Friday 23 June 2017

Singapore Is Not An Island: Views on Singapore Foreign Policy by Bilahari Kausikan

Singaporeans urged to critically assess news they read
Be aware of how foreign media and agencies can manipulate public opinion: Diplomat
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 22 Jun 2017

Singaporeans need to be aware that the manipulation of public opinion has long been used as a tactic by many to pressure governments to change policies, said Ambassador-at-Large and former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan.

For this reason, it is important that they critically evaluate the news they read and develop "clear, independent and balanced judgments", he told about 200 people yesterday at the launch of his book, Singapore Is Not An Island: Views On Singapore Foreign Policy.

Citing the flood of criticism in the Western media about United States President Donald Trump, he said it would lead one to conclude that nothing the US administration has done is right.

For instance, Mr Trump's reaffirmation of the "one China" policy was depicted as weakness though it has been a stance the US held since 1972, Mr Bilahari said at the event organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

And while acts like the pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership undermine American credibility, it is "factually incorrect to suggest nothing in Mr Trump's administration is right", he said.

For example, Mr Bilahari, 63, said it was correct for President Trump to deploy carrier strike groups to and near Korean waters in response to recent North Korean missile tests. Mr Trump's predecessor, Mr Barack Obama had adopted the policy of strategic patience - "a serious mistake that gave Pyongyang eight years to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities", he said.

These criticisms by the Western media and foreign policy establishments are often driven by their inability or unwillingness to come to terms with the election of Mr Trump, he said. Their motivations may be understandable "but are none of our business", he said.

"Rushing to judgment based on unprincipled acceptance of other people's assessments... may lead to wrong policy choices," he said.

Singapore as a small country has to work with all governments, he said, regardless of whether their policies suit its preferences.

Former foreign minister S. Jayakumar, who was the guest of honour at the book launch, urged Singaporeans to take a greater interest in foreign policy.

While people are often vocal about foreign policy, they are not always well informed and may sometimes become unwitting tools of other countries, he said.

There were also some who have fallen to the temptation of using foreign policy as a tool of partisan politics, he said.

"Not only must we be aware of national interests which lie at the heart of our foreign policy, but we must also not be blind to the fact that other countries will and have mounted rather clever and cunning tactics to influence various segments," he said.

He urged people to be wary of external influences that "don't have the best interests of Singapore at heart".

Singapore Is Not An Island: Views On Singapore Foreign Policy is published by Straits Times Press. The price (with GST) is $26.

Why Singaporeans need to understand country's foreign policy
TODAY, 22 Jun 2017

In today’s fast-changing world, it is crucial for Singaporeans to take an interest in and understand the fundamentals of the country’s foreign policy, so that they do not become easily influenced by external forces, said former Senior Minister S Jayakumar. He noted that while people are often vocal about foreign policy, they may not be well-informed and may unwittingly be used by other countries trying to sway Singaporeans to their side.

Professor Jayakumar made these comments on Wednesday (June 21) as the guest of honour at the launch of the book Singapore Is Not An Island: Views on Singapore Foreign Policy, by Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan.

Below is a transcript of the speech by Professor Jayakumar, who was previously Minister for Foreign Affairs:

I am very pleased to be here with so many friends and former colleagues to launch Bilahari’s book on Singapore foreign policy.

All Singaporeans should be interested in Singapore’s foreign policy interests and concerns. It should be in the consciousness of all Singaporeans.

However, like most countries, this is not in the natural order of things. Our general public, young and old, have their day-to-day lives occupied with many other demands. Hence those having knowledge of Singapore’s foreign affairs have been, traditionally, the professionals and academics who have to deal with it. This is too narrow a base.

With the fast pace of change today, Singaporeans have become much more aware of news breaking events taking place. This makes it all the more important that Singaporeans become aware of the parameters within which a small, multiracial country in Southeast Asia must operate. Otherwise we become susceptible to external influences that do not have the interests of Singapore at heart.

Some Singaporeans are more vocal and quicker than others to express their views or concerns. This can be seen especially in social media platforms today, where many Singaporeans and residents here express their views. Being vocal is however not the same thing as being informed. This sometimes creates dilemmas for policy makers.

Not only must we be aware of our own national interests, but also we must not be blind to the fact that other countries will mount, and have indeed mounted, cunning tactics using social media to influence various segments of our people, to swing them to their side and be critical of our own foreign policy stance. This is all part of the big power game.

Hence the title of Bilahari’s book is most apt: “Singapore is not an island”. It is typical Bilahari. Of course, every school student knows that Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea. But anyone who knows Singapore well, will understand that our success could not have been predicated on being an idyllic tropical paradise, like a deserted island in the South Pacific, depicted in the illustration on the cover of Bilahari’s book.

Our future depends on how well we understand and manage our connectedness to the rest of this region and to the rest of the world. Our past success depended very much on how we achieved this by balancing and bearing in mind the mutual interests of the other countries that we have built good relations with.

This means that what affects the countries that we are close to, will also affect us. We cannot live and prosper without constantly being aware of the implications of developments around us. During my time as Foreign Minister, foreign policy issues were not major issues in domestic politics. The opposition parties generally did not take issue with the government’s foreign policy decisions.

More recently however, there has been a worrying trend of groups that aspire to prescribe alternate foreign policies when they have only a superficial understanding of how the world really works. Singapore’s vulnerabilities have been dismissed or downplayed by such groups. Moreover, as Bilahari has rightly pointed out, “there are the first signs of failure by some to resist the temptation to use foreign policy as a tool of partisan politics”.

There will always be episodes arising from time to time, which will test us as a people. The haze (and Indonesia’s response) was a case in point. Developments in the Middle East and the radicalisation of Muslims living in Southeast Asia would be another.

When such episodes arise, it will be important that as a people, our reactions are not knee-jerk ones - they should be instead reasoned, on the basis of what are our national interests. A good understanding of our foreign policy by Singaporeans will add to our national resilience; it will give us the common instincts to act always as one people when faced with such challenges.

As Bilahari puts it, in the long run, a successful foreign policy must rest on a stable domestic foundation of common understandings of what is, and what is not possible for a small country in Southeast Asia.

It is important that Singaporeans become more and more familiar with the fundamentals of our foreign policy, and of what constitutes our national interests. There is today a changing international landscape; while old problems remain, new challenges continue to confront the region.

For example, the South China Sea territorial disputes have the potential to threaten regional stability. Singapore is not a claimant state but we have to position ourselves to safeguard our interests in the freedom of navigation in international sea lanes.

Events in the world are never predictable and we must always expect the unexpected. When surprising or important developments take place – whether the election of President (Donald) Trump, Brexit, the Qatari situation, the siege of Marawi in Philippines, we should ask ourselves equally important questions. Especially, what these portend for Singapore? Then again, how do we deal with the bigger powers - who have a penchant to pressure or bully smaller countries?

In one of my books, I gave an example of an Asean Regional Forum I chaired as Foreign Minister, where both the United States and China for quite separate reasons tried to bully and pressurise us. Bilahari worked with me closely on that issue to ensure that we stood firm and principled.

For how long can Singapore continue to take an independent and principled position with such big powers? We do not go out of our way to annoy or provoke them but they need to understand that at all times we act in our interests and no one else’s interest.

Therefore I am pleased to launch this book, which is a collection of essays and public speeches by Bilahari.

As Foreign Minister, I worked closely with Bilahari and found him to be one of the finest minds in Singapore’s public service. His unvarnished analysis of foreign policy trends is always refreshing.

Our foreign service was fortunate that he chose to devote his life to diplomacy. The publication of this readable collection can help many more Singaporeans, especially the younger ones who have not lived through much of our 52 years of history as a nation, to have better insights to Singapore’s foreign policy, to know why it was conducted the way it has been all these past years, and how it should be approached for the present and for the future.

Striking a balance between principle and pragmatism
In this speech on June 21 at the launch of a book of essays by diplomat Bilahari Kausikan titled Singapore Is Not An Island - Views On Singapore Foreign Policy, the writer calls for a balance between scepticism and idealism in foreign policy, and between principle and pragmatism, as Singapore navigates a post-America world order.
By Chan Heng Chee, Published The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2017

This book, a collection of the speeches and writings the author has given over the years , captures and explains the thinking of Singapore's foreign policy very well. He shows good insight into the dynamics and issues of regional politics and the world issues he selects to comment on, often with a refreshing perspective. As Mr George Yeo, a former foreign minister, said: " You may not always agree with Bilahari, but you cannot dismiss his views lightly." He is one of the best minds the foreign service has produced. The strength of the essays is in the sharpness he brings to tackling the fundamental existential questions of Singapore and the frankness with which he addresses its dilemmas.

I would however argue that not all Singapore's diplomats practise foreign policy with the same degree of cynicism articulated by Bilahari. I know in one of the first essays, Bilahari urges young people to look at uncertainty with a pragmatic scepticism, not cynicism. I agree. But when you are too sceptical, you become an ideological sceptic. Then, the line between the sceptic and the cynic disappears.

The point is, when one is too sceptical or cynical, one can miss opportunities in diplomacy and foreign policy, in business , in life. Realism yes, scepticism yes, cynicism sometimes. Some even cherish idealism. We must know how to channel the idealism.

I will begin by expanding on the inescapable truths that shape Singapore's foreign policy which Bilahari underscores.

Foreign policy begins with working with the reality and origins of independent Singapore: a Chinese-majority state in South-east Asia , in the Malay Archipelago. We were born out of conflict in a region of war - separation, Confrontation and the Vietnam War. For survival in the region, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the first generation of leaders picked policies deliberately to ensure we would not be seen as a "Third China". We would have been the lightning rod for attack.

Fifty years on, we are in the same location and the realities have not changed. Ethnicity remains an issue in Malaysia and Indonesia, and you can see it resurging in the world. Ethnicity never disappears. It can be dormant, it can wax, and becomes salient when triggered. Ethnic politics is ugly; religious politics is dangerous. There is always the possibility of contagious influence.

Singapore has built a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society. This multiracialism has been what distinguishes Singapore from other countries. To have three-quarters of the population of one ethnic group and yet have the majority Chinese give up its claims to majoritarianism and accept multiculturalism because Singapore is located in South-east Asia was an act of political genius.

It is not a multiculturalism that just tolerates other ethnic groups, but where each group is accorded equal recognition and status.

Singapore's foreign policy was, and still remains, one of protecting its sovereignty and identity as a small state and a multiracial state. They are goals we cannot take for granted. We have seen at least three spectacular examples in recent memory - Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and, more recently, the de facto blockades against Qatar by seven countries in the Middle East.

The nature of our state is something we have to keep explaining to others, including China, where at some levels we are referred to as a "Chinese country". And with the increasing influence of Chinese soft power and economic hard power, Singapore will, through its policy, seek to emphasise the Singaporeaness of our identity and sovereignty.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew made a point of it in the early days of nationhood. We are now also making a point of it because of rising China. It is not evidence of unfriendliness. It is simply a reaffirmation of a national identity that is still in the making and our distinctiveness.


What are the fundamentals of our foreign policy?

Singapore's foreign policy is one based on principles, is pragmatic and consistent.

We must base our foreign policy on principles. That is obvious. We need principles to guide us as we make our way through the complex and, sometimes, treacherous world of international politics.

Our foreign policy is based on the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law and norms, Unclos (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), the rules of the World Trade Organisation, the rule of law.

It is especially pertinent to small states. We have a sense of what we must do to survive and protect ourselves.

I believe our foreign policy must be guided by a set of principles, but we should not highlight it in every speech we make, to say we have a "principled" foreign policy. We can make the point now and again, but it is for others to see our actions and conclude we have a "principled" foreign policy. Our foreign policy should be based on principles, but we should not be ideological about it.

Similarly with consistency. We should not keep repeating we have a consistent foreign policy. I agree with Bilahari when he said in his essay, Seeking Security Through Diplomacy, that: "Consistency is only possible at such a high level of generality as to be practically useless. A foolish consistency can, in fact, be harmful."

We are also realists and there would be times when a country would have to weigh its strategic interests against its principles or values. In the US , we know there are realists who see strategic interests as more important than values in some circumstances in US foreign policy.

This is clearly so with human rights and working with authoritarian regimes. When it is in the strategic interest of the US to work with a country that does not have a good human rights record, they conveniently overlook it.


Our foreign policy over the last 50 years has served us well. We became independent during the Cold War era. We chose to be non-aligned, but pro-West. In the post-Cold War period, like many countries, we had to adjust to the US hegemonic moment and to the Western triumphalist push for democracy and human rights.

You will recall our attempts to push back with Asian values. We welcomed the US security presence and economic presence, but saw the promotion of democracy as a new cultural imperialism. We worked through Asean and other countries in the region to ensure the US stayed in the region and that an emerging China would be integrated into the regional institutions, and, importantly, that the US and China would be able to engage with each other in one forum. I believe everyone in the region, including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, thought this was a good strategic move.

But in the last two decades, the world has changed. When I arrived in Washington in 1996, the US was enjoying its unipolar moment and Americans were full of confidence. I remember I sat in on a strategic futures exercise on the eve of the millennium, run by a Department of Defence think-tank, and we - there were a handful of foreigners - were asked what were the certainties we could think of in the 21st century. We had to type in a line. Many Americans typed in " US will remain the hegemonic power in the 21st century", "America will remain a superpower". And others, "Technology will be king", a few statements on science.

I waited. There was nothing about China. I typed in "China will emerge as a great power in the 21st century". There were a couple of other statements reflecting this thought by the time I finished. But not many.

By the time I left the US in 2012 at the end of my tour, the US had changed from a confident power to one of self-doubt. Bear Stearns had happened, (so had) Lehman Brothers, and America had plunged into a deep recession. There were so many books published on declinism in the US.

I never bought into that thesis. The US is a far more resilient power than that and highly creative. There have also been many periods in history when the US was down and ended up rebounding. Well, today, the US economy has recovered some. The stock market has done exceedingly well, whether it is fully because of the "Trump effect" or not.

China has emerged as a formidable economic power and is the second largest economy in the world. Brexit happened. The election of Mr Donald Trump as President of the US has infused greater unpredictability about US commitment to global leadership.

I believe we are seeing the beginnings of the post-America world. I am not saying the US will not remain a superpower. It will.

But it seems no longer interested in leading the world as it once did during the 20th century. Former US president Barack Obama believed in leading from behind, and the "Syrian red line" showed to be no red line - which disappointed many allies and friends looking to US leadership. President Trump has asserted "America First", rejected globalisation, the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the Paris (climate change) Agreement, and has belatedly recommitted the US to Article 5 of the Nato agreement.

Significantly, German Chancellor (Angela)Merkel, in a campaign rally after the Nato summit in May, said: "The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over."

What is concerning is that we can make sense of the Trump phenomenon if we see him as a culmination of much bigger social and economic trends and that he reflects bigger cultural and social dynamics, as Naomi Klein said in her recent book, No Is Not Enough, on populism in the world.

In a recent lecture, Mr Peter Ho (former head of civil service) spoke of the great disruption that we are seeing today with the rapid advancement in technology, the change in the bases of economies and how borders are breaking down.

I buy into that thesis. What this means is that one must be agile and nimble and think with the times. It may be necessary for us in this new world to re-examine how we do business and the sets of relationships that we have. So, the question is, how do we apply our principles in the new world and do we need to re-examine some of these basic principles?

Professor Chan Heng Chee is chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Foreign policy in an age of democratic dysfunction
Veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan gives his unvarnished take on foreign policy trends in this collection of his essays and speeches. Below is the book's epilogue.
The Sunday Times, 25 Jun 2017

"He that goeth about to persuade a multitude, that they are not so well-governed as they ought to be, shall never want attentive and favourable hearers; because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regiment is subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in public proceedings are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgement to consider. And because such as openly reprove supposed disorders of state are taken for principled friends to the common benefit of all, and for men that carry singular freedom of mind; under this fair and plausible colour whatsoever they utter passeth for good and current. That which wanteth in the weight of their speech, is supplied by the aptness of men's minds to accept and believe it."
- Richard Hooker, 1554-1600, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

In 2016, two unexpected events - Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States - drew attention to what ought to have been obvious: that the international system of the last quarter century, the American-led "liberal international order", globalisation for short, was fraying at its edges. Both events were symptoms, not causes, although as these events play themselves out in the coming years, they may well accelerate its unravelling.

In retrospect, the extent to which the maintenance of the liberal order depended on the existence of its anti-thesis, the Soviet-led "socialist" order, was underestimated. The promise of the socialist order was false. But for 70 years, it was nevertheless a promise that gripped the imagination of millions who acted, lived and died for it. Any good idea taken to extremes becomes absurd. Without the balance imposed by its anti-thesis, globalisation became self-subverting.

Political dysfunctionalities accentuated the challenges of globalisation in a vicious feedback loop. Populism has become the term of choice to describe what has happened. Few would quarrel with the term. But populism is again only a symptom. Identifying the cause leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: in the 21st century, democracy has become dysfunctional.

Democracy is a protean term. But what all forms of democracy hold in common is the idea that ultimately sovereignty resides in the Will of The People. A monarchy or a theocracy may be popular or unpopular, but it cannot be accused of being populist because these political systems validate themselves by different principles. Populists claim to represent the authentic voice of The People; so does democracy. Populism is democracy metastasised into something ugly. Democracy worked best when it was in fact oligarchy legitimated by periodically subjecting itself to the discipline of free elections.

For most of the 20th century, there was little to distinguish the political elites of different parties in mature Western democracies. Parties distinguished themselves primarily by the programmes they professed to meet the fundamental purposes of government: the provision of physical, cultural and economic security. Although political rhetoric often exaggerated the differences, the range of options to provide these public goods was usually not overly broad. Elections were the formal means by which elites circulated. In return, elites required, and by and large received, the trust of The People, at least until the next election.

This was the compact on which the stability of the system rested. It was not perfect, but it worked tolerably well.

That compact is now broken or severely strained in many countries. Notably, but not only, in the United States and many member states of the European Union, it has become harder and harder to do less and less through the political process. What went wrong? Some of the chapters in this compilation attempt to partially answer this question.

Policy always requires trade-offs. In the 21st century, technology simultaneously deconstructed and broadened the idea of The People, making it ever more difficult to know their Will and thus provide public goods - now demanded as rights or entitlements - in a manner that satisfies everyone. Jean Claude Junker, president of the European Commission, best defined the essential dilemma: "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it." Too often, promises were made that could not be fulfilled. The People responded with a sense of betrayal.

The consequence is a growing gap between the values of elites and those of the people they ostensibly represent. Ideas, once less than respectable, and movements, once marginal, have now occupied that space. It is increasingly difficult to reconcile policy, which is or ought to be based on reason, with politics, which is essentially based on emotion. Well-meaning attempts to enhance democracy by amplifying the voice of The People, for example through systems of proportional representation, compound the problem by making political systems less coherent.

The fundamental responsibility of leaders is to lead. Leadership requires trust, which brings me to the quotation by Richard Hooker with which this epilogue began. When Hooker wrote, the idea of the sovereignty of the people was still inchoate. A 19th century French politician once quipped: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." It is no longer just a joke. Every public servant knows that what The People want is not always what is best for the country or even feasible. Now, more than ever, does Enoch Powell's bitter prophesy - "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs"- appear perilously close to fulfilment.

There is no alternative to democracy. Can Western democracies remake themselves? I think they eventually will, but this requires a wrenching revaluation of the fundamental values and premises on which these systems are based that is yet to begin. The situation will probably have to get worse before it can get better.

Non-Western systems are not better off. China's system has the same intellectual roots as Western systems and suffers its own - in someways more acute - version of the dysfunctionalities. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the dilemmas may well prove existential. The solution is not for China to become more like the West. There is no good alternative to the rule of the CCP. The combination of genuine elections with an assertively nationalist electorate, which has for decades been indoctrinated in a very selective version of Chinese history, is not an eventuality that anyone should contemplate with equanimity.

Most of these essays deal with foreign policy. But sound foreign policy must rest on a foundation of sound domestic politics. It would be imprudent to believe that Singapore is immune from the political disease that this epilogue - somewhat starkly for emphasis - has sketched. We are already displaying mild symptoms. That they are still mild should not be an excuse for complacency.

Policy options for a small city-state are narrow, as are margins for error. History teaches us that city-states are particularly vulnerable to rapid technologically driven changes in the structure of the global economy such as those the world is now experiencing. There are no easy or perfect solutions. What is necessary will not necessarily be popular. To continually adapt and survive, trust between the government and people must be maintained. This requires all citizens to be aware of the unique possibilities and limitations of a city-state and the confidence to remain ourselves.

When Straits Times Press asked me to compile my speeches and essays, I was reluctant because they were occasional pieces that I doubted had any lasting value. I agreed only when my friend and ex-colleague, Tan Lian Choo, persuaded me that they might be of benefit to our younger compatriots and took on the onerous task of editing them. I am grateful for her efforts. Since this book is aimed at young Singaporeans, it is dedicated to my children - my daughter Catherine Kamala Wei Sin P S Kausikan, and my son, David Raman Wei Siong P S Kausikan: These are some of the things I wanted to tell you but could not.

Bilahari Kausikan is a veteran Singapore diplomat who retired in 2013, after serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 32 years. He was Second Permanent Secretary and subsequently Permanent Secretary of MFA from 2001 to 2013. He is now Ambassador-at-Large. Mr Bilahari is known nationally and internationally for his strategic analyses, and has a following in international foreign policy circles. He has also established a reputation in social media circles,especially among young Singaporeans.

This is an edited excerpt from his new book, Singapore Is Not An Island, published by the Straits Times Press.

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