Singapore may not have acceded to as many international conventions or treaties compared with other countries, but this does not mean it has lax standards, veteran diplomat Tommy Koh said yesterday.
He noted that in many cases, Singapore has actually exceeded the benchmarks required in those conventions, including those on human rights and labour rights.
But he said: "We tend to be much more cautious than other countries in undertaking an international legal obligation, unless we can satisfy ourselves that we are in the position to live up to that obligation.
"We are much more conscientious," said Professor Koh, who chairs the National University of Singapore's Centre for International Law and is Ambassador-at-Large.
"Many countries take a very cavalier attitude and just sign up for everything," he said.
"But it doesn't mean that they internalise the international legal obligations and that they implement these legal obligations."
Prof Koh's remarks, made after he gave a lecture at a Law Society of Singapore event, were in reply to a question from Senior Counsel Michael Hwang.
Mr Hwang, vice-chairman of the Law Society's committee on public and international law, noted that some lawyers have been asked by their foreign counterparts why Singapore had not signed on to some conventions.
Prof Koh explained that Singapore practises a "very collegial inter-agency consultation" where decisions are made by consensus, not on the majority agreeing to them. This means that if any one ministry or agency has reservations on a matter, the rest would not proceed.
He also spoke about the "constant tussle" in diplomacy over whether to put friendship or principles first. He noted that on many occasions, Singapore has taken the stance that it is not right for a big country to use force to invade and occupy a smaller country - even if that stance was opposed to that of a friend or an ally.
"We would be unimportant to the world if we were just another small, opportunistic country," said Prof Koh. "The reason we are taken note of in the United States and in the world is that we are a small, successful and, hopefully most of the time, a principled country."