ESM Goh: Robust foreign policy necessary ingredient to Singapore's continued success

SINGAPORE - Foreign policy is the necessary second wing to domestic policy if Singapore is to continue to succeed. As such, it cannot afford to have an inward mentality of a small, barricaded island, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on Friday.

"Like a bird, a country needs two wings to fly - a domestic wing and an external wing. One cannot do without the other," he said at the annual S. Rajaratnam Lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Domestic success and foreign policy are interdependent, said Mr Goh, who as prime minister from 1990 to 2004, has been credited for his foreign policy successes particularly in helping Singapore make inroads to India and the Middle East, and initiating the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem).

Singapore needs to have good governance and policies to be respected on the global stage, he said at the event held at the St Regis hotel.

Singapore's leaders must have a record of good performance at home to exercise influence in foreign policy, he said, adding: "A mediocre Singapore would not command the respect of foreign leaders, and even the most brilliant diplomats would be powerless to wield much influence on Singapore's behalf."

He noted how Singapore is respected because of its successful domestic track record and its reputation for delivering on good foreign policy initiatives.

This, and two other principles lie behind Singapore's success in safeguarding its sovereignty, enhancing its security and expanding its international space.

These two other key principles are to clearly define foreign policy objectives, and to seek win-win foreign policy solutions so that Singapore's interests are aligned with those of its international friends.

A well-led government and a competent public service are decisive in having a good track record, he added.

"If a government is mired in parochial institutional interests and turf sensitivities, the best ideas will come to naught and our international credibility will suffer," he said to an audience of 500 government officials, students and diplomats, including High Commissioner to Malaysia Ong Keng Yong.

Mr Goh noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his team "ably steered Singapore through treacherous seas over the past decade", amid a more uncertain, challenging and complex domestic environment.

But in arguing for "the need to leave our politics at the water's edge", Mr Goh said: "If Singapore is hobbled by fractious domestic politics, our leaders will have less time and energy for foreign policy. Our external wing will be weakened."

Going on to addressing the foreign policy half of the equation, he said a robust foreign policy also benefits Singapore's domestic economy and population.

This has been borne out in his experience, he said as he looked back on his years steering Singapore and its foreign policy to to enlarge Spore's international space and economic opportunities for domestic growth.

"We need the world more than the world needs us," he said, noting that Singapore's external trade is four times its gross domestic product.

This is why Singapore's prime ministers have and must always play an active role in advancing the country's external interests, even as they pay attention to domestic priorities, said Mr Goh.

In his conclusion, he quoted the late former Senior Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister S. Rajaratnam, after whom the lecture series was named: "As Raja said in 1965, cherish independence, without denying the reality of interdependence (of nations)."

charyong@sph.com.sg