We are witnessing an unprovoked military invasion of a sovereign State as we speak. Ukraine is a large country with a multilingual and multi-religious population of approximately 44 million people. It has a long history, with complex relations with Russia and the other states in the region. Ukraine became independent in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter in 1994, Ukraine was persuaded to give up its nuclear arsenal, at that time the third- largest in the world, by signing on to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In return, Russia, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), via the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, “reaffirmed their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (UN)”. Words which perhaps ring quite hollow today.
Since then, Ukraine has faced considerable domestic political turmoil, exacerbated by the separatist movements and tensions with Russia. Twenty years after the Budapest Memorandum, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 whilst the world watched. Conflicts on the ground in Donbas have continued for the past eight years, with episodic limited ceasefires. And beginning in spring 2021, Russia massed over 100,000 troops at its borders with Ukraine. In January 2022, cyberattacks were launched against the Ukrainian government websites. On the Feb 21, 2022, Russia recognised two breakaway Ukrainian regions, and announced that Russian troops would start performing what it called, “peacekeeping operations”. On the Feb 24, 2022, Russia announced the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This was followed shortly by air, land and sea attacks on multiple targets across the whole of Ukraine. Russian ground forces including armoured formations rapidly entered Ukraine from the north, the south and the east, and have reached the capital Kyiv.
Whilst Ukraine is far away from us, we are following the crisis with grave concern. Its economic effects can already be felt here, for example, in rising electricity and petrol prices. Minister Gan Kim Yong will address the economic issues later today. But these are not the principal reason the situation in Ukraine is important to us.
The events in Ukraine go to the heart of the fundamental norms of international law and the UN Charter, that prohibit the use of force and acts of aggression against another sovereign State. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear and gross violation of the international norms and a completely unacceptable precedent. This is an existential issue for us. Ukraine is much smaller than Russia, but it is much bigger than Singapore. A world order based on “might is right”, or where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, such a world order would be profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states. We cannot accept one country attacking another without justification, arguing that its independence was the result of quote “historical errors and crazy decisions” unquote. Such a rationale would go against the internationally recognised legitimacy and the territorial integrity of many countries, including Singapore.
That is why we are a staunch supporter of international law and the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. The sovereignty, the political independence and the territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected. Singapore must take any violation of these core principles seriously, whenever and wherever they occur. This is why Singapore has strongly condemned Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
It is heartbreaking to see the heavy casualties and the loss of many innocent lives, resulting from this unjustified attack and act of war. We strongly urge Russia to cease this offensive military action immediately, and to work for a peaceful settlement in accordance with the UN Charter and international law. We also call for safe and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and all those in need.
Singapore is doing our part. The Singapore Red Cross has pledged a contribution of US$100,000 to support communities affected by the current crisis, in cooperation with the Ukrainian Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This will provide essential relief supplies such as hygiene kits, family kits and household kits for the vulnerable who have been displaced by the conflict. In addition, the Singapore Red Cross has launched a public fundraising appeal to support the impending massive humanitarian operations that will be needed. The Singapore Government will also contribute US$100,000 to this humanitarian operation through the Singapore Red Cross.
Mr Speaker, there are important lessons for us to draw from this current Ukrainian crisis:
First, whilst international law and diplomatic principles are essential, they are not sufficient. The Budapest Memorandum was supposed to guarantee Ukraine’s security by three nuclear powers – Russia, the US, and the UK.
But agreements are only meaningful if the parties respect them, and if they can be enforced. The invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how quickly a vulnerable country can be overrun, especially when confronting a larger and more powerful opponent. This is the acute reality for all small countries, and Singapore is no exception. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are stark reminders of this. You cannot depend on others to protect your country. Thus, we must never lose the ability to defend and look after ourselves. This is why Singapore has invested consistently to build up a credible and strong SAF, and to maintain National Service as a fundamental element of our nationhood. The capability of the SAF must be undergirded by Singaporeans’ resolve – the iron determination of our people to fight and die, if need be, to defend what is ours and our way of life. Without such capability and resolve, no amount of diplomacy can save a country.
Second, it is all too easy for a small country to be caught up in the geopolitical games of big powers. Small countries must avoid becoming sacrificial pawns, vassal states or “cat’s paws” to be used by one side against the other. In a speech delivered in 1973, former Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew shared his agreement with Julius Nyerere, the then- President of Tanzania, who had said, “When elephants fight, the grass suffers”. This is why we work hard to maintain good relations with all our neighbours and with the big powers. When situations arise, our assessments and our actions are based on clearly enunciated and consistently held principles, that are in our own long term national interests. Instead of choosing sides, we uphold principles. This is worth repeating – instead of choosing sides, we uphold principles. Consequently, when we conduct our foreign policy in a coherent and consistent manner, we also become reliable partners for those who operate on the same principles.
However, there will be occasions when we will have to take a stand even if it is contrary to one or more powers on the basis of principle – as we are doing now.
Third, as a young nation, it is vital for us to maintain domestic unity and cohesion, bearing in mind how easily internal divisions can be exploited by adversaries, especially in this internet age and the advent of hybrid warfare. Dividing and weakening an opponent internally, overtly and covertly, has become the standard complement to conventional warfare. Therefore, our domestic politics must stop at our shores. I thank all members of Parliament for adhering to this precept, and I would share that I have also shared this point with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh.
Fourth, safeguarding one’s sovereignty and national interests often requires some sacrifice and pain. The Ukrainians are paying the ultimate price for freedom with their lives and livelihoods. The rest of the international community that is taking a stand against naked aggression through sanctions will also have to bear some pain and pay a price. Singaporeans too must understand that standing up for our national interests may come with some cost. We must be prepared to deal with the consequences, to bear the pain, to help one another, and to stand up together.
We continue to value our good relations with Russia and the Russian people. However, we cannot accept such violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity of another sovereign state. We will continue to work with our ASEAN and international partners to take a strong stance against the invasion of Ukraine, and to end further violence and bloodshed, and to de-escalate tensions.
We also participate actively at the United Nations. Three days ago, a draft resolution was presented at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Singapore was one of 82 co-sponsors of this Security Council resolution. As expected, Russia, as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, vetoed that resolution. So the resolution was not passed even though 11 of the 15 Security Council members voted in support and the remaining three members, China, India and the UAE abstained. The UN General Assembly (UNGA) will be debating a similar resolution later today. General Assembly resolutions are not subject to veto, but neither are they binding. However, as a responsible member of the international community, Singapore will comply with the spirit and the letter of the UN General Assembly decision.
Singapore has always complied fully with sanctions and decisions of the UN Security Council, but we have rarely acted to impose sanctions on other countries in the absence of binding Security Council decisions or directions. However, given the unprecedented gravity of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the unsurprising veto by Russia of a draft Security Council resolution, Singapore intends to act in concert with many other like-minded countries to impose appropriate sanctions and restrictions against Russia. In particular, we will impose export controls on items that can be used directly as weapons in Ukraine to inflict harm or to subjugate the Ukrainians. We will also block certain Russian banks and financial transactions connected to Russia. The specific measures are being worked out and will be announced shortly.
We must expect that our measures will come at some cost and implications on our businesses, citizens and indeed, to Singapore. However, unless we as a country stand up for principles that are the very foundation for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question one day.
I note that Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim have filed PQs (Parliamentary Questions) on the current situation in Ukraine, and especially on the steps taken by MFA to help Singaporeans in Ukraine. I will be happy to address their concerns in a clarification after this. If their concerns are sufficiently addressed, they can consider withdrawing the subsequent PQs and save time.
Mr Speaker, in the lead up to Russia’s military operation into Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022, MFA had issued two Travel Advisories on the situation in Ukraine on the 26th of January and the 13th of February respectively. We advised Singaporeans in Ukraine to leave as soon as possible via commercial means while it was still possible to do so, at that point in time. Singaporeans in Ukraine were also urged to e-register with MFA so that we can render consular assistance to them. Following our first Travel Advisory, seven Singaporeans left Ukraine via commercial options before the conflict erupted.
Since the launch of the Russian invasion, another three Singaporeans have left Ukraine and made their way across the border into Poland. We are still in touch with eight Singaporeans currently in Ukraine who are spread out across several cities. We are aware of at least one other person whom we are still trying to contact. Singaporeans’ safety remains our priority concern. MFA has been in contact with them and we will assist them wherever and however possible. We are also exploring options for them to leave the country if the situation permits. In the meantime, Singaporeans who are in Ukraine are advised to seek shelter in place, be vigilant and to heed the advice from the authorities. Those who have not yet e-registered with MFA should do so immediately.
Mr Speaker, this is a time for us to come together and to stand up for principles, uphold principles which are core to our survival, our existence as an independent sovereign nation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.