The full backing of Singaporeans on foreign relation matters is important, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during his wide-ranging speech at the People's Action Party (PAP) Convention on Nov. 10.
He said the external environment that Singapore operates in is "increasingly uncertain".
In emphasising the importance of domestic support, PM Lee said: "The unity of Singaporeans is our first line of defence."
Important for bilateral relations with Malaysia and Indonesia
PM Lee elaborated that such support was important, especially when it comes to bilateral relations with Malaysia and Indonesia.
He said that while relations with both countries were good, there were still issues that could not just be worked out by "eating durian or jalan jalan (walking around)".
Such issues included water and airspace arrangements with Malaysia, and airspace arrangements along with military training in the South China Sea for Indonesia.
With regard to his approach, PM Lee said: "For all these issues, my approach is to be constructive. Don't politicise the issue, or clash with them and damage the overall relationship."
He further stated:
"Managing these external issues will not be easy. We will need a capable government. Leaders who are tactful but firm, who can negotiate skillfully to defuse bilateral issues, and who are confident that they have the full backing of the people."
Navigating the space between U.S. and China
PM Lee also brought up Singapore's relations with the U.S. and China, and noted that the tense relations between the two countries were difficult for Singapore as "we are friends with both countries”.
In the case of the U.S., PM Lee highlighted that the country is Singapore's biggest investor, with many jobs having been created in manufacturing, finance and services.
Additionally, Singapore is also reliant on the U.S. for defence technology and training.
As for China, PM Lee pointed out how it is a "very important partner" for Singapore given the number of investments Singapore has in the country and vice versa.
PM Lee added that it was in the interest of Singapore to have minimal friction with both countries.
He said both these countries would expect Singapore to side with either of them out of its own volition.
However, he also pointed out that from time to time, Singapore will take positions that do not fully align with either side, based on its own principled positions on issues.
He added: "Then we just have to steel ourselves and do it, and be prepared for the reaction."
This is because such an approach is the only way to preserve Singapore's credibility and independence.
Breakdown of politics has severe consequences for Singapore
PM Lee warned that should the "anger and frustration" that has divided many societies elsewhere emerge in Singapore, the consequences will be severe:
"They can overwhelm us too if we are not careful. And if it happens to us the consequences will be worse for us than other countries, may even be irreparable, because we are so small and so vulnerable."
PM Lee cited Chile as an example and pointed out how he had initially been due to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit there, only for the summit to be cancelled as a result of angry protests over public transport fares, healthcare, education and pensions.
Lee also referenced Hong Kong and noted how the city's youth were unhappy with their government, as well as angry and pessimistic about social and economic issues.
He said: "Their young people feel that no matter how hard they study or work, there is no path to a better future."
This made both examples instances of how "politics has broken down" and trust in leaders has eroded.
In the case of Singapore, PM Lee said while the PAP was "humbled" to enjoy the people's trust, it was still important to convince Singaporeans in giving the government a "strong mandate".
He added: "Not just to return a strong PAP government, but also to secure Singapore for the long term."
Top image from PM Lee Hsien Loong Facebook