Analysing Singapore’s Foreign Policy – Interview with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Singapore Analysing Singapore’s Foreign Policy – Interview with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Singapore
With the aim of providing a better understanding of Southeast Asia to Italian public, The Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliare... Analysing Singapore’s Foreign Policy – Interview with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Singapore

With the aim of providing a better understanding of Southeast Asia to Italian public, The Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliare (IsAG) interviewed Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Singapore, to analyse Singapore’s foreing policy and Asia Pacific’s current status and dynamics.


Q: In 2015 Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence. Today Singapore is a city-state that is well-known throughout the world for efficiency, high technology and finance. Therefore, notwithstanding its small size, Singapore became a point of reference for the Asian and International Community. However, given the image that Singapore has acquired during the years, today only few know the amazing development it has undertaken since its independence. In fact, when in 1965 Singapore declared independence from the Federation of Malaysia it was a small country without natural resources, in a hostile environment and among Communist countries. Despite these circumstances, Singapore could emerge as a developed leading country thanks to policies that only after years have been taken as model by other States in the region. What have the key points been of Singapore’s success?
Smiling w tie suit for press
A: Singapore was fortunate to have had an exceptional team of leaders who led us in the formative years of self-government from 1959 and into the post-independence era from 1965. Our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was ably supported by a talented team of leaders who laid strong foundations for Singapore’s progress. Their mandate was a tall order – making an “unlikely nation” like Singapore succeed against the odds.

Through the years, we have held closely to three basic tenets: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Incorruptibility. Meritocracy is essential in a multi-racial, multi-religious society. Everybody is treated fairly, and is motivated to do his or her best. It is about ability and not affiliation. By adopting inclusive policies which guarantee a fair chance for all, from education to housing to employment, we have ensured social cohesion in the midst of great diversity. We have been thus able to turn our multicultural diversity – a source of social stress in many societies – into one of our strengths as a nation. This is important as we have no other natural resources other than the talent and ingenuity of our people.

We have also embraced Pragmatism. This means that Singapore consistently seeks out the best and most practical solutions to the problems we encounter. While we have not hesitated to adapt successful models from overseas, we have adapted them to suit our unique circumstances. When many newly independent countries in the 1960s took ideological approaches and spurned investments by multi-national corporations (MNCs), Singapore took a different approach. We welcomed MNCs to set up their operations here, and invest in our economy. In the process, they imparted the skills and technological know-how to our own workforce and helped us to progress up the economic value chain. This approach continues today, with the government investing in improving the capabilities of its citizens through the SkillsFuture initiative. This is a national movement to give all Singaporeans the skill sets necessary to participate in an advanced economy.

A culture of incorruptibility amongst politicians and civil servants at all levels has been the backbone of a clean government. Shaping the collective mind-set of society towards this outlook was probably one of the hardest things to do. It remains something many countries, even in the developed world, still grapple with. And while we cannot guard against every human foible, as a nation, we hold firm to a culture which does not tolerate any deviation from high standards of honesty and good governance.

These basic tenets have held us in good stead. At the same, we are aware that we need to remain nimble and adaptable to seize new opportunities and respond to emerging threats. All these have placed greater demands on Singapore’s government and society. They have necessitated adjustments to some longstanding policies. But our core approach, the emphasis on a meritocratic, pragmatic and honest approach will not change.

Q: One of the main figures of Singapore’s success is Lee Kuan Yew, Founding Father and First Prime Minister of Singapore. What is the heritage he left to Singapore and Singaporeans?

A: Serving as our Prime Minister for more than thirty years, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the passionate and persuasive voice that drove Singapore’s vital social and economic policies in our formative years as a newly independent country.

One of Mr Lee’s key legacies is our strong institutions which imbibe the values of incorruptibility and commitment to high standards of service for the benefit of Singaporeans. He was determined to run a government that would allow Singaporeans to have a high degree of political confidence in their leaders and the public service. The culture of incorruptibility and integrity that Mr Lee embodied both in his public and private life has left a deep imprint on Singaporeans.

Speaking as Singapore’s Foreign Minister, I would like to also highlight Mr Lee’s legacy in the realm of foreign policy. He always emphasized the need for Singapore to take a principled and pragmatic approach in the conduct of our diplomacy. We would not cling to any doctrine or ideology, something which was commonplace in many newly independent, post-colonial states in the 1960s. As a small country, we were dependent on both the developed and developing world for our political and economic survival. Mr Lee was cognisant that Singapore had to accept the world as it was, and not as we would like it to be. Foreign policy was also a tool to profile Singapore, attract foreign investments and create jobs for our people. Mr Lee aided this by creating a domestic economic environment that was investment-friendly, with a good working relationship between the government, employers and workers.

Q: In the last few years the international stage changed very much, and above all in Asia Pacific region. Countries adopted more liberal policies, above all in terms of trade and investment that led to a relevant economic growth that engendered wealth and more stability. In addition, more key players emerged, such as China and India, in a region where the US presence is still relevant. How is the relationship of Singapore with these world giants? Above all, how the interaction between the US and China in the region can affect Singapore’s policy?

A: The relationship between the US and China will set the context for international relations in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come. The US and China today are intricately interdependent across a broad spectrum of mutually-connected sectors. At the same time, some degree of strategic tension between the two countries is inevitable. As they work on finding a new modus vivendi, other countries of the Asia-Pacific, including Singapore will need to manage this complex adjustment.

As a small country with an open economy dependent on international trade and global connectivity, good relations between the US and China is key to our continued stability and development. Almost all ASEAN Member States, including Singapore now count China as their largest, or second largest trading partner. While we welcome China’s increased presence in the region’s economic and political landscape, we also want the US to remain engaged in the region in order to maintain an open and balanced regional order that benefits all of us. To this end, Singapore encourages both sides to have mechanisms for regular communications, seek common ground on issues of mutual concern, and build trust through cooperation in mutually beneficial areas. Bilaterally, we enjoy warm relations with both the US and China.

Singapore and the US enjoy warm relations across the political, economic, culture and defence spheres. We celebrate 50th anniversary years of diplomatic relations this year. The US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004 – the US’ first FTA with an Asian country, has strengthened bilateral economic links. The US is now among Singapore’s top trading partners in both goods and services. We are also now the 4th largest Asian investor in the US, while the US is our largest source of foreign direct investment. Our defence relations were also strengthened through the enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement in December 2015 which extended our collaboration into areas such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and cybersecurity.

In a similar vein, Singapore maintains excellent relations with China. Besides frequent high-level exchanges, robust economic cooperation and close people-to-people links, our two countries announced an “All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times” during the President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to Singapore in November 2015 to commemorate 25 years of diplomatic relations. Singapore was China’s largest foreign investor from 2013 to 2015 while China has also been our largest trading partner since 2013. Of note, we have 3 Government-to-Government projects with China: Suzhou Industrial Park, Tianjin Eco-City, and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (launched in late 2015).

Singapore also enjoys excellent and longstanding relations with India. We marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties last year with the signing of a Strategic Partnership in November 2015 during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Through this agreement, Singapore and India will step up cooperation in a number of areas including finance, civil aviation, urban solutions and skills development. Our economic relations with India are also growing with bilateral trade doubling from about S$11 billion in 2005 to more than S$22 billion in 2015. In addition to our engagement of India’s central government, Singapore has been working closely with key Indian states, such as Andhra Pradesh on the master-planning of their new capital city, and Rajasthan on the development of a Centre of Excellence for Tourism Training.

By engaging the US, China, India and other major powers, and welcoming them to participate in the political and economic landscape of Southeast Asia, Singapore aspires for a regional balance which is beneficial to us and our neighbours in the region.

Q: Singapore signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the US and other Asia-Pacific States but not China. Singapore also has a FTA with China. Most of Western companies decided to relocate to Singapore as bridge to China because of reliance on its legal and economic system. Given the strong economic relationship with the US, China and the whole Asian region, would a wholly integrated economic region be more beneficial?

A: The conclusion of the TPP is an important milestone towards achieving more open trade and regional integration in the Asia-Pacific region. The TPP reinforces the region’s commitment to a rules-based trading system by updating international rules on cross-border trade and investment. As a high quality and comprehensive free trade agreement, it sets a new benchmark for trade rules. It also addresses emerging business challenges in a 21st century economy by establishing enforceable discipline in areas such as the digital economy and innovative industries.

However, we do not see the TPP as the end of the road. Singapore is also part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which involves the ten ASEAN Member States and six ASEAN FTA partners, including China. We see both the TPP and the RCEP as complementary efforts towards achieving wider regional integration via the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) that would encompass all the economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Singapore sees tremendous value in the FTAAP. The FTAAP embodies APEC’s original vision for regional economic integration and is the next major leap for APEC that will give it long-term substance and purpose. Establishing a wider integrated free trade area will not only bring economic benefits, but also build stronger linkages amongst the economies, and further peace and stability in the region.

Q: Another main change in the last years in Asia-Pacific is the growth of the integration project in Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s integration process sped up over the last ten years and in 2015 the ASEAN Community was launched. ASEAN is home to ten growing States and more than 600 million people. This integration process has also given stability to the region. How is ASEAN important in Singapore’s policy? What does Singapore’s government consider the next steps ASEAN should undertake?

A: Singapore attaches great importance to ASEAN and plays an active role in contributing to its goals. Unlike the European Union which sets itself up to integrate into a united Europe, ASEAN was created against the backdrop of the Cold War with a modest aim of safeguarding peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Over the last 48 years, the spirit and habit of cooperation forged among ASEAN Member States has transformed a region previously plagued by turmoil and conflict into one where war amongst Member States is hard to imagine. This peace and security has brought prosperity to the region by allowing Member States, including Singapore, to concentrate on internal consolidation and economic development. But ASEAN Member States are keenly aware that present peace and prosperity cannot be taken for granted.

Together with the establishment of the ASEAN Community, ASEAN Leaders also adopted ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together at the 27th ASEAN Summit in November 2015, which sets out ASEAN’s roadmap to realising a rules-based, people-oriented, and people-centred ASEAN Community. Singapore is committed to working with our fellow ASEAN Member States to realise the aspirations encapsulated in ASEAN’s Post-2015 Vision. Going forward, we will take steps to enhance ASEAN’s capacity to respond effectively to challenges, and as an outward-looking region within the global community of nations. We will also work on forging a stronger sense of common identity amongst our peoples, and continue pursuing economic integration efforts in order to become a highly competitive economic region fully integrated into the global economy.

For a small city-state like Singapore, ASEAN has enlarged our diplomatic and strategic space by strengthening our voice on the international stage. On our own, each Member State would carry much less strategic heft and we would be less effective in the conduct of our foreign policy. ASEAN enables us to speak with a stronger voice and helps position Southeast Asia as the centre of gravity of regional developments. In this regard, we have successfully integrated major powers into the region by keeping ASEAN relevant and Southeast Asia open, inclusive and outward-looking.

Q: One of the main players that seems not much present in the area is the European Union. Apart from some difficulties the EU encountered in the last few years, it is still one of the biggest and most advanced economies in the world. How dangerous could a too wide gap with the US and China’s presence in the world’s most dynamic region be for the EU? What about the roadmap for the EU – Singapore FTA? In order to strengthen its economic position should be the time for the EU to revisit the proposed EU – ASEAN FTA? What is the position of Singapore?

A: It will be crucial for EU to remain engaged with ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific as the region moves towards closer integration. The US is strengthening its position with the TPP now concluded and signed. China currently has an ASEAN-China FTA in place and is currently participating in the RCEP negotiations, a 16-party FTA which consists of ASEAN and its 6 FTA partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and New Zealand. Both the TPP and the RCEP are potential pathways towards the FTAAP.

If the EU does not want to be left out, it should work towards consolidating its resources to complete the EU-ASEAN FTA, which would then allow it to extend naturally into the RCEP as ASEAN’s FTA partner. The EU recognises the potential of ASEAN, and had been an early mover in engaging the region. The EU launched the EU-ASEAN FTA negotiations in 2007, before the TPP started. However, talks were suspended and the EU proceeded on a bilateral basis. The EU chose Singapore as the first bilateral FTA partner and launched negotiations of the EU-Singapore FTA (EUSFTA) in December 2009.

Strategically, the EUSFTA is a pathfinder FTA towards an EU-ASEAN FTA. The EUSFTA is widely regarded as a highly ambitious and comprehensive trade pact that was set out as the template for EU’s subsequent FTAs with the other ASEAN Member States. The negotiations of the EUSFTA were concluded in October 2014 and the texts of the agreement were initialled in May 2015. The EU has since concluded the Vietnam-EU FTA negotiations in December 2015. We are also encouraged to see the EU’s intensifying efforts in pursuing its bilateral FTAs with other ASEAN Member States such as Malaysia and the Philippines.

Ratifying the EUSFTA as soon as possible would send yet another strong signal about the EU’s commitment to step up its engagement of the region. The Commission’s decision on 4 March 2015 to send the EUSFTA to the European Court of Justice for a legal opinion over the Commission’s and Member States’ areas of competence for approval has held back the ratification process. Singapore hopes to work with the EU to find practical ways for the speedy ratification of the EUSFTA so that there will not be any further delay, and both Singaporean and European businesses can enjoy the benefits sooner rather than later.

Q: Italy has a very positive image of Singapore and more and more companies choose it as hub for the Southeast Asia region and China. What is the relationship of Singapore with Italian government and people? What are the main fields where Singapore and Italy can cooperate?

A: 2015 saw Singapore and Italy commemorate our 50th anniversary of bilateral relations. Italy was one of thirteen countries that established diplomatic relations with Singapore in 1965 – the same year we gained independence.

Singapore and Italy have had many high-level political exchanges over the years. Our top leaders meet regularly, both bilaterally as well as at multilateral meetings including the UN General Assembly, the G20 and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). High-level exchanges have helped to contribute to the strengthening of bilateral cooperation. The State Visit to Italy by President Tony Tan Keng Yam in May 2016 is the first ever by a Singaporean President. The agreements we will be signing in conjunction with the visit will serve to deepen the linkages between our respective governments and institutions. Singapore sees Italy, Europe’s fourth largest economy and fourth most populous state, as an important voice on both the European and international stage. As a respected player in the diplomatic sphere, Italy helps to shape the global discourse on many important issues ranging from the international development agenda, to climate change.

One of the top ten largest economies in the world, Italy is home to many reputable global companies and possesses an abundance of creative talent. In 2014, Italy was our 6th largest trading partner in the EU with total bilateral trade amounting to S$6.15 billion – an increase of 5.4% on the year before. There are some 440 Italian companies registered in Singapore. The “Made in Italy” label, be it in fashion, furniture or automobiles is rightly famous around the world and names like Gucci, Prada, Ferrari and Versace just to name a few, are hallmarks of refinement and distinction for Singaporeans.

Italian companies are also well-regarded in the manufacturing and technology sphere. The Singapore Navy and Singapore Air Force currently use Italian weapons technology as part of their inventory. Our institutes of higher learning use Italian engineering – wind tunnels for their aerospace training programmes, while Singaporean industries also rely on Italian precision instruments, as well as components as essential parts of their heavy machines.

We hope to do more with Italy in the economic sphere. The Singapore government has always adhered to a pro-business outlook. This business-friendly landscape has made us the location of choice for international companies looking for a place to set up operations and engage the burgeoning Southeast Asian market. Singapore also offers the added benefit of being both a world-class air and sea hub with excellent connectivity to India, China, Japan, the ROK and Australia. We welcome even more Italian companies to situate themselves in Singapore to tap on the economic opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Besides political and economic relations, the State Visit is also an opportunity to build upon our countries’ respective cultural linkages. Besides the pavilion Singapore is operating at the Venice Biennale this year, our educational institutions: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and the LASALLE College of the Arts will also be signing agreements with various Italian institutions to further collaborative projects and increasing exchanges between faculty and students – measures which will also help deepen the excellent people-to-people ties between our two countries.

The Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliare (IsAG) thanks Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, for the interview.

Interview by Massimiliano Porto and Alberto Belladonna.

Italian version/Versione italiana


Massimiliano Porto is "Asia Pacific" Program Director at IsAG.

Alberto Belladonna is collaborator of "Asia Pacific" Program at IsAG.

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