If Singapore is not economically successful, no major powers will invite it to the discussion table, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said yesterday, as he explained the need to always explore opportunities with countries like the United States, China, India and others.
It is also important for the country to be united, he added. For if Singapore is not socially cohesive, others will tear the nation apart. And there is no shortage of people who want to exert their influence on different segments of the population, said Mr Chan, who is labour chief.
Besides staying successful and united, Singapore must be relevant and ready to defend itself, he said, noting how several small countries around the world have come under pressure from bigger ones.
He was at a National Day Dinner at Tiong Bahru Community Centre, where he addressed over 800 Tanjong Pagar GRC residents on how Singapore should navigate significant shifts in global geopolitics.
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"We need to have a clear-eyed view of where our interests are and what cards we have on our side," he said. "It is not helpful to start any conversation on foreign relations (by asking) if we should be on the side of country A or B. We are not the vassal state of any bigger countries and we must never allow ourselves to be so."
Mr Chan said in order to maintain its independent foreign policy, Singapore has to continue marrying its long-term principles with pragmatism. "If we are just short-term opportunists without principles, no one will take a small country like us seriously. Because we do everything with a long-term perspective, with a set of principles, we become dependable, reliable - that's how people want to deal with us and that's how people respect us."
Mr Chan added that Singapore can expect neither charity nor sympathy if it is not relevant nor useful.
This thinking underlies Singapore's economic policies as well.
"If we are not on the table, we will be on the menu," he said, adding this is why Singapore seeks trade pacts with many countries.
On the domestic front, Mr Chan emphasised the need for businesses to adjust to disruptions in the new economy, and for workers to take charge of upgrading their skills. While economic growth is set to look up, concerns still remain as the restructuring of Singapore's economy into a less manpower-intensive one will still take several years to complete, he said.
"We are not satisfied with putting our workers into today's jobs - or worse, yesterday's jobs. We want our people to get into the new jobs in the new economy, so that they have a longer runway to take care of their families," he said.
Mr Chan also flagged the "backhanded compliment" that people outside of Singapore would want to influence Singapore's foreign policy positions and domestic politics.
This makes it all the more vital to stay united as a society despite attempts by others to impose their influence. "We can take it as a working assumption that there will be people from outside who will try to exert their influence on us through diplomatic, informational, military and economic channels.
"No matter what the content, what the channels of influence may be attempted on us, we remember that in everything that we do, we start from the premise that it must be for the good of Singapore's long-term interest. And it is our people who will decide our future and not anyone else," he said.
Mr Chan did not explicitly refer to the case, but his comments come soon after Dr Huang Jing, a Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy academic, had his permanent residency cancelled for allegedly working with a foreign government to influence Singapore's foreign policy and public opinion. The Government did not act on information he purportedly offered.
Mr Chan also urged Singaporeans to be vigilant against the growing threat of terrorism, noting that terrorists do not just aim to kill, but to disrupt society and tear it apart.