Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam spoke at the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (SHHK) Spring Reception on Feb. 5.
During his speech, he paid tribute to the SHHK's role in Singaporean society, as well as speaking on what was important to Singapore and Singaporeans in a difficult international situation.
No one owes S'pore a living
Shanmugam told the audience that 2023 would mark the 100th anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew's birth.
He said that Lee and the prime ministers that came after him had held true to Singapore's unchanging fundamental principles.
Singapore needs to make friends overseas, grow its markets worldwide, keep its politics stable and predictable, and remain quietly confident while surrounded by anxiety.
"We are a small country, our people are our only resource. We are highly vulnerable to external forces. No one owes us a living. To earn our living, we have to rely on our wits, be exceptional, so that others will want to deal with us."
Following these principles allowed a tremendous increase in Singaporean's standard of living, and enabled "our children to grow up in peace, safe and secure".
Shanmugam said that Singapore is an advanced, global city with good standing and strong links to many countries in the world.
But he warned that the current global situation has become more uncertain and challenging than any previous period.
Shanmugam drew the audience's attention to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had reached a stalemate with "no good outcome in sight".
The conflict held a danger of escalation, with the "U.S. (United States) and NATO" providing Ukraine more powerful weapons, but Russia could potentially resort to chemical and nuclear escalation if "pushed to the wall", which would have "terrible and unpredictable consequences" for the rest of the world.
Taiwan is also a dangerous focal point in global geopolitics. The U.S. and China see each other as not just competitors but threats.
While Singapore hoped a war did not occur over Taiwan, Shanmugam warned that the risks, including of accidents, had gone up, and that any such conflict would be "catastrophic" for Singapore and the world.
Undermined global system of trade
But perhaps most important development for Singapore is that the global system of trade which has contributed to Singapore's prosperity is being undermined.
Where once there was "win-win cooperation", production is being brought back home or friendly countries, with some nations engaging in "outright protectionism".
Shanmugam gave the examples of "Made in China 2025" initiative or the U.S.'s CHIPS act, noting that the European Union was considering similar moves.
Trade is being "weaponised", and small countries like Singapore who are part of the supply chain stand to lose out, and could be hurt very badly.
Shanmugam laid out Singapore's approach to survival, emphasising that "many major countries need to participate and be in this region", and form a balance of power.
"So we have extensive, long-term ties with the United States. We support the U.S.’s economic, military, and security presence in the region, the jobs that they create, the investments they bring in.
Parallel to that is the growing Chinese influence in the region. China is Singapore’s largest trading partner. There have been numerous collaborations, government-to-government development projects between China and Singapore over several decades."
Even Europe is keen to engage in the region. Shanmugam reminded the audience of PM Lee's recent visit to Germany to take delivery of the Navy's two submarines.
"When we talk about where our aircraft comes from. Fighter jets, they come from the U.S.. Our military equipment comes from the West. I once told the Chinese Vice-President, when I go to sleep at night, I’m not worried about China and the U.S. coming to attack Singapore. That’s not my concern.
I have a small manpower. I offset that against my threats by making sure my technology is first-rate. That is what protects Singapore. So, you work out for yourself why we need that technology, where we get it from, who we are protecting ourselves from."
Shanmugam added that it is safer for a small country to have many players in the region, not just a single dominant power.
As a small country, Singapore would always have to be clear on its principles.
"We must always put Singapore’s interests first, and never be afraid to act in our own interests," Shanmugam said.
Shunmugam gave the example of China's recent opening up, saying that Singapore had taken a data-driven approach to welcoming back Chinese visitors, with Singaporean experts saying the healthcare system would not be stressed.
Meanwhile, some other countries took steps to restrict Chinese visitors.
Singapore did not simply follow suit, but did what it thought was right, and so far the decision appears to be correct.
"Why did we make this decision? Not because we wanted to please China, but based on medicine and science, and experts," Shanmugam said. He added:
"So sometimes, the steps we take may look like it is more aligned with one country, other times it may look as if we are more aligned with another country, but actually, we are always only aligned to one country – Singapore, ourselves and our principles."
The consistent message, Shanmugam said, is that Singapore would always act based on its interests an in a "principles-based approach".
Shanmugam concluded by saying that Singapore had shown the world what "good governance, stable politics, and a united people could do".
Singapore, he said, had come through the Covid-19 pandemic quite well, with a Pew research survey indicating that 75 per cent of Singaporeans thought Singapore was now more united.
This was in contrast to other countries, where 61 per cent said that countries were more divided.
Because of this, despite growing protectionism in the world, multinational companies will continue to consider Singapore for investment.
Shanmugam encouraged the members of the SHHK, as a pillar of support to the government and Singaporeans, to instil the right values in the next generation, help immigrants integrate into society, and nurture a Singaporean Chinese culture so that Singaporeans remain rooted, and thereby shape what it means to be uniquely Singaporean.
"The challenges are formidable. But we have a good foundation. And with our people, our system, our human resources, our financial reserves; we are stronger than ever.
So I say to you as a member of the Cabinet, non-Chinese, please help the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong and the Cabinet, hold on to our values as Singaporeans. Help the Government ensure Singapore’s policies can only be decided by Singaporeans."
He concluded by saying that Singapore is in a good position to remain quietly confident as the late Lee said all those years ago.
Top image via Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan/Facebook