In short: Unpacking Vivian Balakrishnan’s 30-min interview on geopolitics with ST

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan spoke to The Straits Times on Aug 26, in a post-National Day Rally conversation that touched on the various geo-political challenges that Singapore is facing.

Here’s what you need to know from this insightful, illuminating interview.

1. The world has entered a very dangerous phase

There are several factors: the war which is on a scale and level not happened for many decades; a new phase of the global economy that is characterised by higher prolonged inflation and higher interest rates; disruption of global supply chains; the probability of a new pandemic even when we have just emerged from one; food and water security.

“If you add all these things up – more inflation, famine, pandemic, and the loss of trust and cohesion within societies – all these factors lead us to an unfortunate new phase of geopolitics with profound implications for all of us,” he said.

2. Be better informed

While Minister Balakrishnan said that Singaporeans do understand the various threats, there remains a need to be “immunised” and prepare for the challenges ahead.

“I would say number one, is to be better informed. Read the papers… Understand what is going on, understand the driving forces behind the individual episodes and incidents which are occurring in the world.”

The next step is to have heart-to-heart discussions with one another and seek out diverse views.

“Based on what we just went through over the last two and a half years with Covid-19, one key competitive advantage we had was trust and cohesion, and the fact that we instinctively looked out for one another even whilst recognising that we are diverse,” he said.

3. Three key principles

In a nutshell, the three key principles that Singapore holds dear are independence and sovereignty; Singapore’s long-term interests; and not taking sides.

On the last principle, he said: “From time to time, we have to be prepared to stand up. Say what we feel is critical for the survival and the prosperity of a tiny city state like us. But we do not take sides. We are not pro-anyone or anti-anyone, we are only pro-Singapore.”

4. Social media companies are optimised for revenue maximisation

On the wide variety of messages stemming from social media companies and private messaging platforms, he said that a significant number of messages originated from outside which aim to divide and “is a clear and current danger”.

“It requires certain scepticism, a certain openness to facts but not being gullible.”

He then opined that social media companies are optimised for revenue maximisation and not necessarily optimised for the propagation of facts.

“What has wings on social media, 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.”

“But I still believe that Singaporeans are also sensible, pragmatic people. We are not just going to swallow everything hook, line and sinker,” he added.

5. No question that Singapore had to take a stand on Ukraine War

Describing the invasion of Ukraine as an act of aggression which clearly flouted core principles of UN Charter, Minister Balakrishnan said that Singapore had to take a stand.

“When a big power threatens to or actually tries to redraw boundaries on the basis of historical errors and crazy decisions, all alarm bells go off and especially in Singapore. There was no question that we had to take a stand.”

He added that he’s convinced that majority of Singaporeans are not comfortable with a world in which might is right, in which a big neighbour gets to redraw boundaries or to use force or to threaten the use of force in order to bend and subvert the will and cohesion of a neighbour.

6. ‘It reminds me of the situation before the First World War’

On US-China relations, he said that while he do not believe the countries are set out to wage war on each other, he worries that that there is a real risk of each party unilaterally deciding what its national interests are and the current situation reminds him of World War I.

“My deep anxiety is that it reminds me of the situation before the First World War.The major powers before the First World War did not set out for war. In fact, it was a period of great interdependence and even global trade at the turn of the last century. Nobody felt that war made sense. 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.”

7. What’s next for Singapore

The earlier decades of heavy, steady growth with low inflation are over, he said.

“It means we will have to double down on the restructuring of the economy which we are already engaged in. Preparing people for new jobs – jobs of the future.”

He also emphasised the point of reviewing our social compact.

Equally important is what Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has emphasised: the need for us to review the social compact. 

“Because maintaining that sense of unity, that we are all in this boat together, that we do need to look out for each other, and yet we need to do while keeping our eyes on the horizon externally, and trying to find new sources – where is the wind coming from, how do we set our sails accordingly?”

8. Foreign policy begins at home

Rounding up the interview, Minister Balakrishnan said that his experience in MFA raises one key point: foreign policy begins at home.

“Without a united population, without a population immunised against foreign interference or influence, you will find that the future Governments of Singapore would be constrained in our pursuit of, and our protection of our long-term national interests.”

The challenge, according to him, is to educate and have more discussions with Singaporeans about how the world has changed and Singapore’s stance on issues.

“Paradoxically, I have found, at least with the current leaders in the world, that because they know Singapore is small and rational, is not anyone’s vassal state and does not wish harm on any other state; when we do need to take a stand, and when we do need to have a difference, they respect it.”

Cover photo credit: ST YouTube