How a small player can play a big role in global affairs

The Singapore skyline on April 21, 2014.
The Singapore skyline on April 21, 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore's impact on global warming is almost non-existent. It is "hardly a major emitter of greenhouse gases - even if we all stopped breathing, it would not make any difference to global warming'', said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Yet Singapore plays an active role in global climate change negotiations, including next week's talks in Paris.

Mr Lee cited this yesterday as an example of how Singapore can take important roles in international affairs despite being a small player.

"We have to be an active, constructive player, seek to add value and make ourselves relevant to other countries," he said yesterday at this year's S. Rajaratnam Lecture.

One strategy is "to make common cause" with others, particularly small states.

Another is to anticipate future developments and be in the right position, whatever happens.

Mr Lee noted the apparent incongruity of Singapore, an equatorial country, being an observer on the Arctic Council.

But if the melting Arctic Ocean opens up a northern sea route, that becomes highly relevant to Singapore's maritime position.

It may not happen, he acknowledged. "But if it does, we will be there. These are small bets to hedge our position."

Singapore can also contribute by bringing good ideas to the table and helping to broker deals.

Mr Lee cited the 2005 Pacific 4 free trade agreement (FTA) among Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand, saying it was one "small initiative" which had a big impact.

"Not the first four that would come to mind when you're thinking about the next promising FTA in the world," he said.

Trade among the four was "modest". Yet it formed the nucleus for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a group of 12 nations - including the United States and Japan - comprising 40 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Besides pushing its initiatives, Singapore can facilitate deals.

In climate change, its representatives act as a bridge between developed and developing countries.

Singapore also takes on intermediary roles at the regional level, such as mediating between China and Asean claimant states in the South China Sea, noted Mr Lee.

While Singapore has no claims there, it has important interests at stake, such as freedom of navigation, peaceful dispute resolution and respect for international law.

The aim is not just to preserve regional peace, but also to establish a reputation as a reliable country to deal with - and enhancing Asean's credibility as an effective organisation, he said.

"We are one of the smaller Asean countries, we are not in a dominant position, but we do our part."

Singapore also works with Asean partners to make the bloc an effective, credible player in larger forums, working together instead of negotiating against one another.

Within Asean, Singapore's closest ties are with Malaysia and Indonesia.

Even when problems arise, Singapore tries to settle them without affecting the wider relationship, said Mr Lee, citing the dispute over Pedra Branca island, which was referred to the International Court of Justice and resolved.

Janice Heng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'How a small player can play a big role in global affairs'. Print Edition | Subscribe