How Singapore can stay relevant in divided, disrupted world: Vivian

It must keep reconstructing itself - and to do so, foreign policy must begin at home, he says

Amid a more dangerous, divided and disrupted world, Singapore has to continually reconstruct itself to maintain its relevance. And to do so, foreign policy must begin at home, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Speaking at a virtual townhall session with more than 150 Foreign Service officers yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan said that while Covid-19 has not fundamentally altered the course of history, it has accelerated pre-existing trends. He outlined four trends that point to greater turbulence in a post-Covid-19 world.

First, long-term transnational threats such as climate change, terrorism, cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation remain potent, and the prospect looms of an even bigger pandemic in future.

Second, Covid-19 has deepened existing problems of global debt, inequality and the pushback against free trade. The world is also witnessing the increasing bifurcation of technology and shorter, more fragmented supply chains, which have implications for hubs like Singapore, he added.

"In good times, just-in-time supply chains were considered to be the most efficient. But countries now... will develop just-in-case supply chains for the sake of resilience."

Third, superpower rivalry has sharpened. The lack of strategic trust between the United States and China, he said, means the risk of miscalculation has shot up, and their rivalry on trade, cyber security and technology will sharpen.

Fourth, existing regional tensions - from the latest China-India border clash to incidents in the South China Sea - can ignite quickly and unexpectedly.

To adapt to this new norm, Singapore must continually reconstruct itself and keep its relevance to the world, and create political and economic space.

To do this, foreign policy must begin at home, said Dr Balakrishnan. This means strengthening the social compact, restructuring the economy and upgrading skills so that Singaporeans are prepared for jobs of the future.

He also told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officers to bear in mind that they serve Singapore and all Singaporeans.

PURSUIT OF NATIONAL INTERESTS

We will, from time to time, have to say 'no' to other states, big or small, far or near. And we will have to do so in a way where it is clear that we are doing so in pursuit of our own enlightened, longstanding national interests, and we must never bow to intimidation or be tempted by inducements.

FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN

 
 
 

Noting that the pandemic had resulted in the ministry's largest-ever consular operation to bring Singaporeans home, he said: "We fulfilled our pledge to leave no Singaporean behind.

"Citizenship has its privileges, and when our citizens overseas wanted to return home to their families in a time of crisis, our MFA colleagues spared no effort."

Externally, Singapore must stand firm on its legitimate rights and uphold international law, he said. "We must also maintain our reputation for trustworthiness and reliability, especially in honouring the sanctity of contracts, and never impounding materials in a state of panic."

He added: "We will, from time to time, have to say 'no' to other states, big or small, far or near. And we will have to do so in a way where it is clear that we are doing so in pursuit of our own enlightened, longstanding national interests, and we must never bow to intimidation or be tempted by inducements."

Singapore, he said, must also support and strengthen the rules-based multilateral system, and ensure that dialogue among states remains open and inclusive.

"A small country needs a rules-based multilateral order where all sovereign states interact as equals."

 
 

He added that this has been a consistent feature of Singapore's diplomacy, be it through the Global Governance Group, which provides inputs to the Group of 20, or the United Nations' Forum of Small States, which Singapore founded and still leads.

Dr Balakrishnan also stressed the importance of boosting trade cooperation with key partners.

Here, Singapore's reputation for consistency and credibility is a powerful asset. Its partners, he said, were confident it would not prevent the export of essential supplies despite global panic during the pandemic.

The Republic was also a critical transit point for other countries seeking to repatriate their own people, he said, noting that discussions are under way to launch more reciprocal green lanes for essential travel.

He added: "As we look forward, our success will depend on our identity, our values, our sense of duty and verve. Most of all, this is the embodiment of diplomacy by Singaporeans, and for Singaporeans."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2020, with the headline 'How S'pore can stay relevant in divided, disrupted world: Vivian'. Subscribe