Vivian Balakrishnan outlines core principles guiding Singapore's foreign policy

Republic will be friends with all, and also advance own interests

At the townhall yesterday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called on MFA officers to "anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time" and be prepared to disagree if needed "without being gratuitously disagreeable".
At the townhall yesterday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called on MFA officers to "anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time" and be prepared to disagree if needed "without being gratuitously disagreeable". ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The ultimate goals of Singapore's foreign policy are to protect its independence and sovereignty, and to expand opportunities for its citizens, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

To achieve this as a small country, Singapore will be friends with everyone and, at the same time, must also advance its own interests, he added.

He was speaking at a townhall with about 200 foreign service officers and other civil servants at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

"There is no contradiction between a realistic appreciation of realpolitik and doing whatever it takes to protect our sovereignty, maintain and expand our relevance, and to create political and economic space for ourselves," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan outlined five core principles that guide Singapore's foreign policy, underlining points Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had made recently.

He said the principles have served Singapore well since independence.

First, it is important to keep the economy vibrant and successful, and society stable and united.

Without this, Singapore will be completely irrelevant. "All of us in this room have all witnessed how delegations of less successful small states are ignored at international meetings," he said.

Second, Singapore must not be a vassal state and needs to show it cannot be bought or bullied.

For this reason, Singapore has built up a credible armed forces that is taken seriously, he said.

Third, Singapore must aim to be a friend to all, and an enemy to none.

This means working to ensure peace and stability in the immediate neighbourhood and also building political and economic relationships with superpowers and other regional powers so that "they will find our success in their own interest", said Dr Balakrishnan.

He added that this "delicate balancing act" becomes more difficult when the superpowers and regional powers "contend with one another", which is why it is important to avoid taking sides.

While Singapore spares no effort to develop a wide network of relations, he said, these must be based on mutual respect "for each other's sovereignty and the equality of nation states, regardless of size".

He added: "We don't compromise our national interests in order to have good relations... so when others make unreasonable demands that hurt or compromise our national interests, we need to state our position and stand our ground in a firm and principled manner."

Fourth, Singapore must promote a global order governed by the rule of law, international norms and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Without such a system, small states like Singapore have "very little chance of survival", he said, stressing the importance of Singapore speaking with conviction on these issues.

That is why Singapore has always participated actively at the United Nations and in the formulation of international regimes and norms, he added.

Dr Balakrishnan also warned against appeasement, saying that Singapore must be clear about its long-term interests, and "have the gumption to make our foreign policy decisions accordingly".

He said Singapore stood firm to protect its interests even when it was inconvenient, such as when it caned American teenager Michael Fay in 1994 for vandalism, and when it hanged two Indonesian marines in 1968 for bombing MacDonald House during Konfrontasi. The hangings happened in the early years of independence when Singapore was fighting the communists, and the British said it planned to withdraw its forces from Singapore.

"Can you imagine the guts it took for the leaders in 1968, facing such circumstances, to stand up and do the right thing?" he said.

He added that these were "painful" episodes, but they established clear red lines and sent a strong message that Singapore would uphold its laws and safeguard its independence and its citizens' safety, no matter its size.

"We cannot afford to ever be intimidated into acquiescence," he said.

Fifth, Singapore must also be a "credible and consistent" partner.

Countries take Singapore seriously because it does not "tell them what they want to hear", he said. "They try harder to make Singapore take their side precisely because they know that our words mean something. We are honest brokers. We deal fairly and openly with all parties."

This credibility has allowed Singapore to play a constructive role in international affairs, he added.

Dr Balakrishnan also referred to a recent debate by some academics and retired officials on how Singapore should behave as a small state.

He told MFA officers that they conduct foreign policy on a daily basis, adding: "The deliberations today are not a theoretical debate, and this is not an academic word-spinning exercise on a lecture circuit."

Wrapping up, he said the nature of geopolitics will become more uncertain and unpredictable, and Singapore would have to ensure that its foreign policies reflect this.

He called on MFA officers to "anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time" and to be prepared, when necessary, to "disagree with others without being gratuitously disagreeable".

He said Singapore's approach to diplomacy cannot be like that of a private company as the country's interests go far beyond short-term losses or gains.

"We may always be a small state, but all the more reason we need the courage of our convictions and the resolution to secure the long-term interests of all our citizens," he said.


Dr Balakrishnan 's townhall speech in full.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline Vivian Balakrishnan outlines core principles guiding Singapore's foreign policy. Subscribe