Ng Eng Hen on dialogue and takeaways

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen spoke to reporters after the conclusion of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). Here is an edited excerpt of the wrap-up interview.

Q In your speech, you mentioned the need to improve the relationship among China, Korea and Japan, given the historical animosity. Could you elaborate on that, especially coming on the brink of the US-North Korea summit?

A North-east Asia is a critical component of the stability of Asia. Just by sheer economic and military heft, the relations between these three will affect greater Asia.

If you (look at) Germany and Europe, the historical animosities from World War II are not completely resolved and that is why you get protests time and again on issues related to that.

So, my main point was that, while we seek resolution or improvement in the problems (in the Korean peninsula), there were other issues that needed to be dealt with. And although the North Korea issue is now front and centre, we will be very wrong if we think that would solve these other issues.

There must be much more - which again, is the hard work of dialogue, increasing engagement. And I gave hopeful signs that Japan and Korea understood this, the number of mechanisms they have revived and that militaries are talking. So, I think (there are) good indications, but (there is) a lot of work to be done in the years ahead.

Q Some people are worried that the US' Indo-Pacific strategy will affect Asean countries. What do you think about this?

A I don't think a re-labelling of regions can affect the security positions of countries. It is not so simple. As I said, Asia will remain Asia, South China Sea will be South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca will continue to be there, and daily activity will continue.

I think, for Asean, Asean will continue to work for multilateral frameworks.

Asean will continue not to be one to be put in a position to choose between great powers, whether the US, China or India. Asean will want to continue to maintain its centrality. Asean will still want consensus to be able to work with individual countries, whether for trade or security.

So, from that point of view, I think Asean will continue to remain as it is, but obviously we have to adjust. As we have heard from this Shangri-La Dialogue, more countries are saying that they are going to send more ships and planes to this region, and for that, not only will Asean have to respond - (but) in fact, all countries here will (also) have to respond.

Q The Philippines said it would be keen if Singapore could participate in the Sulu Sea patrol. What is Singapore's position?

A From the outset, we are on record as saying Singapore encouraged the three countries - Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia - to start the Sulu Sea patrol, because we saw that as a need.

And we started from the premise that what affects Asean... will affect us. So, we will have to help them, otherwise our own safety is at risk. Which is why when the Marawi incident occurred, I flew up to the Philippines and offered them the help.

We are very happy to participate. In fact, we said to them from the outset, if there is anything you need or you need us to participate (in), we will say yes. And in fact we offered our Information Fusion Centre for information sharing.

So, there is no ambiguity there. Singapore is happy to participate. It is to our interest.

Q Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said his country has plans to develop Middle Rocks. What are your comments?

A I think it is completely legitimate. As long as it complies with international law, all countries have a right to what they develop... And for them, they feel they need to develop it.

I think it is good that they have said so publicly, so we all understand each other's positions. Just as Singapore will want to develop various aspects - as we have done, in terms of our islands, for domestic or civilian or security purposes.

Q France has said one of its warships will call on Singapore and have a joint freedom of navigation patrol with a British warship. Is that something of concern, when it comes to Singapore balancing between powers?

A Singapore doesn't take the position that it wants to choose sides. It is not in our interest, neither is it productive.

We, of course, support the presence of foreign militaries that are in the region who subscribe to (the spirit or contents of) the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

We support the presence of militaries who comply with that. If you are here for friendly purposes, to add stability, our position has always been to facilitate when you use Changi Naval Base.

It is different if you are smuggling weapons of mass destruction... But if you are here for promoting stability, and you are acting in accordance with international law, Singapore will support that. And the greater the role that Singapore has in facilitating such activities, the better it is not only for Singapore, but (also) for the whole region.

Q What were some key takeaways from the conference?

A We had good feedback from participants. Many commented that this year was one of the best they have attended.

I think there are a number of reasons for it. One was the (record) attendance. Two, the level of discussions. I don't think there was a single topic that affects us in terms of security challenges in this region, even beyond, that wasn't touched on.

Also, the mood in which answers were given. I think ministers and panellists did particularly well, in giving in their words the passion that follows their conviction... The fact that, well, the US-North Korea Singapore summit may or may not take place, but you know at least it is a historic moment coming on.

I think both attendees as well as organisers felt that this year's SLD was particularly impactful and successful.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2018, with the headline 'Ng Eng Hen on dialogue and takeaways'. Print Edition | Subscribe