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SINGAPORE: While Singapore does not take sides in its dealings, it has its own view and chooses “principles” said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean on Friday (Oct 7).

Speaking during a fireside chat during FutureChina Global Forum, Mr Teo said that in doing so, Singapore becomes “consistent” and “reliable”.

“We have said that we don’t choose sides. But people sometimes misunderstand that by not choosing sides, we don’t have a view. That’s not true, we have a view, we choose principles … On any particular issue, we choose principles,” explained Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security.

“The Russia-Ukraine war is one example where we acted on principle, not because we chose one side or another side. And sometimes when we choose a principle, and we act in that way, people get annoyed with us, or people praise us because they think that we either against them, or we are their best buds. But neither is true in the case of Singapore, it is because we choose principles.”

Mr Teo noted that Singapore has tried to do this consistently, regardless of issue.

COMING TO A “LANDING POINT”

During the hour-long session, Mr Teo also touched on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

He pointed out that there has “not been enough thinking” beyond the tactical issues of how the war is fought. 

“There’s a need to think about what the configuration will be like in Europe, with Russia, and in the world, at the end of the war … and of course, what are the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people? If we start to think about that a little bit more … I think we will be able to better find a way of coming to a landing point in the war,” he said.

“I think there needs to be a little bit more strategic thinking about where we want to be. And then when we have a little bit more conceptual ideas of where one would want to see Europe, Ukraine’s place in Europe, Russia’s place in Europe, then it will be clearer to see where a landing point will be.”

At the same time, Mr Teo said he was “surprised” by the Ukrainians’ ability to halt the Russian advance and credited the Ukrainian people for their “fighting spirit”.

However, he pointed out that there was a period of 10 to 15 years where Russia under-invested or did not invest. As a result, the quality of their equipment, training, as well as mass of their armed forces declined.

“But I would say that in the last half a dozen years at least, maybe a little bit more, they’ve invested more in the armed forces, developed new weapons, upgraded their weapons. But in any armed forces, particularly one of that size, you can have a relatively sharp top of the pyramid and it will be quite good and quite effective,” he added.

“But when you start to employ a much larger proportion of the armed forces, then you get into that part of the armed forces … which may not have had the same level of re-equipping, training and leadership as the sharp end.”

Mr Teo pointed out that Singapore took a “firm position” when it came to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“Ukraine is recognised as an independent country by the members of the United Nations (UN). It’s a member of the UN and all the principles with regard to the UN Charter apply to Ukraine, its sanctity of its borders, territorial integrity, non-use of force and so on. So that is the structure of the problem between Russia and Ukraine. And that’s the reason why Singapore took a firm position, because Singapore’s position is that sovereignty and territorial integrity is fundamental,” he said.

“And we don’t subscribe to the idea that historical mistakes and crazy decisions in the past can be used as a reason for armed action today. So we don’t accept that and that’s why we took a firm position in the UNGA (UN General Assembly), and we have applied very specific and targeted sanctions, but we haven’t applied broad-based sanctions in the way that several other countries have done.”

However, he noted that things are different when it comes to Taiwan.

“UN member countries recognise China as a member of the UN and that Taiwan is a part of China. And that, I think has been a settled position in the UN for many, many years since 1971 when China took the seat, when the government sitting in Beijing, the People’s Republic of China took the seat of China at the UN,” he explained.

“It’s a completely different structural issue than between Russia and Ukraine, which is an independent country. So I think it is important for leaders in the world to recognise that, and the vast majority of countries in the world have a One China policy, there may be about a dozen who recognise Taiwan.”

Speaking on US-China relations, Mr Teo said it was his belief that both sides would want to avoid a war.

While “current atmospherics” are “not at all positive”, he said that there are some positive signs.

“Both sides have indicated that the two presidents may meet, I think that’s positive. We had some positive signs earlier in Singapore – (US Defence) Secretary Lloyd Austin and (Defence) Minister Wei Fenghe met in Singapore, they talked. I think it is important to engage, to understand what each other’s core concerns are and then to try and see how one can avoid arriving at a situation where you sort of walked into a war which neither side I believe wants today.”

“ABILITY AND CAPABILITY”

Mr Teo, who is 67, also discussed Singapore’s 4G leadership, praising them for noting that they are “up to the task”.

“I have worked with my younger colleagues … for many years, and I’ve watched them in close range what they do, how they make decisions and so on … And I can see the qualities that they have,” he said.

“The most important quality is that your heart is in the right place. If you want to be in public service, your happiness comes from other people’s happiness, your satisfaction comes from seeing other people satisfied and happy. That’s the essence of the right person, the essence of the person being in public service. And I can see that my colleagues have their hearts in the right place and that’s what they want to do.”

At the same time, he noted that they also have the “ability and the capability”.

“(The) COVID (pandemic) I think is a very good example where you’re thrown into a crisis, you have to make decisions, difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty. You have to explain that to a public which is frightened, confused and wanting guidance and leadership. And I think they have succeeded in doing that, quite well. And if you ask me, they are up to the task,” he added.

Mr Teo added that the secret to stability and continuity comes from making sure that you have a good succession plan.

“That was the wisdom of Mr Lee (Kuan Yew). He was always looking and looking and looking for the new generation, for good people that will come up, come forward, serve, with a heart for the country … And so, we learn from that and we try and do that,” he added.

“For myself, whether I’m in Government, not in Government, it matters less to me. I know where my heart is, and I know that I am committed to serving Singapore and Singaporeans, and I will continue to do so regardless of where I am or what position I’m holding for the future.”