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SINGAPORE: Amid a global situation more uncertain and challenging than any period since its independence, Singapore continues to believe in the need for many major countries to participate in the region, to achieve a balance of power, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Sunday (Feb 5).

But as a small nation, Singapore must also put its interests first and not let other countries – big or small, no matter how friendly – dictate what it does, he added.

“Our policies, whether they are foreign policy or domestic policy, must be for Singaporeans to decide. Nobody else.”

In a speech delivered at the Hokkien Huay Kuan Spring Reception 2023, Mr Shanmugam laid out Singapore’s approach to survival in the face of a “difficult” international situation spanning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the threat of US-China conflict in the Asia-Pacific; and widespread protectionism.

Many of these complex challenges bubbled over in 2022 and this year the situation is not much better, he said, pointing to the most recent US-China row which culminated in the Biden administration shooting down on Saturday what Beijing called an “airship”. 

“We just saw how a balloon – the Chinese say it is a weather balloon, the Americans say it is a spy balloon – shot down, set back US-China relations,” said Mr Shanmugam.

A direct confrontation between the superpowers would have a “catastrophic” global impact; just as there could be “terrible and unpredictable” consequences should a cornered Russia resort to more dangerous weapons, the minister warned.

Trade, too, is being “weaponised”, said Mr Shanmugam.

“The global multilateral system … that has made us prosperous over 50
years to make our living, is now being undermined,” he added, citing how countries are turning to on-shoring, friend-shoring of supply chains and at times outright protectionism.

“More countries are taking steps to prevent their own companies from losing out. Who is going to lose out? Small countries, like Singapore, which are part of the supply chain. We are going to be hurt very badly if this carries on.”


On the geopolitical front, Singapore sees that it is safer for a small country to have many players in the region, instead of just one dominant power, said Mr Shanmugam.

He cited Singapore’s strong ties with the US, China and Europe alike.

“Some big countries in the region say that only Asian countries should be involved in Asia,” he said.

“We are a small country, we take a different view. Big countries may not like our view, but we hope we can agree to disagree.”

As a small country, Singapore has to be clear on its principles, Mr Shanmugam said.

“We must … never be afraid to act in our own interests. Uphold our principles and positions consistently, impartially, objectively.”

He gave the example of how Singapore decided against tightening COVID-19 restrictions on travellers from China, when several countries decided to do so after Beijing ditched its strict zero-COVID policy in December.

But Singapore’s experts assessed that the country’s healthcare system would not be stressed and so no changes were made to border rules for the Chinese.

“There was some criticism, but we do what we thought was right. Just because other countries moved against China doesn’t mean we follow suit. We do what we think is right,” said Mr Shanmugam. “So far, the call was correct.”

The number of imported COVID-19 cases from China is now fewer than five a week, and Singapore is in a position to increase the number of flights to and from China, he added.

“Why did we make this decision? Not because we wanted to please China, but based on medicine and science and experts,” the minister said.

“Sometimes, the steps we take may look like it is more aligned with one country; other times it may look as if we are more aligned with another country, but actually, we are always only aligned to one country – Singapore, ourselves and our principles.

“The consistent message is: We act, always, based on what is in Singapore’s interests and our principles-based approach,” said Mr Shanmugam.

“Globally, our message to others, everyone, must be: Singapore is different; Singapore knows what it needs to do; and more importantly, that we have the courage and will to do the right thing for Singapore.”