S'poreans must 'jealously safeguard S'pore's sovereignty & independence': Vivian Balakrishnan

In order to navigate a perfect long storm, Singapore has to stay united, be well informed, and stand up for principles.

Tan Min-Wei | August 27, 2022, 11:54 PM

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Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan gave an interview to The Straits Times's Lynlee Foo, discussing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's warning of a more dangerous geopolitical environment during the Aug. 21 National Day Rally.

A "perfect long storm"

The full interview was a half hour long affair that explained Vivian's concerns for Singapore's external future, as well as his thoughts on what we could do to prepare for it.

Vivian characterised the past six decades that Singapore had experienced as an independent country as "an unusual period of growth and opportunity". The world, up to now, had been enjoying a kind of "golden age":

"... the world enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace, low inflation, low interest rates, great development, a catch-up, a reduction in the gap between the developing world and the advanced worlds."

But now Vivian said he wanted to put up a warning "amber light", saying that there were signs that if global leaders could not put aside growing animosity and work together, that golden period would be at an end.

Paraphrasing Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Vivian called this moment a "perfect long storm".

He highlighted four trends and events that marked the "dangerous phase" that the world had entered.

Four main trends

Firstly, the war in Ukraine returning Europe to a state of war in a scale not seen in decades.

Secondly, higher interest rates and prolonged higher inflation in the global economy; as well as disruption to formerly efficient global supply chains.

Thirdly, the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the realisation that even more deadly pandemics could lie ahead.

And finally, the increased likelihood of an emerging food, water, and energy crisis.

As a background to these issues was the perception that societies globally faced a profound deterioration of trust in their governments, as well as between governments; of which the four outlined factors exacerbated.

The Guns of August

He likened the current situation of the leaders of the United States, China, and the European Union to lead up to the First World War. Where despite none of the parties wanting a war, and all of them being highly interdependent and enmeshed in global trade, tragedy still ensued.

"Nevertheless, a series of steps, incidents, mishaps and this locked-in spiral led to a very terrible situation. That is why I remain so concerned about the prospects for global peace."

However, Vivian pointed out that despite the tragedies perpetrated in the Second World War, some good did come out of it, and that global powers could achieve great things if they worked together.

"If we could only elevate our gaze to these global challenges and immediately realise that these can only be solved if America, China, Europe and Asia, and all the rest of us come up with a multilateral, rules-based, constructive response to protect the global commons.

This is the challenge of our generation and the next – to use the advances in technology, digital, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, new materials and synthetic biology. We are actually on the cusp an era of profound technological breakthrough which will equip humanity with unimaginably powerful tools."

But despite his optimism, he noted that Singaporeans and their government were realistic, and worried.

Warning of the harsh future that was possible, he said that "the earlier decades of heavy, steady growth with low inflation are over."

To that end, he had three main messages for Singaporeans:

Stay united

Vivian emphasised on numerous occasions that a core trait of Singaporeans was their unity in the face of adversity.

Citing the pandemic as an example, he said it showed Singaporeans' trust and cohesion, and instinctive looking out for each other and recognition of diversity, as a competitive advantage.

"... Singapore is small, fragile, and facing an even greater level of challenge for the future, we need to stay united, we need to stay cohesive, we need to stay capable of making plans (and) more importantly, executing plans."

To preserve that unity, he pointed to the need for Singapore to review its social compact and to double down on restructuring the Singaporean economy. Ultimately Singaporeans had to look out for each other, because "we are all in this boat together".

Be informed

Vivian called on Singaporeans to draw on credible sources to inform themselves, such as mainstream media outlets.

Having armed themselves with reliable information, he urged Singaporeans to engage in candid, and at times hard, discussions with other Singaporeans; but in a constructive, respectful manner, with the goal of gaining new perspectives.

He echoed PM Lee's warnings about social media, saying that there were two levels at which to be sceptical about such platforms.

Firstly, social media companies may prioritise profit maximisation over spreading facts or encouraging reasonable discussions:

"...  if you just go by the algorithms, anything that incites, anything that makes people angry, anything that is scandalous, or raises emotional temperature, those are the messages that fly."

Secondly, both nation states and non-state actors have since learned about how to exploit social media platforms in order to generate distrust and manipulate opinion; and were actively doing so.

And while Vivian ultimately believed that Singaporeans sought to be a canny people, both he and PM Lee thought it prudent to make sure Singaporeans were aware of these informational dangers.

Borrowing from his medical background, Vivian said that there was a challenge to "immunise" Singaporeans against foreign interference or influence, and that good foreign policy began at home.

Take no sides, but stand up for principles

Finally, Vivian wished to emphasise that Singapore and its citizens' interest lay in taking no sides in any brewing or future conflict. While global powers currently tell Singapore they do not expect the nation to choose sides, there was no guarantee that this would continue indefinitely.

Singapore's most important objective should be to "jealously safeguard its sovereignty and independence", and had to be cleared eyed about its national interests as small, diverse, trade dependent city in Southeast Asia.

While Singapore depends on good diplomatic and economic relations with all countries, it must also be ready to vigorously stand up and defend existential principles and not "take cover" all the time.

He took the example of Singapore imposing sanctions on Russia early on in the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian invasion was viewed by Singapore as violating sovereignty and international law.

In this particular case, Russia a global power which sat on the United Nations Security Council and had the power to veto any measure taken against it.

Because of this, Singapore not only followed UN resolutions, but also enacted targeted unilateral sanctions against potential war materials.

Vivian he warned that standing up for our principles would become more difficult in the future, the government expected ever more geopolitical pressure in the future.

However, if Singapore were able to keep to these points, Singapore would be in a very good position to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

The full interview was published by The Straits Times, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made the transcript available here.


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Top image by Getty & Vivian Balakrishnan Facebook