Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan recently participated in an online discussion with the Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist of the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman at the Aspen Security Forum to discuss a number of trending issues such as the need for a coordinated global response to the coronavirus pandemic, the trajectory of US-China relations and the prospects for peace in our time. First of all, I would like to congratulate the minister for a well executed interview in which he provided a concise but yet informative snap shot of the situation. There are however several points made by the minister that may require follow up, question or comment.
In relation to the coronavirus outbreak, Balakrishnan muddied the waters a little bit by fudging the crowded living conditions in our migrant worker dormitories with conditions in an aircraft carrier or a luxury cruise liner. This somehow distracts from the fact that migrant workers live in such cramped conditions for the entire duration of their time working in Singapore. It is not a short term trip like that on an airplane or a holiday like that on a cruise liner. The point of the matter is that the migrant workers in Singapore do not have a choice. There is no escape from where they live and the close proximity within their living quarters means that they cannot effectively social distance. By putting cruise ships and air planes in the same bucket as the migrant worker dormitories, the minister is not presenting an accurate version of the full picture to an international audience. By not acknowledging it for what it is, the Government could run the risk of not making the improvements it needs to make.
In addition, Balakrishnan also stressed the difference between citizens and permanent residents (PRs) from the migrant workers. Singaporeans and PRs were referred to as part of the “community”, implying that the migrant workers were not part of the community. Perhaps the minister did not intend to sound elitist but he sure did! Singapore is such a small country. To somehow differentiate the two different groups seems artificial and disingenuous.
The Minister goes on to talk about the the rigorous testing that Singapore has done in the dormitories saying that it was the high level of testing that made “the numbers still look high”. This implies that the situation is safe and under control. However, if the situation is so under control, why is the Government mandating some 40 migrant workers to stay at their worksite until late 2021 instead of letting them return to the dormitories?
Given that Balakrishnan does not believe that COVID-19 is the big one and that other pandemics are on the horizon, is it not important for the Government to be completely honest with the state of affairs in Singapore where COVID-19 is concerned?
“What is even more worrying is this – I do not believe COVID-19 is the real big one. If you look at the mortality rates of the pandemic influenza in 1918, it was far higher than this. If you look at SARS, it was far higher than this. What I am saying is that this is actually a rehearsal for the really big pandemic, which I still believe is overdue. We need to use this time to prepare ourselves for the next pandemic. That means investing in research and development, governments collaborating – because the only way we’re going to be safe, is when every one of us is safe. We believe that vaccines are a global good. We believe in vaccine multilateralism. We believe we need to hedge our bets, by chipping in resources into a common pool. And depending on which vaccine emerges, quickly expand the access to it, and especially to countries which are most vulnerable and where the population need it most. My point, again, is that this is a world that is crying out for multilateralism, and we need to do that. Not focus on yesterday’s battles or on the blame game, which is ultimately unproductive and will not provide solutions for the future challenges that we are confronting.”
It isn’t about blame. It is about owning up to mistakes so that we can make improvements. So, if the Government is not being fully objective in the migrant worker situation in Singapore, how will we be prepared for the next big one?
In relation to US-China tensions, the minister presented a very articulate summary of Singapore’s place. I would however like to draw attention to certain things the Minister has said.
He said that: “We need to come to terms with this world. It is important not to harken back to a misremembered past, but to focus on the future, and how a multipolar world is both essential for peace and prosperity, and also for transforming the way we look at diplomacy. All this whole canard about you are either with us or against us, does not work in a multipolar world. ‘ While I appreciate that Balakrishnan is talking about international affairs, I do wonder if the minister would apply the same blue sky thinking to Singapore’s domestic affairs. Singapore’s political landscape is changing too and in that increasingly nuanced landscape, things are no longer black or white. If Balakrishnan acknowledges that the “whole canard about you are either with us or against us, does not work in a multipolar world“, does he acknowledge that for the Peoples’ Action Party’s relationship with detractors? Singapore is after all part of the world. If the world is increasingly multipolar, then so is Singapore. Has the minister thought about this from a domestic perspective?