Small states can't turn blind eye to aggressors

If small states are to keep their mouths shut when big powers and their proxies indulge in spats, why did Singapore see fit to take the lead in Asean's campaign against Vietnam's invasion of the then Kampuchea in the late 1970s (Qatar: Big lessons from a small country; July 1)?

Singapore had lobbied ferociously against the illegal People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union when we were a fledgling country.

In contrast, now, when our diplomats, as representatives of a well-respected developed nation and on behalf of Asean, make relatively muted statements that all claimants in the South China Sea dispute should resolve their differences peacefully according to international law, they are said to have failed to exercise discretion.

Can Professor Kishore Mahbubani, as a former diplomat who was involved in the anti-PRK exercise, explain this difference?

Is silence golden for a mere red dot only when it is prescribed by a giant civilisational state like China? Does it matter whether the "poisonous propaganda" of big powers is conveyed via the Western or Chinese media when they define a fatalistic world of imperialism, according to the disciples of Thucydides?

As a small city-state, Singapore's existential interest must always be to rally around the sanctity of international organisations like the United Nations and Asean with like-minded partners, especially when such entities are increasingly being undermined by those who seem to confuse "might" with being "right".

Being friendly with everyone does not mean turning a blind eye to provocations that may eventually culminate in adverse repercussions on regional security and one's sovereignty.

If aggressors are allowed to go uncontested repeatedly, it could set a precedent for lawlessness, which would be detrimental to all.

Machiavellian logic may well need to be applied for the sake of upholding a free and fair rules-based world order.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline 'Small states can't turn blind eye to aggressors'. Print Edition | Subscribe