Singapore committed to good ties with Vietnam and Cambodia, says MFA after furore over PM Lee Hsien Loong's comments

Vietnamese soldiers waiting to leave Cambodia on Sept 20, 1989, following the withdrawal of troops from Cambodia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that while Singapore and Vietnam were on opposing sides in the past and have different views of tha
Vietnamese soldiers waiting to leave Cambodia on Sept 20, 1989, following the withdrawal of troops from Cambodia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that while Singapore and Vietnam were on opposing sides in the past and have different views of that history, their leaders have chosen to set aside differences to forge a close partnership. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It responds to furore in the two countries over PM Lee's remarks on 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia

Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia, and hopes that they can continue to grow based on candour and trust, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said last night.

Its statement was in response to unhappiness in Vietnam and Cambodia over Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's recent comments on the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

"Singapore highly values its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam. Notwithstanding our differences in the past, we have always treated each other with respect and friendship," the ministry said.

"Bilateral relations have grown in many areas, and we worked together with other South-east Asian countries to build a cohesive and united Asean."

This was the context of PM Lee's comments, said the statement, adding that they reflect Singapore's longstanding viewpoint, which has been stated publicly before.

Singapore upholds the principle that no country should violate the sovereignty of another.

Additionally, if it were not opposed, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia would create an undesirable precedent for small countries such as Singapore.

  • At stake: No country should violate sovereignty of another

  • For more than a decade, Vietnam's 1978 invasion of Cambodia - then known as Kampuchea - was the predominant foreign policy issue in the region.

    At stake was a principle which Singapore and the Asean regional grouping adhered to: That no country should violate the sovereignty of another.

    From the Singapore perspective, while the country had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge, it believed that Vietnam's invasion would leave an undesirable precedent if left unopposed, especially for small countries like the Republic.

    In December 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime that had controlled Cambodia for three years from 1975 and implemented policies said to have killed a third of the population.

    After the invasion, Vietnam put in place a puppet government in Cambodia led by Heng Samrin which had to consult Vietnam on major decisions.

    Singapore's and Asean's stand was that Vietnam's invasion was a clear violation of international borders and an act of external aggression.

    The invasion of a smaller country by a larger neighbour, the deposition of a legitimate government by external force and the imposition of a proxy by a foreign power were a direct challenge to the fundamentals of Singapore's foreign policy.

    As outlined by former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Wong Kan Seng at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture in 2011, Singapore felt that not responding to the invasion would have "undermined our credibility and posed serious implications for our own security".

    The issue was one of Singapore's early tests as a country, he also said.

    From 1979 to 1989, Asean member states worked closely to oppose the invasion on the international stage.

    Singapore led a concerted effort to table an annual resolution at the United Nations General Assembly calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops and the recognition of Kampuchean self-determination, while not seeking a restoration of the Khmer Rouge.

    And for all 11 years - with then foreign minister S. Rajaratnam and ambassador Tommy Koh lobbying for votes - the resolution won the support of more and more UN members.

    The final resolution voted on in 1989 was approved by 124 out of the 159 members.

    Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia that same year, as the Soviet bloc was collapsing. It would sign the Paris Peace Accord in 1991.

    So large did the event loom over the consciousness in the region that many Singaporean leaders, including founding prime minister, Mr Lee, would years later refer to it as a seminal event in the early days of the Asean grouping.

    Once the issue was settled, Singapore sought to build a relationship with Vietnam.

    Singapore's leaders had long maintained that its opposition to the invasion had little to do with its bilateral relationship.

    "We made clear that once the issue was settled, we would be ready and willing to render whatever assistance we could to Vietnam," Mr Wong said in the 2011 speech.

    Mr Lee met then Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet one week after the Paris peace agreements were signed in October 1991.

    Vietnam was admitted into Asean in 1995, with Cambodia joining the grouping in 1999.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed to the episode and the way the region was able to put its past behind it during a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue last week.

    "Earlier, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, thus posing a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours. But now, Vietnam joined Asean, together with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. It was a case of beating swords into plough-shares," he said.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made separate phone calls to Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn yesterday. Dr Balakrishnan explained these points to his counterparts. "They agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences in the past, we have taken the path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship," the statement added.

Both Hanoi and Phnom Penh have protested since PM Lee wrote a Facebook post on May 31 that mentioned Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

The Vietnamese troops then ousted a Khmer Rouge regime that had wiped out up to one-third of Cambodia's population.

In expressing his condolences for the death of Thai statesman Prem Tinsulanonda, PM Lee wrote about how Asean - then comprising Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines - came together "to oppose Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge".

"Thailand was on the front line, facing Vietnamese forces across its border with Cambodia. General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli, and worked with Asean partners to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums," PM Lee wrote.

"This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised. It protected the security of other South-east Asia countries and decisively shaped the course of the region."

PM Lee also mentioned the issue during his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on May 31 when he was talking about the formation of Asean.

Cambodia and Vietnam objected to PM Lee's remarks. Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh told local media earlier this week that PM Lee's comments were "unacceptable" and "not true".

Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it "regretted" that PM Lee's remarks did not "objectively reflect the historical truth" and, as a result, caused "negative impact" on public opinion.

Netizens from Vietnam also flooded PM Lee's Facebook page expressing unhappiness.

On Thursday night, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Facebook that he deeply regretted PM Lee's statement, and said it revealed that the "leader of Singapore had indeed contributed to the massacre of Cambodian people".

"His statement reflects Singapore's position then in support of the genocidal regime and the wish for its return to Cambodia," he said.

In its statement yesterday, the MFA noted that Singapore's foun-ding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs about Singapore's longstanding view of what happened.

Asean, then comprising five members, also stated its position on Cambodia clearly in a joint statement that was circulated to the United Nations Security Council in 1979, which "affirmed the right of the Kampuchean people to determine their future by themselves, free from interference or influence from outside powers in the exercise of their right of self-determination".

MFA said: "Singapore had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge, and did not want to see the Khmer Rouge return to Cambodia."

It noted that in 1988, Asean sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the Khmer Rouge to ensure it would not be part of any eventual government in Cambodia. "Singapore and Asean were keen to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cambodian people," it said.

"Asean spearheaded the 1980 International Meeting of Humanitarian Assistance and Relief to the Kampuchean People, which took place under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council."

The statement said PM Lee had made reference to this history "to explain how statesmanship and foresight helped to end the tragic wars that caused great suffering to the people of Indochina, and to bring about the peace and cooperation that the region enjoys today".

"He also wanted to emphasise that regional stability and prosperity, as well as Asean unity, cannot be taken for granted. The current geopolitical uncertainties make it all the more important that Asean countries maintain our unity and cohesion, and strengthen our cooperation."


MFA said that while Singapore and Vietnam were on opposing sides in the past and have different views of that history, "our leaders chose to set aside differences to forge a close partnership both bilaterally and in Asean".

"Likewise, Singapore has worked hard to forge a good relationship with Cambodia following internationally supervised elections that elected a new Cambodian government, and to bring it into the Asean fold once it was ready. An understanding of the past enables us to fully appreciate and value the good relations that we now enjoy."

Yesterday, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin said in a Facebook post that while Vietnam may not like some of PM Lee's comments and can choose to define the past as it sees fit, "this doesn't change the past as many view it".

"Nor does it detract from us being good friends or neighbours today. We are committed to that," he added.

Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore committed to good ties with Vietnam and Cambodia: MFA'. Print Edition | Subscribe