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Ukraine invasion: Singapore to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia in ‘almost unprecedented’ move

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan says Singapore’s tough stance was borne out of its diplomatic principles as a small state. Photo: AP

Singapore on Monday said it would impose “appropriate sanctions and restrictions” on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, a rare move that marked just the second time in the city state’s history that it was censuring a foreign nation without the United Nations Security Council’s approval.

Speaking to lawmakers in parliament, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the Singapore government planned to act in concert with like-minded nations to impose export controls on items “that can be used directly as weapons in Ukraine to inflict harm or to subjugate the Ukrainians”.

The government will also “block certain Russian banks and financial transactions connected to Russia”, Vivian said in a special ministerial statement on the crisis, adding that the specific measures would be announced soon.

The measures will come up at “some costs” to citizens and businesses in the island nation, the minister said. He said Singapore continued to “value our good relations with Russia and the Russian people”.

But “unless we as a country stand up for principles that are the very foundations for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question”, he said.

The republic’s legislature was due to begin a two-week debate on the 2022 budget on Monday, but lawmakers resolved to first allow Vivian to make a statement on Russia’s aggression.

In his 20-minute speech, Vivian underscored that the republic’s tough stance on Russia was borne out of its diplomatic principles as a small state.

A world order where “might is right” and “where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, he said, was “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’,” Vivian said, using the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his justification for invading Ukraine.

“Such a rationale would go against the internationally recognised legitimacy and the territorial integrity of many countries, including Singapore,” he said. “Singapore must take any violation of these core principles seriously, whenever and wherever they occur. And this is why Singapore has strongly condemned Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.”

Responding to a follow-up question on Singapore’s view on the Chinese position regarding the crisis, Vivian said he did not want to speculate on a foreign nation’s policies but said he believed Beijing “does hold firmly to the principles of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

He was also asked whether the republic would review ongoing joint projects with Russia. To that, Vivian said he hoped the planned Russian Cultural Centre in the city state – which will also house the Russian Orthodox Church – would continue, as that initiative “goes beyond politics”. The groundbreaking ceremony for the building was held during Putin’s 2018 state visit to Singapore to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations.

Vivian’s remarks in parliament follow a foreign ministry statement last week that outrightly condemned Russia’s actions. Singapore and Indonesia are the only Southeast Asian nations that have condemned the invasion, though Jakarta did not name Russia in its statement.

Commentators say that apart from Singapore, the region’s governments have tempered their reactions with an eye on their dependence on Moscow for arms.

The likes of Malaysia and Indonesia utilise Russian-made Sukhoi jets in their air forces. Singapore, in contrast, buys most of its weapons from the West.

The retired Singaporean senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted on Facebook that Vivian’s statement on Monday was “almost unprecedented”.

“Normally we only impose sanctions endorsed by the UN Security Council whose decisions are legally binding on all UN members. But given the Russian veto, UNSC sanctions will obviously never be passed,” said Bilahari, who formerly served as the foreign ministry’s permanent secretary.

“I said ‘almost unprecedented’ because the only other time, to my knowledge, when we have imposed unilateral sanctions was after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (then Kampuchea) in 1978, 44 years ago.”

He added: “Then and now, this is the right thing to do and Singaporeans can be proud that we have done the right thing and should support the government, regardless of their political views.”

Washington and its allies in the West have since Thursday – when Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine – unleashed a series of sanctions that have been described as the harshest on a major economy in a generation.

The measures include excluding some Russian banks from the Swift financial messaging system and the freezing of some US$600 million of Moscow’s central bank reserves.