HomeSingaporeSupplementary Questions for Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan During the...

Supplementary Questions for Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan During the Committee of Supply Debate

MP Alex Yam Ziming: Thank you, Chairman, for your indulgence. One clarification for the Minister. Minister earlier described with great depth how we are coping with great power contestation at the government and diplomatic levels. However, could I seek the Minister’s view on how we can do more at the people level to strengthen our local resilience and further the understanding of our foreign policy positions, as various other countries seek to steer local sentiment through either soft power projection or influence and disinformation campaigns.

Minister: Chairman, I thank Mr Yam for that very salient question. The first point I would make is that I would hope that they all listened to SMS Chee’s speech just now. I hope that it will be translated to English as well, and that The Straits Times will carry it. The fundamental fact is this: we will be pushed and pulled. I remind my staff that right now, we are actually in a sweet spot in terms of our relationship with both the US and China. But whenever you are in a sweet spot, always anticipate that things can only go downhill from there. I am sure sooner rather than later, an issue will arise and we will have to stand our ground. We will have to say no and it will be a test of our unity, our cohesion, and as you quite rightly identified, our understanding and support of our people because foreign policy begins at home.  

I would remind members to recall the advice that whenever we receive a message, video, or social media posting, always ask who it ultimately originates from. That is the first question. Second question, what are the facts? Third question, who benefits or loses from the perspective that is being advocated from that posting? Fourth, what are the long-term national interests of Singapore?

I am always reminded of some very good, pithy, and sometimes prickly advice that Dr Goh Keng Swee gave us in 1970, when he was describing the difference between conducting business and conducting foreign policy. Allow me to quote just a couple of sentences from him. He said, “In the nature of things, relations between independent sovereign states cannot be conducted on the basis of supplicant and overlord. The methods that are found so successful in business, to obtain licenses, concessions, contracts, etc. – these methods are not available to us as a Government.” And I think that reminder is still salient after 50 years. I hope that the people of Singapore will understand and take it in our stride, when relations become a bit prickly, a bit uncomfortable, and they go through the inevitable episodes from time to time. And it can come from either or from both sides. But rest assured that MFA, indeed the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet, will always make decisions on the basis of the long-term interests of Singapore. SMS Chee’s reminder that our value, our unique selling point, is not to be a vassal state, to be bought or intimidated, or to be a pale imitation of a larger power, but to be ourselves, authentic, reliable, trustworthy, relevant, and useful. Therefore, we need to continue to conduct foreign policy at home and to make these points to our own people, and to convince them accordingly. Thank you for the question.

MP Sylvia Lim: Thank you, Chairman. I have two clarifications to the Minister for Foreign Affairs about COVAX. On the first question, he earlier said that Singapore is a nett donor to the COVAX programme and I wonder whether he could tell us whether we have made a request to the WHO to earmark our nett donation to ASEAN countries, or if we have made a decision to leave it open for general distribution by WHO. That is the first clarification. For the second clarification, earlier during the MINDEF COS, we were actually distributed a map showing vaccines approved around the world for use. I think the Minister for Defence’s point was that these distribution relationships do reflect a certain power play in some traditional alliances. I would like to ask Minister to confirm that countries joining COVAX actually do not have any prohibition on continuing to reach such bilateral arrangements for COVID-19 vaccine purchases, and whether he sees that these bilateral arrangements outside COVAX will be one of the biggest challenges for the COVAX programme to succeed.

Minister: Chairman, I thank the member for the two salient questions. Allow me to take a step back and explain first the rationale behind COVAX, because this is a unique moment in public health. Never before in history, have so many vaccine candidates been developed, tested, approved and deployed within one year. Let me tell you as a healthcare professional – this is unprecedented. It was essential, however, to have this because of the speed in which the global pandemic was galloping through the entire world. The scientific and business challenge was this – at the beginning, in fact, even right up to about September or October last year, it was not possible to be scientifically sure which one would work. The first vaccine candidate at work would not necessarily be the best and in any case, it would take a long time, by definition, to ascertain the long-term efficacy and safety of vaccines. Therefore, the concept behind COVAX is risk-pooling. What do I mean by that? It means that when you are not certain which horse is going to reach the finish line, never mind which one is going to win, you need to put some advanced bets. This is not really about horse-racing bets, but you are putting money on the line so that multiple pharmaceutical companies would be incentivised to develop vaccines at a pace and with significant business risks. If there was no such facility to risk-pool, and therefore incentivise this simultaneous rapid development of vaccines, we would not be in this happy situation. That is the first dimension – risk-pooling because you do not know which vaccine will work. The second dimension of risk-pooling is that some countries have the wherewithal and many countries do not. Now, in the case of a pandemic, if you just split the world, not according to colour on that chart, but on the basis of can-afford and cannot-afford, you will actually end up with a more dangerous world because the virus does not respect race, language, religion, socio-economic status, wealth or lack thereof of your country. The second dimension of COVAX risk-pooling is to make sure that at least for essential personnel and the people at greatest risk across the world, there would be some vaccines available to them. The way it was structured was that countries with more resources, and that included Singapore, would make advanced market commitments. We would put money into the pot and say, “well, there is money available, please, commercial companies, go and develop vaccines.” Then, when we put money into the pot, although we would be entitled to our fair share on the basis of full market price, a significant amount actually will be committed to help support the less well-off countries. I have taken some pains to explain COVAX so that you understand that it is all about risk-pooling across different vaccine candidates and across different countries. Now, specifically for us, apart from being one of the early birds to actually put real resources down, and I am glad in this case, I assume this entire House, including the Opposition, supports the Government’s decision on making advanced commitments for the purchase of vaccines. Apart from doing that, to also express our willingness to help other parts of the world, whom if we do not help would become endemic reservoirs for further mutations and for this never-ending curse of COVID-19. That is why we had put USD$5 million into this. I have not specifically asked for it to be earmarked for ASEAN, and for ASEAN, we separately have a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, which we have also put money into and that we will use on a needs basis within the ASEAN family. I hope you agree with me and I agree with your sentiment that we do need to look after our region, and I hope you agree with the way which we are doing it. Over and above our contributions to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, you will also recall earlier in my speech, I mentioned that we had separately been giving test kits, PCR machines, PPEs and other donations to central and regional governments, and NGOs throughout our region.  To be honest, we have not beat our drums about it, but good work has been done and it has been appreciated by our neighbours. As to vaccine power play, I do not want to get into the details of that but I do want to make one point which, I think, is salient for our local population and it is this – Singapore will make decisions on vaccines on the basis of science and healthcare needs. Rest assured that this is just another example of the way we conduct foreign policy. We cannot be bought, bullied, intimidated into either approving or disapproving any vaccine. We will make decisions on the basis of health and science. But precisely because people know that is the way we decide, you will realise we become a relatively important reference customer. There will be pressure on us. There will be push and pulls, but we must conduct this just like another example of foreign policy – in a principled manner. I hope that addresses your point.

MP Gerald Giam: Chairman, I have got a clarification for Minister. I appreciate the Minister’s remarks in response to the violence in Myanmar yesterday including stating that Singapore is appalled by the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians. Can I ask the Minister if he will be communicating these sentiments directly to the military leaders in Myanmar, to emphasis our concerns about the escalating violence and to urge them to return to the negotiating table with the democratically elected civilian authorities? 

Minister: Yes.

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