SINGAPORE - Small as Singapore is, it has refused to accept being powerless on the international stage as its fate, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Nov 27).
Delivering the annual S Rajaratnam lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said the country is determined to be a master of its own destiny in a world where power often determines which countries prevail and set the agenda.
"Our foreign policy is a balance between realism and idealism," he said to an audience of diplomats, foreign service officers and students at the Fairmont Hotel.
"We know we have to take the world as it is and not as we would wish it to be. But we believe that we can and must defend ourselves and advance our interests."
Emphasising that Singapore's fundamental interests are to have peace in the world, stability and security in the region, a network of friends and allies, and to ultimately preserve its sovereignty, he set out four ways for these interests to be advanced.
First, on the international stage, he said Singapore must be an active, constructive player which seeks to add value and be relevant to other countries.
It has done so on international issues like climate change and maritime law with its officials and diplomats playing active deal-making roles to forge international consensus, he said.
Singapore has also made common cause with other small states in forming groups like the Forum of Small States at the United Nations and the Global Governance Group to influence the global agenda.
Secondly, Singapore must work to sustain good relations with its neighbours, namely in South-east Asia.
It works with its neighbours to make Asean an effective and credible international player, he noted, and also aims to be an honest and fair broker in disputes like the one over South China Sea territory.
With regard to Malaysia and Indonesia, with which Singapore has the "most intense relations", he said that hard work is put into strengthening bilateral ties. When problems arise, "we aim to resolve them dispassionately without affecting our wider relationship or raising the temperature".
Thirdly, Singapore must continue to succeed as a country if it wants to remain relevant on the international stage.
"A failed state cannot have an effective foreign policy," he said.
"The diplomats may be brilliant, they can make eloquent speeches at the UN, but if the country is in a mess, nobody will take them seriously."
Singapore's prosperity and harmony is why other countries want to do business with it and learn from its expertise, he added.
A strong defence force is also a vital layer to protect Singapore when all else fails, he said.
Finally, Singaporeans must remain united across political, racial and religious divides.
PM Lee said that the opposition must understand Singapore's fundamental interests in the world and not "seek to undermine them to court foreign support or to gain political points".
He pointed to opposition veteran and former Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong as someone who stood up for Singapore and "closed ranks" whenever he travelled overseas and met foreign officials.
A clear and consistent direction in its national interests, regardless of domestic political divisions, can help compensate for the Republic's lack of heft, he added.
He noted that Singapore maintains a crucial distinction between racial background and nationality, a distinction not always understood by other countries.
While many Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, Singapore is not a Chinese society.
And, while five of Singapore's former foreign ministers have been of Indian ethnic origin, "they have all taken a Singaporean perspective and represented Singapore's interest, as Singaporeans," he said.
"In the end, both our external influence and our domestic unity and success comes down to us as individual citizens of Singapore. We must be determined that we want to be Singaporean, to stand up in the world, and to be a shining red dot."