Distinguished Honorary Consuls-General, (Honorary) Consuls
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a pleasure to welcome all of you to the 9th Meeting of Honorary Consuls-General (HCGs) – our first in-person meeting since (the) COVID-19 (pandemic). After three long years, it is fitting that in fact, we are meeting today – the significance of today is that we (Singapore) are stepping down our COVID-19 restrictions. Masks are off, and if you have been walking around in the streets, you will notice that life is slowly but steadily coming back to normal.
2 I am delighted to see such a strong turnout, and I know that many of you have taken precious time out of your schedules. Many have travelled a very long way to join us today. I am also glad to see both familiar faces as well as new faces. I look forward to connecting with all of you and your spouses in the course of this week.
Appreciation to the HCGs
3 Let me begin by thanking all of you for your contributions, and especially during (the) COVID-19 (pandemic). This was an unprecedented event for the world. We saw borders closed everywhere, flights suspended, supply chains severely disrupted and as what PM (Prime Minister) Lee has described as “the crisis of our generation”.
4 As the honorary representatives of Singapore, you have served as our trusted points of contact for Singaporeans abroad, especially in those areas where we do not have resident missions. When countries abruptly closed their borders in order to contain the spread of COVID-19, many Singaporeans found themselves stranded overseas, sometimes desperate to return home. We called on many of you personally to assist in our efforts and to fulfil our unwavering commitment to leave no Singaporean behind. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, MFA undertook what is probably our largest consular operation in our history – we helped to evacuate over 4,000 Singaporeans overseas back home. Working round the clock, we were able to reunite thousands of Singaporeans with their anxious families and loved ones. I want to say a big thank you to all of you because we would not have been able to do this without your strong support.
5 Each HCG Meeting that MFA has hosted since 1990 is really a way of acknowledging and paying tribute to all your contributions. This 9th Meeting is particularly significant as it allows us – not just me but the Prime Minister – to meet you personally and to thank you across 29 countries for working hand in hand with us, especially over these past three years. With the resumption of travel around the world, your offices have now become busier because as you know, Singaporeans are well-travelled and I think there is this concept of “revenge travel”, which we are not immune to. It does mean there will be more lost passports, there will be more work lining up outside your offices. Thank you in advance, and I know as usual, you will fulfil every bit of that.
6 We are grateful to each of you for your contributions and I am proud to have you represent us. I would like to pay special tribute to our previous HCG in Lima, the late Mr Winston Merchor, who sadly left us in 2021 after serving 16 years as our HCG. I am very glad that Winston’s wife, Mdm Luzmila Zanabria, is here today in her official capacity as Singapore’s new HCG in Lima. Beyond their contributions toward strengthening political, economic and cultural cooperation between Singapore and Peru, Winston and Luzmila have rendered invaluable consular assistance to Singaporeans. I can cite you this one incident during the COVID-19 pandemic. The two of them had to work tirelessly under tense and uncertain conditions to help 14 stranded Singaporeans catch a flight out of Peru and to return home safely. We are proud of our good friend, the late Mr Winston Merchor, and we are honoured that we were able to work with him for so many years.
7 When we last met in 2019, the state of the world was already uncertain. If you cast your mind back, it was already uncertain, volatile and becoming complex. Many countries then were already dealing with sluggish economic growth, structural challenges, economic challenges, growing political nativist sentiments and an ongoing digital and technological revolution that had caused serious social, economic, and political disruption.
8 Fast forward to today, we now find ourselves facing an even more troubled world – a more disruptive and dangerous political global environment, and a perfect storm of multiple, overlapping and concurrent crises. The multilateral rules-based system which has underpinned global peace and prosperity for decades is under severe strain. Superpower rivalry between the United States and China continues to sharpen, and the risk of accidents, miscalculations, confrontations, and even outright conflict have risen. There are missiles, live missiles, flying in the air. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also led to a conflict – now almost a year – with no good outcome in sight. In the meantime, the war has complicated and worsened inflationary pressures around the world due to its impact on food, energy and fertiliser supplies. It looks like we are now in an era, globally, of lower growth and higher inflation. Amidst all these headwinds, there are also pressing global issues that require a planetary response, such as the climate crisis, which remains a clear and present danger. Even the pandemic required a planetary response, which if you think about, I think the world did not do as well as it ought to have.
9 Singapore remains a small and open economy with trade three times our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). What this means, particularly for Singapore, is that this fraught external environment has a profound impact on us, our livelihoods, and our way of life. It is imperative for us to continue to uphold and to defend the inclusive, rules-based multilateral system, and work with like-minded countries everywhere, in order to advance our common interests. To do so, we need to refresh our strategies, identify new opportunities, build new engines of growth, find new areas of cooperation, and to maintain our competitiveness, and above all, for the case of Singapore, to remain relevant. Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to always remind us that the world will not miss Singapore if we were to submerge and to disappear. It is our duty to be relevant to the world.
10 Singapore has been working with like-minded partners on pathfinding agreements, such as more recently, Digital Economy Agreements in order to deepen our digital integration, interoperability, and connectivity. To date, we have entered into Digital Economy Agreements with Australia, Malaysia, Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United Kingdom (UK) and hope to expand this network over time. We are also working with this year’s ASEAN Chair, Indonesia, to advance digital integration across Southeast Asia. In October last year, Singapore and Australia also signed a Green Economy Agreement to catalyse economic growth and job creation in the green sectors whilst promoting decarbonisation. This is a first-of-a-kind agreement which we hope will be a pathfinder for international cooperation in advancing both trade and environmental sustainability.
Post Covid-19 Consular Environment
11 The combination of a troubled external environment and the easing of travel restrictions makes the role of our Honorary Consuls-General even more important than ever. With the resumption of travel – as I have said just now, I know more Singaporeans will invariably encounter problems, sometimes get into distressed situations (overseas). Our priority is to deliver consular services to all Singaporeans promptly and effectively. MFA will continue to leverage digital tools and ensure that we are agile, able (and) up-to-date in our crisis response capabilities. For instance, Singaporeans are now able to use their SingPass app in order to e-Register with MFA and receive timely alerts in the event of an emergency. Watch this space, we will do even more in the future.
12 Ultimately, it is people who are our most precious asset. Whether it is to uncover economic opportunities for Singapore, or to deal with and help distressed Singaporeans, it is our Honorary Consuls-General (HCG) like all of you, who help us to expand our global diplomatic footprint. Your appointments have allowed Singapore to increase our diplomatic presence to 24 more countries, in addition to the 32 countries where we have resident Missions. Since Joseph Habis was appointed as our first HCG in Beirut in 1974 – I think this is worth asking him to stand up for – in 1974, I think I was still in secondary school. He is our pioneer HCG and he continues to serve us in Singapore – thank you. Our network has now expanded to 34 HCGs. Today, I want to acknowledge six new HCGs (appointed) since our last Meeting in 2019. I would like to take the opportunity to introduce you to: Mr Pedro Gonçalves from Lisbon, Dr Markus Rasner from Frankfurt, Mdm Luzmila Zanabria from Lima, Mr Carlos Umaña fromBogotá, Mr Karl-Heinz Straussfrom Vienna and Mr Bálint Szécsényifrom Budapest.
Role of HCGs
13 Each of you play a very important role in strengthening our links with your own countries, building on your experience, your intimate knowledge of the economy, the business landscape, and extensive network of contacts. For instance, several of you contributed to the delivery of the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, which not only provides Singapore businesses with greater market access into the EU, but also reduces bureaucratic hurdles for EU companies exporting to Singapore and vice versa. We want to continue to tap on your networks and expertise as we seek new opportunities.
14 It would be remiss of me not to make special mention of our HCG in Dublin, Mr Ronald Bolger, and our HCG in Barcelona, Dr Josep Manuel Basañez. Ronald and Josep are retiring as our HCGs after 23 and 20 years respectively of distinguished service. A big thank you to both of you. Ronald worked tirelessly to build common ground between Singapore and Ireland. The strong relationship between Singapore and Ireland, underpinned by growing economic ties and people-to-people exchanges, is a testament to his dedication and effectiveness. Similarly, Josep played an important role facilitating many official visits by our Political Office Holders to Catalonia. I remember the time we spent together including the unveiling of the bust of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He worked tirelessly to increase engagement between Singapore and Catalan businesses and has provided effective and timely consular assistance to many Singaporeans during his time. We are grateful to both of you for your many years of service, and we wish both of you best of health and success in your future endeavours.
15 My profound appreciation also goes to all our other HCGs and HCs, and your spouses and your assistants who have often gone above and beyond your call of duty to provide consular assistance to Singaporeans. We deeply appreciate your efforts and the personal attention you pay to these many requests. Let me just say on a personal note – I have spoken to many of you in private – what I have found most touching was when you said you are proud to represent this tiny red dot called Singapore. It is that sense of mutual affection, respect and commitment that money cannot buy. That is why you are special to us and why you will always have a place in our hearts. I hope as all of you spend a few days with us in Singapore and interact with the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers and our officials, that you will continue to deepen these close relationships. It is also an opportunity for us to share with you candidly, openly, and sincerely, Singapore’s priorities, our plans for the future, our deeper anxieties, our aspirations. I hope you will find this an opportunity to gain deeper insights into this tiny, improbable city state – this island for which you have pinned your colours to our mast. So, thank you once again. I wish you all a very enjoyable time with us in Singapore.
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Photo caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering welcome remarks at the 9th Meeting of Honorary Consuls-General on 13 February 2023
Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore
Photo caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s dialogue with Honorary Consuls-General (HCGs) at the 9th Meeting of HCGs, moderated by Ambassador-at-Large Professor Chan Heng Chee on 13 February 2023
Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore