Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament (8 May 2023) that the statements made by Law Minister K Shanmugam on the Ukraine war in a keynote address at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Workshop (8 March 2023) reflects the views of the Government of Singapore.
The Government’s position has not changed, Dr Vivian said. “The sovereignty, the political independence, and the territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected,” he said.
The Minister was responding to questions from WP Sylvia Lim who asked if the foreign ministry was aware beforehand that Mr Shanmugam was going to deliver his speech, and whether his ministry was aware of the content of Mr Shanmugam’s speech.
In his speech at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (you can read it here), Minister Shanmugam had shared diverse views on how the situation in Ukraine unfolded, and the roles of the West, NATO and the Russian Federation. But Mr Shanmugam also mentioned at least 4 times in his speech that the Russian invasion cannot be justified.
He said the facts are a little bit more involved than what was read daily from much of the Western media. “The facts are a little bit more nuanced. So I said, nothing justifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine – I made that clear. Nothing can justify the horrors that the Ukrainian people are going through. But, the picture that is presented is a little bit more nuanced than the media portrays it.”
Diversity of views does not alter Singapore's national position
WP Sylvia Lim said in Parliament that up till the time Minister Shanmugam made his speech on 8 March, there had been no attempt to say that the US or NATO have been somewhat contributory to the current state of affairs. “So, I would like you to confirm that up to now, the Government has not taken this position and this is actually something new in the public domain,” she asked.
In his reply, Dr Vivian said that under the principle of collective responsibility, the statements of each Minister reflect the views of the Government.
The Government’s position has been clear and consistent that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was wrong. It was a breach of international law and of the the principles of the UN Charter.
“Having said that, I think we must also be very clear in our minds that there is a diversity of views, and when we are explaining these matters to the general public, to our population or indeed even in this House, it is not unreasonable to reflect the diversity of views. But reflecting the diversity of views does not alter our national position, based on a defence of our national interests and the principles which a small, tiny city-state like us must subscribe to,” Dr Vivian added.
Politics stops at the border
Dr Vivian also emphasized that foreign policy is ‘something which we all have to take responsibility for, including the opposition’.
“I am very glad that in fact, the opposition, of all parties, has ensured that politics stops at the border. I think I can quite safely say that on behalf of every single member in this house, our position remains that it was wrong of Russia, it was a breach of international law and of the principles of the UN (United Nations) Charter for them to launch the invasion of Ukraine.”
Understand what is at stake for small countries
In his response, Dr Vivian urged the WP Sylvia Lim to understand what is at stake, and to understand that Singapore has taken the stand that it did because of the vulnerabilities of Singapore as a tiny city-state.
“History is replete with tragedy and misfortune falling on small countries,” he said.
“As the Minister for Law has explained, both in his speech and reiterated in this House, ultimately the victim is the smaller country. Ukraine and (the) Ukrainians are paying the ultimate price. So, our position is clear that it is wrong, a breach of international law, a flagrant violation of the principles of the UN Charter. The primary victim is the smaller country and its people who are paying the ultimate price,” Dr Vivian said.
“If you want to get into a larger debate on foreign policy, then I would draw your attention to the fact that we are not in Europe – we are in Southeast Asia. As we collectively craft a foreign policy that is both consistent and protects our national interests, I would say on a larger strategic stage, we must always be aware,” said Dr Vivian.
“You can get into historical details of how a situation unfolded. Our objective in Southeast Asia is not to let a repeat of the European tragedy occur here, in this part of the world. In trying to avoid a parallel of that situation here, I think it is entirely legitimate for us to consider all views, diverse views, opposing views even, on how the situation in Europe came about.”
Still, Sylvia Lim persisted and asked, “Based on the Minister (for Foreign Affairs)’s last answer, he did not say whether the Government agreed with the Minister for Law’s view that West and NATO were not uninvolved bystanders who had no role to play in the current situation. So, do I take it that he would rather not go into such historical matters?”
"I do not wish to have words put in my mouth."
Dr Vivian responded:
“There are things that we discuss, when we are having fora in Parliament and with the general public, when there is a need to reflect the diversity of views. I think that it is entirely legitimate for the Minister for Law to do so.
Having said that, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, my first job is to protect the sovereignty, the independence and the territorial integrity of Singapore.
Therefore, what I say publicly is entirely aimed at achieving that. I do not wish to have words put into my mouth, or to make public pronouncements beyond what I have already said, beware that small countries do not get caught up in the manoeuvres, the to-ing and fro-ing, and the dangerous, sometimes escalatory rhetoric or actions that superpowers engage in. I say it my way, but I believe that my statements are entirely consistent with the rest of my Cabinet colleagues, and we stand and we take collective responsibility for that.
I think I have said enough, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am still absolutely certain that there is unanimity in this House on this matter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and I thank the member for her support. Can I assume I have your support?”