Tuesday 8 December 2015

Singapore diplomacy 50 years on

Insight looks at Singapore's foreign policy and how it has helped ensure the nation's sovereignty, survival and growth
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015

Coded messages sent out by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asking for support of Singapore's sovereignty in 1965. A crisis kit-bag, containing items such as satellite phones and temporary travel documents, that consular officers take overseas to assist Singaporeans in distress.

The past and present of Singapore's foreign policy over the past 50 years are on display till Dec 13 in an exhibition at Capitol Piazza on the site of the historic Capitol Theatre.

Delivering the S. Rajaratnam Lecture on Nov 27, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also looked back on key fundamentals of Singapore's foreign policy in his speech.

And he outlined how Singapore can continue to be the master of its own destiny on the global stage by adopting a "balance between realism and idealism" to defend and advance its interests abroad.

But how did Singapore, a small country that could be easily ignored in the international realm, end up punching above its weight in terms of influence on the world stage?

What were the core principles that the Republic stuck to in navigating the choppy years immediately after independence, when communism was still a threat and there was the danger of armed conflict at its doorstep, with Konfrontasi and the Vietnam War ?

And what lies ahead as Singapore attempts to write a new chapter in its overseas dealings over the next 50 years?

Insight charts the development of Singapore's foreign policy, from the initial scramble to establish a diplomatic corps, to the enduring challenge of juggling multilateral partners whose interests may not always be aligned.

The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015

1965: Singapore joins the United Nations as its 117th member on Sept 21

1967: Asean is formed in Bangkok by the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand

1971: Singapore hosts its first major international summit: the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

1978: Vietnam invades Cambodia, drawing strong opposition from Singapore and Asean countries, whose firm and united stance raises the grouping's profile and helps resolve the conflict

1989: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation is formed in Canberra to lower barriers to trade, with Singapore one of the 12 founding members

1990: Singapore establishes diplomatic relations with China, the last Asean member to do so

1992: The Singapore Cooperation Programme is launched

1996: Singapore hosts the first Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation

2000: The Initiative for Asean Integration is launched in Singapore to assist the integration of new members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam into the grouping

2007: Asean leaders meet in Singapore to sign the Asean Charter, a legal and institutional framework for the regional grouping

2015: The Asean Community will be established on Dec 31, a signal of members' commitment to greater economic and social integration across the region

Vietnam War, Konfrontasi, China... Singapore diplomats rose to the challenge
Insight looks at how diplomacy, Singapore-style, was forged during the rocky period from 1965 to 1990
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015

When Mr S. Rajaratnam was appointed Foreign Minister shortly after Singapore's Independence and had to face a press interview, he asked his boss what the country's foreign policy was.

Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew replied: "Raja, you had better wear a tie and a lounge suit. That's most important. Then after that, you just say what comes to the top of your head."

That was not the only aspect of Singapore diplomacy that had to be formed on the fly. Unlike other ministries that already had a presence before Independence, the Foreign Ministry had to be built from scratch, drawing civil servants from various agencies with little background in diplomacy.

Office space was found in City Hall for these raw recruits to diplomacy - one civil servant who had attended a foreign service training course in London nearly 10 years before was deemed among the more experienced.

These novices had to find their feet immediately in turbulent times affected by several serious conflicts: The Cold War, involving the United States and Soviet Union superpowers, was simmering; the Vietnam War was raging; and ripples from Konfrontasi - the period in the 1960s when Indonesia waged an undeclared war to oppose the formation of Malaysia - were being felt. Putting aside these huge challenges, the first order of business was to secure recognition of Singapore's Independence.

The day before its announcement on Aug 9, 1965, the groundwork was laid by coded messages sent to about 20 countries to explain the separation and to ask for support for the island's sovereignty. Positive replies came from countries such as Britain and New Zealand. Less than a month later, Singapore applied to join the United Nations. On Sept 21, the request was approved unanimously by member states and Mr Rajaratnam addressed the UN General Assembly as a representative of its 117th member. This conferred much-needed legitimacy on the fledgling country.

Immediately after becoming part of the UN, then-Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye embarked on a goodwill mission to 15 countries in Africa, Europe and Asia over two months to drum up awareness of Singapore as an independent state.


Besides this "charm offensive", Singapore also began to form and articulate its foreign policy.

As a small country, the Republic had to recognise its limited influence in shaping international discourse. But it also had to show it had the spine to stick to its principles to retain its credibility and keep its new sovereign self secure.

Compulsory national service was introduced and the first batch of recruits was called up in August 1967. Military spending was kept high right from the start - Singapore's defence budget is the biggest in South-east Asia today - to acquire sophisticated weapons.

About 70 tanks were bought in 1969 and when 18 of these AMX-13 tanks rolled out during the National Day Parade that year, the region sat up and took notice. Newspapers all over Malaysia, which had no tanks then, carried pictures of Singapore's new armoured firepower.

The urgency to build up its own armed forces stemmed from an acute sense of the island's vulnerability.

Just five months before Independence, when Singapore was still part of the Malaysian Federation, two Indonesian marines bombed MacDonald House in Orchard Road, killing three people and injuring 33 others. Newly evolving Singapore-style diplomacy faced one of its first geopolitical challenges with the aftermath of that.

The Konfrontasi saboteurs were sentenced to death and Singapore did not compromise even when then-Indonesian President Suharto personally pled for clemency. Their execution in October 1968 sparked protests in Jakarta, with demonstrators sacking the Singapore embassy.

Relations with Indonesia nosedived and were not fully repaired until Mr Lee visited the Indonesian capital in May 1973. Realising the power of symbolic acts to heal diplomatic wounds, he sprinkled flowers on the marines' graves - an act that the Javanese believe appeases the souls of the dead - as a gesture of reconciliation.

Over the years, Mr Lee built a reputation as a statesman who understood both the East and West. He was respected by leaders across the globe and his views were equally sought after by Washington and Beijing.

Singapore's "chief diplomat to the world", as described by Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, gave a presence to the country on the international stage as he travelled the world to meet leaders eager to hear his analysis of geopolitics.


Another potential minefield that needed Mr Lee's adroit statecraft was Singapore's dealings with China. As an ethnic Chinese-majority country in the Malay Archipelago, Singapore had to avoid being seen as a client state of China.

Yet this was also a perception the Chinese were only too keen to foster. Singapore diplomats had to politely but firmly point out that it was not a Chinese country, a task they still find themselves performing today sometimes.

When Mr Lee visited China in May 1976, Mr Rajaratnam and then-parliamentary secretary Ahmad Mattar were part of the delegation, signalling Singapore was a multiracial society. All meetings were also conducted in English. This was to "make doubly sure that no-one doubted we were not going in as kinsmen Chinese", he wrote in his memoirs.

Although there were numerous official visits between both countries, including that of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978, they did not establish formal diplomatic relations for many years. Singapore delayed the process, to avoid being labelled a "third China". It made sure it was the last of the five original Asean members - the others are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand - to do so.

As an example of the diplomatic tightrope Singapore was walking, Indonesia severed ties with China in 1967 - the year Asean was founded - after Jakarta accused Beijing of complicity in a communist coup attempt.

It resumed formal relations only in August 1990 - and only then did Singapore launch its diplomatic ties, two months later.

Among other difficulties Singapore faced back then was a volatile region where the spread of communism was a real possibility. The Malayan Communist Party was still active, while communist forces in Vietnam were waging war and eventually won.

Indeed, a common fear of such upheaval and of larger powers dominating the region brought the five original members of Asean together, Mr Rajaratnam revealed in a 1994 Straits Times interview.

Tensions over Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978 also helped Asean. Although some countries backed the action against the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, Singapore and its neighbours stuck by the principle that no country should violate the sovereignty of another.

Asean's united stand earned the grouping attention, and respect, from major powers.

Defence diplomacy also picked up pace. Singapore began conducting bilateral land, air, and sea military exercises with Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, among others.

By the time the Cold War ended, Asean was playing a key role in finding a solution to the Cambodian conflict. Asean leaders were meeting regularly and decided to move forward on closer economic cooperation, and expansion to include 10 countries.

The confidence built up across the region is perhaps reflected in how diplomacy was, slowly, no longer conducted solely in suits and ties. Summits of Asean and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings now include what has become a time-honoured tradition of leaders donning traditional attire of the host country.

A young nation holds its own on world stage
Singapore diplomacy from 1990 till now has seen an expansion of the country's geopolitical space through trade networks, inter-regional groupings and engagement
By Lim Yan Liang, The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015

The first 25 years of Singapore's foreign policy were shaped by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and as senior minister and then minister mentor, he remained much sought-after as a statesman on the global stage.

But the second quarter-century was also marked by two subsequent prime ministers putting their stamp in a different way.

This involved behind-the-scenes diplomacy, not so headline-hitting to the public but nevertheless just as impactful on the country in its own way - the establishment of Singapore's network of cross-border trade deals and active involvement in influential groupings to strengthen links between countries and regions.

The strategy early on of seeking free trade agreements - a bold, out-of-the-box step at a time when multilateral trade deals were stalling - set the stage for the unprecedented Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement reached in October this year. The TPP is the largest regional trade accord in history.

Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told leaders of a Group of 20 Summit in Turkey last month that trade deals that are regional or which involve a group of countries, like the TPP, should be seen as positive developments rather than threats to the global trading system.

"We all know that a more open trading system will lift growth and benefit our peoples," he said, acknowledging that leaders also had to have political courage and leadership to explain and persuade their people that trade benefits all.

Mr Lee's comments were cited by several leaders who spoke at the summit, including United States President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Since Mr Lee became Prime Minister in 2004, no fewer than 10 FTAs have been signed, including the Singapore-Turkey FTA last month.

Laying the groundwork for the FTA approach was the man Mr Lee succeeded, Mr Goh Chok Tong, premier from 1990. Mr Goh - now Emeritus Senior Minister - spearheaded the signing of several FTAs that were in the vanguard of this cross-border freeing up of business and employment mobility.

It began in the early 1990s, when Mr Goh worked closely with his Thai counterpart Anand Panyarachun to launch an Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992.

The landmark United States-Singapore FTA was also concluded and signed under his purview in 2003.

In his speech for the S. Rajaratnam Lecture last year, Mr Goh recounted that when he took over from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990, Singapore had stable relations with its immediate neighbours, and Asean members had developed cooperative ties. "So we shifted our foreign policy attention to increasing Singapore's geopolitical and international economic space," he said.

Singapore was also in a more comfortable economic position then.

But to continue to grow, it would need more open trade links with partners in the region and beyond.

Officials, therefore, sought to negotiate FTAs as an integral part of foreign policy, when conventional wisdom frowned on FTAs as being incompatible with the multilateral trading framework put forward by the World Trade Organisation.

The first bilateral FTA was sealed with New Zealand in 2000. Others followed suit. While the pacts served the objectives of lowering barriers to trade and investment and opening up business opportunities, they were precursors to something much larger.

In 2005, Singapore signed a trade agreement with Brunei, Chile and New Zealand. Called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership - or P4 - it was the basis of what would become the TPP. Closer to home, this approach of strategic trading alliances will see a tangible outcome in the formation of the Asean Economic Community this month which will bring 625 million people in 10 countries into a common market with a combined gross domestic product of US$2.6 trillion (S$3.6 trillion).

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh described Mr Goh as the "architect" of Singapore's FTA policy, in an essay on Mr Goh's foreign policy impact in 2004. "Our FTAs have enabled Singapore to transcend the limitations of its small size by linking up with other economies," he wrote.


Another fundamental tenet of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has come to the fore over the past 25 years is that of expanding Singapore's diplomatic and geopolitical space through the creation of new multilateral forums on the regional and world stage. The most prominent of these is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), which is headquartered here.

Together with the creation in the 1990s of an alphabet soup of other forums that brought South-east Asia and other regions closer - like the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (Fealac) and Asean Regional Forum (ARF) - Singapore gained a reputation as a serious regional player, former foreign minister S. Jayakumar noted in his book Diplomacy.

Such initiatives were created not for their own sake, but to broaden the island's linkages beyond the immediate neighbourhood, while also strengthening Asean's relevance to countries far afield through its lead role in these new forums.

"Other countries know that these new inter-regional forums were not only the brainchild of Singapore, but Singapore had worked hard to ensure they took off," he said. "This is what gives Singapore diplomatic space, credibility and relevance."

These forums have also helped Singapore establish a reputation for being an honest broker and a friend to all. This latter point was highlighted last month when the Republic hosted a historic meeting between China's President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Aware of the fact that influence comes with size, Singapore has also taken a very proactive approach to gathering other small states together to collectively expand their clout on the international stage.

At the United Nations, Singapore established an informal grouping known as the Forum of Small States (Foss) in 1992, convincing a disparate group of countries from Bahrain to Barbados of the benefits of hanging together. Foss today comprises 105 countries and wields enough influence that candidates for key posts in the UN - such as secretary-general - canvass the grouping for support.

Singapore also helped form a Global Governance Group (3G) of 30 small and medium-sized states, to protect their interests following the emergence of international forums such as the Group of 20 (G20).

Singapore's leadership has turned 3G into an effective pressure group to make mechanisms like G20 more consultative, inclusive and transparent, says Institute of South Asian Studies senior research fellow Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury. "The quiet, almost unobtrusive, Singaporean leadership in (the 3G) has been widely acclaimed," the former foreign minister of Bangladesh writes in a paper tracing the group's development.

Indeed, as the current "coordinator" of Asean-China relations, Singapore will have to demonstrate more such leadership in navigating choppy waters, says the assistant group editor of Thailand's Nation Media Group, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn. "Singapore must serve as a fulcrum for conflicting parties to have peaceful dialogue," says the veteran regional commentator. "The recent Xi-Ma historic meeting is a case in point."


Making friends the Singapore way has also meant sharing Singapore's only true natural resource with emerging countries: the developmental know-how grown over the last 50 years. This includes the Government's Singapore Cooperation Programme, which since 1992 has trained more than 100,000 officials from 170 countries in areas such as public administration and water management.

There is also the Initiative for Asean Integration, which provides the newer Asean members of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam technical assistance with the aim of bridging the income gap between older and newer members of the grouping. Since 2000, Singapore has pledged more than $168 million and trained 29,000 officials from these countries.

Such projections of soft power have earned Singapore goodwill.

In an interview with The Straits Times last year, Pakistan's former High Commissioner to Singapore, Dr Sajjad Ashraf, highlighted the island's exercise of this soft power - winning the hearts and minds of people so they become partners.

But observers note that Singapore's reputation for plain speaking and saying it as it is also plays a critical factor.

Mr Chongkittavorn says one strength of Singapore governance is its willingness to take unapologetic but well-considered stands - and this must be retained to ensure its continued exceptionalism.

"Due to its size and location, every word uttered must be carefully constructed in ways that would not increase its existing vulnerability," he says. "Singapore's diplomatic success is partly due to its clear thinking, without the kind of opaqueness practised by other friends in Asean."

Stroke of diplomatic genius lands FTA
The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015

A landmark free trade agreement sealed while Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was prime minister was the United States-Singapore FTA (USSFTA) in 2003.

The story of how Mr Goh swung it is an example of Singapore-style diplomacy at work. It involved pragmatism and the personal touch, in this case a mutual love of golf.

In his S. Rajaratnam Lecture in October last year, on The Practice of Foreign Policy for Sustained Growth, Mr Goh recalled: "The Apec leaders' meeting in Brunei in November 2000 was the backdrop. I knew (US President Bill) Clinton was a night owl. I'd done my homework. So before the state banquet started, I told him I'm looking for a partner to play golf. He said yes, he's also looking for a partner. So I said, 'Okay, let's go and play golf.' I anticipated that. I had my golf bag and my golfing attire all packed in my car!

"Then, a sudden rainstorm erupted. And a Clinton aide told me, 'Looks like the game is off.' So I put on a bold front and told him no, I know my weather, this is a tropical thunderstorm, it will blow over in half an hour. Knowing a little bit about psychology, I told him I am going anyway. I leave it to the President but I'm going.

"So I went, and when President Clinton arrived at the course after me, the rain had become a light drizzle. Then he changed into his golfing attire. By the time he finished that, the rain had stopped completely. We played 18 holes (under the lights at night).

"After we had finished, I made a pitch for a USSFTA. My argument was a simple one. The FTA would signal strongly the US' strategic interest in Asia and anchor the US in Asia. He said it was worth doing, so we agreed to launch the FTA, all in under 20 minutes."

Mr Goh gave this takeaway lesson: "National interests are foremost in determining a country's foreign policy; but personal chemistry and relationships are important enabling factors."

Challenges loom at home and abroad
South China Sea dispute threatens Asean unity; "grassroots" diplomacy a challenge in Singapore
By Lim Yan Liang, The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015

Fifty years on, will the safe pair of hands that has been Singapore diplomacy be enough for the challenges ahead? There is much to be proud of - the Republic's reputation as a safe haven, a good neighbour and open to engaging with the region's people at many levels.

But veteran diplomats and analysts caution that Singapore's stellar diplomatic success so far does not guarantee continued relevance on the world stage. This is especially so, given a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world of competing national interests that have blown away any clear lines in the sand.

In Singapore's immediate backyard, the South China Sea dispute has become a proxy for the larger clash between China and the United States, with Asean nations caught in the middle.

Singapore - a friend to both nations - has adopted the position that it is a territorial issue for claimant states to resolve. But maintaining this neutrality will be increasingly difficult should they press Singapore to adopt a stance beyond that.

"The more neutral we remain, the more one side will say you are supporting the status quo, and that such a position is immoral," says National University of Singapore (NUS) political science academic Bilveer Singh.

Further muddying the waters for Singapore is the fact that fully half of the 10 Asean member countries have skin in the South China Sea dispute. Differing stances on the issue have pulled the grouping apart on more than one occasion, such as in 2012, when it failed for the first time to issue a joint statement because of disagreement over whether to mention the issue.

But if the crisis comes to a head, with Beijing and Washington clashing openly over the South China Sea, defence analyst David Boey says there will be no winners for South-east Asia, only losers, victims and targets. "Which label Singapore is accorded will depend heavily on deft diplomacy, personal ties and goodwill banked over the years by Singaporean leaders and statesmen in both Asia-Pacific powers," writes Mr Boey in a recent blogpost.


As Singaporeans become increasingly global in their travel, the Foreign Ministry will also become more stretched. The point was driven home by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, in a speech last week, when he said that for all it does, MFA's priority is rendering consular aid to Singaporeans abroad.

This year alone saw Singaporeans caught in the Nepal earthquake and stranded on Mount Kinabalu by another temblor. Past terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the recent one in Thailand also ensnared Singaporeans - a prologue to a foreign service that has to stretch itself thinner across the globe. Such a reality means that "MFA will need to increase its numbers, with new officers who possess area expertise and legal skills", says Dr Singh. "Unfortunately, there is a national deficit in this area because our institutions are not producing people skilled in this region, or in areas where we have vital interests."


A global citizenry and Singapore's migrant mix also mean that, increasingly, foreign policy will translate into domestic political issues.

Singapore's diplomatic positions will inevitably become the subject of greater scrutiny at home, with advocacy groups, political parties and the average citizen wanting to weigh in. This means the job of arti-culating Singapore's foreign policy and getting citizen buy-in cannot just be the job of MFA alone.

"We need to brace ourselves for the politicisation at home of foreign policy, and MPs will have to speak on foreign policy to their constituents," says Dr Singh.

Agreeing, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh says there will be a greater need to emphasise that Singapore's foreign policy is based on its national interests.

"Foreign policy should not become a divisive issue, either with our citizens or between the political parties," says Professor Koh, who is chairman of the governing board of the Centre for International Law at NUS. "There is a good American saying: That on foreign policy, the disagreements among politicians should stop at the water's edge."

The launch of the Asean Community this month also highlights the urgency of refocusing on Singapore's immediate backyard, say analysts.

Excitement within some member countries about the Asean Community has been tempered by increasing economic nationalism in others, and already there is a belief that only wealthier members like Singapore stand to gain from the union, at the expense of the others.

Aligning our neighbours' interests with our own will, therefore, be even more pressing. Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his S. Rajaratnam lecture: "Within Asean, our most intense relationships will be with our immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia."

Strengthening these relationships will require both humility and a constant reminder that we co-exist and survive together, he said. "These are complex relationships, and inevitably, from time to time, problems will arise and when they do, we aim to resolve them dispassionately without affecting our wider relationship or raising the temperature."

The growing intersection between domestic politics and foreign policy also means there is a need for a centralised agency that comes together regularly to map concerns and address them, perhaps at the Prime Minister's Office, says Dr Singh.

He adds there needs to be a push for greater consciousness among Singaporeans of how foreign policy can affect them - a shift away from the complacency that assumes the Government holds all the answers, whatever the diplomatic incident.


Singapore's policy of encouraging young folk from around the region to study here, learn about the place and share that knowledge when they return home will stand it in good stead, however.

One example: When Professor S. Jayakumar made an official visit to South Africa, its then-Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma introduced two South African officials to him as "two fellow Singaporeans". They had been trained in Singapore and the Foreign Minister said they were "forever singing praises of your lovely country".

This led Prof Jayakumar to note that Singapore's assistance to other countries has created "a reservoir of goodwill and a network of friends".

And when the recent haze saw tens of thousands of residents in Sumatra and Kalimantan short of masks, volunteers from Singapore outfits Relief.sg and Let's Help Kalimantan travelled to these islands to deliver masks to local residents.

PM Lee said their work - alongside international organisations, and with the Indonesian authorities - "brought about change in a small but tangible useful way".

Back home, steps are being taken to develop closer cooperation between government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - which will also help develop awareness about the ordinary person's potential role in "soft" diplomacy.

When youth NGO Majulah Community wanted to help communities in Malaysia rebuild following floods that devastated Kelantan and Terengganu last December, the organisers approached Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim for help after collecting 8 tonnes of dry rations and other relief goods. A letter from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), explaining that the group was seeking to provide humanitarian aid, helped reduce what would have been a long wait at the Second Link to a short check.

Majulah Community co-founder Khairu Rejal hopes such collaboration can be two-way, noting that after six missions, it knows who to talk to in northern Malaysia "to get things moving faster". Such information can be useful to officials and help build people-to-people links that can give neighbours a better sense of the Singaporean character.

"What we need is greater grassroots engagement between our peoples, so that relationships develop beyond just the leaders," he says.

As Prof Koh puts it: "In an increasingly globalised world, every citizen is a diplomat if he or she interacts with a foreigner, whether at home or abroad."

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