News analysis

Why Singapore had to take a strong stand against Russia's attack on Ukraine

Over nine in 10 of those polled in Singapore supported or sympathised most closely with Ukraine in the conflict. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - More than a month after it launched its invasion, Russia continues to pound cities in Ukraine and push its forces into its unfortunate neighbour.

Sadly, millions have been displaced. Cities are blackened shadows of what they were. Once hailed as brothers, Ukrainians now view Russians as hated occupiers, ready and willing to destroy their land and ruin their lives.

The impact is being felt far beyond both Ukraine and Europe. Energy and food prices have shot up and look set to get worse.

Emotions are also running high, with the conflict giving rise to a "with-me-or-against-me" frame of mind among many.

So while some have hailed the swift and sweeping economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a sign of resolve among the United States and its partners, others see it as yet another instance of Western bullying, ever ready to impose its will on those who do not share its worldview.

These differences have been palpable in Singapore too, going by recent polls and views flaring up in online discussions.

A recent survey by research group Blackbox found that over nine in 10 of those polled in Singapore supported or sympathised most closely with Ukraine in the conflict. In comparison, 71 per cent in China supported Ukraine, compared with 91 per cent in India and 86 per cent in Australia.

In the poll conducted early this month, nearly seven in 10 Singaporeans blamed Russia for the crisis, compared with 10 per cent in China, 60 per cent in India and 82 per cent in Australia. Three per cent in China pointed to the United States as being most to blame, while 54 per cent said they did not know who was most responsible.

Singapore responded by imposing sanctions on Russia, targeting several banks and goods like electronics, computers and military items. This move was supported by 60 per cent of Singaporeans polled, while 35 per cent were unsure or had no opinion. In contrast, only 15 per cent of respondents in China supported sanctions, while 41 per cent in India and 78 per cent in Australia said they did.

So the questions have inevitably arisen: Was Singapore's strong stand - more forceful and forthright than most in the region, save for Japan - necessary? Had it done likewise in previous conflicts?

Was imposing sanctions wise? Would there be repercussions for its businesses and people? And did it signal how the Republic might react should similar conflicts break out closer to home?

For some insights into these critical questions, I turned to Singapore's Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is its Coordinating Minister for National Security. A former Navy chief and Defence Minister, he has tracked and thought about these issues for many years. He spent over an hour discussing the current crisis with me and my counterpart from our Chinese-language newsrooms, Ms Lee Huay Leng, at his office earlier this week.

Singapore's position, he said, has been "clear and consistent" over the years.

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"Singapore has always been a staunch supporter of international law and the principles enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Charter. The sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected," he noted.

"We cannot accept one country attacking another country - or trying to overthrow its government through armed intervention - without justification. We cannot accept one country arguing that another country's independence is the result of 'historical errors and crazy decisions'."

International law, he added, as enshrined in the UN Charter, made clear that no country should threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another. The use of force without the backing of the UN Security Council was justified only in self-defence against an armed attack.

"This is why Singapore has strongly condemned Russia's attack on Ukraine. We must take any violation of these core principles seriously, whenever and wherever they occur."

He pointed to how Singapore had done the same in 1983, voting against the United States' invasion of Grenada at the UN General Assembly. Similarly, it had also opposed Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia from 1979 to 1989.

"Our 1983 vote against the US did not mean that we were an adversary of the US. The US was a close friend and continues to be so; but we still had to express our disagreement," he said.

"In a similar way, we voted against the invasion of Cambodia, but this did not mean that we endorsed the Khmer Rouge regime. In fact, we opposed what the Khmer Rouge did to its own people. But we could not accept that one country can invade another."

But even if Singapore felt a need to assert the principle, was there a need to join in the imposition of sanctions by the US and its partners?

Yes, he asserted, "given the unprecedented gravity of the Russian attack on Ukraine".

Singapore's moves were "specific and targeted", and aimed at constraining "Russia's capacity to conduct war against Ukraine and undermine its sovereignty", he added.

"They do not have the same scope as those imposed by other countries," he said, noting that many other countries had imposed sanctions, with each having its own set of measures. The US and many European countries have wide- ranging, but not identical sanctions. Other countries have imposed sanctions which are not as broad.

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The sanctions included export controls on items that could be directly used as weapons to inflict harm on or to subjugate the Ukrainians, as well as items for offensive cyber operations. Some financial measures targeted at designated Russian banks, entities and activities in Russia, as well as fundraising activities benefiting the Russian government were also taken.

While most Singaporeans appear to agree with the need to send a strong signal, there are clear differences of views on the issue of sanctions, as the Blackbox survey made clear. Older, Chinese-educated Singaporeans, and especially those with business interests in China, appear more likely to voice concerns about the wisdom of being seen to be hitching Singapore's wagon onto the US and the West.

Some commentators have argued that since the sanctions are targeted at Russia, which has a much vaunted "no limits" partnership with China, they might be seen as reflecting Singapore's pro-Western bent, and its attitude towards Beijing.

The recent closely-watched virtual meeting between China's President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, during which Mr Biden pointedly told Mr Xi that China would face "consequences" if it provided material support for Mr Vladimir Putin's war, also left some wondering if this was the most effective way to secure Beijing's support.

Mr Xi's response that US-China ties, especially on the fraught issue of Taiwan, have to be managed with care, was also telling. So too his reference to letting "he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off".

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This has led some to conclude that Beijing has decided it is in its interests to watch the crisis unfold, since taking steps to rein in Moscow could end up giving Washington a freer hand to turn its sights back on China, which it has pointed to repeatedly as its top strategic competitor.

I took some of these issues up with Mr Teo. Thoughtfully, he took a few steps back to reflect on the wider issues at hand.

The war in Ukraine, he ventured, has implications for other parts of the world, including East Asia and South-east Asia.

"There are potential flash points in our region whose trajectory could escalate to conflict with catastrophic consequences," he said.

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Conflicts are often deep-seated, and rooted in events over decades and generations, rather than any specific developments of the most recent weeks or months, he said.

"Countries with an interest in our region need to study how events unfolded in Europe over several years, and to have the collective restraint and wisdom to avoid going down the path to conflict.

"Brinkmanship can easily lead to miscalculations with tragic consequences. We should avoid getting to that point. Once unleashed, it will be difficult for the sound of the guns to be quietened."

So, what lessons might be drawn from the unfortunate conflict now unfolding, which threatens not only to divide Europe, but perhaps also to split the world into rival East-West camps, of democracies and autocracies?

He replied: "First, conflicts do not suddenly start on their own. There is always a history to every conflict, with different circumstances in each case. Countries need to understand the history and context, take the interests of the various parties into account, manage the situation and act according to the principles of the UN Charter and international law.

"They should find ways to reduce the precursors of conflict, and pursue all efforts to settle disputes through peaceful means.

Local artist Yip Yew Chong (second from right) and volunteers working on a painting to be auctioned to support the Singapore Red Cross' fundraiser for Ukraine. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

"Second, we should create constructs that try to bridge differences and encourage cooperative behaviour in our region."

He cited the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), aimed at bridging the Pacific. There was also the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a high-quality, inclusive trading group, which might draw countries from across the Asia-Pacific together to foster a shared future of prosperity, peace and stability. Then there were also proposals for an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

"Regardless of the prefix, Asia-, Trans- or Indo-, let us put our energy and creativity into building and evolving constructs that converge rather than diverge," he said.

"This will help create a cooperative environment that will manage the precursors of conflict wisely, and build a region that is truly pacific for years to come."

Much is at stake. Beyond the immediate concerns about how to end the ongoing fighting, are grave issues such as whether the hatred engendered between Ukrainians and Russians might ever be healed, as well as suspicions that have been aroused between Russia and western Europeans, or more broadly, the United States and China.

Wittingly or otherwise, Mr Putin's war in Ukraine has upended the global chessboard. How the pieces will land in the months to come is anyone's guess, but this could determine the future - and, alas, perhaps even the fate - of the world.

Brinkmanship or bridge-building? Let's hope that cooler heads and wiser counsel prevail.

The world now most needs statesmen able to take the long view, both backwards and forwards, to understand that the pressing shared challenges it faces - from the pandemic to climate change - call for less conflict and confrontation, and more collaboration.

Otherwise, a long, arduous road, fraught with uncertainty, lies ahead.

Asian Insider

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