Singapore's bid to grow its reach

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 23, 2013

HARVARD don Joseph Nye once defined soft power as a country's ability to get "others to want the outcomes that you want" by co-opting people rather than coercing them.

As a city-state, Singapore does not possess the hard power necessary to coerce others by threatening them militarily or enticing them with giant economic schemes. Soft power is an integral part of its global footprint. This is so especially in South-east Asia, a primary arena of its foreign policy.

One challenge for Singapore is to correct the perception of it being an interloper. The Chinese- majority island has generated an image of sojourners who supposedly have fed off the region as parasites, compradores and middlemen since the establishment of colonial Singapore in 1819.

In reality, Singapore is a multiracial and multi-religious country consisting of the descendants of immigrants who are here to stay. What distinguishes the Republic is that its speed of development, something achieved in spite of the near-absence of natural resources, has outstripped that of the region as a whole.

Singapore's soft power lies in its ability to translate its experience of development - the proverbial journey from the Third World to the First - into programmes that encourage others in South-east Asia to continue on their own journeys.

They do not have to be like Singapore. Indeed, they might not even want to be like Singapore, whose need to be competitive at all costs has created a hectic and stressful pace of life. But still, the record of the Singapore model of development - a framework of good governance based essentially on a balance between state intervention and market forces - can act as a template of change elsewhere in South-east Asia.

According to the American scholar Joshua Kurlantzick, there are two types of soft power. They are "low" soft power, directed at the broader public; and "high" soft power, which is targeted at elites. "Low" and "high" do not suggest "less valuable" and "more valuable", but identify two target audiences, both valuable.

Low soft power is projected by organisations such as the Singapore International Foundation, the Temasek Foundation and Mercy Relief.

Using grassroots networks, the Singapore International Foundation focuses on programmes that bring people together and build communities. Fielding Singapore volunteers in developing communities to bring about change is a key part of its mandate.

The Temasek Foundation, for its part, collaborates with institutions from Singapore and the region to support training programmes in areas such as health care, education, public administration and disaster-response capability. It is active in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Humanitarian operations carried out after natural disasters by Mercy Relief augment Singapore's image as a nation that cares for its neighbours in spite of its small size and limited human resources. The Singapore Armed Forces' humanitarian mission in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami also amplified Singapore's soft power.

High soft power falls within the special ambit of several programmes and institutions.

The most prominent is the Singapore Cooperation Programme.

Established in 1992, it has trained more than 80,000 government officials from 170 countries. According to the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its main focus is on Asean.

Under the programme, training courses are offered to Asean member-states in subjects such as public governance and administration, trade and economic development, environment and urban planning, civil aviation, land transport, port management, education, health care, and information and communication technology. Newer Asean members - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam - benefit from technical assistance available through the Initiative for Asean Integration.

The Singapore Scholarship for students from other Asean countries is tenable for full-time undergraduate degree courses here in most disciplines. The students are expected to return home to help their countries develop.

Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who has written extensively on Singapore's soft power, notes that Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian officials have acknowledged the programme's utility in carrying out domestic reforms.

South-east Asian countries have applied the Singapore model of development selectively in accordance with local needs, and the Republic has benefited by "building a reputation for transferring skills rather than monetary grants", he says.

Apart from this programme, the most recognisable face of Singapore's high soft power is the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Although its scope is global and its academic programmes are comparative and multi-disciplinary, its students, who include civil servants from the region, are exposed to the defining qualities of Singapore's governance: integrity, efficiency, coopting market forces to achieve social goals, long-term planning, and the ability to react quickly to changing circumstances.

Other organisations that spread high soft power are the Civil Service College International, a learning centre for international participants interested in Singapore's public sector policies and practices; and the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise, a subsidiary of IE Singapore.

Whether high or low, Singapore's soft power demonstrates the difference it makes in the lives of South-east Asians.

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 23, 2013

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