you two examples of how having good ministers can advance our interests abroad, out of many.

Take Minister Vivian - Vivian Balakrishnan. Minister for Environment, Water Resources. Last year, he attended the UN (United Nations) Climate Change Conference which was held in Peru, in Lima, in December. Vivian led the Singapore delegation but he did not just represent Singapore. He was appointed one of two Friends of the Chair. The other Friend of the Chair was Norway. And the role of the Friend of the Chair is to be an honest broker. To work behind the scenes to bridge the gaps between the different countries, to help put together a deal that countries could agree upon. So it is an important low-key job.

They chose Vivian, and Vivian was effective. Why? Because he was competent and mastered a very complicated brief. Every time he briefs Cabinet, we have to spend time reading the paper, understanding the subject all over again and asking Vivian what do all these mean? But it is his job to know and to explain and to analyse how we can protect our interests and not be disadvantaged. But he also was supported by a strong and cohesive team of Singapore officials. Different ministries, each knowing its job but able to work together across the ministries and take a national perspective. So they could staff him, they could work out alternatives, they could propose compromises, they could tweak the language, they can go and chat up different groups and find out what different groups are thinking.

That was Team Singapore at work. They actually should wear red T-shirts at such meetings. Vivian and Team Singapore helped the Lima conference to reach a successful outcome. They had to overrun. I think they went for another 36 hours but, in the end, there was a positive agreement and, in the process, the agreement also protected and advanced Singapore's interests. That's one example.

I give you another example. These are all far away from defence. So people understand that even apart from armed forces, we have to be on our guard and know how to work with others to advance our interest. This next example is Lim Swee Say. Swee Say attends the ILO Conference in Geneva every year. International Labour Organisation. He used to go as Secretary-General of NTUC, now he goes as Minister for Manpower. This year he went in June, the Director-General of ILO hosted the conference dinner, so dinner is meant to talk shop.

And at dinner, many of the labour ministers shared the problems they faced in their countries, all facing similar problems - slow job growth, youth unemployment, stagnating wages, widening income gaps. It was a very miserable dinner.

So Swee Say is never one for a miserable dinner; he decided to turn the discussion around and to focus on solutions and not problems and he did it, the way only Swee Say knows how to do it.

He started by acknowledging we all face the same 3 "D" challenges, D for delta. What's D? Jobs Deficit, Skills Deficit, Quality Deficit, so three Ds. So everybody nodded, (and) said yes.

Then he said, we all want the same three F opportunities - future. Jobs of the future, skills of the future, career of the future, everybody smiled.

Then he concluded that the solution was to strengthen the three Ps - Partnership between the partners. Partners: Government, unions and employers. And he shared about Singapore's unique tripartite approach and sold a little bit of "koyok" for us.

So when Swee Say had finished, the mood in the room had lifted and everyone was discussing solutions and not moping. And the Director-General rounded the discussion and proposed three cheers for Singapore.

We must maintain this quality of leaders and strengthen our economy and our defence in order to hold our own with the outside world, to work with others to advance our interests and to protect ourselves when the external environment becomes troubled or hostile.

We are friends with all the major powers, with America, with China, with Japan - all three. And people are amazed that we can be friends with all three and they ask how this is possible. Well, we tell them just good luck but, partly, it's also because of adroit diplomacy, because we have good officers in the MFA. But we have been lucky, we have been lucky that the big powers have been at peace with one another. And so we don't have to choose sides with one against the other.

But will it be so easy to maintain this happy state of affairs in future? Will the stars always be so neatly aligned? What if relations among the powers sour and hot up?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'Good ministers matter in external relations'. Print Edition | Subscribe