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Singapore’s foreign policy: Taking the poison shrimp global

by July 23, 2017 General

JULY 23 — Singapore has long been something of a mighty midget. A tiny nation with an oversized economy, an influential member of the regional forum Asean and even globally we have a reputation for our prosperity, well-run economy and strict discipline.

However, recently our diplomats and politicians have been contemplating the limits of what a nation smaller than several Australian farms can and should expect to achieve on the world stage.

Kishore Mahbubani, head of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy penned an editorial cautioning Singapore to learn from Qatar’s mistakes and keep in mind that “small states must always behave like small states.”

Effectively Mahbubani was warning our leaders and diplomats not to get too big for their boots. He was quite explicit in stating that Singapore should keep a low profile in matters like the South China sea dispute and our noses out of the business of major powers.

On Tuesday, our Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan appeared to scorn Mahbubani’s cautious position. He took the position that Singapore, regardless of its size, had to “stand up and be counted… maintain and expand our relevance, and create political and economic space for ourselves.”

So, we can either:

1. Preserve our sovereignty and pursue our interests by keeping the low profile befitting a tiny nation.


2. Ignore our tiny stature and affirm our status as a middle power that is not afraid to stand up to larger nations.

The two visions represent very different paths in our national development.

Obviously, going the path of Qatar, a nation of 300,000 citizens (not even a tenth of our population), which has used fighter aircraft to strike Syria, is home to a huge US base, yet provides space for the offices of Hamas and the Taliban while engaging in intrigues even in “big brother” Saudi Arabia is not desirable for Singapore.

Should Singapore behave like a small state and not make waves when it comes to foreign policy? — Reuters file picShould Singapore behave like a small state and not make waves when it comes to foreign policy? — Reuters file picHowever, playing a quiet but slightly Machiavellian lap dog to whoever is the big man on the South-east Asian campus at the time is also no way to go about securing our long-term interests.

As great power conflicts and games work their way to every corner of the world and sitting as we do on hyper strategic sea lanes, it’s not viable for us to remain voiceless.

Global events will come to us and we will inevitably have to face at least tacit intimidation from regional and global powers so we might as well be ready.

Also far from over-reaching, I believe Singapore is actually underplaying its diplomatic hand. If you look at nations with quite similar GDPs and populations — Switzerland, Ireland, Norway even tiny Qatar itself — these nations have considerable aid budgets, support multiple NGOs and work (hyper)actively in regional and global diplomacy.

Now getting actively involved in various global peace processes is probably not to our taste but there are forums we could be hosting.

Dialogues on Asian solutions, organisations promoting development of small states/island economies, perhaps some active brokering of regional disputes.

Our contribution to the UN in terms of office space and personnel is still limited; Bangkok is the UN centre for the region, not Singapore. And we could certainly up our financial contribution to Asean — the entire Asean secretariat currently functions on around US$20 million (RM85.7 million) per year — which Singapore alone could bankroll without blinking.

What would this achieve?

It would give us strategic depth. Clout through other organisations, external aid, heavy overseas investment — all these would reaffirm Singapore’s status as a middle power, deepen our ties to allies and make us a valuable friend and undesirable foe to any major power.

Another thrust has to be the media — with our education, multi-lingual fluency and technical capability we should have regionally influential media houses, not necessarily a Singapore Al Jazeera but certainly more reach than our media currently has.

All this media, ultilateral reach, financial resources are also at play in Qatar. And while Mahbubani is right in that we don’t ever want an open conflict with either regional or global powers, another lesson from the current Qatar conundrum is that isolated and facing huge rivals, Qatar is, so far, faring rather well.

The tiny nation has not capitulated or been brought to its knees despite an amazingly comprehensive blockade. Its string of alliances and its media have allowed it to come out fighting and that’s something worth noting.

A small state that is well equipped can be a surprisingly formidable foe. In fact the lesson seems to be that in today’s chaotic global environment, small states have a lot of room to manoeuvre and should be doing anything but backing off.

By cultivating our local allies (Malaysia and Indonesia), ensuring our military remains first rate and developing our media and ties to the UN/Asean we can certainly live up to and exceed our founding father’s vision:

Lee Kuan Yew said,”In a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimps, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp.”

He never behaved as if he was the leader of a micro state and, at various points, faced down China, the US, Indonesia and Malaysia.

This proved to be the right path in the past and I think it is the right path for the future. With more resources and potential allies at our disposal, we should — with some tact — only be looking to increase the scale of our diplomacy and ambition.

The poisonous shrimp should grow fatter.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.