Challenges loom at home and abroad

The youth resource centre at the rebuilt Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka is one way the Singapore International Foundation has built relationships between Singaporeans and foreign communities. Steps are being taken to develop closer cooperation be
The youth resource centre at the rebuilt Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka is one way the Singapore International Foundation has built relationships between Singaporeans and foreign communities. Steps are being taken to develop closer cooperation between government and non-governmental organisations to help develop awareness about the ordinary person's potential role in "soft" diplomacy.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION

South China Sea dispute threatens Asean unity; "grassroots" diplomacy a challenge in S'pore

Fifty years on, will the safe pair of hands that has been Singapore diplomacy be enough for the challenges ahead? There is much to be proud of - the Republic's reputation as a safe haven, a good neighbour and open to engaging with the region's people at many levels.

But veteran diplomats and analysts caution that Singapore's stellar diplomatic success so far does not guarantee continued relevance on the world stage. This is especially so, given a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world of competing national interests that have blown away any clear lines in the sand.

In Singapore's immediate backyard, the South China Sea dispute has become a proxy for the larger clash between China and the United States, with Asean nations caught in the middle.

Singapore - a friend to both nations - has adopted the position that it is a territorial issue for claimant states to resolve. But maintaining this neutrality will be increasingly difficult should they press Singapore to adopt a stance beyond that.

"The more neutral we remain, the more one side will say you are supporting the status quo, and that such a position is immoral," says National University of Singapore (NUS) political science academic Bilveer Singh.

HITTING HOME

We need to brace ourselves for the politicisation at home of foreign policy, and MPs will have to speak on foreign policy to their constituents.

NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE (NUS) POLITICAL SCIENCE ACADEMIC BILVEER SINGH

Further muddying the waters for Singapore is the fact that fully half of the 10 Asean member countries have skin in the South China Sea dispute. Differing stances on the issue have pulled the grouping apart on more than one occasion, such as in 2012, when it failed for the first time to issue a joint statement because of disagreement over whether to mention the issue.

But if the crisis comes to a head, with Beijing and Washington clashing openly over the South China Sea, defence analyst David Boey says there will be no winners for South-east Asia, only losers, victims and targets. "Which label Singapore is accorded will depend heavily on deft diplomacy, personal ties and goodwill banked over the years by Singaporean leaders and statesmen in both Asia-Pacific powers," writes Mr Boey in a recent blogpost.

HEEDING CITIZENS' SOS CALLS

As Singaporeans become increasingly global in their travel, the Foreign Ministry will also become more stretched. The point was driven home by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, in a speech last week, when he said that for all it does, MFA's priority is rendering consular aid to Singaporeans abroad.

This year alone saw Singaporeans caught in the Nepal earthquake and stranded on Mount Kinabalu by another temblor. Past terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the recent one in Thailand also ensnared Singaporeans - a prologue to a foreign service that has to stretch itself thinner across the globe. Such a reality means that "MFA will need to increase its numbers, with new officers who possess area expertise and legal skills", says Dr Singh. "Unfortunately, there is a national deficit in this area because our institutions are not producing people skilled in this region, or in areas where we have vital interests."

WHEN ISSUES STRIKE HOME

A global citizenry and Singapore's migrant mix also mean that, increasingly, foreign policy will translate into domestic political issues.

Singapore's diplomatic positions will inevitably become the subject of greater scrutiny at home, with advocacy groups, political parties and the average citizen wanting to weigh in. This means the job of arti-culating Singapore's foreign policy and getting citizen buy-in cannot just be the job of MFA alone.

"We need to brace ourselves for the politicisation at home of foreign policy, and MPs will have to speak on foreign policy to their constituents," says Dr Singh.

Agreeing, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh says there will be a greater need to emphasise that Singapore's foreign policy is based on its national interests.

"Foreign policy should not become a divisive issue, either with our citizens or between the political parties," says Professor Koh, who is chairman of the governing board of the Centre for International Law at NUS. "There is a good American saying: That on foreign policy, the disagreements among politicians should stop at the water's edge."

The launch of the Asean Community this month also highlights the urgency of refocusing on Singapore's immediate backyard, say analysts.

Excitement within some member countries about the Asean Community has been tempered by increasing economic nationalism in others, and already there is a belief that only wealthier members like Singapore stand to gain from the union, at the expense of the others.

Aligning our neighbours' interests with our own will, therefore, be even more pressing. Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his S. Rajaratnam lecture: "Within Asean, our most intense relationships will be with our immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia."

Strengthening these relationships will require both humility and a constant reminder that we co-exist and survive together, he said. "These are complex relationships, and inevitably, from time to time, problems will arise and when they do, we aim to resolve them dispassionately without affecting our wider relationship or raising the temperature."

The growing intersection between domestic politics and foreign policy also means there is a need for a centralised agency that comes together regularly to map concerns and address them, perhaps at the Prime Minister's Office, says Dr Singh.

He adds there needs to be a push for greater consciousness among Singaporeans of how foreign policy can affect them - a shift away from the complacency that assumes the Government holds all the answers, whatever the diplomatic incident.

PEOPLE'S ROLE IN DIPLOMACY

Singapore's policy of encouraging young folk from around the region to study here, learn about the place and share that knowledge when they return home will stand it in good stead, however.

One example: When Professor S. Jayakumar made an official visit to South Africa, its then-Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma introduced two South African officials to him as "two fellow Singaporeans". They had been trained in Singapore and the Foreign Minister said they were "forever singing praises of your lovely country".

This led Prof Jayakumar to note that Singapore's assistance to other countries has created "a reservoir of goodwill and a network of friends".

And when the recent haze saw tens of thousands of residents in Sumatra and Kalimantan short of masks, volunteers from Singapore outfits Relief.sg and Let's Help Kalimantan travelled to these islands to deliver masks to local residents.

PM Lee said their work - alongside international organisations, and with the Indonesian authorities - "brought about change in a small but tangible useful way".

Back home, steps are being taken to develop closer cooperation between government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - which will also help develop awareness about the ordinary person's potential role in "soft" diplomacy.

When youth NGO Majulah Community wanted to help communities in Malaysia rebuild following floods that devastated Kelantan and Terengganu last December, the organisers approached Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim for help after collecting 8 tonnes of dry rations and other relief goods. A letter from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), explaining that the group was seeking to provide humanitarian aid, helped reduce what would have been a long wait at the Second Link to a short check.

Majulah Community co-founder Khairu Rejal hopes such collaboration can be two-way, noting that after six missions, it knows who to talk to in northern Malaysia "to get things moving faster". Such information can be useful to officials and help build people-to-people links that can give neighbours a better sense of the Singaporean character.

"What we need is greater grassroots engagement between our peoples, so that relationships develop beyond just the leaders," he says.

As Prof Koh puts it: "In an increasingly globalised world, every citizen is a diplomat if he or she interacts with a foreigner, whether at home or abroad."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Challenges loom at home and abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe