'I do detect sincerity on their part': Vivian Balakrishnan on meetings with Malaysian ministers

(From left) Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and Malaysia’s Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali. (PHOTOS: Reuters, Getty Images)

Malaysia’s Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah appear to be sincere in their desire to amicably resolve their nation’s ongoing bilateral disputes with Singapore.

“Yes, I do detect sincerity on their part,” said Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan while delivering his ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday (14 January).

“But never, never make the mistake by assuming that personal ties can be a replacement for national interests, international law or complying with agreements,” he added.

Dr Balakrishnan, who was responding to a question posed by Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, said his meetings with Azmin and Saifuddin had been “constructive” and that he hoped their attitudes “reflect a larger body of opinion in Malaysia”.

In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan observed that bilateral ties have recently been in a “downward spiral” and that he does not expect a “quick or smooth resolution” to the ongoing airspace, maritime and water issues, which have been raising tensions between the neighbouring countries.

Appropriate posture for tiny nation-state

Addressing a question from Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, Dr Balakrishnan admitted how Singapore’s approach to international diplomacy can sometimes come across as “boringly consistent”.

“(We) seem to studiously avoid chest-thumping and other manifestations of nationalism, but… this is the appropriate posture for (a) small, tiny nation-state,” he said.

The minister noted, however, that this consistency should not be taken for granted and that appropriate measures will always be taken to safeguard Singapore’s interests.

“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.

Dr Balakrishnan cited the example of Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian’s visit last week to a Malaysian vessel inside Singapore waters, which led to the cancellation of an annual bilateral meeting scheduled for Monday. Singapore lodged a formal protest against the “provocative” act.

Sapian’s action had hurt the goodwill and trust between the two nations and made the 14th Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia “untenable”.

“I hope members will appreciate this fine line I am trying to follow. To be resolute but to also be calm. To quietly but clearly protect our interests. But it does not mean we do not have sharp elbows,” Dr Balakrishnan said.