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Thursday, August 13th, 2020

Edited Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan’s Radio Interview on CNA938 ‘Asia First’ Programme, 8 November 2019

by November 9, 2019 General

Yasmin Jonkers (CNA938): Good morning. This is ‘Asia First’ on CNA938 with John Yip and Yasmin Jonkers. What an hour we’re going to have John, and we’re going to cover so many things with our guest, but let’s just set things up. The world is increasingly complex and global outlook remains uncertain.

John Yip (CNA938): Yes, the global consensus on free trade, economic integration and globalisation is fraying, thanks to the rising protectionism, populism and nationalism. And geopolitics aside, there are also the broader challenges arising from how digital technology is transforming the way we work and play.

Yasmin Jonkers: And to find out how all this fits into Singapore’s own pursuit of a place in the sun, we have with us, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan in the studio. Dr. Balakrishnan, hello.

Minister: Hi, good morning.

Yasmin Jonkers: Good morning. When was the last time you were on a radio interview?

Minister: It’s been a few years. I think the most recent interview was on TV. Slightly different experience.

Yasmin Jonkers: You used to host on TV.

Minister: Oh, yes.

Yasmin Jonkers: That was a programme called ‘Health Matters’. You were sort of like the resident doctor or so.

Minister: Well, I was the presenter, and I discovered presenting on TV is more difficult than debating, even more difficult than being in Parliament.

Yasmin Jonkers: Oh! Okay, and speaking of debating, our producers have been scouring YouTube in the past week to try and get a clip of you when you were a debater in school.

Minister: That was a long time ago.

Yasmin Jonkers: You represented National Junior College, but they came up with nothing. Did you take all those videos down? This is our question for you.

Minister: No, not me. You have to check with my key partner at that time, Eleanor Wong.

Yasmin Jonkers: All right, well, maybe she wants it to be erased, you’ll never know.

Minister: Well, but we had great fun.

Yasmin Jonkers: Okay, you’re the MFA man. I think top-of-mind of Singaporeans this morning is the fate of the 18 Singaporeans who got injured over at the Montigo Resorts in Batam. That news broke sort of late last night. What’s the update Dr. Balakrishnan?

Minister: Well, I’m glad that they’ve all been discharged from hospital. In fact, they should shortly be on a ferry, and will be back in Singapore today.

Yasmin Jonkers: Very scary to hear that they dropped into the ocean.

Minister: Yes.

Yasmin Jonkers: I cannot imagine what that might be like.

John Yip: And from what I understand the bridge was about three metres high, so it was quite a drop.

Minister: Yes. No, I’m sure it was terribly scary for them. But anyway, I’m glad that they are on the way home, they’re safe. In fact, you know, Singaporeans travel all over the world, and our consular office is on call 24 hours a day. And I often receive emails from Singaporeans who say, you know, during a time like this, I think what we appreciate most is having a Singaporean voice on the other end of the line. Someone who sounds like you, someone who’s concerned for you, someone who’s able to reach out, and we’ll do everything we can to help.

Yasmin Jonkers: That’s always good news.

John Yip: Indeed. And you yourself, you’ve been travelling extensively over the past few months, you know. What are the foreign policy issues that have been keeping you the most busy?

Minister: Well, to quote Henry Kissinger, the world is in a very, very grave period. The formula for peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War, which basically was based on economic interdependence, free trade, open markets. That formula is unravelling. And you have to ask yourself, why this is so. See, in a sense, the first 40 years after the Second World War, was the golden age for capitalism � a middle class rose, inequality reduced, rising votes, rising wages, and generally people were happy, and they knew that the future was brighter. But the trouble with globalisation is that there are both winners and losers. And in particular, as the Third World rose into the First World, initially it was the blue collar workers in the advanced economies who felt the competition, who felt pressure, and their wages stagnated. They felt competition, intense competition. Now, obviously, the biggest winner, especially over the last 40 years, has been China and of course, Singapore too has been a beneficiary of this multilateral rules-based world order with economic integration. So that’s the first thing � that some groups of people in the advanced countries felt intense heat.

Now, there’s another revolution going on � the digital revolution. For the first time, it means computers can recognise patterns, can see, can hear, can speak, many skills, which hitherto were confined to human ingenuity, are now accessible to computers. So now, you have white collar workers. You have professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, everyone realising, Wait a minute, the computer or the robot can take my job.. So the point is that this is a time of great, intense anxiety. Now what that has led to is that domestic politics has become very, very difficult. When people are afraid, when people are fractious and divided, you get the rise of populism � blames foreigners, blames external competition, tries to pretend that building walls and putting up barriers will insulate people. This doesn’t work. But what it does mean is an unravelling of multilateralism, an unravelling of multilateral institutions, processes, the respect for international laws, respect for negotiations for free trade agreements, all this is under tremendous pressure.

The key point is this � in Singapore, we are small, we have no choice but to be open. We can’t build walls, we can’t insulate ourselves. We need to make the correct diagnosis, which is this � ultimately it is about the ingenuity, the skills, the capacity, the brainpower, the teamwork of our people, our systems and our infrastructure. In other words, we need to make ourselves more competitive.

Yasmin Jonkers: Okay. Can I just interrupt you here? Because you were just talking about the rise of more inward looking policies, and it seems multilateralism is unravelling around the world. But we’re still pushing ahead with this. But we’re so small, who’s going to hear our voice? And what’s our stand on multilateralism, really?

Minister: Well, I’ll come back to the fundamentals of our foreign policy. The first point is this � foreign policy begins at home. If we in Singapore are not successful, if we are not united, if we don’t have optimism in the future, there’s no foreign policy to speak about. Second point � and this is a very important point for a small city-state � people know we can’t be bought, we can’t be intimidated. When we talk about deterrence, it means a strong SAF, it means a collective commitment to National Service, so people take us seriously. They know we will look after our own interests; long-term enlightened national interest. The third point is diplomacy. I fly almost as much as the cabin crew � I do about 36 trips a year. Now, this is essential, because even in this day and age, you do need to shake hands, look in people’s eyes, get a feel of what is it that person is concerned about and cares about deeply, and then look for solutions. So, active diplomacy, participation on the world stage, meeting people intensively. At the same time, it is also very important to understand that friendships and relationships are a means to an end in the case of foreign relations. It is to advance our own national interest. You never compromise national interest in order to be friendly; you are friendly in order to advance national interest. So I have to travel, and my colleagues � all of us travel intensively. Fourth point is, we have to commit to multilateralism. Why? Because the alternative is a world in which the mighty do what they want, and the small and weak will suffer what they must. For us, international law is a shield. And that’s why even when we have disputes � we can discuss that later with the segment on neighbours � our first instinct is, what is the law? What are the multilateral institutions and processes which we can use to resolve disputes. And the final point is this � because we are so small and open, we have to engage all countries in the world. I have to be consistent, reliable and honest. I cannot say one thing to China, and say another thing to America. In any case, they would find out about it. But it’s much easier in the case of Singapore � just be steady, reliable, consistent � stay on message, so people know what you’re talking about. And if you have to differ, differ respectfully. You understand that I’m not someone else’s proxy. I am differing with you because my assessment is that the national enlightened long-term interest of Singaporeans, necessitates me taking a different position. From time to time, we will take a different position from China, from America, or any other power.

Yasmin Jonkers: Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan is with us, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Speaking of disputes, there is a massive one in the world going on.

John Yip: Yes, we’re talking about that ongoing trade war between China and the US. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said in a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that this may lead to Asian countries being pressured to choose sides. What is our position on this?

Minister: Well, the first thing we need to know is that we have very close relations with both superpowers. The United States of America is the largest source of foreign direct investment in Singapore. You also know we have a close defence relationship. In fact, just a month ago, the Prime Minister signed an extension of the Agreement on the United States’ Use of Facilities in Singapore by the American Navy and Air Force. On the other hand, we also have a very close relationship with China. Surprisingly, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China. China is our largest trading partner. So many of us have Chinese ethnic ancestry. Our cultural, linguistic, historical links with China are both a blessing and a burden, because of the expectation. So what this means is that the ideal world for Singapore is one in which both the United States and China get along well, have trade, compete intensively, but also cooperate when they need to.

It’s also important to understand all the big challenges of our generation and the next � climate change, pandemics � all these big, hairy, global problems can only be resolved if there’s worldwide cooperation, and in particular, by the two biggest superpowers. So my point is this � we hope that they both get along. But we cannot guarantee or ensure that they get along. So my key point when I engage with them is to explain to them why we’re close to both. And then as I said just now, I say the same thing to both of them. And from time to time � if you look over the last few years, there have been times we’ve had to respectfully take a different position from the United States or from China. But for them to understand that we do so not because we are doing it at the behest of someone else, but we do so because of our own national long-term interest.

Yasmin Jonkers: Like you said, we can’t be bought.

Minister: We can’t be bought, we can’t be intimidated, and I can tell you from experience, this is a unique position to be in on the world stage for a tiny city-state like ours.

Yasmin Jonkers: Very special role there indeed. This conversation is set to continue for most of this hour, and we are also inviting your WhatsApps if you have a question for the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

John Yip: Indeed, do send us a message � the number to dial is 9631 1938.

Yasmin Jonkers: That’s right. Our conversation continues with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan in a short while, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. We’re going to talk about the recent ASEAN Summit and what came out of RCEP, and so much more. Keep your questions coming through.

Yasmin Jonkers: Good morning, this is ‘Asia First’ on CNA938 John Yip, Yasmin Jonkers, joined by our guest, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan Minister for Foreign Affairs. You doing okay, Dr. Balakrishnan? What do you normally do on a Friday morning?

Minister: Send my son to school, listen to you � this is my favourite programme.

Yasmin Jonkers: Thank you. That’s good! Finally, you’re here.

Minister: On the other side of the radio.

Yasmin Jonkers: That’s right, that’s right. After a whirlwind travel � we know you were recently in Bangkok, you spent so much of your time last week there. You accompanied the PM on the 35th ASEAN Summit. Can you share what stood out for you in this last ASEAN Summit?

Minister: Well, ASEAN Summits are always very busy times. First point is that I always find it incredible how ASEAN is able to bring not just the ten countries together, but countries far and wide who want to engage ASEAN � that’s the first point. The second point is worth remembering � the key objective of ASEAN is to secure peace and prosperity, to make war unthinkable in Southeast Asia. And when we look over the past five decades, I think this has been achieved, and it’s something to be grateful for. The next point is that, when we were Chair of ASEAN, one of our key signature projects was the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. Basically, because we understand that there’s a digital revolution going on, we want to help level-up everyone’s capabilities. More important, we want to ensure that our digital systems, our payment systems, our customs systems interoperate, and thereby integrate with the ASEAN economy in the digital field as well. I’m glad to say that Thailand in the Chairmanship has continued to emphasise the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, and Vietnam will do so. And we continue to function as shepherd for this process.

Now, obviously, the other big item on the agenda was the RCEP, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which, as you all know, ended up being RCEP-15. But here’s something worth emphasising, RCEP-15 constitutes about 29% of global GDP, maybe about 27% of global trade. It is still, by far the largest multilateral Free Trade Agreement ever. So for 15 of us to have settled the text for all 20 chapters, and to commit by the end of the year or early next year to resolve the outstanding market access issues � and we hope to get it signed in the first half of next year in Vietnam � that’s an enormous achievement. Now I’m not going to run ahead of it � there are still issues to fix. But I want to set in context that this is a big deal.

Yasmin Jonkers: Okay, let’s celebrate that win. But still, there’s the glaring omission of country number 16 � India. And as a result somebody has WhatsApp-ed us.

John Yip: That’s right, our listener Shauna asked, What are your thoughts of India pulling out of RCEP?

Minister: Well, I cannot speak for India. But my assessment is that they did so for domestic political reasons. And, in fact, it illustrates my point that foreign policy, diplomacy, and free trade agreements, must begin at home. Your own people must be assured that they are competitive, they are productive � the skills, the infrastructure, the system makes us globally competitive. If your own people do not have that confidence, they would be very nervous about entering free trade agreements.

Another point which I think I need to emphasise is this – why are free trade agreements so important for Singapore? Why is it that 92% of all Singapore’s trade is covered by our network of free trade agreements? The answer is very simple. We are unique in the world, because our trade volume is more than three times our GDP. So many jobs, livelihoods in Singapore, depend on free trade. And it’s not just free trade for its own sake. Because we are small, every single Singapore company ultimately has to trade and invest with the rest of the world. Yes, we also make it easier for other companies to establish operations here. Because what we’re actually trying to do is to create a virtuous cycle � bring in ideas, capital, technology, expose our companies, make our companies more competitive, thereby create more jobs, good jobs, and better wages for our own citizens. That’s why we’re so obsessed with free trade agreements. But the flip side of it is, I think in the case of India, they felt that they were not yet ready to compete on the global stage. Now that’s for them to decide. But what’s important is that Singaporeans need to understand that that is why we are so focused on restructuring our economy, so focused on reforming our education system, so focused on SkillsFuture and enhancing productivity.

One of my favourite quotes from Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, is that Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run, it is almost everything. And this is a mantra, in fact, which has been going on in Singapore for decades. Raising productivity is the only way to sustainably raise wages in Singapore, and ensure our competitiveness and our relevance.

John Yip: Okay, well, let’s stay in the region and let’s talk about Hong Kong next. It’s a city that’s close to the hearts of many Singaporeans, because of travel, work.

Yasmin Jonkers: John, you even have family there.

John Yip: I happen to have family there. My father was from Hong Kong, and came here, picked up a trade in textiles. And so for the people � Singaporeans who are working, living and well, maybe travelling there at this point in time, what has MFA done to ensure that our Singapore businesses and workers there are safe?

Minister: We’ve been watching the situation very closely, and with great concern. We have thousands, literally, of Singaporeans living, working there. And our consular officers have been working overtime to make sure that we give advisories which are up-to-date, that we provide a listening ear, and we help the people. So far, I’m glad there have been no significant casualties amongst the Singaporeans living there, although that remains our top concern. We’ve of course issued a travel advisory for Singaporeans to defer non-essential travel to Hong Kong, because quite honestly the situation there is quite unpredictable, and you cannot tell on any particular night or weekend, how things will evolve. And unfortunately, violence has become part of the feature � has become a feature of the action over there. That’s very sad.

Yasmin Jonkers: Imagine we’re encroaching upon six months of protests already. It’s really a very long-drawn affair.

Minister: Well, DPM Heng and I were in Hong Kong, I think in May. So yes, it’s been almost six months now. The Chief Executive Ms Carrie Lam hosted us for lunch. Wide- ranging discussions at that time. I don’t think she fully appreciated the gravity of the situation at that point in time. Unfortunately, we are where we are now. I look at the situation in Hong Kong with sadness and concern. Now many people think we compete with Hong Kong, but in fact, we gain so much more from a stable, prosperous, confident Hong Kong. And because that’s also a vote of confidence in the region, and that will be good for us. So watching what is happening now, for us, it’s concern and sadness.

Yasmin Jonkers: Yeah. But there’s a possibility that what’s happening in Hong Kong might just trickle here in Singapore. In the last 24 hours, Dr. Balakrishnan, there was news from Singapore Police that a Hong Kong resident has allegedly been organising a gathering for people here to share his views on the current protests there. His name is Alex Yeung, his passport has since been taken away. He’s supposed to be assisting the police in this situation. How do you view activities like this, you know, sort of Hong Kong residents perhaps galvanizing support here, particularly if this activity is present here in Singapore?

Minister: Well, I won’t get into the specifics of this case because clearly the police are still investigating. But let me say this, whether it is Hong Kong, or Malaysia, or Myanmar, Singapore will not tolerate foreigners bringing their political causes into Singapore. We do not appreciate other countries attempting to interfere with our domestic politics. And we will not allow Singapore to be used as a stage to interfere in other people’s politics. So this is a general position that we hold, and we hold it strictly and we will enforce our laws accordingly.

John Yip: Okay, we will maybe take a break now and then we will continue our conversation with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan Minister for Foreign Affairs. Any questions that you have for him with regard to foreign affairs, and of course Singapore’s place in the world right now to send them to us � the WhatsApp number to dial is 9631 1938.

Yasmin Jonkers: Good morning, you’re on Asia First CNA938 with John Yip, Yasmin Jonkers. And of course, our very special guest this hour. He is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. And the WhatsApps have been coming through, haven’t they John?

John Yip: Yes, we’ve got a message from a listener. Minister, the message goes, I recall hearing you ponder publicly several years ago, the question of Singapore’s culture. How have your views on that developed over the years, and what culture would you hope that your children would see in the Singapore of their adulthood?

Minister: Well, I would translate the question into one of national identity, and the truth is, I’m now even more optimistic.

Yasmin Jonkers: It’s pretty good, isn’t it?

Minister: Let me give you an example. In this room right here � Yasmin Jonkers, Vivian Balakrishnan, John Yip. Just reciting our names says something. Let me give you another anecdote. If you go to the United Nations, and you go to any ASEAN conference, and you look at the delegation, people say I’ve heard this really smart, articulate, constructive, honest, delegation, and then I ask them Were they multi-racial?. The answer is always, Yes. That defines us. We are multiracial. We are meritocratic. We treat each other with respect. We instinctively identify with each other. When people call up our consular office � and I told you just now � the thing they appreciate most is, I heard a Singaporean accent. They don’t really care whether it is a Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian � I heard a Singaporean accent.

Yasmin Jonkers: There are many accents.

Minister: Yes, but recognisably Singaporean. And even the way we engage with foreigners � I know sometimes there are tensions, but it still cheers me that there’s an instinctive Singapore identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of commitment, and a sense that we’re in it together, and we’re so much stronger because of our unity and our cohesion. So, the short answer to your question? I’m even more optimistic.

John Yip: Even more optimistic � I hope that satisfies our listener. Oh, and there’ll be other questions as well. We’ll bring them up, but let’s go on to the questions we have.

Yasmin Jonkers: Yeah, speaking of irritations Dr. Balakrishnan, there have been certain delays with joint projects with our neighbour across the Causeway � High Speed Rail been delayed somewhat. Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link, High Speed Rail (HSR), we don’t even know what the fate of that one’s going to be. How do you continue cooperation with Malaysia understanding that there are things that are holding back certain projects?

Minister: Well, I think the first thing to understand is that our relationship with Malaysia will always be complex. I sometimes joke that this is an example of a divorced couple, still having to share the same bedroom. Which means it will always be complicated, but we can’t really separate. We are permanent neighbours. Our futures are intertwined. You just think about the past year. A year ago, we were having a fairly tense argument about maritime boundaries, about airspace, and the use of Seletar Airport. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed. Fortunately, we’ve got good and strong relations, and the ability to communicate at a very senior leadership level. So we’re able to overcome misunderstandings. Most importantly, we were able to negotiate, negotiate as equals, rely on international law, or in the case of Pedra Branca, go to the International Court of Justice, or rely on arbitration to resolve our differences. So that’s the first thing � not to be surprised by surprises in that complex, very densely intertwined relationship.

The next point is that they had a change of government. And it’s worth remembering that both the RTS Link – the connection to Johor, and the HSR � the connection to KL, were in fact ideas which originated from the previous Malaysian government. So should we have been surprised that the new government needed time to review this project? No, I’m not at all surprised. I’m glad to report that we seem to be making good progress on the RTS Link Project. They have indicated they still need further time to restructure or review some details of the Project, but I’m still hopeful that we will go forward. On HSR, they have until May next year to make up their minds. We will wait for them. The more important point is this, I believe, the more we engage them, the more we pursue joint projects, the more we connect to one another, the more we invest mutually, the more interdependent we are, the more stable the long term relationship will be, regardless of the political vagaries on the other side of the Causeway.

Yasmin Jonkers: Okay, Dr. Balakrishnan, you’re not just engaging Malaysia at the government-to-government level. You’ve also gone to visit specific states.

Minister: Yes.

John Yip: Yes. Terengganu, Penang, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang. So why is Singapore interested in engaging Malaysia at the state level?

Minister: Well, first of all, Malaysia is a big country. And each state is unique. The leadership of the states, you just enumerate it � for instance, the Chief Minister comes from different parties. So it’s important for us to have a detailed understanding of the dynamics in each state. And that’s why I felt it was worth my while making these road trips, meeting a wide range of people. And again, my focus is on trying to understand what is it they’re concerned with. What are their aspirations? What are the projects that we could do together with them, and also to keep their mindshare of Singapore so that they would also understand that ultimately, Singapore wishes them well, and to look upon us as a partner. There will always be elements of competition, but we need to be able to get both competition and cooperation, and get that balance right.

The first generation of leaders basically grew up in the same academic and socio-cultural setting here. Tun Mahathir studied in our medical school. He has friends, he understands us, but subsequent generations may not have had that luxury of studying together, staying in the same hostel. What it means is we need to make the effort. And the other point is this � language also cannot be taken for granted. Because sometimes when you get a group of young Malaysians, and young Singaporeans together, I find that getting them to even speak in a common language is a challenge. So we need to do more, we need to spend more time, we need to interact more, we need to look for opportunities for win-win collaboration.

Yasmin Jonkers: Very interesting observation there. By the way, how was the food on Gurney Drive? Is it as good as we all think it is? Did it live up to its expectations?

Minister: No it was good. But of course I have to say, my hawker food � because if you come to Ghim Moh, it is even better.

Yasmin Jonkers: You know, there we go. That’s the constant irritation as well.

Minister: I am a proud Singaporean, Ghim Moh’s in my constituency. I have no hesitation recommending.

Yasmin Jonkers: Alright, Smart Nation Initiative, John.

John Yip: Yes, you’re the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative. That’s the other portfolio you hold. So you’re very familiar with the disruptions brought about by technology.

Minister: Yes.

John Yip: So, I want to put it to you that PMDs (Personal Mobility Devices) are also an example of disruption because they are seen as a possible form of active mobility, but more importantly, they have significantly changed the way delivery services are carried out, and they’ve become a source of living for many people. So errant riders are, of course a very big concern, so that resulted in the ban on PMDs on footpaths. The current situation here seems like for many of these riders, is that the government is trying to catch up on the disruption, implement better infrastructure. Is there a chance that this will be perceived as a rollback?

Minister: Well, I think the first point to note is that the digital revolution, by definition, will be disruptive. It will disrupt our way of life, it will disrupt our jobs, it will disrupt laws and policies, it will even disrupt our behaviour. So I think the first thing we have to decide is whether we are open to disruption. I think we have no choice � we have to accept that there will be new business models, there will be new ways of delivering food, there will be new ways of transportation, and PMDs is not the first, or the last. So first point � disruption is a design feature. Next point is that it means the job for the authorities become far more complex, because you have to respond, you have to react, and then you have to react when things do not go according to plan. To be honest, the way the PMDs exploded on our scene, and the fact that social behaviour and norms did not catch up in time with the need for safety, necessitated these recent moves.

But I must tell you, I’m actually very sympathetic also, to the people who are using PMDs to deliver food � it’s their livelihood, and we have to take livelihoods seriously. I know for a fact that right now, LTA is consulting the companies involved, and they will have to work out some arrangements, so that people can continue to make a living. So the point is this � there will be change, there will be disruption, it will be catch up. I do not view things as a rollback. I view things as constantly having to evolve � our laws, our policies, our infrastructure, but perhaps most importantly, our social behaviour. I mean, look. When I walk from my community club in Bukit Panjang to my hawker centre in Bukit Panjang, I think there must have been a dozen PMDs that whizzed past.

Yasmin Jonkers: Did you have any close shaves?

Minister: One or two. And that’s just me. All my residents have faced a similar situation. So from the young mother with a child, to the old, senior citizen walking carefully. We have to be concerned about their safety. So the point is this � Government has to do its best to maximise the outcome and safety for everyone. But we also do need the understanding, the mutual respect and cooperation. How do we secure the safety of pedestrians? How do we ensure new business models can take off? How do we make public transport more accessible? Remember, one of the key driving factors here was we wanted to solve the problem of last mile. Yes. From the bus stop or from the MRT station to your home. We have to look for better ways. We must not stop. We must not roll back. We have to keep going forward.

Yasmin Jonkers: Okay, but with the recent development on Tuesday with the ban of the e-scooters on the footpath, where does that leave the Active Mobility Plan? Is it still on track?

Minister: Even that is a matter of catch up. You see, the current cycling paths are only 400km. We probably need a thousand, several thousands of kilometres of dedicated cycling paths, so that people can ride without endangering pedestrians. In my own town that I’m in charge of in Bukit Panjang, I’m going through the map to make sure that we have a cycling track that circumnavigates the whole town, so that these services can still continue, and yet we can also ensure the safety of pedestrians. So the point is not to stop and not to roll back, but to look forward, and also to respect that everyone has their interests � and those are legitimate interests.

Yasmin Jonkers: Dr. Balakrishnan just to wrap things up, you were talking about Singaporeans who call overseas consular services and are very happy to hear a Singaporean accent on the other end of the line. But what are some of the most interesting and most bizarre, perhaps the most ridiculous requests that have been made by Singaporeans at your overseas missions? Do you have a log of these?

Minister: We do � not all of these are suitable for transmission on live radio, so I can’t share all that. But suffice to say, Singaporeans go all over the world, and they get into all kinds of scrapes. And sometimes, tragedy occurs. I mean, from my own personal recollection, you may think about the earthquake on Mount Kinabalu � seven students, two teachers, one Singaporean guide; I think about the kayakers in Mersing; I think about the Singaporeans on the boat in California. Sometimes I make it a point quietly to meet the family. So for me, this is not just an abstract statistic. These are real Singaporeans, in real trouble, and there’s great family anxiety. So I’ve told my Consular Officers that they actually are the face, the voice, the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We just want all Singaporeans to know that we are here. We will try our best to help. We can’t solve everything, but we will do our best. And it’s part of this identity and culture, and the links that bind us as Singaporeans.

Yasmin Jonkers: Incredible. Okay, fantastic job there. It’s almost the end of the year, can you believe it? So at this point, Dr. Balakrishnan, we must wish you, your MFA colleagues and of course, your family a good end to the year. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that, and thank you very much for coming to the studio to join us.

Minister: It’s really a pleasure. Like I said � my favourite programme, and now I get to be on the other side. Thank you all very much, it’s been a privilege.

Yasmin Jonkers: You’re absolutely welcome to come back. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, with us.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore