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Singapore cannot be cowed by size

On Saturday, The Straits Times published an article by diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, Qatar: Big Lessons From A Small Country, in which he said the experience of Qatar reminds Singapore of the need for small states to behave like small states, and to cherish regional and international institutions. For example, he said small states should exercise discretion, that "we should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers". He added: "When I hear some of our official representatives say that we should take a 'consistent and principled' stand on geopolitical issues, I am tempted to remind them that consistency and principle are important, but cannot be the only traits that define our diplomacy. And there is a season for everything. The best time to speak up for our principles is not necessarily in the heat of a row between bigger powers." He also wrote: "A small state needs to be truly Machiavellian in international affairs. Being ethical and principled are important in diplomacy. We should be viewed as credible and trustworthy negotiators. But it is an undeniable 'hard truth' of geopolitics that sometimes, principle and ethics must take a back seat to the pragmatic path of prudence." The article sparked much discussion online. Here are three responses to the article from academics.

Kishore Mahbubani's article is deeply flawed. There are, indeed, lessons to be learnt from Qatar's recent unhappy experience, but not the ones he thinks.

I have no quarrel with what Kishore has to say about regionalism and the UN (United Nations). But his first lesson - that small states must always behave like small states - is muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous.

Kishore once never tired of saying that we must "punch above our weight". He obviously has changed his mind.

 
 
 
 

But the reason he has done so, and what he has to say about the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and the suggestion that now that he is dead we should behave differently are not just wrong but offensive, not only to Mr Lee's successors but also to all Singaporeans who have benefited from what Mr Lee and his comrades have bequeathed us.

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Kishore says that he has learnt a lot from Mr Lee, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam. I don't think he has learnt the right lessons or he has only learnt half a lesson.

Coming from someone of Kishore's stature - he is after all the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy - it is so dangerously misleading that it must be vigorously rebutted even at the cost of offending an old friend.

Kishore says Mr Lee never behaved as the leader of a small country and earned the right to state his views because he was respected by the major powers. True. But how did he earn that right?

Mr Lee and his comrades did not earn respect by being meekly compliant to the major powers. They were not reckless, but they did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles when they had to. They risked their lives for their idea of Singapore.

They took the world as it is and were acutely conscious of our size and geography. But they never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.

Independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates. They did not earn the respect of the major powers and Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle.

We will be friends to all who want to be friends with us. But friendship must be based on mutual respect. Of course we recognise asymmetries of size and power - we are not stupid - but that does not mean we must grovel or accept subordination as a norm of relationships.

In 2010, then PRC (People's Republic of China) Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at an Asean meeting was reported to have publicly and pointedly reminded Asean that China is a big country, staring at then Foreign Minister George Yeo. Mr Yeo reportedly stared right back.

I was not at that Asean meeting, so I do not know if the story is true, but it gained wide international currency. Neither was Kishore at that meeting. Still, he certainly seems to have absorbed the lesson Mr Yang was trying to convey very well even without being there.

Mr Lee stood up to China when he had to. To my knowledge, Mr Lee is the only non-communist leader ever to have gone into a Chinese Communist Party-supported United Front and emerged victorious. The Chinese respected him and that is why he later had a good relationship with them. I don't think anyone respects a running dog.

In 1981, then US Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge threatened to complain to Mr Lee and that there would be "blood on the floor" if our then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan did not comply with American wishes. Mr Dhanabalan calmly held our ground.

Mr Holdridge obviously did not understand either Mr Lee or Singapore. This is perhaps to be expected because the US, like China, is bigger and more powerful than Singapore. But Kishore ought to know better. He was, after all, part of the delegation to the international meeting where the incident occurred. Apparently he does not remember or now finds it politic to feign amnesia.

Mr Lee and his comrades stood up to Indonesia and refused Suharto's request to spare two Indonesian marines the gallows. Their act of terrorism during Confrontation had cost innocent civilian Singaporean lives. The marines had been convicted after due legal process and had exhausted all avenues of legal appeal.

On what basis could we have spared them? Because Indonesia is big and we are small? What conclusion would Suharto, and others, have drawn about Singapore had we done so? How would the relationship have developed?

The principle established, some years later Mr Lee laid flowers on the graves of the marines. Both standing firm and being gracious without compromising principle were equally important and were the foundation of Mr Lee's long and fruitful friendship with Suharto.

I am profoundly disappointed that Kishore should advocate subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy. It made me ashamed.

Kishore will, no doubt, claim that he is only advocating "realism". But realism does not mean laying low and hoping for the leave and favour of larger countries. Almost every country and all our neighbours are larger than we are. Are we to live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks?

What kind of people does Kishore think we are or ought to be?

Diplomat Bilahari  Kausikan posted this response on his Facebook page to Kishore Mahbubani's article. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore cannot be cowed by size'. Print Edition | Subscribe