External engagements important for advancing Singapore’s interests: PM Wong


PM Lawrence Wong said Singapore is not so large that it can afford to just focus on internal matters all the time. - ST

KUALA LUMPUR: As a small country, Singapore must continually look outside to build connections, advance its interests abroad and enlarge its operating space to bring benefits to its people, said Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

This is why he will continue to strengthen the Republic’s international partnerships while he attends to Singaporeans’ domestic concerns, PM Wong said on June 12 at the conclusion of his first overseas trip since taking office.

PM Wong, who had made introductory visits to Brunei and Malaysia over two days, said that a lot of his work is to address issues Singaporeans care about such as cost of living, jobs and housing. But quite a large element involves engaging other countries.

This is as Singapore is not so large that it can afford to just focus on internal matters all the time, he said.

“We are a small country and the reality is we don’t operate in a vacuum... I hope everyone understands that the introductory visits are taking place within this broader context,” he said.

Noting that times have changed from when he started out as a civil servant in 1997, he said every ministry is aware of the importance of having a strategy to engage their foreign counterparts, so that they can learn best practices from elsewhere and build partnerships that bring benefits to Singaporeans.

Giving an idea of his foreign policy approach while speaking to Singapore journalists at the end of his two-day trip to Brunei and Malaysia, he said: “I know that foreign policy is probably not the thing that people in Singapore will tell you is top of their mind.

“But being able to navigate our way in a very complex external environment is also very critical for Singapore, and I will certainly do my best as prime minister, even while attending to Singaporeans’ domestic concerns.”

It is against this backdrop that PM Wong began a series of introductory visits to South-east Asian capitals starting with Singapore’s closest neighbours, Brunei and Malaysia.

PM Wong met Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah while in Bandar Seri Begawan on June 11, and Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim in Kuala Lumpur on June 12.

While he had met Bruneian and Malaysian leaders in his previous capacities, his visits over the two days were to establish rapport and a good working relationship with them as PM, to set the tone for the overall relationship between Singapore and both countries.

Brunei is a “special and very trusted partner for Singapore”, and there is really no other country with that kind of status where the Republic is concerned, said PM Wong as he reaffirmed his commitment to continue to strengthen the relationship.

Meanwhile, he said Malaysia and Singapore are close friends and neighbours bound by ties of kinship, culture and history, and while there may be differences of views on some things, there are also positive areas of cooperation and more that both sides can do together down the road to benefit their peoples.

At a meeting with Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Energy Transition and Water Transformation Fadillah Yusof, PM Wong and the minister discussed ways to expand cooperation in various domains like sustainable development and people-to-people exchanges.

At an earlier joint press conference with Datuk Seri Anwar, both prime ministers were asked about Malaysia’s upcoming chairmanship of Asean in 2025.

Anwar said that with Malaysia as chair, Asean will look into areas such as digital cooperation, energy transition and other collaboration beyond trade and the economy to cement the regional grouping as a cohesive force.

PM Wong said that by working together, Singapore and Malaysia can become an anchor for a stronger and more integrated Asean community.

He noted that, in many ways, the Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone and the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link speak to the cooperation that Asean countries ought to be pursuing to strengthen economic integration as one community.

Later, when asked about how bilateral relationships can help temper geopolitical uncertainties, such as the situation in the South China Sea, PM Wong told Singapore journalists the issue is one that all Asean member states are concerned about.

While Singapore is not a claimant state in the disputed sea, it can do its part along with other Asean countries to steer discussions and negotiations towards resolving disputes in a way that is peaceful, consistent with international law and does not result in miscalculations or conflicts.

“These are our interests which we want to uphold, and which I’m sure other Asean countries will too,” he said.

While Asean has made some progress in the last 20 years, there is still a lot of scope for its members to work even more closely together, he said at the joint press conference with Anwar.

“Singapore is confident that under Malaysia and PM Anwar’s leadership, Asean will develop further as a stronger and more integrated community, and will deepen our relations with our external dialogue partners,” said PM Wong.

He added: “Singapore will fully support Malaysia’s chairmanship of Asean, and we hope to be able to work together to set an ambitious and forward-looking agenda for Asean for the next 10 years.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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