Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Hard Choices for a Small State
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Benjamin Ho

Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Hard Choices for a Small State

Jul. 25, 2017  |     |  0 comments

What are Singapore’s national interests, and how should Singapore’s foreign policy go about achieving this in today’s geopolitical landscape? Should Singapore maintain an independent foreign policy regardless of the desires or dictates of great powers? Or should it bend its position or posture according to the whims and wishes of the dominant powers in the Asia-Pacific region? While realism is a frequently touted as a paradigm for understanding Singapore’s foreign policy, there are differences as to how this is being played out in practice.


How Should a Small State Behave?


One approach that is touted is that small states ought to “stand up for their ideals and principles” (as the late Lee Kuan Yew and the founding generation of Singaporean leaders did) and not to accept subordination as a norm of relationships. Given the massive influence of Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore’s foreign policy, such thinking is deeply ingrained in the mindset of Singapore’s diplomats and foreign policy officials. This included not being intimidated by larger powers and to hold one’s position, even at the expense of offending another party.


For instance, during the 2010 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi was said to have stared at his Singaporean counterpart George Yeo while reminding him that China was a big country. In response, George Yeo “stared right back,” it was recounted. Likewise, in 1994, Singapore caned a US citizen, Michael Fay, for vandalism despite being under heavy pressure from the United States not to do so. These examples suggest that Singapore leaders perceive Singapore’s survival as being ultimately dependent upon its ability to protect and defend itself, and not to be cowed by larger powers, wherever its national interests are seen to be compromised or if its way of life is being challenged.


In this respect, the essence of Singapore’s foreign policy, as Michael Leifer puts it, is about “coping with vulnerability,” given Singapore’s sheer disparity in size and natural resources compared to larger and more well-endowed states, both within and outside the region. Hence, as the saying goes, “no one owes Singapore a living,” and thus Singapore has to ensure it remains relevant and respected in the international community. 

China’s future prosperity should not be taken for granted and talk of US decline is oftentimes overstated.

Another realist approach suggests that Singapore’s national interests are best served by being prudent, and in this case, to eschew emphasizing a so-called “consistent and principled” approach on geopolitical issues, lest we be viewed by other countries (particularly larger ones) as being arrogant or unnecessarily exacerbating regional tensions.


Therein lies the difference. While the former approach sees the need for Singapore leaders to “stand up and be counted,” the latter is a more cautious approach, and exhorts on the need to be realistic about Singapore’s ability to shape international events, particularly if it concerns relations with big powers. It sees Singapore’s interests as not being drawn into major power competition and to avoid — as far as possible — antagonizing major powers in the course of political relations.


Principles: As Means or Ends?


Hence the issue that needs further clarification lies in whether one views international principles (such as the adherence of rule of law) as means to an end, or whether they are ends in and of themselves to be maintained (at all costs). If one takes the second position, then what follows is that Singapore ought to maintain a principled stand at all costs, and that our national interests are best served, not by shifting positions to accommodate the whims and fancies of larger powers, but to be cognizant of our longer term interests, and to insist — even at the risk of offending others — what it views as the “right thing to do” in international politics, for instance, to abide by the decisions of international law in territorial disputes.


On the other hand, if one takes the first position, which is that principles ought to be viewed as a means to an end, then it stands to reason that Singapore ought to be more clinical in its international engagements. The term “to be truly Machiavellian” is synonymous with a lack of moral consideration, and to be solely focused on self-interest and personal gain at all costs. Following such a line of thought, one might view present geopolitical trends as being unfavorable to Singapore’s long-term interests — given our present approach and choices in foreign policy vis-à-vis the big powers.


Are Singapore’s National Interests Changing?


Much of this then is down to how Singapore’s national interests are being defined and how our leaders view future geopolitical trends. During my recent research stint at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, several Chinese scholars I spoke to expressed pessimism about future Sino-Singapore relations, notwithstanding ongoing high-level economic activity between both countries.


Singapore, it is said, was unduly problematizing the South China Sea issue internationally and was creating unnecessary tensions between China and other Southeast Asia countries. Some of them also surmised that policies of the Trump administration would jeopardize Singapore’s national interests; a case in point is the American exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Another point that Chinese scholars frequently emphasize is that given the changing global landscape (read: China now has more influence than in the past), Sino-Singapore ties ought to “move with the times.” These include, for instance, re-looking Singapore’s ties with Taiwan (particularly military training) and re-examining Singapore’s acquiescence to the US naval presence on its shores.


To be certain, geopolitical trends are not structurally deterministic and cast in stone. China’s domestic challenges continue to cast a shadow on its ability to be both an influential and attractive model of governance. Likewise, the improved fortunes of the US economy over the past couple of years have reenergized talk of American engagement and a stronger presence in the Asia-Pacific. In other words, China’s future prosperity should not be taken for granted and talk of US decline is oftentimes overstated. Furthermore, given the US’ deeply entrenched position in East Asia, few would expect any US administration — including Trump’s — to radically alter the composition of American military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the region.


In order to navigate the future of Singapore’s foreign policy, perhaps greater clarity on what its future national interests are might be a debate worth first having.

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