Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong's dialogue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on 13 October 2023. The session was moderated by Mr Christopher B. Johnstone, Senior Advisor and Japan Chair, for the CSIS. DPM Wong was on a working visit to the United States of America from 5 to 15 October 2023. The following is an edited transcript of the dialogue.
Christopher B. Johnstone: Welcome to our in-person audience and to our audience online as well. My name is Chris Johnstone. I am Senior Advisor and Japan Chair here at CSIS, and it is really a delight and a privilege to welcome Lawrence Wong who is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Republic of Singapore. Really a privilege for us to have this opportunity for a conversation with you here today. By way of introduction, Mr Wong was first elected as a member of parliament in May 2011. He has held positions in the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Communications and Information, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the Ministry of National Development, and the Ministry of Education — quite a wide-ranging career touching a number of different aspects of policy. And importantly, we were just discussing this, he obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and he also holds a master's degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. So I think it is fair to say, Mr Minister, you know us very well, and you know different parts of America in a way that I think many Americans may not. So it is really a delight to have the Minister here with us. For all of you here today, what we will do is we will invite Minister Wong to offer some thoughts at the top, then he and I will have a bit of a conversation here on stage, and then we will invite questions both from those of you in the room as well as those of you online. So with that, please join me in welcoming Minister Wong.
DPM Lawrence Wong: Thanks very much, Chris, for the remarks and the introduction. I am very happy to be here at the CSIS and thank you for hosting this dialogue. My visit to America has coincided unfortunately with a very difficult time in the Middle East and the world. But despite the immediate preoccupations, I am glad that during this week of my visit, I have had very big meetings with members of the administration. And the purpose of this visit is really to affirm the close and enduring partnership between our two countries, Singapore and America. This is in fact the last day of my week-long visit; I am saving the best for last. This is literally my last event of the day before I fly home to Singapore. But I thought it would be very good to wrap up the visit with this dialogue. And perhaps I will start with three broad points in my opening remarks and then we can have questions later. First, Singapore appreciates and values America’s important and constructive presence in the Asia-Pacific. America has been in the region for nearly 80 years. You have many strategic interests; you have many friends in the region; and we would all like you to continue to stay actively and consistently engaged in this part of the world. Not just for one, two years; not just even for the next administration; but for the next 80 years and beyond. Second, it is American leadership that has shaped the rules-based global order that we have today, and that has benefited everyone in the world. It has uplifted countries; it has helped all countries – including the US. Increasingly, we do hear concerns about shortcomings in the global order, that it does not adequately address concerns around national security, supply chain resilience etc. And so there are more and more criticisms about the system. We would like very much to work with America on what a new model of globalisation might be. How can we update the rules of the new global order, so that it is fit for our time. And then thirdly, we want to continue growing our bilateral partnership. Defence is in fact one of the key pillars in our bilateral partnership. Since 1990, Singapore has allowed US troops to use our ports and bases. We host your rotational deployments, we provide logistical support, and at the same time, our troops — troops from the Singapore armed forces — train here in America, and that is why I started my week-long visit in Arizona, where our pilots do F-16 training at Luke Air Force Base. In fact, Singapore, tiny little country that we are, has the second-largest foreign military presence here in America, and that speaks volumes to the confidence and trust that we have in one another. And we are continuing to strengthen this defence cooperation in new areas, including cybersecurity and F-35s, which we have acquired. More broadly we are continuing to grow our cooperation in other new areas too. So yesterday we launched a dialogue on critical and emerging technologies, which includes areas like A.I. and biotech. We are looking at deepening our collaboration in space exploration. We are looking at how we can cooperate in new sources of low carbon energy — something which is very important for Singapore given how small we are, and the need to get to net zero. And we also work together to deliver technical assistance with third countries. We do that for Southeast Asian countries, but we are expanding that to the Pacific Islands states. So our bilateral relations are in excellent shape. We have a full agenda ahead of us and we will continue to grow the partnership. Our message is that Singapore has over the decades been a forward-leaning and reliable partner of the US, that we demonstrate that not just in words but in actions, and we will continue to do everything we can to further strengthen this partnership in the years to come.
Moderator: Terrific. That was a really comprehensive lay down of your activities, your views on the relationship, and I must say, Mr Minister, as someone who worked in the South and Southeast Asia office at the Pentagon for many years, I saw firsthand the really vital role that Singapore plays in promoting, supporting the US forward presence in Southeast Asia; so very much appreciate your remarks on those lines. If I may start with a question that is perhaps suited to your hat as Finance Minister, and that is your views of the regional and global economy. Slowly, I think it is fair to say, emerging from COVID. But many countries experience low growth, high inflation. I think we have seen a slowdown — perhaps to some extent unexpected in China — in recent months. I wonder how do you see the regional economy, Singapore's economy, and in particular, also sort of the future of China’s economic growth?
DPM Wong: The broader context is that we are moving from an era of benign globalisation to a new period of great power competition. So it is going to be a more fragmented world, a more uncertain world, and there will be more tail risks, more volatility, more – unfortunately – events of turbulence that can create huge uncertainties in the global economy. So amidst that broad environment, I think we are also facing another change from the last 10 years of easy money, very low interest rates, to another perhaps a more normalised period where interest rates will be higher for longer, and the era of easy money is over. I think that is the broader context that all countries everywhere are facing, and in that environment, I think we will see more sluggish growth. We are experiencing it because Singapore is very attuned to this, because we are such a small, open economy, and external demand makes up so much of our GDP growth. We are the canary in the mine — when the external environment is bad, we feel it most instantly. We feel the effects of sluggish growth already. Hopefully, inflationary trends will come down; we are hopeful. We see some moderation like in the US but we are worried about downside risks with regards to oil. What is happening in the Middle East can have an impact. With regards to food supplies with El Nino and other unknown risks, things can also take a turn for the worse. On China, I think they are going through a challenging sort of situation now because there is high youth unemployment. They have decided to prick the real estate bubble, and there will be painful consequences from doing so. I think it is the right thing to do because there were excesses building up in the real estate sector. But real estate is about 20-30% of the economy. It is a big part of the economy. And once you prick the bubble, there are all sorts of consequences, knock-on effects cascading throughout the entire economy, which they will have to manage. At the same time, they will have to rebalance the economy towards one that is more consumption-based. It is not easy because they will also have to undertake reforms on the social security front, which will take time. It is quite complex given the size of their country. But talking to their officials, I think they understand what needs to be done. It is a matter of communicating and also making sure that the implementation is done well. So overall, our sense is that you hear a lot of commentators and people talking about Peak China. We think that is overstated; we think China will continue to grow. What is perhaps in question, and what many people are asking is to what extent — China's economy will grow, maybe 4%, maybe 5%. But to what extent will it have that same entrepreneurial vitality and dynamism that it had before. I do not think anyone has the answer now. I think the Chinese government itself will have to figure out what is the right balance. And everyone is watching for clear indications of sustained market reforms before they decide that this is indeed the right trajectory going forward. I would say I would not underestimate the natural animal spirit of the Chinese person. They are highly resourceful. They are determined to secure a better life for themselves. And you should never underestimate their tremendous sense of drive and energy in the Chinese people.
Moderator: It is very well said. It is funny how these narratives take hold here, and you are very much accurate that Peak China is now sort of in the environment here. I appreciate that sort of more comprehensive and balanced take on things. So thank you for that. Let me sort of pick up on a related question. You noted the importance of US leadership in shaping the region. I am interested in how you see US economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific today. Of course, the United States still remains on the outside of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Instead, it is promoting the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with its work on supply chains, infrastructure, trade facilitation, corruption. I welcome your thoughts on IPEF: what Singapore hopes to see emerge from IPEF, and to what degree you see it as delivering tangible benefits and that leadership that you noted is so important.
DPM Wong: We have long advocated for more economic engagement by the US in Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia. Our preference would have been a regional trade agreement. We had the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), but that is water under the bridge. If possible, we would like to see market access and trade liberalisation, but I think it is very hard to talk about these things under current circumstances in the US domestic politics and the environment in America. There is no mood to talk about these issues now. But I think we should maintain high ambition in these areas, and hopefully down the road in years to come, the conditions may change, and we can still strive for trade liberalisation and market access. But in the meantime, we have IPEF and that is still very substantial, and there can still be good outcomes achieved through IPEF. We are working closely on the different areas and different aspects of IPEF to make sure that we achieve substantial outcomes. I think in areas like supply chains, green economy, digital economy — these are things that we are pursuing and we hope certainly that there can be some substantial progress in particular, by the time that the APEC Summit is held in November this year.
Moderator: November is the key sort of moment, I think, for demonstrating progress on IPEF. Let me turn if I may, Mr Minister, to China and US-China relations. You know that a minute ago that we are sort of transitioning from an era of globalisation to one of great power competition and the ancillary effects of that. I think it is fair to say, and no doubt you have heard during your time here, relations between China and the United States are in a challenging state — the coming months, I think are likely to be quite difficult as we approach election in Taiwan, political season here in the United States. How is Singapore's government navigating the US-China economic and political rivalry, this dynamic? How do you see it? How are you navigating it?
DPM Wong: Well, on US-China, I would say first of all, both sides have made very clear that they do not want a confrontation. And hopefully there will be a view that this is not a zero-sum contest — it is not one side wins, the other side loses. The world is big enough to accommodate both US and China, and the two can coexist and develop together. It is very good that talks and engagements have resumed in recent months. Hopefully through these dialogues and engagements there can be an effort to reduce misperceptions, misunderstanding, and enable more mutual accommodation and meeting of minds. What we would like to see and what we hope to see is that the Presidents on both sides, President Xi and President Biden, hopefully will have a chance to meet and talk face to face in APEC and they will be able to help rebuild the strategic trust that is so important to take the relationship forward in a positive way. The positive way means there will still be competition in some areas, but there will also be areas where there is engagement, constructive engagement, because there is so much that both countries can benefit mutually by working together — both bilaterally and also in tackling issues of global concern like climate change. We hope this will happen. It is a relationship that they will have some elements of competition, but also many elements of constructive engagement. If this does not happen and if the relationship turns sour, then it will be a big problem for the two countries, but it is also a huge problem for the rest of the world. Everyone will be worse off. From Singapore's point of view when we look at this relationship between US and China, our perspective is that this is not about balancing between America and China. Ultimately, we make decisions based on our own interests and our national interests will very much be guided by principles of international law. As a small country, we need that rule of law framework to operate and so that is how we will make our decisions. Which means that depending on the circumstances, in some instances, we may make decisions that seems to favour one side versus the other; but that does not mean that we are pro-China or pro-America. It simply means that we are pro-Singapore.
Moderator: Fair enough, as you should be.
DPM Wong: Indeed so, as every country would.
Moderator: Well, exactly. So let me take it a step further if I may, to get your thoughts on this. It is such an important topic and I think Singapore's perspective is very important for us to hear. The Biden administration's Indo-Pacific strategy says – this is a quote – “The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might, as it pursues its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world's most influential power. The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe and it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific”. Is this the right framing? How do you see this framing from the standpoint of Singapore
DPM Wong: The Chinese talk about three phases in their nation building journey. They want to stand up, they want to get rich, and they want to get strong. And I think they are, in their minds, in the “get strong” phase of their nation-building journey, which means they feel that their time has come, they need to take their rightful place in the world, and they ought to be more assertive with regards to their interests abroad. I think China also knows that it has to play its cards carefully, and they have to grow. Then China has to grow its influence without making other countries feel pressured, coerced or squeezed. Because if they do so, or if they end up doing so, I think there will be a backlash against China and that will not be in their national interest so China will have to learn how to moderate and adjust. But from Singapore's perspective, and certainly from the perspective of all the countries in Southeast Asia, we value the friendship we have with the US. America has been very good friend for a very long time. China now is also a good friend with all the countries in Southeast Asia. And we would like to stay friends with both. After all, it should be possible to have more than one best friend.
Moderator: Well said, permit me to ask one more question on China, then we will invite the audience to begin to ask questions. We have mics on both sides of the room, if you would like to ask a question, maybe make your way to the mics and line up. But in the meantime, Mr Minister, I recognise this is a sensitive question, but I feel sort of obligated to ask it. And it relates to the question of PRC influence in Singapore, and in Southeast Asia more broadly, but Singapore in particular. In July, you may know, the Washington Post published a long article exploring this topic, focusing in particular on the role of Chinese language media in Singapore, which the Post asserts in the article – and this is a quote – that “this media now routinely echoes some of Beijing's most strident falsehoods”. How should we understand PRC influence in Singapore and what is Singapore doing to combat disinformation?
DPM Wong: The newspaper in question — this was highlighted in the Washington Post — the newspaper in question has strongly rejected the portrayal by the Washington Post. It has defended its editorial stance. If you were to ask Singaporeans, the vast majority of Singaporeans reading the Chinese newspaper daily will not feel that what was portrayed in the Washington Post was accurate. Because we can read and see for ourselves articles on China, and they cover a wide range, including many articles that criticise China's approach. Ultimately, Singapore's newspapers have to reflect Singapore's perspectives as they have to reflect our society. Our newspapers cannot resemble the Washington Post, neither do we ask the Washington Post to become like Singapore newspapers. On PRC influence, or the influence of any other country for that matter, we are mindful that we are a small, open and diverse society. We are a multiracial, multicultural society. The majority of our population are ethnic Chinese, so we have ancestral roots going back to China but we have over time evolved our own Singaporean identity. We are Singaporean Chinese, and the Singaporean Chinese is very different from the Chinese from China — in values, in outlook, in identity. Just as a Singaporean Malay would be very different from a Malay from Malaysia or Indonesia, or a Singaporean Indian would be very different from someone that comes from India. And America, being a nation of immigrants, you must understand this very well. Given that we are such a small, open multicultural society, we know that we are susceptible to influences from elsewhere. And that is why we are very vigilant about this. From the government's point of view, we continually engage our public, educate, explain what is our national interest — why do we take certain decisions. Not because of choosing sides or because of external influence, but really because of Singapore's own interest. We spend a lot of time doing that. In fact, if you look at the large proportion of what Singaporeans consume, in news and entertainment, actually, a lot of it is in English; and a lot of it comes from the US and UK. To be candid, there is no shortage of criticism about Singapore in the Western media, no shortage of commentaries and articles highlighting the shortcomings in our system and asking us to be more like Western liberal ideals. We are very aware that as a small country we are susceptible to influences from all sides. At the end of the day, what is important for us, small though we may be, it is that we are our own people, we make our own choices, and it really comes down to Singaporeans, deciding on the future of our country. Not China, nor the West.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr Minister. I guess we have one. Do we have someone standing over at the microphone here? I invite you to ask your question.
Shay Wester: I am Shay Wester with the Asia Society Policy Institute. My question relates to at the end of this trip, I think no matter what you read beforehand, or what people tell you, talking to people face to face can bring you to certain realisations. What kind of takeaways do you think you will bring back and tell the Cabinet in Singapore or other colleagues in the region? And an additional question is just on the economics on IPEF. What more would you advise policymakers in the US to do either on IPEF or on other areas, if you had kind of one ask of something more that the US could do on that front?
DPM Wong: Sure. Well, the main takeaway I have from this trip is, as I said, we have a solid and growing bilateral agenda between America and Singapore. Both sides share a very similar strategic outlook of the world. We have long had close cooperation across a broad range of issues from defence to economics. And there is now a growing desire, mutual desire to see how we can further strengthen that partnership in the areas which I have just mentioned. There is also recognition in the administration, which has consistently told us that they do not want Singapore to be in a position to have to choose sides. They recognise what our perspectives are and the perspectives of countries in Southeast Asia so having a close relationship with the US, does not mean we have to alienate and exclude engagements with other countries, including China. Hopefully, that modus vivendi where Southeast Asia and Singapore can continue to have an open inclusive region, engaging not just America, but China, EU, other major powers all engage in our part of the world. Expanding the common ground we share and maximising our chances for stability and shared prosperity at a time when the world is increasingly becoming very uncertain and turbulent. That is our perspective and that is my main takeaway from this visit. On IPEF, as I said we are working on how we can add substance to the different pillars of IPEF. The work is ongoing — we hope there will be something to announce by the time of the APEC Summit. What we have offered to our friends in America is that in some instances, it may be difficult to get consensus amongst all the members of the IPEF family. We can also do things together bilaterally, between America and Singapore first, and that bilateral cooperation can be a pathfinder. We set high standards, it can be a pathfinder, it can be a testbed that we do together before it is expanded to the broader region.
Moderator: Thank you. Why don't we take a question from our online audience? What I have here is how do you see Singapore in leading the region in the information and technology sector as well as engaging youth from across the region to enter into the fields. Singapore’s role in IT.
DPM Wong: It is a sector that we pay a lot of attention to because given our stage of economic development, the only way for us to move forward really is to invest in innovation, R&D and push the frontiers of innovation. IT becomes very important, digital technologies are very important. Not just as a sector in itself, but as an enabler across all the pillars of our economy. Advanced manufacturing, financial services, built environment. We are investing heavily in IT. We continue to encourage young people to enter the space in Singapore and we are continuing to attract talent from around the region to come to Singapore to study and do well in IT. Our advantages is that we are small, we are nimble, we are a city-state. While we may not be at the cutting edge of IT, I mean the latest ideas and innovations I think will still come from American universities, American companies, but we can be a fast adopter. We can scale up applications very quickly. Not just in one sector, but across the entire economy and across our entire society. We do have the other advantage of a population that does embrace technology. We are techno-optimists by nature. Yes, technology does disrupt people's lives. It does make some jobs obsolete. Over the decades we have found ways to reskill, upskill our workers, make sure that anyone who is affected by technological disruptions can get placed to a better job, make use of machines and tools to increase the salaries of our workers. This is not something new, this is something we have been doing year after year for decades, so that trust and confidence that technology can help make lives better is there, and that is why we are able to embrace technology, including new technologies like A.I., and we can hopefully continue to keep the economy growing and improve the lives of our people.
Moderator: You mentioned in your meeting with Jake Sullivan at the White House that the two governments will be launching a critical and emerging technologies dialogue. Could you say a little more about the areas of focus for this?
DPM Wong: One of the key issues that we are grappling with – countries everywhere are grappling with – is how to harness the benefits of A.I. and innovation and the impact of A.I. while minimising the downside risks. And there are a number of downside risks. I mean, you can have an A.I. model that works well 99% of the time, but that 1% failure, if applied in a very potentially damaging scenario, can have knock-on implications for many, many people. How do we tackle these sorts of risks? What should be an appropriate governance framework for responsible A.I. usage? It cannot be that companies are let off the hook — surely companies cannot say we do everything and then when there is a problem, governments come to the rescue, that surely is too late. What is the right framework that companies can use in applying A.I. for different use cases that will ensure they take some responsibility? And governments and the private sector work closely together in having this framework and a set of principles governing responsible A.I. We have done some work in this respect for Singapore. I think the US is also interested in this space and we hope that we can work together and collaborate in this area of responsible A.I. I think it is going to be hard to talk about global standards at this stage, but we take it step by step and hopefully we can get more like-minded countries to join us and expand the coalition.
Moderator: It is really the issue of the day, isn’t it, A.I. governance, big theme for many of us. We have another question over here, if you could introduce yourself and offer your question concisely.
Marvin: Marvin, formerly federal government, now Johns Hopkins University and the Wilson Center. This is a question related to the South China Sea, and I realise Singapore is not a direct claimant but certainly interested. I think it is fair to say that China's posture on the South China Sea has been uncompromising — Xi Jinping has referred to the South China Sea as Chinese territory since ancient times. Singapore has a very robust, long-standing conversation with Chinese officials and security officials. I am interested in what your reading is, of whether there is any potential give in China's posture on the South China Sea going forward, or whether the Chinese are so dug-in, so rigid, that we are going to be facing the current situation indefinitely.
DPM Wong: On the South China Sea, there are already facts established across the different islands and atolls. There are claims that overlap in many complicated ways. We are not a claimant state as you highlighted. We are not one of the claimants. There are four ASEAN states that are claimants; China is one of the claimants. I think none of the ASEAN countries will want to go to the extreme on this matter with China because they have substantial accounts with China, and this is but one of the many issues they have dealing with China. Hopefully all parties, China and these ASEAN countries, can work out a peaceful resolution of the dispute. We are not involved directly but we are involved as part of ASEAN, and ASEAN is in the midst of talking about the Code of Conduct with China. There is a Declaration of Conduct we are working on, a binding code of conduct. It has taken a long time, it is very complicated and it is work in progress. Singapore's interests in this matter are as follows: Number one, freedom of navigation; number two, international law as reflected in the UNCLOS; and number three, peaceful resolution without escalation, and without causing uncertainty and potential for conflicts in the region. We want the disputes to be resolved peacefully. That is our interest and to the extent that we can, through ASEAN, we will work towards these outcomes.
Moderator: Thank you. We will do another question from our online audience. This is more about Singapore itself. From Grant Alexander: What is Singapore's biggest domestic challenge in the 2020s?
DPM Wong: Our biggest challenge is this – Singapore is always an improbable nation. We are so tiny, and with no natural resources, and you would not have bet on Singapore in 1965. You will not expect Singapore to survive, but we did. It is nothing short of a miracle. Our challenge is to sustain this little miracle called Singapore for as long as possible. My vivid impression of this is when I was a student at Michigan. In Michigan, there is a ghost town called Singapore. It is by Lake Michigan near the Kalamazoo River. It was founded in the 1830s. No one knows why it is called Singapore. But presumably, because Singapore was founded by the British as a British port in 1819, and very quickly, we became a thriving port for the British. Perhaps word had spread from the exotic Far East, there was something called Singapore, and you know how it takes time for news to travel in those days. So in the 1830s, someone decided to set up a town in Michigan, and it was a shipbuilding and lumber port, and it did well for a while. But after 50 years, the shifting sand dunes swallowed up the town. And if you go there now, you can only see a signpost that says these are the ruins of Singapore. So Singapore in Michigan did not last for very long, about 50 years. Our mission is to make Singapore in Southeast Asia last for a very long time.
Mario Masaya, US-ASEAN Business Council: Deputy Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time. I want to bring us back to the discussion around IT, and your optimism about emerging technologies. You talked about CPTPP, you talked about IPEF. I want to bring ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) in front – how you see that agreement and how you think it will positively improve Southeast Asian digital economy. There are a lot of reports already on how Southeast Asian digital economy will exponentially grow for the next future. So with this agreement, are we expecting a lot of improvement in that area? Thank you.
DPM Wong: Thank you for that question. It is indeed a priority for us in Singapore and I think for many countries in Southeast Asia. ASEAN has come a long way because since it was founded, ASEAN has continually tried to strengthen our integration amongst very diverse countries in Southeast Asia. On trade liberalisation in goods, we have pretty much achieved these goals. We can do better in services; we can connect better our infrastructure, including energy and transport; and then one new area which we are working now on is digital connectivity. There are several elements to this. One idea, for example, is just to link up our payment systems in ASEAN. I do not think we are going to be able to get a common currency like in the EU – we are just too diverse – but if we can even link up our real-time payment systems, so that there can be fast, cheap and efficient cross-border flows, that will be I think a big plus for all of us in Southeast Asia, for individuals as well as for businesses, and we are working on that. Another aspect of what could be part of a digital agreement is to have seamless flow of data, and under such an arrangement, then ASEAN I think can be quite competitive in attracting businesses to come to ASEAN, and businesses can tap on the relative competitive advantages of the different ASEAN countries. You cannot do low cost manufacturing in Singapore, for example, we are just too expensive. But you can have that in Malaysia, you can have that in Indonesia, you can have that in Vietnam. Your data centres can be in any part of ASEAN, and then you can inter-operate seamlessly within ASEAN itself, if there is seamless flow of data, and that would certainly make ASEAN a lot more attractive and appealing to multinational companies. Those are some of the things that we are working on for the digital agreement. We think there is a lot of potential and we hope to take this forward.
Zachary Abuza: Thank you very much for joining us today, Deputy Prime Minister. My name is Zachary Abuza, I am from the National War College and Georgetown University. I do not mean to be rude, but I am going to ask a hard question about Myanmar.
DPM Wong: Sure, fire away.
Zachary: A recent United Nations report found that 138 companies based in Singapore were supplying some $254 million worth of weapons, parts and machine tools to the Myanmar regime since the February 2021 coup. Another report found that some four and a half billion dollars of Central Bank of Myanmar funds were sitting in nine different Singaporean banks. These seem to go in the face of what Singapore’s stated foreign policy is towards Myanmar. I note the Foreign Minister’s presence here; they go against some of his very public statements. What more can Singapore do to bring an end to a regime that is waging a multi-front war against their civilian population?
DPM Wong: What is happening in Myanmar is very tragic. Our Foreign Minister is here and his public statements are indeed what we are doing. If there is any evidence that goes beyond what we know, please let us know. We tell this to our friends in the US administration. Singapore very, very rarely imposes sanctions unless there's a United Nations Security Council Resolution. When Russia invaded Ukraine, because it was such an egregious breach of the United Nations Charter and territorial sovereignty, we felt we had to do something. So if there is specific evidence, and we have told this to the US State Department, to the Treasury, that if there is evidence, let us know specifically and we will certainly cooperate and do our part as well. That is Singapore’s role. But beyond Singapore, what else can all of us do to address the issue in Myanmar? Unfortunately, we have to be realistic. It is not going to be so simple, because there is very little that outsiders — be it Singapore, America, ASEAN, EU, name your pick in the United Nations — there is very little that outsiders can do that would influence the military, the generals or events in Myanmar. We have seen this before in history. ASEAN has a plan, we are continuing to implement the Five-Point Consensus. We are continuing to do whatever we can, together with our partners, including in America, but we just have to be realistic that it will take time. Hopefully as we have seen in the past, the approaches that we have made have worked, the combination of carrots and sticks of deterrence and diplomacy have worked in the past, but it took a long time. Hopefully, with the passage of time, we might see progress in Myanmar too.
Moderator: I want to pick up on this question of ASEAN for a second if I may, and its role in Myanmar. I think it is fair to say that in Washington, there has been a fair amount of criticism of ASEAN, partly as a result of its inability to address the situation in Myanmar, recognising as you pointed out how difficult it is. And along with that, in the last few years, there has been something of a proliferation of what you might call the mechanisms of cooperation in the region — the rise of the Quad, of course, other what we might call minilateral groupings. I wonder what is your view of the future of ASEAN and Singapore's role in it? And then relatedly this question of these new groupings, and their relationship to ASEAN?
DPM Wong: First of all, on the criticism of ASEAN because of its perceived ineffectiveness with regards to Myanmar, I suppose if your basis and your starting point is can ASEAN do something on Myanmar, and no, therefore ASEAN has failed — well, fair enough, that is one metric of assessment. But if you were to take a broader perspective, remember, as I highlighted just now, how diverse the region is. We have in Southeast Asia countries ranging from monarchies to democracies, various shades of democracies, to communist countries; a very wide range of countries. ASEAN started out with countries, member states, in conflict with one another. That was the genesis of ASEAN, and ASEAN in many ways has helped to keep the peace in the region. ASEAN has not only done that, but also helped to bring together very diverse countries towards a more integrated approach of community building. Whether it is the issues we discussed just now around trade services, transport energy linkages, or digital services, we are making progress. ASEAN as a whole has a combined population of 650 million people. It is not small at all. It has got strong economic fundamentals, young population, rising middle class. We think that if we are able to ensure a strong integrated ASEAN, setting aside the issue of Myanmar, but the rest of ASEAN coming together, I think we will have some agency in navigating this uncertain world. What is ASEAN’s approach? ASEAN’s approach is really to have an open and inclusive region. That is why we welcome new configurations, be it the Quad, or AUKUS. The members in the Quad and AUKUS are close dialogue partners of ASEAN. We welcome these arrangements as long as they work within the framework of ASEAN’s centrality, and they help to uphold the rules-based international order that is underpinned by international law. That is our starting point. On that basis, we work very closely with AUKUS, with the Quad, with any other partners. As I said just now, ASEAN wants to have an open, inclusive arrangement where we are able to work with China, America, EU and all the other partners. And hopefully within that configuration, expand the common ground and the interdependencies we have with one another. ASEAN in the Cold War, saw conflict. We were an arena for proxy wars during the period of the Cold War. We do not want that to happen again in Southeast Asia. In the Cold War, Southeast Asian countries or many countries adopted a non-aligned movement approach. ASEAN’s approach now is really about not so much being passive bystanders, but really about active multi-engagement — engaging all the different major powers and trying our best to have a configuration that will give us the best chances for stability and peace.
Ryo Nakamura: My name is Ryo Nakamura from Japan’s Nikkei Media. I want to ask you about the defence relationship with the US. Singapore allows the US military to rotate the US military ships or aircraft in Singapore and provides support for a long time. So I wonder, will you do the same during war time as well?
DPM Wong: Well, it is a hypothetical scenario. First of all, if there is war, we are all in big, big trouble. Let us hope that there is no war. We are not a US ally, to be very clear. We are quite unique. I think we are the only country in the world which is a Major Security Cooperation Partner (MSCP) so we are not an ally of the US. We let American troops use our ports and bases. We provide rotational support, logistical support, we allow them to come through for their rotational deployment, but these are peacetime arrangements, and it has been a win-win for both US and Singapore. If there were to be other circumstances, then I think we will have to consider the context of circumstances and think through carefully, like I said, always from the perspective of what is in Singapore's interest. Our starting point must be let us not even get into a situation where there is a conflict or a war in Asia.
Moderator: We will do one last question here. We will take it from online: what do you think the United States can learn from Singapore in terms of its multicultural existence?
DPM Wong: I am not going to be so presumptuous as to tell the US that you can learn from us. But we have a model that works for our circumstances and needs. It starts off by recognising that people come from different backgrounds, different races, different religions. We do not seek to assimilate into one central identity. Rather, we want everyone to preserve their own cultures, their own traditions. We want everyone to feel that they have a place in our society. Even the smallest of minorities must feel that they are valued and they can contribute to society. At the same time, while we encourage that, while we provide for that, we also want groups to come together and interact with one another as much as possible so that through that interaction, we find common ground. What is it that we share together as Singaporeans? There are many things that we have in common. Then hopefully over time, through interactions, through shared experiences, through shared memories, we expand the common ground that we share with one another. That is how we think of multiculturalism in Singapore. It is a work in progress, because nation-building, building a Singaporean identity is always a work in progress; but it is also a process which we have found requires mutual accommodation and compromise. Compromise must never be seen to be a bad word. Because if every group asserts maximum entitlement, everything must be 100% — I have to do everything, and if I cannot achieve all of what I want, I see that as a slight, I see that as an insult to my tribe — then it becomes war of every tribe against every tribe and there is no common ground. We have learnt over the years that it is okay to accommodate one another, it is okay to compromise in some things. Again, try to see what is important from the other side's perspective. Over time, through that process of interaction, we expand the common ground we have as Singaporeans. We are a relatively young nation, not even 60 years of independence. But over these years and decades of nation-building, I think we have grown a very strong sense of a distinctive Singaporean identity and we hope that this will continue for many more years to come, and we can continue to preserve that peace and harmony in our multicultural society for many years to come too.
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