SINGAPORE - Singapore has further built on its reputation this year as an impartial and reliable country that can make useful contributions to the international community, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday (Nov 19).
It did so through its chairmanship of Asean and several other events, Dr Balakrishnan added.
Giving Parliament an outline of Singapore's "very busy" year in international relations, he noted it took place against "a global order in rapid transition, marked by heightened big power rivalry, rising protectionist sentiment, xenophobia and technological disruption".
He said: "As a small country, we have to respond nimbly to this volatile global environment, making ourselves relevant to powers big and small, and enlarging the political and economic space for all Singaporeans."
Singapore worked hard to make progress on several diplomatic and economic initiatives, as it redoubled its efforts to support a rules-based global order and the international trading system, he added.
These efforts took place while Singapore was chairman of Asean - a role it handed to Thailand last week at the conclusion of the Asean Summit.
The chairmanship was a "whole-of-nation" effort, involving all government agencies, the media, universities and think tanks, as well as the private sector, Dr Balakrishnan said.
"Asean gives us a collective platform to improve the lives of our citizens and make our voices heard on the world stage," he said.
For its chairmanship, Singapore chose the themes of resilience and innovation, he noted, "as we have sought to strengthen Asean's ability to respond to challenges and turn them into opportunities".
To that end, he said, Singapore spearheaded the Asean Smart Cities Network, which connects cities with private-sector partners to co-develop solutions for sustainable urbanisation.
It also launched several initiatives with other Asean member states to enhance Asean centrality and unity and accelerate economic integration, he said.
Asean stood against the trend of protectionism by making substantial progress in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade pact involving the 10 Asean countries, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, he added.
Asean leaders have committed to conclude the RCEP next year, and emphasised closer economic integration through agreements on the Asean Single Window, Asean-wide Self-Certification scheme and Asean e-commerce, all of which will facilitate cross-border flows of goods and services in Asean and boost intra-Asean trade.
Asean also finalised the Model Asean Extradition Treaty this year, and will soon start work on an Asean Extradition Treaty, while Asean defence ministers adopted Guidelines for Air Military Encounters, to manage unintended encounters between military aircraft.
In August, Singapore concluded its term as Asean-China Country Coordinator.
A key milestone was the formulation of a Single Draft Negotiating Text for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, Dr Balakrishnan noted.
In addition to the Asean chairmanship, two other events reaffirmed Singapore's reputation as an impartial and reliable country, he said.
The first was the summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12.
"Much has been said about the Summit. But the point I want to drive home is that even though we are a small country, we are able to deliver when the occasion demands it," he said. "We did not volunteer, but we were asked by both sides if we could host the Summit. We are proud to have played a small part in easing tensions on the Korean peninsula."
The second event was the Bloomberg New Economy Forum.
"China was originally supposed to host the Forum but when that did not materialise, Bloomberg had to relocate the event very urgently. Singapore, again, was their obvious choice," Dr Balakrishnan said.
The forum, which took place over two days in the first week of November, gathered global business and political leaders to discuss the challenges facing the world economy and possible solutions.
"We were happy to facilitate and participate in these important discussions. It is in our interest to add value and make ourselves relevant to the global business community," he said.
Both the Trump-Kim Summit and the Bloomberg forum allowed Singapore to raise its standing in the world and fly its flag high, he added.
RELATIONS WITH MALAYSIA, INDONESIA
Relations are also good with Singapore's immediate neighbour, Malaysia, Dr Balakrishnan said, as the Republic has had a positive momentum of high-level exchanges with the new Pakatan Harapan government.
"We hosted Prime Minister Mahathir to an Official Visit last week, and the two leaders will meet again next year for the annual Leaders' Retreat. My Cabinet colleagues and I have built up good rapport with our new Malaysian counterparts," he said.
"Malaysia has a new, diverse and lively Cabinet - their ages range from 25 to 93 years - but we share many aspirations and challenges."
He added that several of the younger ministers in Singapore and Malaysia are in regular contact via WhatsApp.
"This sometimes raises concerns among staff but I assure you we are not revealing state secrets," he quipped, adding that having an open and efficient line of communication is helping the ministers on both sides to work with one another more closely.
"Issues will inevitably arise from time to time in our relations, and we will seek constructive ways to resolve them, while firmly protecting our national interests."
With Indonesia, too, Singapore's relations are in good shape, underpinned by the robust and expanding economic cooperation through projects like the Kendal Industrial Park in Central Java and the Nongsa Digital Park in Batam, Dr Balakrishnan said.
RELATIONS WITH CHINA
This year was especially significant for Singapore-China relations, as it is the 40th anniversary of former premier Deng Xiaoping's visit to Singapore on Nov 12, 1978.
Both sides have maintained a steady cadence of high-level exchanges, he said.
This year Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam visited China, while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-President Wang Qishan and Vice-Premier Han Zheng visited Singapore in recent months.
"Cooperation on the Belt & Road Initiative is a new highlight in our bilateral cooperation. It has progressed well under the four platforms of infrastructural connectivity, financial connectivity, third-party collaboration, and professional services."
Singapore will build on this year's work to further strengthen its relations with China, he added.
RELATIONS WITH US AND EU
Singapore's relationship with the US is also robust, spanning defence, economic and security, and people-to-people spheres, with a broad slate of high-level, substantive bilateral exchanges this year, Dr Balakrishnan said.
"Despite the current Administration's different approach to trade, the fundamentals that underpin our longstanding relationship with the US remain strong. The US remains committed to the region, and we will continue to do more with the US Administration in the coming years."
He noted that at the United Nations General Assembly this year, he spoke about the crisis of confidence in the concept of multilateralism and its institutions.
"But I made clear that Singapore will double down on our support for multilateralism and the rules-based global order," he said.
"It is in our interest to have a strong multilateral system... be it in ensuring a free and open trading framework or having recourse to third-party dispute resolution mechanisms," he said.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also actively supported the Trade and Industry Ministry's efforts to advance Singapore's agenda of free trade and economic integration, he added.
"PM signed the EU-Singapore free trade agreement last month, and we will work hard to secure its ratification in the European Parliament before May 2019."
Singapore also ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in July.
LOOKING TO 2019
Wrapping up his statement, Dr Balakrishnan said that recognising the uncertainty and volatility in today's world does not mean we need to be pessimistic in our outlook.
"Even in times of geopolitical turbulence, Singapore has built up that very precious asset of 'trust' with the international community, based on our adherence to international law and a rules-based order. We will continue to be nimble to adapt, seize opportunities and to do our best."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will work closely with other ministries and agencies to keep Singapore's foreign policy balance sheet in good order, he added.
"What is important is to maintain broad domestic support for our foreign policy. An effective foreign policy rests on domestic consensus, a consensus built both within this House, and outside with fellow Singaporeans," Dr Balakrishnan said.
"As we commemorate our Bicentennial in 2019, I hope we will continue to work together as a whole of nation to build a safe, secure, and prosperous home for all Singaporeans."