Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to address Parliament. This has been a very busy year for Singapore on the foreign and global stage. Prime Minister Lee – who, by the way, has just returned from the APEC Meeting – suggested that I address Parliament because after all, foreign policy begins at home. It is essential that all of us are privy to all the activities that we have been conducting, and I will be happy to take questions from parliamentarians after this statement.
We have witnessed, in fact, we are witnessing, a global order in very rapid transition. It’s marked by big superpower rivalry, rising protectionist sentiment, xenophobia, and in the midst of all this, an ongoing technological digital revolution. As a small country, we have to respond, and we have to respond nimbly in a very volatile global environment, we have to make ourselves relevant to all powers - big and small - and we have to enlarge to the maximum extent, the political and economic space for all Singaporeans. To this end, Singapore has worked very hard to make progress on several diplomatic and economic initiatives, and we have redoubled our efforts to support a rules-based world order and also to buttress the international trading system. This year also happened to be the year that Singapore chaired ASEAN, and we had therefore to host a large number of regional and international events. I want to thank all those who have been working so tirelessly over the past year, and especially our staff from the civil service, entire government as well as the private sector and of course our fellow Singaporeans. Without this Whole-of-Nation effort, we could not have achieved all that we have achieved this year.
1 Let me start with the ASEAN Chairmanship, which we just concluded last week with a series of Leaders’ Summits including all the ASEAN Leaders, that is ten of them. As well as them, we also had Leaders from the US, Russia, China, India, Japan, ROK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Chile. 20 Leaders present in Singapore last week. In addition to that, we also had Ms Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF. We sought to strengthen ASEAN’s unity and centrality and in particular to turn challenges, existential challenges, into opportunities. And that’s why during this year when we were ASEAN Chair, we focused especially on enhancing ASEAN Centrality, unity and coherence. Second, to accelerate ASEAN’s economic integration, and third, on equipping people throughout ASEAN with the skills needed for new jobs in the digital revolution. You can see that actually we have focused very much obviously within Singapore on SkillsFuture: but in fact this is a need in all countries – skills for new jobs in the digital revolution. Furthermore, we have also sought to enhance inter-operability of digital and trading systems within ASEAN. I have also asked the Clerk to distribute an infographic which summarises the variety of initiatives that we launched this year. Whilst it is circulating, let me continue to address all of you.
2 Strengthening a rules-based world order has been key to regional security and peace. In fact, it is this post-World War II liberal economic global environment and adherence to a rules-based multilateral system that has given us peace for 70 years. And in particular created enormous opportunities for a tiny ‘red dot’ like Singapore. And so this remains a constant focus for MFA. More specifically, this year under ASEAN we finalised the Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty, and work will soon begin on an ASEAN Extradition Treaty. In addition, the ASEAN Defence Ministers adopted the Guidelines for Air Military Encounters. These are the world’s first multilateral guidelines to manage unintended encounters between military aircraft. This will make for a safer and more secure aviation environment in our region.
3 Terrorism and cyber-attacks are, unfortunately, a clear and present danger. We enhanced regional counter-terrorism cooperation through the “Resilience, Response and Recovery” Framework and we also held a Symposium on a Collective Approach to Counter-Terrorism. ASEAN for the first time adopted a Leaders’ Statement on Cybersecurity Cooperation at the 32nd ASEAN Summit in April this year, and Singapore announced the ASEAN-Singapore Cybersecurity Centre for Excellence in September this year.
4 In August, we completed our three-year term as the ASEAN-China Country Coordinator. A key milestone of these three years was the formulation of a Single Draft Negotiating Text for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Members will appreciate that this is in fact a very sensitive and very difficult issue that we have been grappling with for many years. And not just us because in fact we are not a claimant state, but four ASEAN members are claimant states that have overlapping claims with China. Fortunately, we have witnessed patient, meticulous diplomacy and all the parties involved - China and ASEAN, has been able to lower temperatures, and we have been able to work constructively. We also brokered an ASEAN consensus on an ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise after nearly three years of discussions, and we co-directed this exercise with China last month.
5 On the economic front, ASEAN has stood against the tide of protectionism. We made substantial progress on the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, RCEP for short. The RCEP includes the ten ASEAN countries and includes the other six which are China, Japan, Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. ASEAN Leaders committed to conclude the RCEP in 2019 next year. We emphasised closer economic integration through agreements on the ASEAN Single Window, the ASEAN-wide Self-Certification scheme and the ASEAN E-Commerce scheme. Without getting into the details, the point is that these initiatives will facilitate cross-border flow of goods and services within ASEAN especially as businesses increasingly go digital, and this will ultimately enhance intra-ASEAN trade and opportunities for small and medium enterprises to service the expanding consumer market in ASEAN.
6 We also established our flagship project – the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. This network will create a common framework for smart city development and the mutual exchange of action plans. The network will also connect cities with external private sector partners which will enable us to co-develop solutions for sustainable urbanisation – and members will appreciate that sustainable urbanisation is another mega-trend of our time. Collectively, these efforts will ensure that ASEAN remains vibrant, dynamic, relevant and will create bountiful opportunities for our businesses and our citizens.
7 We have also contributed to regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. And perhaps at this juncture I should say a few words about the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State.
8 I visited both Bangladesh and Myanmar earlier this month, and I also made a trip to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. This was shortly after both countries had announced their intention to commence the process of repatriating a first wave of refugees. I must say that based on my own observations at the camp that the Bangladesh government has done a really admirable job of providing humanitarian assistance for a very large number of refugees in a very short order of time. But having said that, having also visited the camps, the current situation is unsustainable. As long as the refugees remain in the camps, and have no jobs and means of livelihood, they have no future prospects. Therefore, we have to welcome the fact that both Myanmar and Bangladesh are engaged in direct, detailed discussions on making preparations for the commencement of repatriations. This is a critical first step. It is not a complete solution and there are many, many details that still need to be sorted out. But nevertheless we do need to witness the commencement of a process and to make sure that it is done in a way that provides for the refugees to return in a safe, secure and dignified way.
9 The situation in Rakhine State is of concern to all ASEAN Member States. At the 33rd ASEAN Summit last week, all ASEAN Leaders discussed how ASEAN can support the efforts of both Myanmar and Bangladesh for the safe, voluntary return of refugees. We welcomed Myanmar’s commitment to ensure the safety and security of all communities in Rakhine State. Myanmar has invited the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management to despatch a needs assessment team to Rakhine State in order to facilitate the repatriation, and ASEAN has agreed to do so. ASEAN stands ready to support efforts by all parties to address the root causes of the situation in the Rakhine State. Fundamentally, race, language, religion continue to remain live issues in our region and indeed across the world. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Myanmar government and its respective stakeholders to find a viable and durable long-term political solution. And as I have said before in this Chamber, we cannot expect quick fixes.
10 2018 has also been about bringing ASEAN to our young people. For instance, we organised the first ever ASEAN E-sports and music festival, we renewed the Singapore-ASEAN Youth Fund, and we launched the ASEAN Youth Fellowship. These schemes provide for shared experiences of sportsmanship, community service and entrepreneurship, and we hope that this will spur more youth to get involved in ASEAN activities and strengthen our ASEAN Community, and ultimately even more important to strengthen the ASEAN identity amongst young people across Southeast Asia.
11 Our Chairmanship this year has been a Whole-of-Nation effort and it involves, as I said earlier, all government agencies, our media, our universities, our think tanks, the private sector and the NGOs. ASEAN has given us a collective platform to improve the lives of our citizens, and to make our voices heard on the world stage. Post-2018, Singapore will continue to play the role of ‘Shepherd’ for the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, and we will continue to bring new ideas to the table. There is still much more that ASEAN can achieve, and we will work with our counterparts to build a more united, resilient and innovative ASEAN in the years to come. ASEAN remains a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Let me now move on to areas beyond ASEAN.
Singapore: A Trusted Partner
12 Let me now move on to areas beyond ASEAN. First, our standing as a trusted partner on a global level. There were at least two events which reaffirmed our reputation as an impartial, a reliable and capable partner.
13 The first was the Summit between US President Donald Trump and the DPRK leader Kim Jong Un on 12 June this year. Much has been said about the Summit, and I don’t want to go through all that again. But the point I want to drive home is this – that we are a small country, but we can be counted on to deliver when necessary. We did not volunteer to host the Summit between the US and DPRK, but we were asked by both sides, and when we were asked, we couldn’t say no. And so, we are proud that it went well, and that we had played a small part in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, if you just cast your minds back a year ago, the situation was extremely tense, rife with fiery rhetoric and provocative actions. Today, things are much calmer. And we hope that given time, and further negotiations and constructive diplomacy, that there will be sustained peace and stability, and a fully denuclearised Korean Peninsula. Our region, and indeed the world, will be much better off for it.
14 Another event that I want to highlight more recently is the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. Members may be aware that in fact China was originally supposed to host this Forum, but when that did not materialise, Bloomberg had to relocate the event very, very urgently. Singapore again was their obvious choice. So over two days in the first week of November, we witnessed the arrival of global business and political leaders gathered in Singapore to discuss the challenges confronting the world economy and possible solutions. The Bloomberg founder and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were all in town in that week. They joined some of the many other luminaries who came to attend the Forum. We were happy to be able to facilitate and to participate in these important discussions. And it is in our interest to add value and to make ourselves relevant to the global business community.
15 Overall, both these major events enabled us to raise our standing in the world, and fly our flag high.
Relations with Neighbours
16 Let me now turn to relations with our immediate neighbours - in a sense, an update. With Malaysia, we’ve had a positive momentum of high-level exchanges with the new Pakatan Harapan government. We just hosted Prime Minister Mahathir to an Official Visit last week, and our leaders will meet again next year for the annual Leaders’ Retreat. My Cabinet colleagues and I have built good rapport with our new Malaysian counterparts. Malaysia has a new, diverse and lively Cabinet – in fact, their ages range from 25 to 93; I think that’s a world record – but we do share many aspirations and challenges. And I can speak certainly for the younger ministers, both in Singapore and in Malaysia, that there is good rapport, there is good communication, we’re all on Whatsapp and various other digital means of communication. This sometimes raises concern amongst the staff, but I can assure you that we’re not revealing state secrets! But nevertheless, that ability to communicate instantly, quickly, and appropriately helps to build trust.
17 Issues will inevitably arise from time to time in our relations, and we will seek constructive ways to resolve them, whilst firmly protecting our national interests. On fundamental issues – and one key fundamental issue is the 1962 Water Agreement. On this case, our position is clear, consistent and has been articulated on many occasions, including in Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech and in fact my own Parliamentary statement in July this year. On Pedra Branca, we welcomed Malaysia’s decision to discontinue their applications for both a revision and interpretation of the International Court of Justice’s original 2008 Judgment. Iam glad that both sides followed due legal process and put the matter to rest. On the High Speed Rail (HSR) project, we reached an agreement with Malaysia to suspend the construction of the HSR up till 31 May 2020. The significance of that date is that will be exactly two years from when the new government took over in Malaysia. We did so in a spirit of bilateral cooperation and goodwill, and at the same time protected our interests and rights under the Bilateral Agreement. Overall, the outcome was balanced, and reflected both countries’ commitment to uphold agreements and to advance bilateral cooperation.
18 With Indonesia, our relations are in good shape, underpinned by the robust and expanding economic cooperation, for example projects like the Kendal Industrial Park in Central Java and the Nongsa Digital Park in Batam, which in fact I launched with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in March this year.
19 The highlight of the year was the Singapore-Indonesia Leaders’ Retreat in Bali last month. This was in fact PM’s third Retreat with President Joko Widodo. At the Retreat, we signed a Bilateral Investment Treaty and six other agreements across a diverse range of sectors including tourism, the digital economy, and culture. Our Leaders also announced a bilateral agreement between the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the central bank of Indonesia, and this bilateral agreement has since been signed. This bilateral agreement provides for a US$10 billion package, that comprises a local currency swap and a USD repurchase agreement to support monetary and financial stability, and to strengthen investor confidence in our region. These agreements reflect our belief that Indonesia’s economic fundamentals are strong, and that Indonesia is a large and dynamic market, with many opportunities for Singapore businesses. Another initiative announced at the Retreat was the “RISING Fellowship”. This is a fellowship scheme to deepen ties between Singaporean and Indonesian regional leaders. We wish Indonesia smooth elections in I believe April next year, and look forward to continuing our mutually beneficial cooperation with them.
20 In 2018, we also reaffirmed our special and longstanding relationship with Brunei. In fact, President Halimah made her first State Visit to Brunei in May 2018 at the invitation of His Majesty the Sultan. Earlier this month, we also welcomed His Royal Highness Crown Prince Billah and a delegation of Bruneian Ministers for the 6th edition of the Young Leaders’ Programme. And this is a key programme that enables the younger leaders on both sides to deepen personal ties and enhance trust and confidence.
Relations with Major Powers
21 Let me now turn to our relations with the major powers. Let me start with China.
22 This year is, in fact, an especially significant year for Singapore-China relations. It is the 40th anniversary of Mr Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Singapore on 12 November 1978. Both sides have maintained a steady cadence of high-level exchanges. This year, Prime Minister Lee, DPM Teo and DPM Tharman have all visited China; whilst on their side, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice President Wang Qishan and Vice Premier Han Zheng have also visited Singapore in recent months.
23 We continue to build on our deep and substantive cooperation with China. During Premier Li’s visit last week, we substantially, and I make that point, substantially upgraded the Singapore-China Free Trade Agreement. This will enhance bilateral economic cooperation between China and Singapore. We have also made good progress on all three Government-to-Government projects, the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-city and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI). In fact, there is a new acronym in town. CCI now has a New International Land Sea Trade Corridor (ILSTC). This was formerly called the Southern Transport Corridor. The CCI-ILSTC connects the overland Silk Road Economic Belt with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. It will enhance infrastructure connectivity and commerce within China, and between China and Southeast Asia. In fact, one of the reasons for the name change, and this suggestion came from China, was to make the point that they are talking about bilateral two-way flow of goods and services between China and Southeast Asia, and obviously we are at the heart of Southeast Asia, and from there, to connect to the rest of the Maritime Silk Road.
24 Cooperation on the Belt & Road Initiative is a new highlight of our bilateral cooperation. It has progressed well under the four platforms. I will enumerate them. First, infrastructural connectivity. Second, financial connectivity. Third, opportunities for third-party collaboration. And fourth, professional services, including legal and judicial cooperation. There will be much work to pursue in the years to come. We will build on this year’s strong momentum to further enhance our bilateral cooperation with China, including at the provincial level through the latest proposed Singapore-Shanghai Cooperation Council.
25 Let me now turn to the US. Our relationship is robust, it spans defence, economic, security, education, scientific, and people-to-people spheres. This year, we enjoyed a broad slate of high-level, substantive bilateral exchanges. President Trump was here in June, Vice President Mike Pence last week, and earlier in August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Secretary of Defence James Mattis was here for the Shangri La Dialogue and National Security Advisor John Bolton was here last week as well. Several Ministers, including me, have visited the US this year, to meet our counterparts and engage members of Congress. PM has spoken with President Trump on several occasions on the telephone. We have expanded bilateral collaboration in new and emerging areas such as tax information exchange, cybersecurity, FinTech, e-commerce, infrastructure development, smart city solutions, advanced manufacturing and robotics, and technology partnerships.
26 The key takeaway is this – the current Administration may have a different approach to trade, but the fundamentals that undergird our longstanding relationship with the US remain strong. The US remains committed to our region, and we will continue to do more with the US Administration in the years to come.
27 Let me now turn to multilateral diplomacy. At the United Nations General Assembly this year, I spoke about the crisis of confidence in multilateralism and its institutions. But I also made clear that Singapore will double down on our support for multilateralism and the rules-based global world order. In a sense, we have no choice but to subscribe to that because we will always be small, a tiny red dot, and our trade volume is more than twice our GDP. So we have no choice but to subscribe and do our best to support multilateralism, a rules-based world order and international trade. Keeping a free and open trading framework and having recourse to third-party dispute resolution mechanisms are essential for a tiny city-state like Singapore. We have done our bit to help shape international norms on emerging new areas with transboundary impact, for instance, cybersecurity, climate change. And we have thus maintained our advocacy for Singapore’s interests in international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.
28 MFA has also been closely supporting MTI’s efforts to advance our agenda of free trade and economic integration. Just last month, Prime Minister signed the EU-Singapore FTA, and now we will have to work hard to make sure it is ratified in the European Parliament by May next year. We have also just concluded the 3rd Review of the Agreement between New Zealand and Singapore on a Closer Economic Partnership (ANZSCEP). In fact, the FTA with New Zealand was one of our first ever bilateral FTAs for both of us. So we now look forward to signing the Singapore-New Zealand Enhanced Partnership (EP) and the upgraded ANZSCEP next year. We have also launched the MERCOSUR-Singapore FTA negotiations in July this year. For those of you who don’t know, MERCOSUR includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. And we are also in the midst of negotiating an FTA with the Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance is Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. MERCOSUR and the Pacific Alliance are significant trading blocs in South America. They represent the fifth and the eighth largest economies in the world. We are also having ongoing and encouraging discussions on the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)-Singapore FTA. Again, for those who don’t know, the Eurasian Economic Union includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. I should make a shout-out for Koh Poh Koon, who has been making a lot of trips to that part of the world, which many of you may not be familiar with.
29 Significantly, Singapore ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the CPTPP in July this year. With a combined market of 500 million people, the CPTPP will enter into force on 30 December this year. In fact, if you cast your minds back to January this year, and if I had told you that the TPP minus the US, the remaining 11 partners, would agree to renegotiate and conclude the CPTPP, and that we would ratify and that it would come into force on the 30 December 2018, you would have thought that I was being completely unrealistic. Nevertheless, this has been achieved. It will produce substantial savings and improve market access for Singapore companies.
30 We have also played an active and constructive role at APEC and the G20. I told you that PM just returned last night from Papua New Guinea and we will soon be going to Argentina as well for the G20 meeting. On this trip, I will have to drag along Finance Minister Heng Swee Kiat and I must tell you, for those of you who really want to go, it will take you at least 30 hours to reach Buenos Aires and another 30 hours to come back.
31 So in conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker and members of this House, we recognise the uncertainty and the volatility in today’s world. But if we look at what has been achieved this year, we do not need to be pessimistic about its outcome. Even in times of significant geopolitical turbulence, Singapore has built up that very precious asset called ‘trust’. Trusted by our neighbours and by the international community. They trust us because they know we are straight, honest brokers. We are sticklers for international law, a rules-based world order and free trade, and we believe in the sanctity of agreements and contracts. And they also trust our competence to be able to deliver when times are short and the outcomes are urgent and important. We will continue to be nimble to adapt, seize opportunities, and to do our best. MFA will work closely with all other ministries and agencies to keep our foreign policy balance sheet in good order. What is important, and this is a point I want to re-emphasise, is that foreign policy begins at home and we do need to maintain broad domestic support for our foreign policy. An effective foreign policy rests on this domestic consensus, a consensus built both within this House, and outside this House with fellow Singaporeans. As we commemorate our Bicentennial next year, 2019, I hope you will continue to work as a Whole-of-Nation to build a safe, secure, and prosperous home for all Singaporeans and our neighbours.
32 Thank you all very much.
. . . . .
Supplementary Questions and Answers
MP Christopher de Souza: Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to congratulate the Minister and his Ministry for helping to achieve a successful year with Singapore as ASEAN Chair. Building a rules-based region and bringing our economies closer are key and relevant initiatives. I would like to ask a supplementary question on the humanitarian aspect. May I ask the Minister what is the Ministry’s view on the repatriation of the Rohingyas that has been announced to commence in mid-November 2018 and whether from the point of view of ASEAN, enough has been done to ensure that those who return will not face the same threats to their safety as when they first left. Thank you.
Minister: Thank you. We are talking about a current and still evolving situation. As I said earlier, the silver lining, having visited both Bangladesh and Myanmar and having spoken to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the State Counsellor of Myanmar, is that I can state with a fair amount of confidence that both sides sincerely do want a return of the refugees. The State Counsellor herself has acknowledged that they are residents of Myanmar and that they are entitled to go back. This is a brave position for her to take. Similarly, Bangladesh, as I said earlier, has done a fantastic job, a really admirable job, in looking after the refugees. But they also know that it is not sustainable and that at some point the refugees need to go back. The key point is this: it has to be voluntary, it has to be safe and it has to be dignified. I cannot give you a specific date on which it will actually begin. Because apart from the preparations made by both sides, the refugees themselves have to agree and have to want to go back. Having spoken to some of the refugees, the refugees’ key concern is security. Having to risk life and limb to get across to the refugee camps, their question is: will it be safe for me to return? How will my neighbours, the community and the other communities in Rakhine state view their return? They have asked what will be their livelihood, because in the end nobody wants to be a refugee, everyone wants to get a job, a good job, to be able to support their families. So the point is there are many, many details that need to be sorted out. The other point I would emphasise is the UNHCR and UNDP also have to do their part, both in terms of support and presence on the ground but also in building confidence. We should bear in mind that there are extremists on both sides who do not want this problem to be resolved and do not want the refugees to go back early. Because as long as this problem remains unresolved, it is a festering locus for extremism and for the recruitment of future terrorists. Which ultimately threatens not only their immediate neighbourhood but in fact threatens us all, across ASEAN. So there are a lot more details that need to be sorted. What I can say now, from my own interactions, is there is sincere goodwill on the part of both Myanmar and Bangladesh. We need the UN to do more. And of course as ASEAN, we will also be willing to step up. And it is ultimately about confidence and trust. And the domestic lesson for us here is to understand why we are so focused on making sure inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations are looked after so assiduously. Because once those ties, the fabric, is torn, it is very very difficult to put together again.
MP Sylvia Lim: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I have one clarification for Minister concerning our relationship with Indonesia, particularly on the issue of extradition. I believe about a decade ago, the Singapore and Indonesia Governments agreed to tie extradition together with some Defence Cooperation Agreements and we’ve noted your update that we’ve concluded an ASEAN Model Extradition Treaty (ET). My question is – how would this model Treaty affect our aptitude or our position with Indonesia as far as extradition is concerned? Does it mean that the Singapore government would like to proceed on extradition without it being tied to defence cooperation?
Minister: That’s a good question, thank you for asking that. They are actually two separate matters. You’ve been in House long enough to remember that we had actually agreed with Indonesia on two agreements – a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and an Extradition Treaty (ET). They were both signed in the presence of the respective leaders, Prime Minister Lee and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia. Those agreements remain signed but unratified. We will have to wait for the political dynamics within Indonesia as to whether you are going to see any progress on those two bilateral agreements. What I referred to was the ASEAN Model Extradition Treaty which in a sense forms a starting base to begin negotiations for an ASEAN Extradition Treaty. This will not be bilateral. This will be regional. Being a lawyer, you know that once it becomes regional, the scope and conditions will be quite different from that of a bilateral treaty. So I would still keep this on two separate channels. The important point for the ASEAN Extradition Treaty is that we do want to emphasise the importance of rule of law and interoperability within ASEAN. But I would not conflate the two Extradition Treaties because we are going to keep them separate. The specific terms and conditions will not be the same between the two. As a lawyer you would know, for instance, if you want to extradite someone, you have to show that it is an offence in both sides domestically. Now if you look at a 10 by 10 extradition treaty, you can imagine the permutations and the lowest common multiple will be quite different from what you would have had in a bilateral Extradition Treaty. So I think suffice to say without getting into details, our position is this – there is a bilateral DCA and a bilateral ET which were signed and witnessed by our Leaders, but not yet ratified. We will wait and see what happens with that. That, however, does not mean we should not be able to proceed with negotiations for an ASEAN Extradition Treaty on different terms. I want to emphasise that it is on different terms.
MP Ang Wei Neng: On the issue of refugees, I am glad that Minister (FA) said that ASEAN countries should stand up. Could I ask what kind of specific help, financial or otherwise, other ASEAN countries other than Myanmar has pledged to assist to resolve the crisis? Have any other countries agreed to take in some of the Rohingya refugees selectively?
Minister: Actually, there has been a global outpouring of support for the refugees. And even from Singapore, I think you would be aware that at the grassroots level, at the NGO level, there has been fundraising and there has been support extended to the refugees. We have also extended help directly to the refugees in Bangladesh. For instance, the RSAF conveyed a couple of shipments. I believe SMS Maliki was there at the handover.
Specifically, within Myanmar itself when they go back—I myself have not visited Rakhine State - but the reports that I have received were that a lot of the homes and the farms were destroyed. They actually need to rebuild homes and a means of livelihood. Right now, for instance, I know India and China are helping with constructing pre-fabricated homes. But actually what is important is for the refugees themselves to be able to construct homes of their design and at the standard they are accustomed to. I know one problem which I’ve been informed of is that there is a lack of labour within Rakhine State to do rebuilding. Therefore, there has been proposals by the Myanmar government to have a cash-for-work programme so that the refugees will be paid to rebuild and to engage in construction and reconstruction.
There will be needs. There will be appeals. But actually, my sense of the issue right now is that the primary limiting factor is not money. The primary limiting factor is trust—confidence on the part of the refugees and trust, and the ground conditions within Rakhine State itself. So let us wait and see.
But we as ASEAN should be prepared to help in whichever way possible. And sometimes just the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the ground and having people on the ground—it is not so much the specifics of what is in the package, but the fact that someone else was there. Someone else was there in goodwill and helping to build trust. This is another point I want to emphasise. You must remember that there are other minorities within Rakhine State. In fact, the indigenous people in Rakhine are the minority in Myanmar. They also need support. They also need to enhance their livelihood. Again, trust requires all communities to be confident and to have a hope that there is a better future. There is a lot more work to be done.
I just wanted to clarify a little bit on the point that Sylvia raised. Let me just get this thing right. The Defence Cooperation Agreement and the Extradition Treaty that we signed with Indonesia – it was signed by both governments. Let me just state for the record: Singapore is prepared to proceed as and when Indonesia ratifies those two agreements. Let me just state that for the record.
MP Png Eng Huat: Can the Minister (FA) share what major points of contention were removed in the arrived Single Draft Negotiating Text for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea? And in your opinion, how far is the draft away from being adopted by all the Member States?
Minister: Let me be very frank with you. Yes, it is true we have arrived at a single Draft Negotiating Text. But let me not raise false hopes that all the issues are simple to resolve. For instance, if you speak to the different claimant states, each of them will stand up and loudly proclaim, “Those areas are indisputably mine.” In other words, even what is in dispute is disputed. Do you see my point? “This is indisputably mine.” Then another side picks it up and says, “No, this is indisputably mine.” You can’t even agree what areas are in dispute. I am just giving you an example of a very thorny issue. Other thorny issues: is this a binding agreement? And then there are enough lawyers here who may quickly then ask: is this a legally binding agreement? And then for those of you who are familiar with international law: even if you get a judgment, how will it be enforced? Who will enforce it? So I’m just trying to give you a flavour of the enormous challenges which lie ahead. Nevertheless, China has said that they hope that there will be a first reading of the Negotiating Text next year and they also hope that it can be settled in three years. My own view is that I think that is a very optimistic scenario. But let us not pre-judge the issue. As I said earlier, the fact that patient, meticulous, and constructive diplomacy has at least brought us to this point where the waters of the South China Sea are much calmer is still worth noting. It is still a positive step. But don’t ever assume that it is going to be an easy or short journey.
MP Vikram Nair: I thank the Minister for the comprehensive view of MFA’s work, I think its important for us to stand up for multilateralism at a time when nationalism is on the rise everywhere. The question I have relates to some of the issues that arose during the SingHealth enquiry. Do we still have to worry about foreign interference in our local politics? And if so, what could be the best steps our people could take to prepare to deal with that.
Minister: The short answer is yes. Your second question was what steps we need to take. I think the first point is public education and people need to be aware that we will always be a target for campaigns and misinformation campaigns and deliberate online falsehoods. So the first thing is to be aware of it. The second point is to be sceptical of what you receive through all your social media feeds. I remember this very good piece of advice that our former President Dr Tony Tan gave. He said when you receive a message, ask who it is from, second, ask who it will benefit and of course ask if its accurate or not. I don’t want to prejudge other issues which will be brought to this House. But let’s get real, there will always be the danger of foreign interference. You will have to take it almost as standard statecraft of the digital age. And if you assume everyone is going to act with restraint, it will be very foolish.
MP Louis Ng: Thank you. I want to join in my fellow members here to thank Minister, and MFA especially, for all the work they have done to try and resolve the crisis in Rakhine State and in Bangladesh as well. I have got three SQs, one is that I previously asked Minister if Singapore will be sending a second consignment of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and Minister replied that it was pending further assessment, but now that he’s been to the refugee camps, could I ask for an update on whether we will be sending these humanitarian supplies. A second is on the repatriation, which I agree should happened, but I’m wondering whether once they are back in Rakhine state, whether there is plans to grant them citizenship? Because as Minister mentioned, that we have to address the root causes, and one of the root causes on why they fled and that resulted in this crisis is because they did not have citizenship. And the third is in the repatriation process, whether there will be UN peacekeepers on site, I think that was one of the requests of the refugees, to ensure that this repatriation is both safe and secure for them. Thank you.
Minister: These are three interesting supplementary questions. On further consignments of aid, yes, we are prepared to, but I would consider targeting the aid to the refugees when they return. What I saw in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar; I know you were there, but you were there earlier last year; and according to the people on site, there is a vast difference now. The conditions the refugees are living now are much much better than when they first arrived. You know, I used to be the former Environment Minister, so I notice things like drains, latrines, water supply, food supply, cooking gas and energy – and actually there has been a lot of work that has been done, especially on the Bangladesh side of it. My greater concern will be when they return; the rebuilding programme and ultimately their livelihoods and making a living. I, really do not want to get into the issue of citizenship because that is not for us – the Parliament of Singapore – to be debating or decide on behalf of Myanmar. This is something which they have to sort out through their own political processes. Similarly, this issue of UN peacekeepers, is a sovereign issue that has to be sorted out by Myanmar, and if I were Myanmar, I would be offended if a Parliament elsewhere were making pronouncements on such issues. So with your permission I am not going to get into those two specific issues. Always think about how we, in Singapore, would view others pontificating or prescribing how we should solve our own political problems.
MP Liang Eng Hwa: Minister, I would like to join Members to congratulate the Minister of Foreign Affairs for a successful 2018 in terms of foreign relations and putting Singapore on the world map. If I may add on, another achievement for 2018 is also the Singapore Parliament hosting the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (IPA) where we not only had a successful conclusion on many issues, deepening integration, but we also met many new MPs, especially those from Malaysia. My question is on the RCEP. I would like to ask the Minister what does he see are the prospects of the RCEP concluding next year and whether in the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit, does he sense the political will to want to reach a conclusion on that and what could throw it off or could be the obstacles to that? The final point is that I want to assure Minister that as he represents Singapore in various places including Argentina, rest assured that the GRC MP will be covering duties when you are not around.
Minister: Thank you for covering my numerous absences. I must tell you I travel almost as much air cabin crew. I calculated, I took about 36 visits a year so I thank you for your personal support. Actually I should start off with an apology to the House for not mentioning AIPA, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary meetings which you have hosted, and Speaker has chaired. That’s been very important and useful. It has also been particularly eye-opening for the younger members of Parliament to meet your counterparts on from other ASEAN States and more importantly, to see how these issues can paralyse us, can divide us and how difficult. I mean there were some resolutions where you can’t even get onto the agenda, much less agree on a resolution. So I apologise for not mentioning this. I should have but I want to congratulate and thank all of you who did participate in AIPA and I encourage you to continue participating as it moves on to other destinations as well. On RCEP, the statement was very carefully crafted. We reported substantial progress on the negotiations for the RCEP. In other words, not yet ready to declare conclusion. There are a couple of both negotiating as well as political considerations which have led to the current position where we can report substantial progress but not yet conclusion. Your question on what are the chances of it being done next year – well, based on the Leaders’ pronouncement last week, all of them indicated their support for it to be concluded early 2019. Your next question- are there potential derailers, of course there are potential derailers, including the fact that there are several elections next year. I’m not referring to Singapore.
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