Singapore identity strong enough to withstand foreign pressures: Vivian Balakrishnan

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan during an interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour in New York on Sept 20. - MFA

WASHINGTON (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Singapore is taking appropriate precautions against the possibility of foreign influence operations within its society, but its strong sense of identity will be a bulwark against such pressures, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Wednesday (Sept 20).

He was responding to a question from CNN International anchor Christiane Amanpour on how seriously the Singapore Government takes reports that China is trying to influence ethnic Chinese populations across Southeast Asia, including in Singapore.

“It is something which we need to be aware of. It is something which we take appropriate precautions on,” he said.

“But my fundamental point is this – I trust Singaporeans.

“We know our identity and, most importantly, we understand what our long-term national interests are. It is not to be anybody’s vassal state or proxy.”

He said Singapore negotiates a path between the US and China, and is unapologetic about pursuing its own national interests.

“The way we navigate this nexus between the United States and China is to be straight with both of them. We tell them we have our own long-term national interests,” he said.

“Both of you are critical to our long-term national interests,” said the minister, referring to the US and China.

“I do not have the luxury of saying sweet nothings in Beijing and sweet nothings in Washington. We play a constructive, honest broker role.”

The Singapore identity transcends ethnic or linguistic identities, Dr Balakrishnan noted.

“Singapore is a young city state, multiracial, multilingual. We are not Chinese, we are not Indians, we are not Malays, we are certainly not Americans,” he said.

“I am confident that there is a very strong sense of a Singapore identity. We may speak different languages, have different colours. But if you come to Singapore... you will realise there is a strong sense of identity.”

Also, the fact that Singaporeans can speak different languages and connect well with people in other countries is an asset, he added.

“Cultural pride, linguistic proficiency, being able to understand, and to appreciate, opportunities, both in the West and East, in India and in Europe, is a strategic advantage for us.

“The fact that we understand, and therefore, some people may think they have opportunities to influence us, that is baked into our cultural DNA,” he said.

Asked how Singapore negotiated as the US and China competed for influence in the Asia-Pacific, Dr Balakrishnan said the city-state is well intertwined with both.

“We have got great relations with the United States and with China. It is not just a form of words. The United States is the biggest foreign investor in Singapore, (and) also the biggest service trading partner in Singapore.

“China is our biggest trading partner for goods. We are a significant investor in China; we have also investments in the United States.

“For us, the best possible world is one in which the two big boys get along.”

Singapore’s sense is that neither the US nor China is raring for a fight. But their mutual distrust is a problem.

“Let me just say, for someone who has been there, interacted with them – neither side is actually spoiling for war,” said Dr Balakrishnan, adding that the fundamental problem is the lack of strategic trust.

“What that means is both sides have to assume the worst of each other,” he said. “They have got to take precautions, and that precaution is viewed as a potential threat, and... (they) take a counter precaution.”

The antidote to an escalatory spiral that could develop is talk.

“Our recommendation is there needs to be a lot more direct face-to-face interaction. There is no substitute (for) eyeball to eyeball, handshake to handshake, and having honest-to-goodness conversations.”

A real strategic conversation could begin during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit in San Francisco in November, said the minister.

Unlike the Cold War era when the US and Soviet Union had a measure of each other, Washington and Beijing are still sussing each other out, he noted.

“Today, because the situation is still evolving so rapidly, neither side has really sized each other up and said ‘look, guys, we better put some guardrails, and not guardrails in a negative, aggressive sense, but guardrails around both of us, so we do not lose the plot’,” he said.

The Apec meeting could provide a platform for a dialogue essential to tackling the world’s mounting challenges.

“Now more than ever before, we need global leadership. The problems are beyond that of just the United States or China or Europe. In fact, you need the whole world together,” he said.

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