Singapore diplomacy 50 years on

Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam (left) with Ambassador Tommy Koh, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept 30, 1974. Behind them are Singapore delegates Michael Cheok (partly hidden), L
Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam (left) with Ambassador Tommy Koh, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept 30, 1974. Behind them are Singapore delegates Michael Cheok (partly hidden), Lee Chiong Giam and Peter Chan. Singapore, a small country, is punching above its weight in terms of influence on the world stage.PHOTO: UNITED NATIONS

Insight looks at Singapore's foreign policy and how it has helped ensure the nation's sovereignty, survival and growth

Coded messages sent out by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asking for support of Singapore's sovereignty in 1965. A crisis kit-bag, containing items such as satellite phones and temporary travel documents, that consular officers take overseas to assist Singaporeans in distress.

The past and present of Singapore's foreign policy over the past 50 years are on display till Dec 13 in an exhibition at Capitol Piazza on the site of the historic Capitol Theatre.

Delivering the S. Rajaratnam Lecture on Nov 27, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also looked back on key fundamentals of Singapore's foreign policy in his speech.

And he outlined how Singapore can continue to be the master of its own destiny on the global stage by adopting a "balance between realism and idealism" to defend and advance its interests abroad.

But how did Singapore, a small country that could be easily ignored in the international realm, end up punching above its weight in terms of influence on the world stage?

What were the core principles that the Republic stuck to in navigating the choppy years immediately after independence, when communism was still a threat and there was the danger of armed conflict at its doorstep, with Konfrontasi and the Vietnam War ?

And what lies ahead as Singapore attempts to write a new chapter in its overseas dealings over the next 50 years?

Insight charts the development of Singapore's foreign policy, from the initial scramble to establish a diplomatic corps, to the enduring challenge of juggling multilateral partners whose interests may not always be aligned.


Vietnam War, Konfrontasi, China... S'pore diplomats rose to the challenge

This image of the turbulent Konfrontasi period was captured in 1965 by veteran cameraman Willie Phua. Two German policemen communicating through a gap in the Berlin Wall, which was built by the communists in 1961. The spread of communism was one of t

When Mr S. Rajaratnam was appointed Foreign Minister shortly after Singapore's Independence and had to face a press interview, he asked his boss what the country's foreign policy was.

Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew replied: "Raja, you had better wear a tie and a lounge suit. That's most important. Then after that, you just say what comes to the top of your head."

That was not the only aspect of Singapore diplomacy that had to be formed on the fly. Unlike other ministries that already had a presence before Independence, the Foreign Ministry had to be built from scratch, drawing civil servants from various agencies with little background in diplomacy.

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A young nation holds its own on world stage

Mr Goh Chok Tong's FTA approach began in the early 1990s, when he worked closely with then-Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun (left) to launch an Asean Free Trade Area in 1992. The two leaders are photographed here in 1991 with Mrs Goh Chok Tong.

The first 25 years of Singapore's foreign policy were shaped by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and as senior minister and then minister mentor, he remained much sought-after as a statesman on the global stage.

But the second quarter-century was also marked by two subsequent prime ministers putting their stamp in a different way.

This involved behind-the-scenes diplomacy, not so headline-hitting to the public but nevertheless just as impactful on the country in its own way - the establishment of Singapore's network of cross-border trade deals and active involvement in influential groupings to strengthen links between countries and regions.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore diplomacy 50 years on'. Print Edition | Subscribe