HomeSingaporeMinister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Live Skype Interview on CNBC...

Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Live Skype Interview on CNBC Asia’s Squawk Box Asia, 17 December 2020

Presenter (Sri Jegarajah): Meanwhile, here in Singapore, we are looking forward to the next phase of the COVID-19 restrictions roll back, due to kick in on December 28th. But post pandemic recovery is just one of the main challenges that Singapore will need to grapple with. The ‘Lion City’ will also have to navigate geopolitical uncertainties and watch China’s ties with the US under the new Biden administration. In an historic first, Singapore will also host the World Economic Forum in May next year. With that, let us bring in Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and he joins us from here in Singapore for a CNBC exclusive interview. Minister, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. First of all, in his address earlier on this week, Prime Minister Lee said he and his Cabinet colleagues are going to be leading by example, getting vaccinated early to show Singaporeans that the vaccines are safe. Have you had your shots, Minister? And have the PM and the rest of your Cabinet colleagues been vaccinated?


Minister: Not yet. We are waiting for the arrival of the vaccine by the end of this month. We have a list of priorities – frontline workers, vulnerable groups. For Cabinet, well certainly for those of us who are younger, we are not on that priority list but the real reason for us to take it will be as a vote of confidence. So far, the evidence shows that the vaccine, certainly the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine which has been approved by our Health Sciences Authority, is safe and effective, and we will be taking it as a vote of confidence.


Sri Jegarajah: By the numbers and in terms of the percentage of the population that will be immunised, Minister, what is the target that you are working towards? And can you give us a sense of when you will reach it?


Minister: Well, at this point, we do not have a specific target and you will realise that we are making it voluntary. We are in a very fortunate position to even have this option on the table, and to make it available to all those who need it, all those who are willing to come on to this programme. Let us see how it goes. I personally hope that we have a slow, gradual and progressive start to this programme. And of course, we need to make sure that we keep meticulous records because I think the experience of Singapore and the countries who are early on this programme will also be essential. The rest of the world will be watching very closely.


Presenter (Amanda Drury): Indeed, they will. You mentioned, Minister, that this is going to be a voluntary programme, with the exception of course of that, for example, pregnant women, or children under 16, or those with compromised immune systems. Is there a case to make it compulsory?


Minister: Not at this point in time. I would not make it compulsory –  as I said, this is incredible, the pace of development, to have a vaccine available within a year of the pandemic. This has never happened in human history. Second point is that the platform that has been used to develop both the Pfizer and the Moderna (vaccines), using messenger RNA, is a brand new platform. We are, in a sense, in uncharted territory. The key thing is to keep it voluntary, to keep meticulous records, to be completely transparent on the outcomes. This is the way you build confidence, and let us take it step-by-step. I think this is a much better approach. The key point which I have been emphasising throughout this epidemic is the need to have the public on board, to understand the risks, the benefits, to participate fully. This element of social capital is absolutely critical. In fact, it is a key reason why we are in such a good position right now in Singapore.


Amanda Drury: And as Singapore is about to launch a special travel lane for business travellers, for officials and other travellers of perhaps a high economic value or importance. Is there also a case, or is it something that you have been considering, that they should also be vaccinated before coming in?


Minister: Well, it is something which we will have to consider. We will look at the scientific evidence for it. But on travel, right now, we have several arrangements in place. So, for instance, if you are from Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei, China or Taiwan, we have opened unilaterally, which means you are welcome to come. We believe the risk in these countries are very, very low, about equivalent to us. Meeting Sri in person is not going to be any more or less risky than meeting you, Mandy, in person, in Singapore. That is one category. In addition, we have got Reciprocal Green Lanes with several countries and that requires some additional levels of precaution, with additional tests, quarantine, etc. Another level would be Air Travel Bubbles and that would require both places to have equivalent risks. We have an agreement with Hong Kong. But due to the current situation in Hong Kong, we have had to hold that in abeyance. What you will see over the next few months is progressive opening. But it will be volatile, it will be sensitive to the situation on the ground, and I think we just have to get used that this is the new normal and that business can continue, but precautions need to be taken and vaccines are part of that repertoire of precautions.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, can I bring it back to the vaccine programme here in Singapore because our migrant worker community was hit very hard by COVID. Thankfully, it is now under control. Do migrant workers fall into what can be described as an essential worker category? And in terms of priority, where do they rank, and is this vaccine going to be free for them?


Minister: Thank you for the question. If I was to rewind time, our Prime Minister, I think, still remains the only leader in the world, who made that assurance that we would treat migrant workers exactly the same as we would citizens, in terms of access to health care, in terms of protection. First point. Second point, from a professional and medical perspective, a human being living in Singapore is a human being equally at risk of either getting infected or infecting others. So this is the reason why we do not discriminate on the basis of nationality, for all people domiciled, living, working, in Singapore. Third point, we have announced that we will make it free. To answer your question on the foreign workers, they will get access to the vaccine on the same terms as our local people, which means it will be free, and the priority will be on the basis of risk and need. Rest assured of that, we will look after them to the best of our ability.


Sri Jegarajah: Encouraging news for all our friends in the migrant worker community.


Minister: It must be so. They work so hard, they sacrifice so much for their families back home. This is humanity. This is common sense. This is public health.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, walk us through why you chose to offer this vaccine free to citizens, long-term residents, and as you just confirmed and clarified, migrant workers. Do you think that this could be potentially a model for other countries?


Minister: Well, we decided to make it free because a vaccine is both a private good – protects you – and if the vaccines are also successful in reducing transmission, it is also a public good. Here we are facing the pandemic of our lives. Fortunately, we live in Singapore. Fortunately, we have access to the vaccines. Fortunately, we can afford to subsidise it. We decided to go all the way and make it freely available so that cost will not be a factor in people’s decision making. We are in a very fortunate position.


Sri Jegarajah: And as you made clear, Minister, Singaporeans are not required to be vaccinated, they can do so purely on a voluntary basis, but you are strongly recommending them to do so. I am just curious – are you coming across any kind of vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaxxer feeling of the type that is being manifested in the US and elsewhere?


Minister: I think the anti-vaxxer movement is active all over the world. Fortunately, less so in Singapore. But again, I want to draw your attention to my Prime Minister’s reminder that one of our key advantages is that we have got a scientific, enlightened and rational approach to issues in Singapore. We do not politicise these matters. We want to keep an open mind, we want to maintain a transparent approach. We want to make sure that everyone who participates in this does so voluntarily, (with) informed consent, (and) understands the risk and the benefits. And the Cabinet will lead by example. I think this is the model, which we should use. Every country will have its own national circumstances, its own politics, and will have to decide what works best. But public confidence is absolutely essential.


Amanda Drury: Minister, moving on to other issues such as geopolitics. ASEAN has been somewhat of a ground zero, hasn’t it, in the US-China rivalry in past years? As we move into a new administration in the US, how do you feel that Singapore needs to play its hand?


Minister: Well, the first point I would make is that President-elect Biden and the cast of people who he intends to nominate for the Cabinet are people whom we are very familiar with. That helps. We know them, we understand their thinking, their concerns. That is very helpful. The second point I would make is that if you look at our relationship with the US over many decades, in the case of Singapore, and I can speak here with authority, we have actually had excellent bipartisan consensus and support for this very strong relationship between the US and Singapore. Let me give you one example. It was President Bill Clinton, who initiated negotiations for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. This goes way back, early 2000s. It was signed by President Bush in 2004. If you look at the military, cyber security, diplomatic, political ties, what is amazing, what is remarkable is the bipartisan consensus. And in that sense, I expect and I hope, that the bipartisan consensus for continuing to build on a very strong foundation will continue. The next point I would add, is that if you look at the Trump Administration’s record, from a Singapore perspective, we have had excellent relations. I have lost track of the number of times I have spoken to (US Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo. Singapore hosted the Trump-Kim Summit. President Trump and Prime Minister Lee signed a renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding which provides for the US military to have access to our facilities. Just a day and a half ago, we signed another agreement between Minister Chan Chun Sing and (US Secretary of Commerce) Wilbur Ross, on furthering US-Singapore trade facilitation and trade finance. We have had a good working relationship. And I want to add one more point – I would remind you; I think it was Kissinger who said that President Trump will be a very considerable president. I think now, four years later, if you look at it, regardless of your views on his methods, I believe that President Trump has been a very consequential president. He captured the political zeitgeist of the moment, the anxiety of the middle class, the anxiety about jobs, the questions about global trade, the competitive rivalry with China. He captured these issues, he reflected these issues. In fact, these are precisely the same issues which the incoming administration will also have to deal with. Now, obviously, we hope that the new administration will take perhaps a more open, consultative, facilitative and a more collegiate approach, and we look forward to hearing from them and to seeing how things work in practice. But I am actually speaking from a note of optimism, and of confidence, that the US will sort out its domestic preoccupations, and that in turn, will allow the US to continue to play a leading role on the world stage and within ASEAN.


If you would, I would also make some comments on China. If you look back over this past year – and let me speak first purely between Singapore and China – I think both of us have illustrated that a friend in need is a friend indeed. Early in the pandemic, China also needed some assistance. We were able to provide assistance in the form of test kits and some PPE,  personal protective equipment. Midway through, the Chinese industrial juggernaut got going. They, in turn, also supplied essential materials to us. And so we have maintained a close, working and proven relationship throughout this crisis. If you look also within ASEAN and think of what has happened just in the last few months, we have settled the RCEP – Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – the world’s biggest Free Trade Agreement. Unfortunately, India could not come on board yet. We still hope that they will, and we will keep the door open for that. And if you think in terms of the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), the fact that China has now expressed interest is another significant fact. The UK has also expressed interest. In fact, the UK has just signed a Free Trade Agreement with us. And just a few days ago, we had the Pacific Alliance substantially conclude its negotiations with Singapore for a Free Trade Agreement. We know that what all these things do is to act as a path-finder, ultimately, for a regional Free Trade Agreement between the Pacific Alliance and ASEAN, and we hope in time, even with the EU and ASEAN. There is a lot happening in Asia. The point is to remind everyone that despite all the difficulties of this year – it has been busy, eventful  – but we are now at a new phase. I think there is potential, there is optimism.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, just want to pick up on one or two of those points. Do you think that there is life after Brexit in terms of the bilateral relationship between Britain and Singapore? Because the recent FTA that you alluded to would suggest so.


Minister: Absolutely. First of all, the credit for this latest FTA with the UK is basically because we have had the EU-Singapore FTA (EUSFTA). If we look carefully at the details of the UKSFTA – it is modelled on, it is based on the EUSFTA. Second point, the UK has always had a head-start in our region. In the case of Singapore, we were once one of their colonies. In a sense, (this) represents a return of the UK, to focus its mind also on Southeast Asia, and Asia, in general. My point is that these are green shoots. Assuming nothing untoward occurs in the next few months, we can look forward with some optimism, to a world which is slowly but surely recovering from COVID. A world which is trying to restart, reboot, its economy. A world which still believes in free trade, in multilateralism and in negotiations for the settlement of disputes. And a world which hopefully will be prepared to deal with an even bigger challenge called climate change, which is the clear and present danger for the generation. In a sense, even pandemics are a function of climate change. They will be aggravated. The risks will be increased if we do not get a grip on climate change.


Sri Jegarajah: Minister, if I could just pivot back to Brexit, and as you are perceiving it from Singapore. There is a rather interesting conversation that I am sure that you have been privy to – “Singapore on the Thames” has been held up by Brexiteers as the model for Britain’s economy. Is that a realistic scenario and do you think that this is a model that could work?


Minister: No, I do not think it is realistic. The UK is much bigger. It is in completely different circumstances. Singapore is just a city-state. I have never been fond of that metaphor. But the key point is that free trade  – and trade  – is strategy. Second point is that you can only engage in free trade, if you have also settled your domestic political, economic restructuring, your social contract. All these need to be settled first; then your trade negotiators can get on with it, and then the businesses and companies can get on with doing what they want to do and what they need to do. Therefore, my point is that you have to look at the domestic circumstances and not get ideological about trade. The UK has its own set of challenges, so does the EU, and so does the US. In Asia, we are, I think, domestically in a much better state that enables us to continue championing and advocating for free trade. But we really need convergence at a global level.


Sri Jegarajah: And speaking of which, Minister, Davos is coming to Singapore, or the World Economic Forum (WEF) is coming to Singapore. What is going to be your central message as the host country this time round? And to what degree can everyone gathered in Davos, well, not Davos but Singapore this time around, make an effort to do something meaningful in terms of narrowing the income inequalities that have been so profoundly accentuated by COVID?


Minister: First, we are honoured that they have chosen Singapore as the venue. I believe this is the first time that the main meeting will be held in Asia. Second, you realise this will probably be the first multilateral meeting at leaders’ level in a post-COVID world. Third, as far as being a host, we are absolutely focused on making sure we can execute this safely. Safely for everyone who comes here, and then goes back home. On the agenda itself, I think that is still being discussed. But I would imagine the post-pandemic arrangements, climate change, trade and multilateralism remain high on the agenda. This question of inequality – it relates to my earlier point that free trade and a country’s attitude to multilateralism can only be adopted confidently if countries, all of us, have resolved our domestic issues. I believe high among the domestic issues all countries have right now, is to deal with inequality. But if you think further about inequality, there are two dimensions to that. It is about equality of opportunity. It is about ensuring that everyone has access to the latest technology and the skills needed to go after tomorrow’s jobs, rather than squabbling over jobs which are on the decline. The next point is on social safety nets. The truth is we are now in a far more volatile world. It is going to be a roller coaster ride, and we need seatbelts. And all countries, I believe, will need to have more active governments – providing citizens with that sense of security; that you will be looked after, that citizenship has its privileges. But we need to go chase those opportunities. And that requires infrastructure, education, and training. The key point is that foreign policy and trade begin at home. I think these will be some of the conversations that we will have in May next year.


Sri Jegarajah: Yes, and we look forward to being part of that conversation as well, Minister. Final question, bringing it back to Singapore. Now that there is a vaccine programme being rolled out, distribution here. Can we talk about normalisation? Can we be somewhat more constructive about the economic picture in 2021?


Minister: I think we should talk about a “new normal”. Yes, there will be recovery in 2021. The question is, to what extent that bounce back will be. But it will be a fallacy, it will be very dangerous to assume we are going to go back to business as usual. That is the first point. A new normal. The second point is that all of us are going to have to focus on economic restructuring because, as I said before, COVID-19 may have been the crisis of our generation but it did not really change history. What it has done is to catalyse pre-existing trends. We are in the midst of another Industrial Revolution – the Digital Revolution, especially new platform technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. That is what is going to change jobs and transform economies, all over the world. We must not lose our eye on this structural revolution occurring right in our midst. Even as we are focused on future opportunities, it is also worth remembering that we have still got hangovers from the past – the global financial crisis, (and) the forces that led to that. Have we really dealt with it? And then we have got the slow boil called climate change, which will be an even bigger long-term challenge.


Sri Jegarajah: Yes, Minister, clearly, near and long-term challenges.  Minister, we have got to leave it there.  Thank you very much indeed.


Minister: Thank you.    



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