Mr Speaker, there are important lessons for us to draw from this current Ukrainian crisis:
First, whilst 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 only meaningful 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, 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 Mr Lee Kuan Yew shared his agreement with Julius Nyerere, the 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. This is worth repeating – 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. I thank all members of Parliament for adhering to this precept, and I would share that I have also shared this point with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh.
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.