Parliament Sidelights

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's tale of trip to Jerusalem

SINGAPORE - It's the first parliamentary sitting of 2018, following a brief hiatus last month as Cabinet ministers and MPs took leave and went on their year-end vacations.

So while the House seem recharged and ready to tackle the new year, the January blues has also meant occasional memory lapses.

No, this is not about the much-talked-about apology by Workers' Party's Leon Perera on Monday (Jan 8), for his "incorrect recollections" of his interactions with Mediacorp and for which he was taken to task by Leader of the House Grace Fu.

Instead, it was Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's own memory lapse in answering a question by Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) on Singapore's United Nations vote on the status of Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan was recounting an April 2016 work trip to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli and Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC).

Except, it wasn't Ms Rahayu who went on this trip.

"At the risk of being long-winded, let me tell you my sentiments, as PM and our delegation including Masagos... and I think Rahayu, right, went along with us," said Dr Balakrishnan, visibly searching around the Chamber for the last member on the trip.


As Ms Rahayu pointed to her fellow MP Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Dr Balakrishnan realised his error.

"Intan, was it? I remember, yes, Intan, it is," said Dr Balakrishnan after a pause.

Also part of the delegation were Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education Janil Puthucheary and Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC). Both were not mentioned by Dr Balakrishnan.

The little slip-up aside, the minister delivered a powerful speech on how Singapore's multi-religious and multicultural society is respected around the world, even in troubled regions.

As part of the week-long trip in 2016, the Singapore delegation visited Jerusalem, which came under the spotlight recently after US President Donald Trump declared it to be Israel's capital, and was the subject of Mr Nair's parliamentary question.


Reminisced Dr Balakrishnan: "Whether or not you're religious, if you visit Jerusalem and you go to those sites, you cannot help but feel that this is a special place, a sacred place, a place where heaven and earth seem to come to a confluence."

He spoke about how, in a place like Jerusalem where views are divided along religious lines, the locals respected the multi-religious, multiracial group from Singapore, allowing it complete access to an Islam holy site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City, despite the fact that not all in their group were Muslims.

"Here we were accompanied by security from both Israel and Jordan, and they gave us full access. Minister Masagos even had a chance to pray in the cave beneath the Dome of the Rock," he said, referring to the site sacred to both Muslims and Jews. The Prophet Muhammad is traditionally believed to have ascended to heaven from the site.

In recounting what happened, Dr Balakrishnan had a bigger message to share with the House: About how Singapore's principled stance on foreign policy has won it the trust of many, including conflicting parties, around the world.

"You know, people talk about the Singapore passport being very powerful. It's not really about the passport, but the fact that the world welcomes and trusts us."

Parliament Sidelights is an occasional blog on what goes on in the House.