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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pragmatic but never passive - Singapore Foreign Policy

Pragmatic but never passive
President SR Nathan delivered the MFA Diplomatic Academy's inaugural S. Rajaratnam Lecture on Monday. Here is an edited excerpt of his lecture

AS WITH most other countries, geopolitical circumstances played a big role in the formulation of our foreign policy.
The circumstances under which we gained independence underscored our inherent vulnerability. Located in a then politically volatile region, our foreign policy, made on the run, was directed at coping with this vulnerability.

In the initial years, much of our attention was focused on managing relations with Malaysia, from whom we were newly separated, and restoring ties with Indonesia in the aftermath of Konfrontasi. Given their importance, relations with these countries were handled at the highest political level.

We sought good and stable relations with both Malaysia and Indonesia for the long term. But the fact remained that Singapore and our neighbours were organised differently. We sought to ensure that bilateral relations with Malaysia and Indonesia were conducted on the basis of mutual respect, mutual benefit and sovereign equality. But even as we sought to accommodate each other, we held to our principles and our rights as an independent country.

This was why we stood firm on the death sentence of the two Indonesian marines, despite appeals from the highest office in Indonesia and threats of reprisal. Their hanging sparked street protests in Jakarta and the Singapore Embassy was torched.

It was also for the same reason that we took a firm stand on the caning of Michael Fay in 1994, despite the appeal from the US president and the impact on our bilateral relations with the United States.
I was then our ambassador to Washington. There was a huge media storm in the US but we stood firm. After careful deliberation, the Singapore Government decided to reduce the number of strokes from six to four. The administration was not satisfied and thereafter we had to spend time and effort to repair the damage to our bilateral relations.

But by the end of his second term, president Bill Clinton took the historic decision to begin free trade agreement negotiations with Singapore.

Beyond fostering relations with our immediate neighbours, we also sought to create and secure for Singapore external political, diplomatic and economic space. We reached out to the developed countries. As a small state in a dangerous and uncertain world, we have also seen it in our interest to wrap ourselves in something larger, whether it is Asean, the United Nations or international legal regimes.

We worked to keep the regional architecture open and welcomed the constructive engagement of major powers. Mr S. Rajaratnam famously described this approach in a speech to the Asia Society in New York in 1973: 'Like the sun the great powers will, by their very existence, radiate gravitational power. But if there are many suns then the smaller planets can, by judicious balancing of pulls and counter-pulls, enjoy a greater freedom of movement.'

Through the decades, Singapore consistently insisted on and entrenched the principle of 'open regionalism'. We also worked with likeminded countries to create networks to enhance the region's openness while maintaining Asean's diplomatic centrality.

Another approach which characterised Singapore's foreign policy was pragmatism. As a small country, Singapore took a realistic view of its limitations and constraints. We knew very well that we had very little influence over our external environment. We dealt with the business of foreign relations without sentiment, ideology or illusion. Pragmatism is not the abjuration of idealism or the pursuit of idealistic goals but a necessary condition in international relations, particularly for small states.

To recognise limitations is not to be passive. Between what actually exists and what must ultimately be accepted lies a margin of possibilities. We have always taken a pragmatic and focused attitude and have been able at times to transcend our smallness and limits and make an impact far exceeding our size.

Our pragmatic approach can be seen in the way we dealt with China and Taiwan. In 1967, in order to overcome our lack of training space and not to be completely dependent on the Israelis for assistance in the training of our military, we started discussions with the Taiwanese for use of their training areas.

When Taiwan set up its trade office in Singapore two years later, we insisted that this exchange of trade missions did not entail formal diplomatic recognition of each other. That has remained our policy since. We adhered to our one-China policy and never established formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, even though relations have continued to be friendly and mutually beneficial.

Another fundamental of Singapore's foreign policy was our non-alignment. On Singapore's assumption of UN membership in September 1965, Mr Rajaratnam explained Singapore's position in these words: 'This does not mean that Singapore equates non-alignment with indifference to basic issues of right and wrong or that it will evade taking a stand on matters which it considers vital lest it displeases some member nations, including those with which it has close ties.'

He reminded us that support for particular international developments with political or security overtones could lead to the end of our independence. At the same time, we could not afford to keep our heads low for fear of offending the big powers. We had to make a stand when our interests were affected. This is (the position that) we have maintained since.

Let me cite two instances where we had to make a stand even though we were a new player. At Asean's founding, Singapore defended its right to have the presence of British and Australian forces in Singapore. The Preamble to the draft Asean Declaration that was up for discussion by the foreign ministers included a stipulation which in summary opposed the presence of foreign bases and referred to these bases not being used to subvert the national independence of member countries or serve the particular interest of any of the big powers.

At the inaugural Bangkok meeting, Singapore stood firmly against such a provision, even though others were prepared to live with it. Today, the Asean Declaration states that all foreign bases 'remain only with the expressed concurrence of the countries concerned'.

We had argued successfully that Singapore and Malaysia were fighting a foreign-assisted communist insurgency and such defence support was critical. As I was at that founding meeting and took part in the redrafting of that Preamble, I speak from personal knowledge of our stand and the resultant change.

In the late 1970s, Singapore made another stand. Despite our abhorrence of the tragedy heaped on the Cambodian people by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, Singapore strongly contested the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. This was a clear case of violation of international borders and an act of aggression, which would have established an undesirable principle of international relations if left unopposed. Together with other Asean delegations, Singapore diplomats helped lead the challenge to Vietnam.

In the Non-Aligned Movement and in the UN General Assembly, our stand and that of our Asean colleagues enabled us to move the matter to the 'Paris talks' and helped in the restoration of Cambodia's independence.

In both these instances, Singapore showed its determination not to remain passive for fear of offending others. Others expected us, as a small state, to recognise our vulnerability and adopt a passive approach in our foreign relations so as to avoid retaliation. We chose to make a stand when our interests were at stake.


To recognise limitations is not to be passive. Between what actually exists and what must ultimately be accepted lies a margin of possibilities. We have always taken a pragmatic and focused attitude and have been able at times to transcend our smallness and limits and make an impact far exceeding our size

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