By Ianna Chia
In collaboration with UCV2209 Singapore Studies: The Heterogeneous Indians of Contemporary Singapore, The Sessions hosted Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The event spurred fruitful discussions among students with regard to Singapore’s foreign policies and the issues that will come our way.
Several students were invited to have dinner with Minister Balakrishnan before the event. Concurrently, several student facilitators met with participants to discuss a few questions about Singapore’s core thrusts and prerogatives with regard to our policies, and our position and relationship to several powerhouses and neighbouring countries. This allowed the participating students to think about Singapore’s role in the world, and to come up with potential questions to ask Minister Balakrishnan during the question-and-answer segment.
As a student facilitator, I oversaw the discussion of about ten students. The discussion revolved around Singapore’s neutral position in relation to the world: how we can punch above our middleman weight, and our advocation of international laws to pursue our own interests.
The students pointed out different areas of contention between Singapore and other countries, Malaysia’s changing political scene in relation to water agreements and the high-speed rail, and terrorism and haze with Indonesia.
My group went on to raise the issues of territorial disputes with China in the South China sea, and for the United States, my group discussed the purpose of hosting President Trump and President Kim Jong-Un apart from political influence and putting Singapore on the map.
The different facilitator-led groups came to a consensus that Singapore’s maintenance of ties with other countries in the ASEAN region and other nations are important, but how we manage these ties is more crucial. The student facilitators presented their sharings with Minister Balakrishnan before his opening address to the participants.
As a primer, Minister Balakrishnan talked about his experience in NUS to relate to the participants and their university careers. Having been a medicine student who was highly involved in NUSSU (he served as the NUSSU chairman for two terms, held the treasurer position, among other roles) and events outside his faculty, he advised the participants to pursue things beyond the boundaries of their faculties.
In his opening address, Minister Balakrishnan stated that politics is all about stories; that human beings inevitably understand the world through narratives. He reminded the audience that Singapore never fought for independence; we might have been under colonial rule, but we did not have a glorious victory on the battlefield in World War II, and this genesis has deeply influenced the direction that Singapore takes towards foreign policies.
He continued to address Singapore’s survivalistic instincts, and how “might is right” cannot be a long-term approach for our small state. Minister Balakrishnan emphasised the importance of remaining united and successful to stay ahead and relevant in an ever-changing global economy.
Minister Balakrishnan’s opening address ended on Singapore’s five principles, such as being a credible and consistent partner in international relations. The event moved towards a question and answer session where the participants posed him questions with regard to Singapore’s policies.
Participants asked questions about our relations to other countries, the potential unfolding of events in other nations such as the United States and North Korea, and the impact that Singapore can have as a small nation on generating peace and prosperity in the global context. In response to the questions, Minister Balakrishnan noted that Singapore needs to maximise its opportunities beyond our borders, but we cannot fully rely on international law to pursue our interests.
I reached out to Loh Xiang Bin, a Year 2 Political Science + USP student, who was one of the participants at the session.
“The breakout group discussion was quite inspiring, as everyone’s interests in global and regional affairs really showed.”
He went on to note that Minister Balakrishnan handled the questions well during the question-and-answer portion of the event. “He had interesting perspectives on questions about the Rohingya migrant crisis and North Korea’s authoritarian regime.”
“Listening to his answers gave me more context and understanding about these issues.”
I also talked to Teow Junhao (Year 1 FASS + USP) about his experience with leading a group in discussion.
“As a facilitator, I came into the session with a different perspective as I knew this wouldn’t be just a session that I passively sit in and listen to. Hearing the different examples brought up by the participants made me see for myself Singapore’s principled and consistent foreign policy in action.”
He noted that the examples brought up by participants varied, but there was a consensus on Singapore’s position in keeping to international rule of law and being a consistent and credible partner to other nations and regions.
“Some people might have felt that the answers during Q&A were repetitive, but it’s because Singapore’s foreign policy is consistent and principled.”
“Minister Balakrishnan acknowledged that we may talk about ‘boring’ stuff, but it’s necessary to talk about them because they allow us to be credible on the global stage.”
Minister Balakrishnan’s visit to USP sparked critical thinking among the participants; in the same spirit, the conversation and questions about Singapore’s position in the world should continue amidst the ever-changing economy and political climate.
Ianna is an English Literature student who cares deeply about poetry, music, and taking naps. It’s pronounced eye-yeah-nah, by the way.