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Vital to have consensus at home on foreign policy priorities

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan sets out the core principles amid a debate over how a small state should conduct itself in a world of changing geopolitics. This is an edited excerpt from his speech on Monday to MFA officers.

Some questions that have been raised include: Has Singapore overreached and forgotten its permanent status as a small state in the large dangerous world and tough region? Should Singapore adjust its foreign policy posture given changing geopolitics, or even because of leadership changes in Singapore? Has our insistence on a consistent and principled approach limited our ability to adapt to new circumstances?

We need to go back to first principles. The ultimate objectives of our foreign policy are to protect our independence and sovereignty, and expand opportunities for our citizens to overcome our geographical limits. The existential challenge is how we achieve this, given that we will always be a tiny city state in South-east Asia with a multiracial population.

We must not harbour any illusions about our place in the world. History is replete with examples of failed small states. Our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew always reminded us that we have to take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. But that does not mean that the late Mr Lee advocated a "do nothing, say nothing" approach whose outcome is for Singapore to simply surrender to our fates.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has reminded us, on issues where our national interests are at stake, we must be prepared to "stand up and be counted". Some people have suggested that Singapore lay low and "suffer what we must". On the contrary, it is precisely because we are a small state that we have to stand up and be counted when we need to do so.

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There is no contradiction between having a realistic understanding of realpolitik and doing whatever it takes to protect our own sovereignty, maintain and expand our relevance, and create political and economic space for ourselves. The founding fathers of our foreign policy - Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam and their team - understood this acutely and formulated a few core foreign policy principles, which have served Singapore well since our independence.


Then Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam greeting Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during his visit here in 1978. Also present were Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee. The founding fathers of Singapore's foreign policy - Mr Lee, Dr Goh and Mr Rajaratnam and their team - formulated a few core foreign policy principles, which have served Singapore well since its independence.

So, what are these principles?

1 Singapore must have a successful and vibrant economy, stable politics and a united society. Otherwise, we would be completely irrelevant. We only merit attention because everyone knows that Singapore has made a success of itself despite its size- and that we have smart, honest, serious and constructive diplomats representing us.

2 We must not become a vassal state. We cannot be bought or bullied. We must be prepared to defend our territory, assets and way of life. That is why we just celebrated 50 years of national service, and we maintain at great effort an SAF that everybody takes seriously. This does not just depend on the military technology that the SAF has, but the courage and resolve of our soldiers, particularly NSmen, to defend what we have and fight for what we hold dear.

3 We aim to be a friend to all, but an enemy of none. This is especially so for our immediate neighbourhood where peace and stability are absolutely essential. Consequently, Singapore was a founding member of Asean and remains a strong advocate of Asean unity and centrality.

With superpowers and other regional powers, our aim is to expand our relationships, both political and economic, so that we will be relevant to them and they will find our success to be in their interest. This delicate balancing act is easier in good and peaceful times, and obviously more difficult when the powers contend with one another. Nevertheless, our basic reflex should be to aim for balance and promote an inclusive architecture and avoid siding with one side against the other.

While we spare no effort to develop a wide network of relations, these relations must be based on mutual respect, for each other's sovereignty and the equality of nation states, regardless of size. Diplomacy is not just about having "friendly" relations, at all costs. It is about promoting friendly relations as a way to protect and advance our important interests. When others make unreasonable demands that hurt our national interests, we need to state our position and stand our ground in a firm and principled manner.

4 We must promote a global order governed by the rule of law and international norms. In a system where "might is right" and the laws of the jungle prevail, small states have little chance of survival. Instead, a more promising system for small states, and a better system overall for the comity of nations, is one that upholds the rights and sovereignty of all states and the rule of law. Bigger powers will still have more influence and say, but they do not get a free pass to do as they please. In exchange, they benefit from an orderly global environment, and do not have to resort to force or arms to get their way.

Singapore must support a rules-based global community, promote the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. These are fundamental priorities. They reflect our vital interests, and affect our position in the world. We must stand up on these issues, and speak with conviction, so that people know our position. And we must actively counter the tactics of other powers who may try to influence our domestic constituencies in order to make our foreign policy better suit their interests. Ultimately, we must be clear-minded about Singapore's long-term interests, and have the gumption to make our foreign policy decisions accordingly.

When American teenager Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism in 1994, we upheld our court's decision, even under great pressure from the US.

In 1968, we proceeded to hang two Indonesian marines for the bombing of MacDonald House during Konfrontasi. Bear in mind the events surrounding 1968. We had just been kicked out of Malaysia. The British had announced their intention to withdraw their forces from Singapore. We were still fighting a communist insurgency. Can you imagine the guts it took for our leaders to stand up and do the right thing?

These were episodes that established clear red lines and boundaries. The message was clear: Singapore may be small, but upholding our laws and safeguarding our independence, citizens' safety and security were of overriding importance. We cannot afford to be intimidated into acquiescence. That ultimately put our relationships on a more solid and equal footing.

And this is why we speak up whenever these basic principles are challenged. When Russian troops took control of Crimea, Singapore strongly objected to the invasion. We publicly expressed our view that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and international law, had to be respected.

5 Which brings me to my fifth point - we must be a credible and consistent partner. Our views are taken seriously because countries know that we always take a long-term, constructive view of issues. Bigger countries engage Singapore because we do not just tell them what they want to hear. In fact, they try harder to make Singapore take their side precisely because our words mean something.

We are an honest broker, dealing fairly and openly with all parties. There is a sense of strategic predictability, which has enabled us to build up trust and goodwill with our partners over the decades. Because we are credible, Singapore has been able to play a constructive role in international affairs, in Asean and at the UN.

We have helped create platforms for countries with similar interests. Singapore helped establish the Forum of Small States in 1992. We also launched the Global Governance Group, to ensure that the voices of small states are heard, and to serve as a bridge between the G-20 and UN membership.

Our credibility has won us a seat at the table, even when our relevance is not immediately obvious. When we first expressed interest in the Arctic Council, there were many who wondered what role a small equatorial country could play on Arctic matters! But rising sea levels and the possibility of new shipping routes impact our position as a transshipment hub, so it is useful for us to be on the Arctic Council. We gained observer status in the Arctic Council in May 2013. And we participate actively and contribute our expertise on maritime matters.

Let me round off my remarks with these observations. Small states are inconsequential unless we are able to offer a value proposition and make ourselves relevant. Singapore's economic success, political stability and social harmony has attracted others to do business with us, and to examine our developmental model. Singapore's position is far more secure today than in 1965.

But the challenges of small states are perennial. They cannot be ignored, or wished away. A strong, credible SAF is an important deterrence. Foreign policy, as they say, begins at home. Our diplomacy is only credible if we are able to maintain a domestic consensus on Singapore's core interests and foreign policy priorities, and if our politics do not become fractious, or our society divided.

Geopolitics are becoming more uncertain and unpredictable. We will need to ensure that our foreign policy positions reflect changing strategic realities while maintaining the freedom to be an independent nation, with our own foreign policy.

We must anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time. But our task is to manage this while keeping in mind the broader relationships. We may always be a small state, but that is all the more reason we need the courage of our convictions and the resolution to secure the long-term good of all our citizens.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'Vital to have consensus at home on foreign policy priorities'. Print Edition | Subscribe