Singapore must be ready for sudden shifts in region: PM Lee

Touching on the state of global security in his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee called on Singaporeans to be mentally ready for disruptions to the region's stability.

Hariz Baharudin

Hariz Baharudin

The Straits Times


August 22, 2022

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s neighbourhood has enjoyed peace for so long it is hard to imagine things being different. But anyone who thinks that war cannot break out in the region needs to get real, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Touching on the state of global security in his English National Day Rally speech, PM Lee on Sunday (Aug 21) called on Singaporeans to be mentally ready for disruptions to the region’s stability.

Singapore’s external environment has become very troubled amid worsening United States-China ties and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said PM Lee.

Speaking at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Headquarters at Ang Mo Kio, PM Lee said that the relationship between the US and China, which sets the tone for global affairs, is worsening.

The two powers are divided over many issues, he warned. This includes their rival ideologies and systems of government, China’s growing influence in the world, as well as many specific problems, including trade disputes, cyber espionage, the South China Sea and Hong Kong.

Most recently and worryingly, there have been sharply escalating tensions over Taiwan, added PM Lee.

Yet the two superpowers need to work together on many pressing global issues, including climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation, said PM Lee.

“Their tense relationship is making this almost impossible,” he said. “And this is bad news for the world.”

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping recently held a video call and made plans to meet in November, their first in-person meeting since Mr Biden took office last January. But neither side expects relations to improve any time soon, said PM Lee.

“Furthermore, we must all hope that there are no miscalculations or mishaps, which can make things much worse very quickly,” he added.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also has profound implications for the world and for Singapore, said PM Lee.

The invasion violates the United Nations (UN) Charter and fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are particularly important to Singapore given that its existence and security relies on countries upholding these principles, he said.

This is why Singapore cannot legitimise Russia’s wrongful actions, he added. In March, Singapore strongly condemned Russia’s actions, and imposed sanctions on focusing on the exports of military and technological goods, as well as financial measures.

“Russia claims that what it calls a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is justified by ‘historical errors and crazy decisions’. If we accept this logic, what happens if one day others use this same argument against us?” asked PM Lee.

The war has also created deep hostility between Russia and other states, especially the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), a military alliance of 30 countries in Europe and North America.

With nuclear powers on both sides and relations having completely broken down, it is hard to imagine any satisfactory end to the conflict, said PM Lee.

The war in Ukraine also affects security in the Asia-Pacific as it has complicated already-strained US-China relations, as well as relations between China and America’s partners in Asia, like Australia and Japan.

Singaporeans should expect more geopolitical contestation in the Asia-Pacific, said PM Lee.

“Our region has enjoyed peace for so long that it is hard for us to imagine things being different. But look at how things have gone wrong in Europe, how suddenly and quickly,” said PM Lee.

“And can you be sure that things cannot go wrong like that in our region too? So we must get real, and we must get ourselves prepared psychologically.”

On how Singapore can respond to these external dangers, PM Lee said that it must stand firm on fundamental principles of international law and work with other countries to uphold a rules-based order.

This can be done by speaking up at the UN. Conversely, taking cover and keeping quiet will hurt Singapore in the long-term, he said.

There is also a need to take national service seriously, and keep the Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team strong and credible. “If we do not defend ourselves, no one is going to defend us on our behalf,” stressed PM Lee.

But the bottomline is that Singaporeans must stay together as one united people and never allow themselves to be divided, whether by race, religion, income, social differences or place of birth, he said.

This is especially pertinent in the face of foreign actors looking to exploit Singapore’s vulnerabilities and influence its people for their own interests.

“If we are taken in and we are divided, we will stand no chance. But united, we can deal with any problems that come our way,” he said.

PM Lee had similarly highlighted the importance of Singapore’s resilience and unity in the face of an increasingly uncertain and complex world in his earlier Malay and Chinese speeches.

A united Singapore, a high-quality leadership and high trust between people and their leaders are essential for the nation to respond creatively and resiliently to challenges it faces, year after year, he said.

“We may have the best laid schemes, but without these three fundamentals, they will come to nothing.”

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