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
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 the challenges Singapore faced as it formed its Foreign Ministry.PHOTO: CAMERA PRESS
US servicemen at the frontlines of the Vietnam War, one of many conflicts raging when Singapore's foreign policy was taking shape.
US servicemen at the frontlines of the Vietnam War, one of many conflicts raging when Singapore's foreign policy was taking shape.PHOTO: NEW NATION
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
This image of the turbulent Konfrontasi period was captured in 1965 by veteran cameraman Willie Phua.PHOTO: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SINGAPORE

Insight looks at how diplomacy, Singapore-style, was forged during the rocky period from 1965 to 1990

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.

Office space was found in City Hall for these raw recruits to diplomacy - one civil servant who had attended a foreign service training course in London nearly 10 years before was deemed among the more experienced.

These novices had to find their feet immediately in turbulent times affected by several serious conflicts: The Cold War, involving the United States and Soviet Union superpowers, was simmering; the

Vietnam War was raging; and ripples from Konfrontasi - the period in the 1960s when Indonesia waged an undeclared war to oppose the formation of Malaysia - were being felt. Putting aside these huge challenges, the first order of business was to secure recognition of Singapore's Independence.


  • 1965: Singapore joins the United Nations as its 117th member on Sept 21

    1967: Asean is formed in Bangkok by the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand

    1971: Singapore hosts its first major international summit: the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

    1978: Vietnam invades Cambodia, drawing strong opposition from Singapore and Asean countries, whose firm and united stance raises the grouping's profile and helps resolve the conflict

    1989: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation is formed in Canberra to lower barriers to trade, with Singapore one of the 12 founding members

    1990: Singapore establishes diplomatic relations with China, the last Asean member to do so

    1992: The Singapore Cooperation Programme is launched

    1996: Singapore hosts the first Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation

    2000: The Initiative for Asean Integration is launched in Singapore to assist the integration of new members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam into the grouping

    2007: Asean leaders meet in Singapore to sign the Asean Charter, a legal and institutional framework for the regional grouping

    2015: The Asean Community will be established on Dec 31, a signal of members' commitment to greater economic and social integration across the region

The day before its announcement on Aug 9, 1965, the groundwork was laid by coded messages sent to about 20 countries to explain the separation and to ask for support for the island's sovereignty. Positive replies came from countries such as Britain and New Zealand. Less than a month later, Singapore applied to join the United Nations. On Sept 21, the request was approved unanimously by member states and Mr Rajaratnam addressed the UN General Assembly as a representative of its 117th member. This conferred much-needed legitimacy on the fledgling country.

Immediately after becoming part of the UN, then-Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye embarked on a goodwill mission to 15 countries in Africa, Europe and Asia over two months to drum up awareness of Singapore as an independent state.


Besides this "charm offensive", Singapore also began to form and articulate its foreign policy.

As a small country, the Republic had to recognise its limited influence in shaping international discourse. But it also had to show it had the spine to stick to its principles to retain its credibility and keep its new sovereign self secure.

Compulsory national service was introduced and the first batch of recruits was called up in August 1967. Military spending was kept high right from the start - Singapore's defence budget is the biggest in South-east Asia today - to acquire sophisticated weapons.

About 70 tanks were bought in 1969 and when 18 of these AMX-13 tanks rolled out during the National Day Parade that year, the region sat up and took notice. Newspapers all over Malaysia, which had no tanks then, carried pictures of Singapore's new armoured firepower.

The urgency to build up its own armed forces stemmed from an acute sense of the island's vulnerability.

Just five months before Independence, when Singapore was still part of the Malaysian Federation, two Indonesian marines bombed MacDonald House in Orchard Road, killing three people and injuring 33 others. Newly evolving Singapore-style diplomacy faced one of its first geopolitical challenges with the aftermath of that.

The Konfrontasi saboteurs were sentenced to death and Singapore did not compromise even when then-Indonesian President Suharto personally pled for clemency. Their execution in October 1968 sparked protests in Jakarta, with demonstrators sacking the Singapore embassy.

Relations with Indonesia nosedived and were not fully repaired until Mr Lee visited the Indonesian capital in May 1973. Realising the power of symbolic acts to heal diplomatic wounds, he sprinkled flowers on the marines' graves - an act that the Javanese believe appeases the souls of the dead - as a gesture of reconciliation.

Over the years, Mr Lee built a reputation as a statesman who understood both the East and West. He was respected by leaders across the globe and his views were equally sought after by Washington and Beijing.

Singapore's "chief diplomat to the world", as described by Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, gave a presence to the country on the international stage as he travelled the world to meet leaders eager to hear his analysis of geopolitics.


Another potential minefield that needed Mr Lee's adroit statecraft was Singapore's dealings with China. As an ethnic Chinese-majority country in the Malay Archipelago, Singapore had to avoid being seen as a client state of China.

Yet this was also a perception the Chinese were only too keen to foster. Singapore diplomats had to politely but firmly point out that it was not a Chinese country, a task they still find themselves performing today sometimes.

When Mr Lee visited China in May 1976, Mr Rajaratnam and then-parliamentary secretary Ahmad Mattar were part of the delegation, signalling Singapore was a multiracial society. All meetings were also conducted in English. This was to "make doubly sure that no-one doubted we were not going in as kinsmen Chinese", he wrote in his memoirs.

Although there were numerous official visits between both countries, including that of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978, they did not establish formal diplomatic relations for many years. Singapore delayed the process, to avoid being labelled a "third China". It made sure it was the last of the five original Asean members - the others are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand - to do so.

As an example of the diplomatic tightrope Singapore was walking, Indonesia severed ties with China in 1967 - the year Asean was founded - after Jakarta accused Beijing of complicity in a communist coup attempt.

It resumed formal relations only in August 1990 - and only then did Singapore launch its diplomatic ties, two months later.

Among other difficulties Singapore faced back then was a volatile region where the spread of communism was a real possibility. The Malayan Communist Party was still active, while communist forces in

Vietnam were waging war and eventually won.

Indeed, a common fear of such upheaval and of larger powers dominating the region brought the five original members of Asean together, Mr Rajaratnam revealed in a 1994 Straits Times interview.

Tensions over Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978 also helped Asean. Although some countries backed the action against the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, Singapore and its neighbours stuck by the principle that no country should violate the sovereignty of another.

Asean's united stand earned the grouping attention, and respect, from major powers.

Defence diplomacy also picked up pace. Singapore began conducting bilateral land, air, and sea military exercises with Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, among others.

By the time the Cold War ended, Asean was playing a key role in finding a solution to the Cambodian conflict. Asean leaders were meeting regularly and decided to move forward on closer economic cooperation, and expansion to include 10 countries.

The confidence built up across the region is perhaps reflected in how diplomacy was, slowly, no longer conducted solely in suits and ties. Summits of Asean and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings now include what has become a time-honoured tradition of leaders donning traditional attire of the host country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Vietnam War, Konfrontasi, China... S'pore diplomats rose to the challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe