Crossing into 2023, Singapore finds itself in an increasingly fragmented world, feeling acutely the shockwaves caused by global conflict and a new economic reality. How should we respond?
Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, outlined the PAP Government’s foreign policy approach — having friends near and far, but always putting Singapore’s interest first — at the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Spring Reception on 5 February, 2023.
Below is an abridged version of Minister Shanmugam’s speech, which we have reproduced as a commentary.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birth on 16 September, 1923. RedAnts, a Mandarin online media outlet, recently ran a piece on Mr Lee Kuan Yew on 2 January this year. The article quoted Mr Lee’s New Year message in 1966, five months after Separation, and the article asked – looking at what Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, do the words, the lessons feel familiar, although we are listening to it more than 50 years later?
What did he say? He said we need to make friends overseas, grow our markets worldwide, keep our politics stable and predictable, otherwise there can be no growth, and remain quietly confident, especially when there is anxiety all around us.
It is very familiar to many of us because Mr Lee kept repeating these hard truths over and over, his entire life. And the succeeding Prime Ministers have done the same. Why? Because as a country, our fundamentals don’t change.
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.
Because we have followed these principles, our standard of living has increased tremendously, from US$500 GDP per capita in 1965 to more than US$55,000 GDP per capita today, we enjoy social and political stability, our children grow up in peace, safe and secure, and we have become an advanced, global city with good standing in the world, and strong links with many countries in the world.
But, the current global situation is more uncertain and challenging than any period we have had to deal with, almost since independence. There is a real war in Europe, there is threat of superpower conflict in Asia-Pacific, and there is protectionism all around, undermining the multilateral trading system. Very complex challenges.
Many of these bubbled over and erupted last year. Some might say Year of the Tiger. But now, as we enter the Year of the Rabbit, it is not much better. We just saw how a balloon – the Chinese say it is a Weather balloon, the Americans say it is a Spy balloon – shot down, set back US-China relations.
Almost one year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Many were surprised that Russia did not have a quick victory. The Ukrainians fought back, fiercely, with political and military support from the Americans and the Europeans. They pushed the Russians back.
The war is now at a stalemate. There is terrible human suffering in Ukraine, and there is no good outcome in sight. The Ukrainians will not stop fighting until they reclaim all their territory, which is going to be difficult. And Russia cannot be defeated entirely – large population, huge resources.
To complicate this, there is the danger of the conflict escalating. US and NATO are supplying to Ukraine more powerful military equipment. And we cannot rule out that if Russia – pushed to the wall – might choose to employ more dangerous weapons. Chemical, some fear even nuclear, which would have terrible and unpredictable consequences for the entire world.
Then you move to US-China. Both sides continue to see each other not just as competitors, but also as threats. Taiwan is a dangerous focal point. Taiwanese independence is a clear red-line for China. But in the West, if you read the newspapers, the rhetoric is that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, and it should be protected from authoritarian invasion, just like Ukraine.
In Taiwan, a recent poll showed that two-thirds of the people in Taiwan see themselves as Taiwanese only. They do not see themselves as Chinese. In 1992, there was 17 per cent who thought like that. Now it’s two-thirds – increased by four times.
Moves on all sides have increased the tension. Last August, the then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, went to Taiwan. China reacted, as many of you know, with military exercises and test firings. Some say it resembled a practice for a real blockade of Taiwan. Now, we hear reports that the new Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, may visit Taiwan this year.
We are already feeling the impact of the war in Ukraine. If there is a conflict in Taiwan, closer to us, the direct impact on Singapore would be very high. And if US and China come into direct conflict, the global impact would be catastrophic.
So, we hope that a war over Taiwan never happens, but the risks – including of accidents – has gone up.
Finally, and very importantly for us, to Singapore, the global multilateral system of free trade, based on a common set of rules, that has made us prosperous over 50 years to make our living, is now being undermined. What we previously took for granted, that there will be trade, win-win cooperation, is now being changed. More on-shoring, friend-shoring of supply chains, sometimes outright protectionism.
Countries do not want to rely on other countries, so trade is also being weaponised. As an example, some years ago, China launched a “Made in China 2025” programme to develop its local industries. The US and the EU accused China of protectionism and illegally subsidising their own projects. Now, the US itself has passed the Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. They are also subsidising investments in semiconductors, in green industries, and Europe is now looking at doing the same thing.
More countries are taking steps to prevent their own companies from losing out. Who is going to lose out? Small countries, like Singapore, which are part of the supply chain. We are going to be hurt very badly if this carries on.
How do we, as a small country, survive in this situation?
On the geopolitical front, we have always believed – and this is important, that I put the message here – we have always believed that many major countries need to participate and be in this region. To have a balance of power. So we have extensive, long-term ties with the United States. We support the US’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.
The Europeans, too, are keen to engage in the region, and we have strong ties with them. For example, we buy submarines from Germany. Prime Minister recently went there to launch our Navy’s two new submarines.
When we talk about where our aircraft comes from. Fighter jets, they come from the US. 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 US 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.
Some big countries in the region say that only Asian countries should be involved in Asia. We are a small country, we take a different view. Big countries may not like our view, but we hope we can agree to disagree.
Safer for a small country to have many players in the region, instead of just one dominant power. That was Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wisdom, and we have no intention of abandoning that. Good to have friends from near, good to have friends from far. From Asia: ASEAN, China, India, Australia, Japan. From afar: the US and the European Union.
As a small country, we have to be clear on what are our principles. We must always put Singapore’s interests first, and never be afraid to act in our own interests. Uphold our principles and positions consistently, impartially, objectively, and not let other countries, big or small, no matter how friendly, dictate to us what we do.
Our policies, whether they are foreign policy or domestic policy, must be for Singaporeans to decide. Nobody else. That too was the principle that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was very clear about.
To show what I mean, from a very recent situation: Covid-19. When China ended its zero-Covid policy in December, there was a spread of Covid-19 cases around China. Other countries – many others – moved immediately to tighten their restrictions on arrivals from China. They required pre-departure tests and so on.
Our approach? Our experts studied the matter. They assessed that though there were many cases, there were no new variants that required us to be concerned. We also saw that not many of the Chinese visitors we had, not many of them required hospital admission. We were confident that based on the arrival numbers, our healthcare system will be okay, will not be stressed. So, we didn’t make any change to our entry into Singapore from China. There was some criticism, but we do what we thought was right. Just because other countries moved against China doesn’t mean we follow suit. We do what we think is right.
And so far, the call was correct. The number of imported Covid-19 cases from China is now less than five every week. In fact, we are in a position to increase the number of flights to and from China.
Why did we make this decision? Not because we wanted to please China, but based on medicine and science, and experts.
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 is: We act, always, based on what is in Singapore’s interests and our principles-based approach.
Globally, our message to others, everyone, must be: Singapore is different, Singapore knows what it needs to do, and more importantly, that we have the courage and will to do the right thing for Singapore.
And, we are showing the world what good governance, stable politics, and a united people can do. We came through Covid-19 quite well. Not something that many countries can say, and it is not an outcome that we should take for granted.
A research study last year from Pew showed that 75 per cent of Singaporeans say that Singapore is more united now, compared with before Covid-19. The global average: 61 per cent say that their countries are more divided. So you see the contrast: 61 per cent overseas say their countries are more divided, 75 per cent Singaporeans say they are more united.
MNCs, investors have been eyeing Singapore, despite the protectionism around the world.
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: hold on to our values as Singaporeans. Help the Government ensure Singapore’s policies can only be decided by Singaporeans.
I think we are in a good position to remain quietly confident as Mr Lee Kuan Yew said all those years ago. As we enter a new year, we need to renew these, but I think it is important and it fits with the mood of the world.
You can read the full transcript of Minister Shanmugam’s speech here.
Image credits: Z on Unsplash, NAS, Rogan Yeoh on Unsplash, Defence U/Twitter