The blend of realism and idealism in Singapore's foreign policy is being tested in an international setting in which great powers forsake idealism in favour of influence. Small states must rely on international law, which exists to serve all states regardless of size, assuring each of equal protection. However, such noble principles are all too often cast aside when realpolitik rears its head. Today, for example, some of the contestation between big powers in the South China Sea is taking place a little too close for comfort. Rising nationalism in several countries across Asia further complicates matters. At times, the result is a convenient resort to Singapore-bashing.
Given these winds of change in the external environment, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's restatement of the fundamentals of Singapore's foreign policy, in his recent S. Rajaratnam Lecture, was timely. The country's interests have not changed since independence 50 years ago. They are for peace and an international order based on the rule of law; the establishment of a network of friends and allies; and the preservation of Singapore's sovereignty which, in turn, secures for its people the right to determine their future.
That the Republic has enjoyed all three for half a century is the result of an act of political and diplomatic will that can be traced back to the Old Guard ministers, in particular the trio of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Rajaratnam. Subsequent generations of leaders and foreign service professionals have continued their legacy. They have rebuffed the notion that small states can have no foreign policy to speak of because they are at the mercy of events beyond their control. In overturning that axiom, Singapore holds fast to and acts on the belief that it can and must defend itself and advance its interests. Its strong economy has been a boon to such efforts but, over and above that, it has relied on intelligence and ideas to secure a place at the table at various international forums. Call it DQ or Diplomatic Quotient.
Two successful examples of its active diplomacy are the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the result of long-drawn negotiations in which Ambassador Tommy Koh played a central role; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which grew out of a small trade pact that Singapore pioneered with New Zealand, Brunei and Chile. No doubt it will be tough to maintain this sterling track record but Singapore is intent on maintaining its edge in strategic thought and mastery of the geopolitical issues of the day.
An emerging challenge is how to keep the Singapore public united behind foreign policy - a major challenge elsewhere. The success of this effort will depend on citizens' awareness of the national imperatives that they must live with. Citizens of a city-state cannot permit themselves any illusions.