Speaking at a dialogue organised by the Foreign Correspondents Association, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said he does not believe that any of the ASEAN countries were tardy in their response to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
SINGAPORE: There was no lack of cooperation in ASEAN's response to the MH370 crisis.
Singapore's Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam made this point in refuting criticisms of poor coordination among ASEAN members.
Speaking at a dialogue organised by the Foreign Correspondents Association, Mr Shanmugam said he does not believe that any of the ASEAN countries were tardy in their response and pointed to the sheer number of countries who came forward to help almost immediately.
Describing the tragedy as a "most unusual bizarre situation", Mr Shanmugam said the international community needs to recognise that it is not an easy situation for Malaysian authorities, who had very little to go on.
Mr Shanmugam was asked for his assessment on the level of cooperation among ASEAN member states in the search for the ill-fated flight and on his thoughts on international perceptions that the region was not united due to underlying tensions among several ASEAN members over the South China Sea.
He answered that there was no lack of cooperation in the way countries, not just ASEAN members, helped immediately.
The will, he said, was there, even if the ability, resources and assets varied.
"I don't believe that and I don't think that there's anything on the facts that… suggest that any of the ASEAN countries were tardy in their response in any way,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“But to put it more directly, one of the assets that you need really to locate bits and pieces of this plane or the blackbox would have been a vessel. Not a submarine, but a vessel which is submersible and can look for things under water. You ask around how many countries have that resource."
Mr Shanmugam said Singapore has such a vessel and had deployed it in the search efforts.
The dialogue, which lasted for about two hours, also touched on some local issues, such as the Singapore government's handling of the December riot in Little India and Mr Shanmugam's assessment of the support the ruling People's Action Party has, leading up to the 2016 general election.
He said what is important for the government is not a numbers game in garnering support.
"I don't want to get into a numbers game,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“I think the last thing I want to do is to say that we want to have policies in order to get from a purely political perspective, some numbers back. I think the moment you start doing that, the country will go down. We need to do what is right."
He pointed to the S$8 billion Pioneer Generation package -- a commitment by the government to pay for the healthcare costs of the first generation of Singaporeans.
"A lot of countries do these things but they make the next generation pay or they make future governments pay because they simply borrow the money. We decided we will not do that,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“We will take it out of our current account surplus and fund forward the entire cost of this universal health coverage for people above 65.
“Again, if you were thinking purely in terms of electoral calculations, you will probably not do it because a lot of governments might calculate, ‘well, if I leave open the question of whether it might be funded, then people will be more concerned’, but here everyone knows it's going to be funded. So that's now removed from the political equation.”
Responding to suggestions by some foreign media that one reason for the Little India riot was unhappiness among foreign workers, Mr Shanmugam said the fact is they chose to come and stay in Singapore.
"I'm talking about systems. What is it systematically, that makes it worse off for workers in Singapore compared with other countries?” asked Mr Shanmugam.
“With full knowledge of the facts that they want to come here and they want to stay here, and they prefer Singapore to Malaysia, to anywhere else, I would politely say, the assumptions in your questions are all not accurate.
"The point is it (a riot) has not happened here in a long time. We don't want it happening again but I do want you to look at it with perspective before you start characterising (that) this is a new Singapore, that there's a foreign worker problem.
“One of the narratives I've seen in the international media is that this shows either it is a sign of angst with the government or it's an angst with Singapore or it's an angst with the employer. I say look at the facts."
The dialogue was attended by members of the diplomatic corps and media professionals.