Minister Shanmugam, diplomats Bilahari and Ong Keng Yong say Prof Mahbubani's view on Singapore's foreign policy 'flawed'

(Clockwise from top right) Ambassadors-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, Ong Keng Yong and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam have all taken exception to a commentary written by Professor Kishore Mahbubani.
(Clockwise from top right) Ambassadors-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, Ong Keng Yong and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam have all taken exception to a commentary written by Professor Kishore Mahbubani.PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO, ST FILE, ONG WEE JIN, S. RAJARATNAM SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

SINGAPORE - Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Sunday (July 2) said he found a commentary by Professor Kishore Mahbubani on foreign policy “questionable intellectually” for saying that small states must always behave like small states.

The piece, Qatar: Big Lessons From A Small Country, also drew criticism from veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, who described the view as “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous”.

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong further warned that it is against Singapore’s well-being if international relations are based purely on size. 

All three men had taken issue with what Prof Mahbubani said was an eternal rule of geopolitics: “Small states should behave like small states”.

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But the professor, who is dean of the the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), also had a supporter in Dr Yap Kwong Weng, regional advisor on Indochina at the school.

He said his colleague was merely saying that “prudence is required of small states when it comes to geopolitical calculations”, adding that there was nothing dangerous with this line of thinking.

In his commentary published in The Straits Times on Saturday, the dean of the the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy had mined the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its bigger Arab neighbours for lessons for Singapore.

He said Qatar had mistakenly believed that it could interfere in affairs beyond its borders because of its wealth, and drew comparisons between this and Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea maritime dispute.

 
 
 

He added that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who commented openly and liberally on great powers”, was an exception.

“Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly,” he said.

In his Facebook, Mr Shanmugam - who was formerly foreign affairs minister - said Prof Mahbubani’s assertion is contrary to some basic principles of the late founding prime minister which made Singapore successful.

“Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small. Did we get to where we are now, by thinking “small”? No,” he wrote.

“That is why Singapore was and is respected, despite being one of the smallest countries in the world. And Singaporeans are proud to be Singaporeans.”

Mr Bilahari also took issue with the suggestion that Singapore should behave differently now, saying it is “wrong” and “offensive” not only to Mr Lee’s successors but to all Singaporeans.

He said Mr Lee and Singapore’s pioneers leaders were not reckless, but did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles.

Giving examples of how Singapore diplomats held their ground when faced with larger powers, he said “Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody’s tame poodle”.

Describing Mr Bilahari’s reply as “exaggerated and unnecessary”, Dr Yap said the diplomat had misconstrued Prof Mahbubani’s words.

He added that the professor had not said Singapore should “lay low” and favour larger countries but “reminded us in his article that Singapore should continue to pursue a course that suits the world without trying to behave like a large country”.

He also said: “As a Singaporean, I don’t want our country to be engulfed in large-scale battles that require enormous resources because we can’t afford to do so as a small country. This is common sense.”

Meanwhile, Mr Ong said Prof Mahbubani’s underlying concern seemed to be that Singapore was not exercising enough “savviness” in dealing with the South China Sea issues.

Mr Shanmugam had shared a link to Mr Bilahari’s post, calling it “a brilliant response – the response that Kishore’s article deserves”.

He questioned if that was truly the case, saying: “I personally thought that the thinking South-east Asians respect Singapore’s strategic positioning and diplomatic efforts. We have done what is needed based on what we know and the prevailing circumstances.”

Mr Shanmugam, in his Facebook post, also drew on his own experiences as foreign minister from 2011 to 2015.

He said he never forgot that Singapore was a small country, with limits to what it could do.

“But equally I also knew, that once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied. And I never allowed myself to be bullied, when I represented Singapore,” he added.

In instances where ministers from other countries “threatened us, in different ways, took a harsh tone” when Singapore would not give them what they wanted, Mr Shanmugam said: “As all our Foreign Ministers have done, I just looked them in the eye and told them we stood firm. They changed their attitude after that.”

Singapore must be clear about its interests, and go about it smartly, “but not on bended knees and by kowtowing to others”, he added.

Almost every country is bigger than Singapore, including its neighbours, he pointed out. 

“We treat each other with mutual respect. Once we are shown to be “flexible”, then that is what will be expected of us every time,” he wrote.


RESPONSES TO PROF MAHBUBANI'S COMMENT:

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong in comment offered to ST:

Kishore Mahbubani has written an article about three big lessons to be learned from the Qatar crisis. 

The situation in the Gulf is still developing and the world should watch it closely as there are and will be implications for everyone. I wish to comment on his argument that small states should act like small states.

What is a small state? Is it small based on physical size or size of population or economy? Singapore is a member of the Forum of Small States (FOSS) at the United Nations, a useful mechanism Singapore diplomats helped to create. 

Singapore is the smallest country in ASEAN in terms of its land territory. People in bigger ASEAN neighbours have never hesitated to say Singapore is a “little red dot”. But we know that size is a relative thing.

The article seems to suggest that a small state should know its place and not try to stand up for its national interests if these are going to get in the way of big-power politics. 

It does not seem particularly interested in examining the elephant in the room: what happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics.  Or do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests?

Singapore has always adopted a friendly approach to states which want to be friendly with us. We have always been particularly sensitive in managing foreign policy. We do not go around looking for trouble. But when necessary, Singapore has stood up to pressure from other states when its interests were at stake.

There is no choice but to stand up. 

Doing otherwise will encourage more pressure from those bigger than ourselves. Does it come with a cost? Of course and there will be short-term, perhaps even medium-term, effects. But for a state like Singapore, we want international relations to be conducted on an equal basis - while we understand some states are bigger, richer and more powerful than Singapore, it is not to our national well-being if international relations are based purely on how big you are. 

We would rather have a world in which states find ways to cooperate - we all have our respective comparative advantages - and there are many ways states, big or small, can work together to make the world a better place. It takes all sides to do so.

For years, Singaporeans have been successful in creating space for ourselves. Some have called it “punching above our weight”. I believe Kishore has used this term very often in the past. Has something changed so much that he now disagrees with this Singapore trait? 

As a state, we will have to continue to search for new avenues to create space for ourselves even as the world around us continues to change. And this could mean we may at times have to stand up for our national interests against bigger powers.

Basically, Kishore’s underlying concern is that Singapore is not exercising enough apparent savviness in dealing with the South China Sea issues.

 Is that the case? I personally thought that  thinking Southeast Asians respect Singapore’s strategic positioning and diplomatic efforts. We have done what is needed based on what we know and the prevailing circumstances. Domestic politics in member states impinging on ASEAN external relations is something beyond Singapore’s control.

Regarding what the ancient Greek historian Thucydides said, it is important to bear in mind the context.  Kishore refers to the quotation: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

This was  actually mouthed by emissaries from Athens sent to the small state of Melos. The Athenians did not like Melos staying neutral in Athens’ war with Sparta and demanded tribute and submission from the Melians who maintained they were neutral and that Athens need not subjugate them. The Athenian emissaries responded with the now oft-cited quote and  said that if they accepted Melos’ neutrality, others would think that Athen was weak. Athens then proceeded to conquer Melos, killing its men, selling its women and children into slavery, and colonising Melos with its own people.

Two thousand years on, small states may still have limited options, but human society has come together to create international norms and legal frameworks that govern the conduct of relations between states big and small. The issue is how modern states successfully preserve their independent foreign policy when caught between rising powers. 

Small states do this by being precisely what Kishore says: Machiavellian. They do not preserve the space to manoeuvre by being quiescence on the international stage or minding their own business. I am sure that Singapore’s leaders today understand this point very well.

I agree with Kishore on the need to invest in ASEAN to make it a more effective regional organisation, and cherishing the UN in promoting global peace and security. 

On ASEAN, the challenge is to converge the diverse views among ASEAN member states and take into account the organic capability of Southeast Asia. There is the constant yearning to model after Europe. The fact is the two regions are fundamentally different.

As the Secretary-General of ASEAN from 2003 to 2007, I saw ASEAN leaders managing their group chemistry and dynamics to handle the ups and downs of regional cooperation and institutional building. It may be time consuming and there are many imperfections. Yet, there is peace and  steady economic development notwithstanding the complicated relations among member states and between ASEAN and the major powers.

Singapore’s economical contribution to ASEAN’s organisational development is regularly belittled. More money does not mean more desired outcomes. In fact, Singapore spends many times the amount of its annual contribution to the ASEAN Secretariat budget on projects under the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) to narrow the development gaps among member states. 

The key thing going forward is to increase public support for a cohesive and united ASEAN which offers small states like Singapore more opportunity to sustain growth and prosperity.

Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan on Facebook:

Kishore's article in the ST of 1st July, the link is below, is deeply flawed. There are indeed lessons to be learnt from Qatar's recent unhappy experience, but not the ones he thinks.

I have no quarrel with what Kishore has to say about regionalism and the UN. But his first lesson -- that small states must always behave like small states --is muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous.

Kishore once never tired of saying that we must 'punch above our weight'. He obviously has changed his mind.

But the reason he has done so and what he has to say about the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the suggestion that now that he is dead we should behave differently, is not just wrong but offensive not only to Mr Lee's successors, but to all Singaporeans who have benefited from what Mr Lee and his comrades have bequeathed us.

Kishore says that he has learnt a lot from Mr Lee, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Rajaratnam. I don't think he has learnt the right lessons or he has only learnt half a lesson.

Coming from someone of Kishore's stature -- he is after all the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy -- it is so dangerously misleading that it must be vigorously rebutted even at the cost of offending an old friend.

Kishore says Mr Lee never behaved as the leader of a small country and earned the right to state his views because he was respected by the major powers. True. But how did he earn that right?

Mr Lee and his comrades did not earn respect by being meekly compliant to the major powers. They were not reckless, but they did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles when they had to. They risked their lives for their idea of Singapore.

They took the world as it is and were acutely conscious of our size and geography. But they never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.

Independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates. They did not earn the respect of the major powers and Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle.

We will be friends to all who want to be friends with us. But friendship must be based on mutual respect. Of course we recognise asymmetries of size and power -- we are not stupid --but that does not mean we must grovel or accept subordination as a norm of relationships.

In 2010 then PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at an ASEAN meeting was reported to have publicly and pointedly reminded ASEAN that China was a big country, staring at then Foreign Minister George Yeo. Mr Yeo reportedly stared right back.

I was not at that ASEAN meeting so I do not know if the story is true, but it gained wide international currency

Neither was Kishore at that meeting. Still, he certainly seems to have absorbed the lesson Mr Yang was trying to convey very well even without being there.

Mr Lee stood up to China when he had to. To my knowledge Mr Lee is the only non-communist leader ever to have gone into a Chinese Communist Party supported United Front and emerged victorious. The Chinese respected him and that is why he later had a good relationship with them. I don't think anyone respects a running dog.

In 1981 then US Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge threatened to complain to Mr Lee and that there would be 'blood on the floor' if our then Foreign Minister S Dhanabalan did not not comply with American wishes.

Mr Dhanabalan calmly held our ground.

Mr Holdridge obviously did not understand either Mr Lee or Singapore. This is perhaps to be expected because the US, like China, is bigger and more powerful than Singapore. But Kishore ought to know better. He was after all part of the delegation to the international meeting where the incident occured. Apparently he does not remember or now finds it politic to feign amnesia.

Mr Lee and his comrades stood up to Indonesia and refused Suhato's request to spare two Indonesian Marines the gallows. Their act of terrorism during Confrontation had cost innocent civilian Singaporean lives. The Marines had been convicted after due legal process and had exhausted all avenues of legal appeal.

On what basis could we have spared them? Because Indonesia is big and we are small? What conclusion would Suharto, and others, have drawn about Singapore had we done so? How would the relationship have developed?

The principle established, some years later Mr Lee laid flowers on the graves of the Marines. Both standing firm and being gracious without compromising principle were equally important and were the foundation of Mr Lee's long and fruitful friendship with Suharto.

I am profoundly disappointed that Kishore should advocate subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy. It made me ashamed.

Kishore will no doubt claim that he is only advocating 'realism'. But realism does not mean laying low and hoping for the leave and favour of larger countries. Almost every country and all our neighbours are larger than we are. Are we to live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks?

What kind of people does Kishore think we are or ought to be?

Minister K. Shanmugam on Facebook:

[Bilahari’s brilliant response to Kishore]

Kishore Mahbubani had written a piece on foreign policy which I found questionable, intellectually.

Bilahari has given a brilliant response – the response that Kishore’s article deserves. I have included the link to his response below.

Kishore’s comments for example: “Small states must always behave like small states” are contrary to some basic principles of Mr Lee Kuan Yew Principles which made us successful. Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small.

Did we get to where we are now, by thinking “small”? No.

That is why Singapore was and is respected, despite being one of the smallest countries in the world. And Singaporeans are proud to be Singaporeans.

As Foreign Minister, I never forgot that we were a small country and there were limits to what we can do. But equally I also knew, that once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied. And I never allowed myself to be bullied, when I represented Singapore.

There were Ministers from other countries who threatened us, in different ways, took a harsh tone, when we didn’t give them what they wanted.

As all our Foreign Ministers have done, I just looked them in the eye and told them we stood firm. They changed their attitude after that.

Handling international relations is not all toughness. It has its funny moments. One example for me, is a conversation with a former German Foreign Minister. I liked and respected him. Once he was trying to persuade me to agree with a German point of view. And he said: “We small countries should support each other” – bracketing Singapore and Germany as “small countries!” I laughed and responded to say I wished we were small like Germany, with the fourth largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe, and with a population in excess of 80 million. Charm is also part of diplomacy, and he was being friendly and charming.

We have to be clear about our interests, and go about it smartly. But not on bended knees and by kowtowing to others.

By definition almost every country, including our neighbouring countries, are all bigger than us. We treat each other with mutual respect. Once we are shown to be “flexible”, then that is what will be expected of us every time.

Quoting Thucydides without contextualising, may appeal to those who don’t know foreign policy, and lead to erroneous conclusions.

I will suggest that those with an interest in foreign policy read Bilahari. He is an intellectual, with a deep understanding of how foreign policy works.

LKY School academic Yap Kwong Weng in comment offered to ST

I am responding to Bilahari Kausikan, an Ambassador-at- large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He wrote a long Facebook post rebutting the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School Kishore Mahbubani’s ST article titled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country”.

I find Bilahari’s reply exaggerated and unnecessary. There is nothing “flawed” or “dangerous” about what Kishore had to say. Kishore stated that small states should not behave as if they are big states. He pointed out we will not have another Lee Kuan Yew anytime soon.

His key point was to be mindful not to over extend our capacity as a small nation. There was nothing wrong or disrespectful about this line of thinking. What bothers me is about the way how Bilahari had to misconstrue what Kishore had to say, by bringing his arguments out of context.

This was not about friendship that he claims to have with Kishore or an intellectual argument that he was trying to put forth. It was about the need to exercise judgment in a public setting. Bilahari’s response felt like an irrelevant knee-jerk reaction. He tried to argue that Kishore had changed course on how Singapore should not ‘punch above our weight’. He also suggested that Kishore advocates “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy”.

Both of Bilahari’s assertions are wrong and misleading. Kishore made this point in the context that more prudence is required of small states when it comes to geopolitical calculations. He referred to LKY as a leader who doesn’t behave like a leader of a big country, and gained respect from other world leaders because of his foresight and leadership in bringing Singapore to where it is today. I do not see any problems with that. Kishore did not refer in any way that Singapore should “lay low” and favour larger countries as put by Bilahari. Kishore reminded us in his article that Singapore should continue to pursue a course that suits the world without trying to behave like a large country. Kishore used in his article, as an example, the miscalculations of Qatar by participating in a joint bombing mission with the US and other Arab states because such actions would bring about more negative implications to Qatar, as a small state, as compared to those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Here, Kishore’s claim is reasonable and well justified. As a Singaporean, I don’t want our country to be engulfed in large-scale battles that require enormous resources because we can’t afford to do so as a small country. This is common sense. In his article, Kishore emphasised the need for small countries like Singapore to exercise discretion concerning matters that involve great powers. He did not steer his arguments to say that Singapore should lay low and not stand up to larger countries.

As Dean of LKY School, it is his job to give useful examples and state lessons learnt in public policy. This article was no exception. Unfortunately, Bilahari went on to exaggerate the matter by pulling in irrelevant examples on how Singapore survived in a separate context. For example, he cited an example that former foreign minister George Yeo “stared back” in an ASEAN event after Yang Jiechi said that China is a big country, which is a fact. What Bihahari meant was that George Yeo stood up for Singapore by staring back whereas Kishore had no intention to stand up for Singapore because of his stated views. This is a weak argument. All Kishore was trying to prove is that small countries shouldn’t make unnecessary moves to survive and thrive in a globalised environment. He merely pointed out that it is difficult to replicate what LKY did because he is a great leader.

But Bilahari tried to relate Kishore’s arguments to LKY as if Kishore had denounced LKY in the first place. This is the part that was deemed unnecessary. I am disappointed that Bilahari, as our Ambassador-at- large, someone whom I still respect, had to criticise Kishore publicly and even attacked his credibility using LKY as a reference point. Given his long years of experience in foreign affairs, he should perhaps suggest ways on how Singapore can become more competitive in current times.