Staying open, forging ties crucial for survival

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Singapore is a tiny island in a tough neighbourhood, but staying open, relevant and forging partnerships are key to the country's continued survival, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

"The fundamental constraints that Singapore faces as a small island city-state with a multiracial and multi-religious population remain unchanged," he said in a speech that touched on the constraints of being a small state, but showed how the country was navigating the challenges it faced.

"We must have no illusions about our significance in the world or our ability to influence global events," he told MPs as he wrapped up the debate on his ministry's budget.

It does not have a say, for instance, in who the next president of the United States will be, but has to work with the next administration in Washington regardless of who is elected in November.

"This is the karma of being a small state," he said.

This is why since 1965, Singapore has assiduously forged national unity, achieved economic success and built strong partnerships at the bilateral, regional and international levels, he said.

"Our international engagement with multilateral organisations is also critical. As a small state, we must engage with everyone."

Singapore's openness means it will be exposed to external economic headwinds but "we have no choice", he said.

"We have to remain plugged in to regional and international trade groupings because this opens doors for our people and businesses."

The newly declared Asean Economic Community, for example, will create jobs and open up a market worth US$2.5 trillion (S$3.4 trillion) and with more than 620 million people to businesses here.

Also, ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact will create more trade and business opportunities for Singapore companies. He urged parties to ratify the pact, which has been inked by 12 countries, including Singapore.

Singapore is also reviewing or upgrading agreements with countries such as China, Japan and Australia.

It is also on the lookout for opportunities that firms can seize in emerging markets in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam will make a state visit to Mexico in June, the first by a Singapore head of state to Latin America.

In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan also updated the House on Singapore's relationships with its neighbours, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand.

Countries must work together to tackle transboundary challenges such as haze pollution and threats to cyber security, he said.

Singapore remains committed to working with Indonesia to addressing transboundary haze, he said, adding: "Year after year, the main victims of this haze are not Singaporeans but the Indonesians themselves who live at ground zero."

Singapore wants to do more with the Indonesian government to promote sustainable agricultural practices, to strengthen the response to forest fires, and to hold errant companies responsible for the fires they start or allow to occur in their concession areas, he added.

He also said that as Singaporeans travel more frequently and to more far-flung places, one of his ministry's top priorities was to ensure consular assistance to them.

But Singaporeans should also register online with the MFA when they travel, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, who also spoke on the issue.

This is so they can be easily contacted and helped in the event of an emergency, like a terrorist attack.

This article was first published on April 8, 2016.
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