Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Singapore's foreign policy 'begins at home'

How effective it is depends on the Republic's success and having support from a united citizenry, says Vivian

How effective Singapore's foreign policy is depends on the country's success, and having support from a united citizenry, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

The Republic's foreign policy begins at home, he added, as he outlined the key planks of Singapore's approach during the debate on his ministry's budget.

In the face of an uncertain external environment, he said, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must work closely with other agencies to strengthen domestic resilience.

"This also means convincing Singaporeans of the need for consistent and principled diplomacy for our long-term interests, instead of taking the path of least resistance in order to achieve short-term gains," Dr Balakrishnan said, adding that the events of the last six months are a reminder of this.

Recent upheavals include the election of United States President Donald Trump and the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces armoured vehicles in Hong Kong.

 

  • $501.63m

    Total bill: Down 2.8 per cent

    2018

    The year Singapore next chairs Asean

    Over 112,000

    Number of foreign officials who have taken part in the Singapore Cooperation Programme since it began in 1992

    7.5m

    Trips abroad by air and sea for Singaporeans last year

The other key areas of focus are: remaining relevant to the world; maintaining an independent sovereign foreign policy to safeguard Singapore's interests and those of its people; promoting Asean unity and centrality; and commitment to a rules-based international system.

In the face of global upheavals, Singapore's foreign policy principles remain unchanged, said Dr Balakrishnan.

And amid rising global protectionist sentiments, the Republic has to "double down" on globalisation, he said, stressing that free trade is the country's lifeblood.

That is why recommendations by the Committee on the Future Economy and Budget 2017 are geared towards making Singapore more competitive, he said.

And as a tiny island in an uncertain neighbourhood, Singapore has to build a wide network of friends. "We have to be a relevant, valuable and reliable partner, and at the same time, be realistic about our place in the world."

In his wide-ranging speech in response to MPs who asked about Singapore's foreign policy direction and its foreign relations, Dr Balakrishnan also took stock of Singapore's ties with countries near and far.

Its ties with close neighbours such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are in good shape, while its relationship with China is in "good working order", he said.

And although a new administration has taken over in the US, Dr Balakrishnan said that "as far as Singapore is concerned, we believe that our many decades of consistent policies and interactions with the US have created trust".

He added: "I believe they consider us a reliable partner. I am confident that we will be creative and adaptable in developing win-win partnerships with the US even as President Trump pursues a new set of policies."

Dr Balakrishnan also pointed to the healthy trade and defence ties between both countries, and noted that Singapore is constantly looking for new areas to cooperate with the US, citing an agreement on cyber security signed last year.

On US-China relations, Dr Balakrishnan said it is the key bilateral relationship that will affect peace, security and prosperity in the region and beyond. While competition between the two powers is inevitable, they are now more economically intertwined than ever before, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan thus hopes both countries will come to the conclusion that constructive engagement and win-win cooperation is the right formula."We hope that they will arrive at this conclusion but we should also bear in mind that we have no say. We cannot determine the dynamics of that relationship."

And if, as Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) put it, the US and China do not get along, Singapore should avoid being forced to choose sides for as long as possible, said Dr Balakrishnan.

Singapore must always remain "an honest broker" and take a consistent position with both countries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's foreign policy 'begins at home''. Print Edition | Subscribe