International rule of law an existential necessity for small states like Singapore: CJ Sundaresh Menon

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon speaks at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture at the Raffles City Convention Centre on Oct 15, 2019.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon speaks at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture at the Raffles City Convention Centre on Oct 15, 2019.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

This was the grim pronouncement by the ancient Greek city of Athens, as it violently laid siege to the small but prosperous island of Melos in 416 BC, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon on Tuesday (Oct 15).

Melos had refused to pay tribute to Athens, choosing to remain neutral. It paid a heavy price.

Instead of leaving Melos after it surrendered, the Athenians continued to execute and enslave its people, he noted.

Chief Justice Menon used this historical event to illustrate how far the world has progressed from the application of brute force in ancient times to modern reason and justice.

But he cautioned that today's stability cannot be taken for granted. For small states like Singapore, the international rule of law is an existential necessity, he said.

"Our future lies not in the naive tactic of tethering our fate to whoever we think is the strongest power, for that will mean reducing ourselves to the status of a vassal."

The Chief Justice was delivering the 11th S. Rajaratnam Lecture, an annual platform organised by Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for distinguished public figures to speak on topics related to diplomacy and international relations.

Speaking to 850 government officials, students and academics at Raffles City Convention Centre, he said there has been a gradual decay of the international order that emerged after World War II, and that the rule of law can be easily subordinated to domestic politics.

"Countries increasingly adopt a zero-sum mentality in eschewing multilateral agreements as shackles on sovereignty and a burden on economic growth."

To navigate a polarised world order, Singapore's foreign policy must cleave to five core principles of relevance, defence, diplomacy, legality and consistency, he said.

Elaborating, he said Singapore must maintain its relevance as a centre for trade and finance, by having a successful and vibrant economy that is backed by a strong and respected defence force.


It should also actively contribute to multilateral groups such as Asean, the Forum of Small States, and the Global Governance Group, as these provide a broader stage to advocate its interests and influence regional politics.

Citing Singapore's contributions to the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea in 1982, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015 and the recently-inked Singapore Convention on Mediation, he described how it promotes an international legal order that respects reason rather than force.

It must also remain an honest broker that cannot be "bought or bullied", he added. This involves being principled, adhering to international obligations, and insisting that agreements entered into in good faith are honoured by others.

Returning to the case of Melos, Chief Justice Menon said history shows that what goes around, comes around.

Merely a decade after the siege of Melos, Athens was defeated by Sparta but it was 10 years too late for the unfortunate inhabitants of Melos.

"The moral of Melos is not bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, but the need to remain deeply conscious of geopolitical realities," he added.

It is law alone that provides assurance, predictability and order, especially since countries are now increasingly interdependent and have the technological ability to inflict destruction on a large scale.

The alternative, he added, is a descent into anarchy that dooms not only small states, but much of humanity.

"The long arc of history assures us that a mighty power might be able to bully some of the rest of us most of the time, and most of the rest of us some of the time."

"But when we find ourselves at the receiving end of such bullying, we should pull all the levers of our foreign policy strategy and remain confident that in today's world, no power can bully all of us, all the time," he said.