SINGAPORE - Singaporeans must put their own national interests first amid attempts by external forces to influence countries in the region, including Singapore, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Thursday (Aug 8).
"We want to be relevant to the world and helpful to powers, big or small, but we do not want to choose sides or be asked to choose sides, or to be put in positions that bring short-term benefits but compromise the larger collective good," he said at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry's (SCCCI's) annual National Day dinner.
Earlier in his speech, Dr Ng said Singapore and the world are entering a period of great uncertainty and turbulence driven by the sharper ideological divide between the United States and China.
He noted that during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, statements were made by then-US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.
He also cited how the US and China have stated publicly the positions of their governments and militaries towards each other.
For instance, Dr Ng said, the US has branded China as a "revisionist power", describing it as "a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea", among others.
In response, he said, China, in its Defence White Paper, noted that "the US has severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries", among others.
Speaking to the audience of about 560 people, including business leaders, Members of Parliament and diplomats, Dr Ng said these are strong and clear words from both sides.
"You as businessmen... fully appreciate what happens when top management outlines your strategy to your units - it gets translated to ground actions. Sometimes slower, other times quicker, but eventually it will filter down to the last unit," he added.
On what Singapore should do, Dr Ng said that being a small country, it should not over-estimate its ability to influence, let alone control, global affairs.
"But we must do all we can in our interactions with other world leaders to maintain an open and inclusive system which takes into account the needs of all countries, large or small, and one that does not divide our region into competing spheres of influence," he added.
In the midst of new pressures, Singaporeans must keep their own identity, independence and interests foremost in all their dealings, said Dr Ng.
On what such pressures were, he pointed to the example of Eastern Europe, where smaller countries such as the Baltic states have had to respond to external influences to divide their societies and shape their internal systems, even during elections.
"In our highly connected world, these external forces can affect countries in this region too, including Singapore. When that happens, and it will happen, we must put our own national interests first," he added.
Apart from that, Dr Ng said Singapore also has to maintain stability and security.
"We cannot help others if we ourselves are divided. If ever there was a time to strengthen our Total Defence, it would be now.
"Who is the enemy, you might ask, that we need to strengthen our Total Defence against? Of course it is not the US or China because they are close friends. We must strengthen our Total Defence against the uncertainty and impact arising from their tensions," he said.
The commemoration of Singapore's Bicentennial year serves as a reminder that the country and the region are no strangers to big-power contests, said Dr Ng, with external forces - over the past 700 years - periodically fighting proxy battles in the region, often at the expense of countries here.
"Whether it was the Srivijaya against the Chola and Majapahit (empires); the contests between the colonial powers of the Portuguese, Dutch and British; the Soviet Union and China vying for influence over Indo-China - these big-power rivalries have affected and altered the course of the countries in this region," he added.
"The US-China rivalry can have that same potential impact on Singapore and this region."
But Singapore has excellent relations with both the US and China, said Dr Ng. "And we want to keep it that way, but always based on our own national interests first, and not that of others."
He added that the Republic holds firmly to the view that the US presence in this region has contributed to stability and allowed Asia to prosper, and that it also firmly believes that the peaceful rise of China benefits the world.
He thanked the SCCCI for its support of national defence, especially for national service, from the start in 1967 when the first two batches of recruits were enlisted.
The SCCCI had given each of the recruits a medallion which had the Chinese words "jing zhong bao guo" inscribed, meaning "loyalty to the country".
The SCCCI also raised funds - about $1.39 million - in support of national defence in 1968.
"These early efforts by the Chamber laid the foundation for a strong SAF today. And this Chamber continues to give strong support to national defence," Dr Ng said, adding that the Chamber holds an annual memorial service at the Civilian War Memorial on Feb 15 in commemoration of the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation.
"Against fake news and disinformation campaigns on social media that seek to divide Singaporeans, the SCCCI's efforts in helping to forge a cohesive society… will become more salient than ever," he added.