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Singapore not afraid to use 'sharp elbows' to safeguard national interests, says Dr Balakrishnan

SINGAPORE — Questioning Malaysia's sincerity in resolving the bilateral disputes, several Members of Parliament (MPs) on Monday (Jan 14) wanted to know how much Singapore is willing to tolerate, in the face of continued provocation by its neighbour despite repeated warnings from the Republic.

Singapore not afraid to use 'sharp elbows' to safeguard national interests, says Dr Balakrishnan

Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair pointed out that just a day after a bilateral meeting on Jan 8, five Malaysian government vessels — including a ship carrying Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian — intruded into Singapore’s territorial waters.

SINGAPORE — Questioning Malaysia's sincerity in resolving the bilateral disputes, several Members of Parliament (MPs) on Monday (Jan 14) wanted to know how much Singapore is willing to tolerate, in the face of continued provocation by its neighbour despite repeated warnings from the Republic.

In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made it clear that Singapore has “sharp elbows” and was not afraid to use them when necessary.

“Any country dealing with Singapore must not assume that it is cost-free to embark on any adventures or antics against us. There will be consequences,” he said.

On Monday, Dr Balakrishnan gave a ministerial statement in Parliament on the bilateral disputes. A total of nine MPs tabled questions on the issue, while seven rose to seek more answers after Dr Balakrishnan’s speech.

Noting that some Singaporeans are confused over their country’s response given that it seems as though “dozens of red lines may have been crossed”, Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC MP Alex Yam asked whether there would come a point in time where enough is enough, and Singapore — which has been a “good cop” so far — has to be “a bit of a bad cop for our northern neighbours to understand… beyond doubt that any further provocation will be met with an equal reaction on our part”.

Dr Balakrishnan replied that these lines are “not something you draw lightly” — neither should they be pronounced “without having carefully thought through all the consequences, and without communicating those considerations clearly and unambiguously to the person you’re negotiating with on the other side”.

Singapore does not play “games” such as being a “good cop or bad cop”, said Dr Balakrishnan. Neither does it have the “luxury of saying different things to different people”.

“It’s this reputation for consistency (and) constancy that adds to our reputation of reliability and integrity,” he said.

“Sometimes it may come across as we are boringly consistent and we seem to studiously avoid chest thumping and other manifestations of nationalism,” he added. “But I would submit that this is the appropriate posture for a small, tiny nation-state like Singapore. Not that we are passive, not that we give in, but consistency.”

He warned that foreign countries, including Singapore’s neighbours, should not take for granted the “consistency or predictability” in its response to international disputes.

Addressing the MPs’ concerns, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that as the Foreign Affairs Minister, there are things that he “cannot say and should not say”.

He added that he does not believe in megaphone diplomacy, and hoped MPs and Singaporeans understand that some negotiations are best conducted behind the scenes quietly.

Still, what can be said is the fact that Singapore has a strong and credible military makes diplomacy “much easier”.

Both Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs, and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh asked if Malaysia was sincere in settling the disagreements.

Mr Nair pointed out that just a day after a bilateral meeting on Jan 8, five Malaysian government vessels — including a ship carrying Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian — intruded into Singapore’s territorial waters.

“But if one side is being sincere and the other side is not, or is not able to follow through with actions, what can we do?” Mr Nair said.

In response, Dr Balakrishnan said that following his recent discussion with Malaysia’s Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, both agreed that it is important for ministers and other government officials from both countries to adopt the attitude of “trying to solve and not aggravate”.

He added that based on his interactions with Mr Azmin and Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, he can “quite confidently state on record” that he found them to be “sincere, constructive and helpful”. “I hope they also reflect a larger body of opinion within Malaysia,” said Dr Balakrishnan, adding that he saw “a way forward” for the bilateral disputes.

In his ministerial statement, Dr Balakrishnan had strong words for the publicised visit staged by Mr Osman, describing it as an act which “undermined the goodwill and trust necessary for further co-operation between the two countries”.

In response to Mr Nair, he also referred to Mr Osman’s visit.

“Could we just let it pass in the name of, well, we just had a successful meeting, we’re getting along, let’s not sour it. No, the answer is we cannot just let it pass, we had to take action,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

Singapore retaliated by postponing the meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia, he noted.

While Singapore strives to forge strong relations with other countries, Dr Balakrishnan told the House to “never make the mistake” of assuming that strong foreign relations should come at the expense of national interests, abiding by international law, and fully honouring all international agreements made.

“You never compromise national interests in order to have better relations. It’s a discipline which I always maintain in all my relations with my counterparts,” he said.

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