Over 4,500 brought home with MFA's help during crisis

As borders closed and public health situations deteriorated during the pandemic last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) undertook the largest consular operation with officers working round the clock to bring over 4,500 Singaporeans and their families home.

"There were many challenges, but we were determined to ensure that we would leave no Singaporean behind," Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday in response to Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC).

MFA was able to mount repatriation flights to bring large groups back from some countries, and officers also reached out to partners to help Singaporeans stuck in countries where Singapore had no embassies, Dr Balakrishnan said.

"I am glad that members of this House have conveyed their appreciation to the men and women of MFA, all of whom... have remained unflinchingly at posts overseas throughout this crisis, even as it worsened," said the minister, who noted that many officers are still separated from their families a year after the onset of the crisis.

Several MFA officers were infected with Covid-19 while they were at their posts overseas, said Dr Balakrishnan, who did not reveal numbers for privacy and operational reasons. "Fortunately, all of them have recovered and are well. But again, this reflects our debt to them, their grit and resilience, and their commitment to duty in the face of a crisis," he said.

MFA officers also worked closely with Singapore's economic and health agencies to sustain flows of food, medical supplies and vaccines, said Dr Balakrishnan, who noted that Singapore worked with partners such as Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and its fellow Asean countries to keep supplies and essential goods moving in the early days of the pandemic.

The crisis has now amplified a push for shorter supply chains for greater efficiency and security.

In view of how nationalism and protectionism have became politically attractive in some circles, the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership by 15 countries including Singapore last year was an important boost for trade and economic integration, and an affirmation of the importance of maintaining multilateral trade relationships, said Dr Balakrishnan.

Singapore has played a role in maintaining global connectivity amid the crisis, such as by continuing to be a transit hub for foreign nationals heading home throughout the crisis, and a hub for crew changes for the maritime industry so that essential supplies and food can continue to be shipped.

"We have continued to be a paragon of reliability (and) trustworthiness. We have honoured, at all times, the sanctity of contracts. We have never impounded supplies, even when the crisis was deep," added the minister.

The country's economic recovery is now being facilitated through the negotiation of reciprocal green lanes and other safe travel arrangements, he said.

In the wake of the pandemic, there is scope for Singapore to collaborate with other partners in various areas, he added.

For Singapore, the MFA will seek new areas of cooperation with partners in innovating to build greener, more liveable cities, and help sustain global momentum towards a more sustainable future.

Responding to Mr Henry Kwek (Kebun Baru), who asked about bilateral efforts to take digital cooperation forward and ensure that cyberspace remains safe and secure, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore needs to develop common frameworks and standards to ensure cross-border digital exchanges - including e-payments and data flows - are safe, secure and efficient.

Singapore has concluded digital economy agreements with Australia, Chile and New Zealand, and is exploring more such pacts with other partners, he added.

It is also supporting efforts to build up digital skills, and will continue to work with the United Nations, Asean and others to develop and strengthen norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2021, with the headline 'Over 4,500 brought home with MFA's help during crisis'. Subscribe