Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Singapore

06/09/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/09/2023 08:31

S Rajaratnam Lecture 2023 by President Halimah Yacob: Strengthening Resilience in an Uncertain World', 9 June 2023



Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

1 I am happy to be here to deliver the 2023 S Rajaratnam Lecture

a. Mr S Rajaratnam for whom this Lecture is named, was the chief architect of our foreign policy, putting in place fundamental principles that have served us well since our independence.b. As Singapore's first Foreign Minister during a tumultuous period for post-independent Singapore, Mr Rajaratnam also deftly navigated the challenges of the Cold War era, balancing our relations with the West and our commitments to the Non-Aligned Movement and the Third World.c. In his address to the UN General Assembly upon Singapore's membership into the UN on 21 September 1965, Mr Rajaratnam stressed Singapore's path of non-alignment.

i. Where Singapore had decided for itself that we would not be drawn into narrow power bloc interests where one side sought to impose its values on another or undermine another's way of life.

ii. This did not mean, however, that Singapore would be indifferent to issues of right and wrong or avoid taking a stand on issues inimical to our interests for fear of displeasing bigger and more powerful countries.

iii. We have continued to uphold this position and our respect for the basic principles of the UN Charter. We took a firm stand on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which was a clear and gross violation of the principles enshrined in the UN Charter and international law.

d. At a time when Singapore faced the question of how we would make our way in the world, Mr Rajaratnam was a visionary who in 1972 envisaged Singapore as a "Global City", long before the term gained popularity decades later.

i. He saw Singapore thriving beyond the bounds of our geography and history if we could view the world as our hinterland, doing business with the entire global community.

e. This revolutionary concept has since remained a bedrock of our foreign policy as a small country with an open economy.f. With these guiding principles in place, MFA has over the years, built strong relationships with our neighbours and the wider international community.

i. We continue to expand our diplomatic footprint. In 2022, we opened a new Embassy in Tel Aviv to strengthen our innovation partnership with Israel and support Singapore companies seeking greater collaboration with Israeli partners. We set up a Representative Office in Ramallah to support our technical assistance to the Palestinian Authority. We also upgraded Singapore's Consulate-General in Oman to an Embassy. Even where we do not have a physical presence on the ground, we do our best to help. We recently launched the Singapore-Timor Leste ASEAN Readiness Support (Stars) package to offer training to Timor-Leste officials to help them prepare for their ASEAN membership.

ii. While we continue to navigate the ups and downs in our relationships with our immediate neighbours, we have also made progress on key issues such as airspace and defence cooperation, and ventured into new areas such as the digital economy, sustainability, and connectivity.

iii. Internationally, we champion the interests of fellow small states with whom we share common vulnerabilities. We led the formation of the Forum of Small States (FOSS) in 1992, which today comprises 108 countries across all regions. We set up the Global Governance Group (3G), a group of 30 small and medium-sized members of the UN to promote greater transparency and inclusivity in the G20 process.

Charting our future in turbulent times

2 Today, more than half a century since Singapore's independence, the world has become much more economically and technologically advanced and integrated. However, Singapore's existential circumstances are unchanged.

3 We are reminded more than ever of our vulnerability as a small nation with the challenges posed by the external environment, in the form of rising geopolitical tensions, increasing polarisation in many societies, and technological disruptions. Transboundary crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change render a small island state like Singapore particularly vulnerable.

4 Diplomacy today is a far more complex task. We cannot assume that open markets and globalisation are part of the 'natural order', especially in the face of rising protectionist, insular and nationalist sentiments. These challenges are compounded by the speed at which misinformation and disinformation are spread through social media.

5 The external environment will remain uncertain for the foreseeable future.

a. The deep mistrust and intensifying strategic competition between the US and China are having a significant negative impact on the existing multilateral trading system, which has benefitted many countries including Singapore.

i. There is now increased risk of technological and economic decoupling and bifurcation.

ii. Countries are also embracing more muscular industrial policies with the US, China, and the EU pursuing export controls in key strategic areas as well as tax breaks and subsidies to develop domestic strengths in critical industries.

iii. Businesses are also reorganising themselves in response to these geopolitical conditions. More MNCs are looking to re-shore back home or to friendly countries to avoid being caught in geo-strategic crossfires.

b. As a result, the possibility of triggering unintended consequences has become more real.

i. Closer to home, we face the threat of conflict in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. While all sides do not wish for war, a single mishap or miscalculation could easily spiral into open conflict.

ii. We also face the threat of nuclear proliferation. Limited progress towards a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the suspension of Russia's participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty have heightened chances of miscalculations.

iii. Technological advances have led to new classes of weapons such as hypersonic missiles and drones. Cyber warfare, supported by advanced artificial intelligence capabilities, has reinforced strategic deterrence. But it has also upped the ante in the targeting and control of strategic assets.

c. From our days as an entrepot trade settlement to our current hub status for finance, logistics and other services, Singapore has relied on an open trading environment and an inclusive, rules-based international order. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw many weaknesses in global cooperation and supply chain connectivity. Countries were unprepared for a such a global crisis, and scrambled for medical supplies and vaccines. Nativist instincts made many countries turn inwards.

i. Countries only began to share resources when it became clear that a global response was needed to ensure everyone's safety in a highly connected world.

ii. The next pandemic can erupt anytime. We learnt from COVID-19 that multilateral cooperation is the only way to deal with such global issues. We need to think global even as we act local.

d. In recent years, we have seen a rise in popular nationalism as shocks such as the pandemic, and other national economic crises, heightened reactionary, anti-globalisation tendencies.

i. Internally, many countries are facing increasingly divisive politics and a polarisation of views. Building domestic consensus has become harder even on key issues.

ii. Politics in some countries is no longer a discourse about what is best for the country's long-term future but driven by immediate and narrow interests.

iii. This has led to massive protests and even unrest both in the developed and developing world, exacerbated by factors such as a widening urban-rural divide, perceived unequal political representation, and unfair distribution of economic opportunities and income.

Foreign Policy: Strengthened with Domestic Resilience

6 In this troubling external environment, our unity as a nation and our resolve to stand together is even more critical.

7 Mr Rajaratnam knew this well. His enduring legacy in the words of our National Pledge exemplified his belief that a young nation made up of people from different backgrounds, races and religions could only have a chance of survival and success as a Global City, if it could come together under a shared identity as "one united people".

8 Foreign policy and the conduct of our diplomacy rests on our domestic unity and resilience.

a. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored just how important resilience is. Singapore was successful in managing the pandemic because Singaporeans trusted the Government. Our people closed ranks and played their part to keep each other safe by complying with safe management measures. Our robust healthcare system and safety nets built over many years made a crucial difference too.

b. Strengthening resilience and trust within society will similarly allow us to respond nimbly in this increasingly uncertain external environment, to protect our independence and sovereignty and continue expanding Singapore's space internationally.

9 But this will be challenging as our society matures, and people have different aspirations and ideals.

a. It will require us to find ways to accommodate each other and strive for consensus to build on what has already been achieved.

b. Failure to do so risks internal divisions being exploited by others especially in the digital age.

10 To build resilience, it is essential for all Singaporeans to feel that they have a stake in its future. This is the main purpose of the Forward Singapore exercise led by DPM Lawrence Wong, to renew and update our social compact, even as we refresh our goals and strategies.

a. Strong institutions including the public service and a government that works hard to keep the trust of its people are essential.

b. We must also continually work towards a society that is fair and inclusive, and able to adapt to changing circumstances.

i. This means re-examining fundamentals to ensure that our system of meritocracy does not result in an entrenchment of privileges and advantages.

ii. Equally important is the need to continue investing in education and skills training, promoting entrepreneurship and innovation, and creating a business environment that encourages risk-taking and experimentation.

c Our efforts include uplifting lower-income workers and families and empowering them to improve their lives, and enhancing support for those among us with special needs and their caregivers.

i. I am glad that Singaporeans have responded strongly to the President's Challenge, which has grown from strength to strength since it was started in 2000. The initiative has grown over the years, reaching out to more donors, partners, and volunteers. In 2022, the President's Challenge raised S$17.3 million, the highest amount since the campaign started. This is a testament to the strong sense of community and social responsibility that Singaporeans feel towards one another, and is a reminder that even in challenging times, we can come together to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

11 We must remember that our diversity as a multi-racial and multi-religious society is our strength. We must protect this.

a. Laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act exist to safeguard this precious facet of our societal fabric. But laws alone are not sufficient.

b. We must be proactive in finding common ground with those who are different from ourselves. Platforms such as our Harmony Circles create opportunities for dialogue between communities of different faiths and ethnicities, allowing bonds of trust, compassion and mutual understanding to be formed.

c. This is where our youth have an important role to play as bridge-builders.

i. I launched the Harmony Champions Programme in February this year, a collaboration between the youth-driven initiative Roses of Peace and Temasek Foundation, to nurture youths to be advocates of inter-racial and inter-religious harmony.

ii. We must continue to equip our youth with the knowledge and skills to facilitate conversations on sensitive issues in a constructive manner. The Civic Conversations Toolkit on Race & Religion that the National Youth Council launched last year is a step in the right direction.

12 We can also learn from other countries' efforts at forging social cohesion and resilience.

a. I had first raised the idea of convening an International Conference on Cohesive Societies to promote interfaith and multicultural dialogue, which Singapore hosted in 2019 and 2022.

b. We have participated in similar forums abroad, such as the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue.

13 A strong Singapore core is crucial to guard against external influences, subtle and overt, that seek to divide us.

a. Natural fault lines in a society like ours can be easily exploited. Disinformation and misinformation can spread easily in an open and digitally connected country, through social media and instant messaging applications. We are susceptible to external influences, which can be difficult to discern as they are subtle and appear innocuous.

b. We must be discerning enough to call out half-truths or one-sided views peddled on social media that are packaged as news. To curb attempts at foreign interference and hostile falsehoods spread by parties with ill intent towards Singapore, we have legislative levers like FICA and POFMA.

c. But beyond legislation, the most effective way to counter falsehoods is to make sure that we check the sources to distinguish the sensational from the factual. We must be sceptical of what we read and reflect on who might stand to benefit from it.

Expanding Networks and Seeking Out Opportunities

14 As we forge ahead as a Global City, I am glad to see that Singaporeans are increasingly being recognised for their expertise, professionalism, and commitment to promoting regional and global cooperation. These reflect growing recognition that despite our small size, Singapore can play our part in contributing to global solutions.

a. In 2020, Daren Tang became the first Singaporean to head a UN agency, when he was elected as the Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

b. Earlier this year, Rena Lee, Singapore's Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea, presided over the conclusion of negotiations on a new high seas treaty under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The Agreement is an achievement for multilateralism amidst intensifying geopolitical rivalry and demonstrates that the international community can rally together to address global issues. The consensus outcome is also a testament to Singapore's position as a trusted bridge-builder in the international community, as well as our leadership role in developing the international law of the sea.

c. For the first time, Singapore has nominated one of its climate scientists, Associate Professor Winston Chow, as a candidate to the bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top climate science body, to serve as the co-Chair for the IPCC Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability to climate change. We hope that Winston will be successfully elected and can contribute to the IPCC's important work.

15 While the global landscape is increasingly complex and uncertain, there remain bright spots on the horizon for our Global City:

a. First, even as the multilateral trading system is being tested, we can work with like-minded partners to advance greater economic integration and liberalisation of global trade and investment.

i. Our neighbourhood is home to some of the world's fastest-growing economies and is a major driver of global growth and development. However, the region is also facing significant challenges, including geopolitical tensions, territorial disputes, and economic inequality. In such a complex environment, building trust, understanding and cooperation among countries is more important than ever.

ii. We have encouraged major powers, including the US and China, to continue to step up engagement of Singapore and countries in the region, and they have done so, through initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

iii. The signing of the ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020 was a positive step towards building regional trust and cooperation through economic integration. RCEP is the world's largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA), comprising about 30 per cent of global GDP and about a third of the world's population. Last week, the RCEP came into force for all Parties.

iv. There are many other complementary groupings that Singapore is a part of, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement. These have continued to grow in economic coverage to build a resilient and interlocking network of cooperation between countries across the globe.

b. We constantly seek to expand our economic ties with key economic blocs. Amidst the pandemic, we signed an FTA with the Pacific Alliance in 2022, a dynamic grouping comprising Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, and have also reached a substantive conclusion on negotiations for an FTA with MERCOSUR, comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. These two FTAs will join our network of existing in-force FTAs with other blocs such as the EU and GCC, to increase trade and investment opportunities for our businesses and enhance people-to-people linkages between our regions.

c. Second, Southeast Asia is a region full of potential. ASEAN forms the fifth largest economy globally. With its young and dynamic population of 60 per cent under the age of 35, fast-growing urban middle class, and the widespread use of digital technologies, we should continue to tap on the opportunities in ASEAN, particularly in emerging areas such as digital and green economies, as well as in engaging external parties.

i. A key milestone in the development of ASEAN's digital economy was the signing of the Agreement on Electronic Commerce during Singapore's ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018. Today, under Indonesia's Chairmanship, ASEAN is set to advance negotiations on a Digital Economy Framework Agreement that will serve to enhance the region's digital economic integration.

ii. ASEAN is also looking to deepen its cooperation in the production of clean energy and the green economy. The ongoing LTMS power integration project which involves the import of hydropower from Laos to Singapore through Thailand and Malaysia, is an excellent example of such collaboration and a pathfinder towards realising an ASEAN Power Grid. It is a win-win proposition that will allow us to progress in our regional decarbonisation journey while diversifying our energy sources.

iii. ASEAN is pursuing FTAs with new partners like Canada as well as upgrading existing ones, such as with Australia, New Zealand, China, and India, for the post-pandemic economy. Beyond trade, Singapore also played an active leadership role in the conclusion of the world's first bloc-to-bloc air transport agreement between ASEAN and the EU in 2022.

d. Lastly, it is important that we remain open to new opportunities and partnerships. Regions such as Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa have seen dynamic and rapid growth. It is timely for Singapore to capitalise on the accelerated pace of growth in these emerging markets.

i. We have cemented Singapore's presence in our traditional markets. We must continue to diversify our market reach, so that we not only reduce our reliance on any one market or region, but also avail ourselves to new relationships to ensure our economic prosperity and sustainability.

ii. There are many opportunities for collaboration with new markets, including in sectors such as health-tech, agri-tech, transport and logistics, and urban solutions.

  • PSA continues to expand its list of port management projects in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Panama, and India. In Africa and Latin America, Olam International is working on harvesting the potential in the agribusiness sector.

  • Countries in these regions have also been keen to develop their potential in the digital and green economies. For example, countries in the Middle East are quickly developing their capabilities as potential exporters of green energy, given their comparative advantage in renewable energy production. Start-ups in Latin America and India are also developing digital and green solutions for the future. In Central Asia, there are promising opportunities for Singapore companies in its rapidly growing urban development sector.

iii. Singaporeans and homegrown businesses must continue to venture into these new and emerging markets, and we will continue to support such efforts:

  • First, by establishing stronger economic ties with emerging economies. I recently visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, seeing first-hand their rapidly liberalising economies. Similarly, in South Asia, Bangladesh is poised to become a US$ 1 trillion economy by 2030 and is looking to grow its trade and investment links with South-east Asia. To plug into this growth, Singapore and Bangladesh signed a Memorandum of Cooperation on Trade and Investment in November 2022.

  • Second, by enabling deeper sectoral cooperation through various government-to-government collaborations. For example, we have worked closely with several of our African counterparts, some of whom pioneered mobile payments technology, to deepen our partnership in FinTech. In recent years, we launched the Financial Trust Corridorwith Ghana and Rwanda, which aims to facilitate the secure exchange of documents between our financial institutions and businesses. This will make it easier to secure financing for forays into these two countries. In the green economy, we are also collaborating on carbon credits to meet Singapore's climate targets, through agreements with countries such as Vietnam, Colombia, Morocco and Kenya. Such initiatives will encourage more companies at home and in our partner countries to seize the opportunities beyond our hinterland.

  • Third, by equipping Singaporeans with the skills and knowledge to take advantage of these new opportunities. The Ministry of Trade and Industry and SkillsFuture Singapore will be setting up a Green Skills Committee for the local workforce. The Enterprise Sustainability Programme also supports companies' efforts to develop their sustainability capabilities. These initiatives complement efforts by Singapore companies to tap on opportunities in the green economy in emerging markets. For instance, Sembcorp, through an 80%-owned joint venture, received in March this year an award by Oman to build, own, and operate the 500-megawatt Manah Solar II Independent Power Project.

16 These are steps in the right direction, and we must press on notwithstanding the challenges and inherent risks in diversification. Despite the sharpening of geopolitical rivalries, and temptation to turn inward in an increasingly uncertain world, we must continue to cast our gaze wide, working together to face current global challenges for the sake of our future generations.


Ladies and Gentlemen

17 In conclusion, let me reiterate three points: -

a. First, the primary task of our foreign policy is to safeguard and advance Singapore's national interest. Our survival depends on making friends and establishing close relations with the rest of the world in pursuit of common interests. Many of the issues that affect the world today require global cooperation and innovative solutions. Issues such as climate change, global health and cybersecurity are of such a magnitude that no country can solve them alone. We must continue to advocate for dialogue and engagement to achieve peaceful solutions, instead of war or conflicts where there are no winners.

b. As a global city with an open economy, we depend on a functioning and effective multilateral trading system which is now under tremendous strain. Despite this, there are still many opportunities to work with like-minded partners, in the region and globally, to expand trade and business ties and to venture into new areas of growth.

c. Third, to be able to protect and advance our interests internationally, we need a strong, resilient, and cohesive Singapore so that our voice matters when we speak. Singapore's stability and cohesion have allowed us to protect and advance our interests over the past 58 years despite the ever-evolving geopolitical realities. This is not solely the work of policymakers and diplomats. All Singaporeans have a part to play in making Singapore strong, stable, and cohesive.

18 I am confident that our future will be bright as Singaporeans remain resilient and united; stay open and connected to the world; and innovatively forge new paths to benefit our country and people.

19 Thank you.