Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Live Interview on Channel News Asia’s Singapore Tonight, 2 March 2020
Steve Lai: We are joined by Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. We have got quite a bit of ground to cover. So, Minister, welcome. Good to have you on. Let us start with our neighbour Malaysia which is going through some new leadership change. Both Singapore and Malaysia have several ongoing projects, water being one and railway links the other. How are you seeing this play out?
Minister: Well I think they have been through a dramatic week. But we wish them all the very best. We hope for a leadership that maintains continuity and in particular for us because we have ongoing projects with them like the High-speed Rail (HSR) and Rapid Transit System (RTS); the ongoing discussions on water; all of these are ‘live’ issues. There are deadlines and some decisions need to be made. We are waiting for the appointment of their Cabinet, and we will take it from there.
Glenda Chong: Minister, we have heard tonight from the new Malaysian Prime Minister. We know he is someone with a very long track record in politics. You have also worked with him. Tell us about your experience working with him.
Minister: In fact, I just saw him last month. I took the opportunity to brief him on some of the discussions and negotiations. You have hit on the key point, which is that he is familiar with us. He was the former Menteri Besar of Johor. In fact, most people do not even realise, he was a key negotiator for the 1990 Supplementary Water Agreement. So, he is completely familiar with this, I am sure he will be able to hit the ground running. And as I said, we will wait for him to appoint his Cabinet, and we will continue the discussions from there.
Steve Lai: We will have to wait and see how that plays out. Let’s move on to COVID-19 and specifically how we are engaging China. Singapore has had to make quite a few decisions in trying to bring Singaporeans back home. Did that prove successful? There must have been challenges there.
Minister: It was challenging, but the key point is that we will leave no Singaporean behind. Singaporeans live and work all over the world. You will be surprised, where they get to, and sometimes they will get into trouble. But I want to give that assurance that it may take us some time, it might take enormous effort, but we will not leave you behind.
Glenda Chong: Still on COVID-19, how has Singapore actually been able to leverage on technology and digital infrastructure to respond so quickly to the situation?
Minister: Well, partly the ability to respond overnight depends on the investments in the years before hand. In particular, for the digital space, we have recruited talent, we have built up engineering capacity and infrastructure. For instance, MaskGoWhere or even this Gov.sg WhatsApp channel which has over half a million subscribers. We could do that very quickly because we have got the talent, we have got the people, we have got the engineers, and they are fired with a sense of mission and enthusiasm. It has allowed us to do things which would not have been possible in the past.
Glenda Chong: So, what has the reaction been from Singaporeans on MaskGoWhere and Gov.sg’s WhatsApp?
Minister: Let us take a step back � the COVID-19 is a serious situation. Many people are concerned. If you are watching what is happening to the rest of the world, you will know that this is not something that is going to disappear overnight. Now I am confident and I can say that Singaporeans are confident that we have got a good handle on it here. But Singapore is not just an island. And what happens in the rest of the world will affect us. Singaporeans are confident that we will do whatever is necessary to protect Singaporeans, we will do whatever is necessary to repatriate Singaporeans who need help. But we also need to be a responsible member of the international community. We need to be credible, transparent, and reliable. These are attributes in a crisis, which actually gives us a strong position after the crisis. And so, it is important for us to hold our own domestically, as well as maintain that reputation of reliability, transparency and honesty on the international stage.
Steve Lai: And speaking of the international stage, we are seeing COVID-19 spread around the world. Are there some examples that they can take from how we are handling this?
Minister: I think it is most unfair. We are a city-state; we are a single layer of government; we are a government that has learned lessons from the episode 17 years ago with SARS; we take crisis preparation very seriously. We are able to make decisions and execute these plans with a speed that is very hard to replicate elsewhere. So first point I would make is that it is not a fair comparison. But having said that, because we live in a world that is so interconnected with so much traffic, you cannot just protect Singapore and then hope that the situation will resolve elsewhere. I am worried with the way it is spreading in Asia and in Europe. The real worry is what will happen in Africa, in the Middle East, and maybe even parts of South America. This is a time for global concern. This is a time for us to work together, for us to be constructive. I would say our Ministry of Health as well as MFA, are all working overtime, because we need to build those relationships and we need to strengthen the ongoing relationships, so that we can cooperate and handle this, collectively as a world. This is a worldwide problem and no country can solve it alone.
Glenda Chong: Minister, you oversee the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. How successful has the government been in engaging Singaporeans in this area?
Minister: Well, it is on several levels. First, I believe that we have made technology far more accessible. If you look at the people who are using gadgets, smartphones, and apps, the numbers are very gratifying. And it is not just the young, but everyone is using these. Examples are the health apps like the National Steps Challenge. And then if you look at the way people are using the SingPass Mobile app and the suite of services it provides. I need to make this other plug � for e-registration, we have now just made it even more simple. With SingPass Mobile, you just need to log on, you do not even need to type in your name. You just tell us when and where you will be. The intention is to make technology disappear and make services accessible to everyone. I am really proud of the way our engineers and the multi-ministry teams that work together to make all these services available. So if you look at digital identity; you look at e-payments; you look at the integration of government services; you look at the way we are trying to reduce the number of licences; the way we are re-engineering government processes at the back end, that is where the real pay-off is.
Steve Lai: I suppose that it would just make things easier to track, easier to flow and easier for us to function.
Minister: Yes, absolutely. We live in an era when people are used to social media, are used to the integrated services provided by private companies and it is usually overseas companies. I think people expect the same of their own domestic government services, and that is the level of service delivery and level of responsiveness of integration that we need to aim for, and I think we are taking major steps in the right direction.
Glenda Chong: But we also have an ageing population we might not forget about them as well. How do you then try to engage them into this whole new digital wave that Singapore is going through?
Minister: Well if you come to some of our community events, the thing which really warms my heart is to see young people acting as buddies for seniors. Taking their handphones to show them this is the way you log on to SingPass, this is the way you check on your CPF account, this is the way you check on your bank account, this is the way you engage in e-commerce, or transfer money and remain in control. In fact, it is another opportunity for multi-generational social bonding. So again, my focus is not on technology. My focus is on people, on jobs, on society, on relationships, and improving the quality of life for ordinary citizens, young and old, on being inclusive, and making sure no one is left behind or excluded from the digital revolution. And in fact, to give you another heads up, in July we will have a PlayScape and CityScape. These are big exhibitions where we will show people how we are embedding technology to make our city function even better, and more importantly to showcase the apps and services that we will deliver and get feedback from the people. It will make a difference to the design, and the way we execute and deliver those services. So it is a wonderful opportunity again for us to work as one society. Coming back to COVID-19, the real test is in a crisis. The fact is that our systems have held up, despite the enormous challenges. If you take MaskGoWhere, within the first day, we had to deal with some one million hits. To be able to deliver that level of service for something which you only dreamt up the night before, I am very proud of the team of engineers we have.
Glenda Chong: To have good preparations in place and we are not going to leave anybody behind.
Glenda Chong: Thank you so much for coming in and speaking to us, Dr Balakrishnan, Foreign Affairs Minister and of course Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore