Keep calm and carry on negotiating

A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (centre) passes a Malaysian government vessel (left) in the waters between Singapore and Malaysian, on Dec 6, 2018.
A Singapore Police Coast Guard vessel (centre) passes a Malaysian government vessel (left) in the waters between Singapore and Malaysian, on Dec 6, 2018.PHOTO: ST FILE

I found myself shouting "bravo" on reading Mr Cheng Shoong Tat's letter (Time S'pore responded like-for-like to Malaysia; Jan 15).

It was a primal reflexive response, soon to be tempered after carefully reading Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's report to Parliament (S'pore to discuss issues with KL calmly, but will guard its turf: Vivian; Jan 15).

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth simply signifies revenge and retribution. The adoption of such a mediaeval mindset strategy involves no diplomatic effort.

Singapore has the ample military wherewithal to repel any incursion into our territory but such a sanguinary approach backing any confrontation can only be adopted after all other avenues have been exhausted.

In this context, that means bilateral consultations in good faith, third-party refereeing or adjudication by internationally-sanctified bodies.

Provocation met by dignified responses and bilaterally satisfactory settlement without use of force are the sine qua non of good diplomacy which, traditionally, is our forte.

We should always negotiate with the comity of nations in mind, even while wielding a big stick.

Nobody really wins big when countries endeavour to give each other a bloody nose in a tit-for-tat manner.

The new Malaysian government, even as led by a veteran prime minister who has always displayed antipathy towards Singapore, has multifactorial problems it must resolve urgently if it wants to stay in power.

Playing the Singapore bogeyman card will not be the first nor last time it will use it as a gambit in an effort to detract attention from its pressing plethora of predicaments.

Keeping this new fracas low-key without amplification, while steadfastly maintaining decorum, will thwart any effort to make us an effective pawn to Malaysian politics.

Confrontation and jingoism is going to be the least productive strategy.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2019, with the headline 'Keep calm and carry on negotiating'. Print Edition | Subscribe