Thursday 31 March 2022

PM Lee Hsien Loong's Dialogue with the Council on Foreign Relations on 30 March 2022

Ukraine war heightens Asia's security concerns: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2022

WASHINGTON - The war in Ukraine has negatively impacted Asia and damaged the international framework for law and order and peace, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (March 30).

The crisis has also impaired the global multilateral system, a worrying development for a small nation like Singapore which depends on globalisation for its livelihood, he added.

At an hour-long dialogue organised by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, PM Lee laid out how Russia's invasion of its neighbour affects Asia, including Singapore, a deep concern that he and United States President Joe Biden expressed after their meeting on Tuesday.

Much of the wide-ranging dialogue was centred on the Ukraine war and its ripple effects on the world, from climate cooperation to energy security.

PM Lee, who has spent the week meeting America's top leaders, also gave his take on South-east Asia's security and economic landscape amid US engagement in the region.

He condemned the Russian invasion as something that endangered the sovereignty of all countries, especially small ones.

"If a principle is accepted, that crazy decisions and historical errors are the justification for invading somebody else, I think many of us are going to be feeling very insecure," he said at the event, attended in person by dozens of industry leaders and officials, and streamed online to more.

Moreover, he said, the conflict has rent relations in Europe between developed countries and Russia, making it more difficult for countries to work together on issues from trade to nuclear non-proliferation.

"Now, it is win-lose, you want the other guy to be down, fix him, crash his economy. So, how then do most of the countries hang together and cooperate with one another and not fall into disorder, autarky or anarchy?" he said.

What happens in Ukraine will also further strain US-China relations, affecting the rest of the world, said PM Lee.

Governments in the region will also draw from the crisis their own lessons about who they can rely on for defence, he added.

He cited how the crisis has prompted some in Japan to publicly consider whether the country should host US nuclear weapons, even though the government has rejected the idea, and how South Korea opinion polls have of late reflected a public reception to the idea of nuclear capabilities.

"The thought is planted and it will not go away because the implication from Ukraine is that nuclear deterrence is something which can be very valuable," said PM Lee. "I think we're heading into very dangerous directions."

Opinion polls have shown a decline in confidence among the Taiwanese public that America will come to their aid should Taiwan be attacked, he said. "These calculations will be made. It will not change the scene overnight. But all these are significant strategic recalibrations," said PM Lee.

The crisis has also highlighted the importance of having institutions in the Asia-Pacific that can help avoid conflict and head off a failure of deterrence, he added.

These institutions will have to enable a difficult adjustment - "how to accommodate a China which is going to become more developed, larger... and yet not become overbearing on the rest of the world and acceptable to the US, which currently is the dominant military power worldwide".

PM Lee said: "You need to give thought to this and steer things in a direction which does not lead you to a hot conflict."

The dialogue followed a day of meetings in Washington for PM Lee, including with Vice-President Kamala Harris, on Tuesday.

They discussed new areas of cooperation, including cyber security, space cooperation and infrastructure development.

Wednesday 30 March 2022

White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development proposes 25 action plans to be implemented over 10 years

Egg freezing, more flexi-work among policy changes in White Paper on Singapore women
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2022

A 10-year road map to nudge society further along the road to equality between men and women will see greater support for flexible work arrangements, more help for caregivers and swifter intervention in cases of violence.

In a symbolic move, more women will also be allowed to freeze their eggs.

The long-anticipated White Paper on Singapore Women's Development, submitted to Parliament on Monday (March 28), comes after more than a year of discussions aimed at ensuring a fair and inclusive society where all citizens can realise their full potential.

It describes the barriers and challenges that still hold women back, from glass ceilings in the workplace to caregiving responsibilities at home and violence and harm online, and promises a whole-of-government effort to address them.

It also calls on Singaporeans to be conscious of gender stereotyping in their everyday actions and to try to overcome them.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo said: "(The White Paper) sensitises and raises the awareness that women still need our support in many ways.

"And it is very much up to each one of us in our respective roles to try and give the women in our lives the support that they need in order to fulfil their aspirations."

While policy and legislative changes over the years have removed many of the overt obstacles in the way of women's development, further success can only be had if society as a whole works to shift mindsets, said the White Paper.

A case in point is the action plan on elective egg-freezing, which Mrs Teo noted society was previously not ready to address.

From next year, women between 21 and 35 years of age, regardless of their marital status, will be allowed to freeze their eggs, reversing the longstanding policy to allow only women who have medical issues that may affect their fertility to do so.

However, only legally married couples can use their frozen eggs to try for a baby through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). This is in line with existing IVF rules and the idea of “upholding parenthood within marriage”.

"When the idea first came up in our ground engagements, it caused some discomfort. There were worries in certain quarters that making elective egg freezing available would send the wrong signal about marriage and parenthood, that they need not be prioritised and can always be postponed," said Mrs Teo.

She added that over time, engagement efforts bore fruit and mindsets changed, and "most people came to a better understanding of the motivations of women who would take up the option".

The 115-page White Paper sets out five main areas of focus: equal opportunities in the workplace; recognition and support for caregivers; protection against violence and harm; other support measures for women, including single mothers and divorcees; and mindset shifts.

They were distilled from a year-long series of conversations to canvass views, led by Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling and Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam.

Under these focus areas sit 25 action plans - some of which had been announced previously after the White Paper was first broached in September 2020 - ranging from the concrete to the symbolic.

There will be new anti-workplace discrimination laws to weed out a minority of errant employers with unfair practices in hiring, promotion, and retrenchment, among other things. It will protect the confidentiality of women who come forward and protect them from retaliation.

With Covid-19 showing that flexible work arrangements can work, a new set of tripartite guidelines will be introduced by 2024 to set out best practices for flexible work arrangements, so as to entrench these practices.

Meanwhile, since women are four times as likely as men to take on housework and caregiving duties, and women in dual-income households are five times as likely as men to do so, there will be more support for caregivers in the form of higher grants under the Home Caregiving Grant scheme.

To address the issue of harassment towards women, a safe sport code will also be introduced, among other things, to define misconduct in the sporting environment so that athletes can take a stand against bad behavior.

A mid-point review of these measures is planned in 2027.

"Underlying... each of the action plans are the commitments we make to one another: that everyone gets a fair chance at success, can find a place for herself/himself in this nation, and that we take care of the vulnerable among us," said the document.

Monday 28 March 2022

Will you love my autistic cousin when his parents are gone?

By Ang Qing, The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2022

If you were part of the evening rush hour on the MRT earlier this month, you might have seen an excited 1.9m-tall man humming and swaying. You might have stared at him glancing around non-stop and wondered whether he was a "suspicious-looking person" because of his visibly different behaviour.

That was likely to be my autistic cousin Zack (not his real name), who ran off without his mother after his daily training programme at Enabling Village in Bukit Merah.

Zack, 22, loves travelling on the bus and MRT but he is not allowed to go home alone because he gets distracted by his surroundings.

That day, my cousin and his peers were let go 15 minutes before the usual dismissal time at 5pm, so Zack went off on his own before his mum picked him up. What ensued was a nerve-wracking ordeal for his family. While my aunt told him to alight at certain stations over a call, he went from Redhill to Pasir Ris, then back to Joo Koon before changing to the North-South line, which is the line near his home.

At the same time, my aunt informed the MRT staff of the situation and they alerted all control stations to look out for a young man wearing an orange T-shirt. Some 90 minutes later, my cousin's phone went dead because the battery ran out.

Three hours after boarding the train, Zack was finally spotted wandering around a bus interchange near his home by his younger sister. He was wearing his orange top but it was covered by a blue jacket that he uses during training.

That is just a snapshot of the daily struggle of caring for those with special needs.

Although it might be exhausting for family members to look after them, there are many sides to them that make them lovable. For one, Zack is the most responsible citizen I know because he scans the SafeEntry QR code of every shop and station. Inadvertently, this leads to some embarrassing situations when he enters shops like salons, which are only for women.

He also never forgets the birthdays of all 19 (living) members of our extended family. Before a long day at work, it brightens my day to receive texts from him asking what I am doing.

While he can perform basic tasks like brushing his teeth, showering and mopping the floor with supervision, there are certain things that he will never be able to understand.

He sees the world literally.

Heaven is in Mandai Crematorium because this is where his loved ones - my grandfather and my 10-year-old cousin - went when they died.

Zack also cannot understand social cues. This means he can get uncomfortably close to you and will not understand why you inch away.

After receiving numerous stares from strangers gawking at Zack's behaviour whenever we go on family outings, I learnt early on that he would need a lot of care and patience for the rest of his life.

The struggles of parents with children born with special needs are many and will only pile on as they get older: the high costs for support and the onset of burnout, with the greatest concern being who will take care of their children after they are gone.

Sunday 27 March 2022

NS55: NSmen to get $100, 1-year SAFRA or HomeTeamNS membership to mark 55 years of National Service in 2022

2022 marks the 55th Anniversary of National Service
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2022

To mark the 55th anniversary of national service this year, past and present operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the Home Team will receive $100 worth of digital credits and a free one-year SAFRA or HomeTeamNS membership.

These will form an NS55 Recognition Package as a way of thanking NSmen for their vital role in defending Singapore and ensuring that Singaporeans continue their way of life, said Senior Minister of State for Defence Zaqy Mohamad on Saturday (March 26).

Close to a million eligible NSmen will receive a notification letter from mid-June with details on how to claim the package.

Speaking on the sidelines of a visit to a mobilisation exercise at Maju Camp, Mr Zaqy also announced the start of a year-long NS55 campaign - and highlighted the relevance of NS against the backdrop of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

"It is quite clear to us that as a country, the sole responsibility of defence and making sure we protect our sovereignty - that's our own," he said.

"Seeing the Ukrainians and the resistance they've put up, that is a lesson for Singaporeans too."

Mr Zaqy added: "This mindset is something that cannot be built overnight. We've spent 55 years in the making (of NS) and I hope when the time comes, the need arises, Singaporeans are ready to defend the country."

At a media briefing, Mr Ho Chin Ning, the NS55 executive committee co-chairman and the Ministry of Defence's manpower director, reiterated that the Recognition Package was a small token of appreciation and that no amount could "ever make up for the contributions and sacrifices of our national servicemen".

Eligibility for the Recognition Package will be based on one's NS status as at May this year.

Full-time national servicemen (NSFs) who enlist by Dec 31 will also qualify for the benefits, after their enlistment.

The $100 credits will be disbursed from July - through the LifeSG mobile application, which gives users access to government services - and will be valid for one year upon issuance.

They can be spent at physical and online merchants that accept digital payments through the PayNow or Nets QR formats.

These range from hawker stalls and e-commerce platforms to payments to government agencies and educational institutions.

NSmen who have served or are currently serving their operationally ready NS will also receive a complimentary one-year SAFRA or HomeTeamNS principal membership, which they must sign up for by Dec 31 this year.

SAFRA benefits include access to six clubs across Jurong, Mount Faber, Punggol, Tampines, Toa Payoh and Yishun, with a seventh in Choa Chu Kang by early 2023.

For HomeTeamNS, there are five clubs across Balestier, Bukit Batok, Chinatown, Khatib, and Tampines, with a sixth in Bedok by the end of the year.

Both memberships come with privileges and discounts at partner merchants, among other perks.

NS55 will be a year-long celebration paying tribute to the more than one million Singaporeans and permanent residents who have served NS since 1967, when the first batch of NSFs enlisted in two newly formed battalions.

Singapore must adapt to global trends to grow economy: PM Lee Hsien Loong at the opening of Dyson's new Global Headquarters at St James Power Station

Crucial for Singapore to remain open and resist temptation to turn inwards: PM Lee
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Mar 2022

Dyson will invest $1.5 billion in Singapore in the next four years and expand its R&D team by more than 250 engineers and scientists, the home appliance giant said on Friday (March 25) as it officially moved into its new global headquarters at the historic St James Power Station facility in the HarbourFront area.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this would open up exciting job opportunities for workers here, and develop new products for the global market.

He noted that as a small country, there are limits to what Singapore can do to influence global forces such as intensifying competition for investments, growing geopolitical tensions and the on-shoring of supply chains.

But it can and must adapt to them to stay competitive and to continue growing its economy, he added.

Singapore will also ensure that such growth is inclusive and benefits all segments of society, Mr Lee pledged.

Addressing an audience including Dyson founder Sir James Dyson, PM Lee said Singapore must remain open and connected to the world, not just in its borders and trade links but also in the character of its people.

"This is how we have built Singapore: drawing in the best scientists, designers, and engineers from around the world, embracing the diversity of ideas and cultures that congregate here, and adding our own Singaporean touch to make it work for our context."

This is not easy to sustain in an environment where there is every temptation, especially politically, to raise barriers to the outside world, to non-Singaporeans coming here to work, he noted.

"But if we succumb to the temptation to close our doors, we will surely end up hurting ourselves. Our economy will stagnate, Singaporeans will have fewer rather than more job opportunities, and the country’s long-term prospects will be endangered," he said.

The Republic will also keep at its formula of close collaboration between industry, researchers and government to spur innovation, while it welcomes and develops talent in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or Stem fields.

While these are all important strategies to build a more vibrant and dynamic economy, PM Lee said Singapore must also get its social policies right to continue to prosper.

“Even as we bring in investments and talents to grow Singapore’s economy, we must ensure that this growth is inclusive and lifts everybody up, that Singaporeans across all segments of our society can benefit from the fruits of growth, that those at risk of being left behind are given an extra helping hand, and those who may be displaced or disrupted by technological change are assisted and trained to stay employable and productive,” he said.

He noted that this year’s Budget aims to build a fairer and more inclusive society.

“Because ultimately, everyone must have a stake in Singapore’s growth so that Singaporeans will support keeping our country open, will continue to welcome others who are keen to fit in and play a part in our society, who are able to contribute to our development, and thereby enable us to maintain the virtuous cycle of growth and prosperity that Singaporeans now enjoy.”

Dyson, famed for its bagless vacuum cleaners and bladeless fans, is committing the $1.5 billion to Singapore over the next four years as part of a $4.9 billion global investment programme.

The Singaporean investment includes plans to hire more than 250 engineers and scientists in fields spanning robotics, machine learning, AI, sensing and vision systems and more.

Dyson currently employs over 1,400 people in Singapore, of which 560 are engineers and scientists.

Friday 25 March 2022

Singapore eases virus curbs from 29 March 2022 in major step forward to living with COVID-19

Group sizes to double to 10, masks optional when outdoors, 75% can return to office from 29 March 2022

Alcohol sale and consumption at F&B outlets after 10.30pm allowed from 29 March 2022

Singapore-Malaysia land border to reopen on 1 April 2022

All vaccinated travellers can enter Singapore without quarantine from 1 April 2022, no need for VTL flights

Singapore has reached major COVID-19 milestone, but will not take 'Freedom Day' approach: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 24 Mar 2022

Singapore will significantly ease its current pandemic restrictions and live with Covid-19 as it has reached a major milestone in battling the virus, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday (March 24).

But the changes to Covid-19 rules stop short of a complete opening up, and the Republic will maintain its measured approach to dealing with the virus that has served it well since the pandemic began, PM Lee said.

He also urged Singaporeans to be psychologically prepared "for more twists and turns ahead".

Major changes that will take effect next Tuesday (March 29) include masks becoming optional outdoors, doubling maximum group sizes to 10 people, allowing 75 per cent of employees to return to workplaces, and a substantial easing of border restrictions now that the Omicron wave is well under control, PM Lee said in his live broadcast to the nation.

He noted that countries that have taken a "Freedom Day" approach - where most or all restrictions are lifted all at once - have seen Covid-19 cases rise, and with that an attendant rise in deaths.

"They have declared the pandemic over, relaxed all restrictions at once. Now they are anxiously watching their infection and mortality numbers rising rapidly again," he said.

After next week's easing, the Government will wait for the situation to stabilise before deciding on its next moves.

If all goes well, Singapore will ease up further, PM Lee said, as he cautioned against thinking that it will be a straight path to a new normal from here.

"With more interactions, we too may see another wave of cases, and Omicron will not be the last variant we encounter," he said.

While the hope is that new variants of the virus will become progressively milder and more flu-like, it is also possible that more aggressive and dangerous mutants will surface, just like Delta did, he added.

If that happens, Singapore may have to backtrack and tighten up restrictions again, he said.

"We cannot rule this out, even though we hope it will not be necessary," said PM Lee. "But whatever happens, we now have the knowledge and the means to keep everyone safe."

This could be another booster jab, or administering an updated vaccine, he said.

While Singapore has come a long way in its fight against Covid-19, the country is not yet at the finish line, he added.

"Key to our response has been the trust that Singaporeans have placed in your government, in the medical authorities, and in each other," he said.

Singaporeans have kept faith with one another throughout this journey, and this solidarity remains crucial as the country tackles fresh challenges, he added.

PM Lee urged everyone to take the latest announcements in the right spirit, and resume more normal lives, such as enjoying larger gatherings, going outdoors without masks, or reuniting with loved ones abroad.

But do not throw all caution to the wind, he said.

"Each one of us must still play our part. Comply with the revised safe management measures. If you feel ill, test yourself. If you test positive, isolate yourself at home. If you test negative, and decide to go out, please wear a mask to protect others, even outdoors, just in case," he said.

"Let us all continue to exercise personal and social responsibility to keep ourselves well, to keep others safe, and to avoid adding to the burden on our healthcare workers.

"That way, even when new problems arise, we stand a much better chance of keeping things under control and staying on the path to a new normal."

Sunday 13 March 2022

Why school exams exist and what we can do about them

Budget 2022 debate: Providing more pathways to support students' aspirations
Education system changes in line with push to encourage students to pursue strengths
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2022

Nearly every year, there are calls to scrap the PSLE.

This year was no different. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) and Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa each suggested during the debate on the Ministry of Education's (MOE) budget on Monday (March 7) that the PSLE be replaced with through-train programmes.

Instead of the standard explanation that the PSLE remains a necessary checkpoint for students to gauge their learning after six years of schooling, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing went back to basics.

He raised several fundamental points that policymakers and educators have been thinking hard about in recent years, as MOE unveils changes to an education system that has for decades been known for its highly competitive nature and focus on academic results.

These include a PSLE scoring revamp and abolishing the Express and Normal stream labels, allowing students to take subjects according to their strengths.

In a lengthy response, Mr Chan made clear that the stress brought about by any major examination is unavoidable. Nor is it the aim of the MOE to remove all pressure for students.

What society can do is to change its perspective of exams and tests, and parents must first take a deep hard look at four basic questions raised by Mr Chan - why we test, how we test, when we test and what we do with the test results - to understand why exams cause so much anxiety.

Critics say that the changes by MOE do not go far enough to make any real impact, but based on previous polls, many parents hesitate to say that the PSLE should be postponed or scrapped.

In short, there is little consensus on what to do with the PSLE.

The same goes for mid-year exams, which schools had dropped for several levels in previous years, and will remove for all students by next year.

It was one of the plans announced by the MOE on Monday, to bring back the joy of learning and focus less on grades.

Most students will be relieved to have one less major exam to sit, and hopefully they will really be given more space to pursue other interests.

But the question is whether old habits die hard. The move would be in vain if parents and teachers feel it is too risky and end up replacing the mid-year paper with smaller but many more forms of assessments in school or at home.

Parents are also left wondering how exactly schools will implement the changes, and if it means a year-end exam that will carry more weight, which might just mean that the pressure builds up towards the end of the year.

A more porous system, for life

While the PSLE is here to stay, the message is clear - a pupil will not be labelled Normal or Express by his results, especially with the complete dismantling of the academic streaming system by 2024.

In its place will be full subject-based banding, in which students take subjects at varying levels of difficulty based on their aptitude for relevant subjects.

MOE is seeking to support students' aspirations through more bridges and ladders across the education system.

Saturday 5 March 2022

Budget 2022 Debate Round-Up Speech by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong

Singapore must maintain fair and progressive system of taxes and benefits, says Lawrence Wong
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2022

Even as it seeks to raise revenues to meet growing spending needs, Singapore must insist on "keeping faith" with both current and future generations through a fiscal structure that is fair, inclusive and progressive, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said.

This entails a good mix of income, asset and consumption-based taxes - which is why the goods and services tax (GST) cannot be ignored, Mr Wong said in rounding up the debate on Budget 2022 on Wednesday (March 2).

"We have designed our system on the principle of collective responsibility," he told Parliament in underlining why Singapore needs to raise the broad-based consumption levy from 7 per cent to 9 per cent.

"Those who have greater means bear a higher burden, and they draw less on government support… Those with fewer means carry a lighter share, but they still contribute something and, in return, they receive more benefits from the Government," he said.

"In this way, we all do our part to help ourselves and one another, and we strengthen the trust that binds us together as a society," he added in a 1½-hour speech wrapping up three days of debate during which 64 MPs spoke.

The House on Wednesday endorsed this year's $109 billion Budget, including plans to raise the GST rate in two stages - by 1 percentage point on Jan 1, 2023, and by a further 1 percentage point on Jan 1, 2024.

Opposition members objected to these plans. Leader of the Opposition and Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh recorded his party's dissent, saying "no offset package lasts forever" in reference to a $6.6 billion raft of measures to help cushion the blow of the GST hike.

In their speeches earlier in the week, WP MPs and the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) Non-Constituency MPs Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai had cited disagreement with the GST increase as their primary reason for objecting to the Budget.

On Wednesday, Mr Wong began his response by noting that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would have an impact on the global economy. The Government is monitoring the risk - in growth and inflation - to Singapore's economy, he said.

"If the situation worsens, we will not hesitate to take further actions to protect jobs and to help households and businesses deal with increased costs," Mr Wong said.

He then acknowledged MPs' earlier questions and suggestions on labour policies and the green economy, among other issues, though much of his speech was focused on taxes.

"In many countries, the tendency is for politicians to focus only on the spending side, because it is inconvenient to talk about taxes," said Mr Wong. "As a result, these governments spend beyond their means, they run up unfunded obligations and debt, and they kick the fiscal can down the road. We are not immune to such pressures."

He reiterated that an increase in healthcare and social spending would be necessary and unavoidable, given Singapore's rapidly ageing population. To fund these pressing revenue needs, the GST increase cannot be pushed back any further.

While addressing alternative revenue options raised by MPs, he slammed the WP and PSP for their "simplistic and divisive" proposals to make other groups - such as the wealthy, large companies, and future generations - pay more tax in lieu of raising the GST.

Singapore cannot sustain a system where the bulk of the tax burden is borne by a small group at the end, Mr Wong stressed.

He also said the opposition MPs' criticisms of the GST offsets being temporary and the tax hike disproportionately affecting the poor were "misguided claims", given the schemes to ensure the effective rate for the lower-income remains unchanged.

Mr Wong also promised that the Government would continually review and update its system of taxes and transfers, to mitigate the pressures of social inequalities.

Mr Singh later rose to point out that since the GST hike was first announced in 2018, global events like the pandemic have since pushed inflation to its highest in years. "Is this a reasonable thing to do in these circumstances?" he asked of the tax hike.

Acknowledging that it was a very difficult decision to make in view of concerns over rising prices, Mr Wong said this was why the GST hike was delayed and staggered over two steps.

"If indeed inflation turns out to be more persistent and higher than expected, which may happen, we will deal with that decisively," he said.

Later, in response to questions from WP MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) on rules and the optimal level for the reserves, Mr Wong said he could not understand why the party was willing to touch the reserves, but reject the option of a GST increase.

"I can only therefore ask whether you are taking things too lightly, or whether you are raising this in opposition because of… political reasons, or other things, as opposed to seriously looking at the facts and doing what's right for Singapore," he said.

A move like a GST increase is not the popular thing for him to do, Mr Wong said in his speech. "Certainly not for my first Budget as Finance Minister. But I have a responsibility to do what's right, and what's in the best interest of all Singaporeans. Not what's politically expedient now," he said.

"I have confidence that Singaporeans can instinctively sense if any Budget is not worthy of them and fails to renew their trust in the Government, in each other, and in the future," Mr Wong concluded.

"They can decipher whether the Budget reflects our shared vision of a fair and just society, whether this Government is one they can trust to manage our resources in a way that is in line with our values, and whether this Government is keeping faith with them and their children."

Thursday 3 March 2022

Why Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an existential issue for Singapore: Vivian Balakrishnan

Russia's invasion of Ukraine a clear and gross violation of international norms
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan spoke in Parliament yesterday about the implications of the crisis. Here are edited excerpts of his speech.
The Straits Times, 28 Feb 2022

We are witnessing an unprovoked military invasion of a sovereign state as we speak.

While Ukraine is far away from us, we are following the crisis with grave concern. Its economic effects can already be felt here, for example, in rising electricity and petrol prices. But these are not the principal reason the situation in Ukraine is important to us.

The events in Ukraine go to the heart of the fundamental norms of international law and the UN Charter that prohibit the use of force and acts of aggression against another sovereign state. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a clear and gross violation of the international norms and a completely unacceptable precedent.

This is an existential issue for us. Ukraine is much smaller than Russia, but it is much bigger than Singapore. A world order based on "might is right", or where "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" - such a world order would be profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states.

We cannot accept one country attacking another without justification, arguing that its independence was the result of "historical errors and crazy decisions". Such a rationale would go against the internationally recognised legitimacy and the territorial integrity of many countries, including Singapore.

That is why we are a staunch supporter of international law and the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. The sovereignty, the political independence and the territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected. Singapore must take any violation of these core principles seriously, whenever and wherever it occurs. This is why Singapore has strongly condemned Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

It is heartbreaking to see the heavy casualties and the loss of many innocent lives, resulting from this unjustified attack and act of war. We strongly urge Russia to cease this offensive military action immediately, and to work for a peaceful settlement in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.

Important lessons

There are important lessons for us to draw from this current Ukrainian crisis:

First, while international law and diplomatic principles are essential, they are not sufficient. The Budapest Memorandum was supposed to guarantee Ukraine's security by three nuclear powers - Russia, the US and the UK.

But agreements are meaningful only if the parties respect them, and if they can be enforced. The invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how quickly a vulnerable country can be overrun, especially when confronting a larger and more powerful opponent. This is the acute reality for all small countries, and Singapore is no exception.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are stark reminders of this. You cannot depend on others to protect your country.

Thus, we must never lose the ability to defend and look after ourselves. This is why Singapore has invested consistently to build up a credible and strong SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), and to maintain national service as a fundamental element of our nationhood. The capability of the SAF must be undergirded by Singaporeans' resolve - the iron determination of our people to fight and die, if need be, to defend what is ours and our way of life. Without such capability and resolve, no amount of diplomacy can save a country.

Second, it is all too easy for a small country to be caught up in the geopolitical games of big powers. Small countries must avoid becoming sacrificial pawns, vassal states or "cat's paws" to be used by one side against the other.

In a speech delivered in 1973, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew shared his agreement with Julius Nyerere, then President of Tanzania, who had said: "When elephants fight, the grass suffers."

This is why we work hard to maintain good relations with all our neighbours and with the big powers. When situations arise, our assessments and our actions are based on clearly enunciated and consistently held principles that are in our own long-term national interests. Instead of choosing sides, we uphold principles.

Consequently, when we conduct our foreign policy in a coherent and consistent manner, we also become reliable partners for those who operate on the same principles. However, there will be occasions when we will have to take a stand even if it is contrary to one or more powers on the basis of principle - as we are doing now.

Third, as a young nation, it is vital for us to maintain domestic unity and cohesion, bearing in mind how easily internal divisions can be exploited by adversaries, especially in this Internet age and the advent of hybrid warfare.

Dividing and weakening an opponent internally, overtly and covertly, has become the standard complement to conventional warfare. Therefore, our domestic politics must stop at our shores.

Fourth, safeguarding one's sovereignty and national interests often requires some sacrifice and pain. The Ukrainians are paying the ultimate price for freedom with their lives and livelihoods. The rest of the international community that is taking a stand against naked aggression through sanctions will also have to bear some pain and pay a price.

Singaporeans too must understand that standing up for our national interests may come with some cost. We must be prepared to deal with the consequences, to bear the pain, to help one another, and to stand up together.

We continue to value our good relations with Russia and the Russian people. However, we cannot accept such violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity of another sovereign state.

We also participate actively at the United Nations. Three days ago, a draft resolution was presented at the UN Security Council to condemn Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Singapore was one of 82 co-sponsors of this Security Council resolution. As expected, Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, vetoed that resolution. So the resolution was not passed even though 11 of the 15 Security Council members voted in support and the remaining three members, China, India and the UAE, abstained.

The UN General Assembly will be debating a similar resolution later today. General Assembly resolutions are not subject to veto, but neither are they binding. However, as a responsible member of the international community, Singapore will comply with the spirit and the letter of the UN General Assembly decision.

Singapore has always complied fully with sanctions and decisions of the UN Security Council, but we have rarely acted to impose sanctions on other countries in the absence of binding Security Council decisions or directions.

However, given the unprecedented gravity of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the unsurprising veto by Russia of a draft Security Council resolution, Singapore intends to act in concert with many other like-minded countries to impose appropriate sanctions and restrictions against Russia.

In particular, we will impose export controls on items that can be used directly as weapons in Ukraine to inflict harm or to subjugate the Ukrainians. We will also block certain Russian banks and financial transactions connected to Russia.

We must expect that our measures will come at some cost and implications on our businesses, citizens and, indeed, to Singapore. However, unless we as a country stand up for principles that are the very foundation for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question one day.