Singapore is not an island: views on Singapore’s foreign policy
From Bilahari Kausikan
Straits Times Press, 2017
The study of Singapore’s foreign policy has been conspicuously limited, despite the city-state’s much-studied policies in other areas. Except for Michael Leifers Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Dealing with Vulnerabilitiesand Narayanan Ganesans Realism and Interdependence in Singapore’s Foreign Policy, published in 2000 and 2005, the study of how this small state deals with the vagaries and vicissitudes of international politics has not yet been explored enough. This is changing.
Several retired Singaporean professional diplomats have contributed their views on Singapore’s foreign policy over the years, including Bilahari Kausikan. Kausikan is a veteran Singaporean diplomat who retired in 2013 after serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for 32 years, including the roles of Second Permanent Secretary and Permanent Secretary between 2001 and 2013. A well-known public intellectual, Kausikan frequently posts comments on domestic and foreign policy issues on his Facebook page and is also known as a prolific post-retirement writer. His comments often appear on both mainstream and social media.
in the Singapore is not an island Kausikan provides an unvarnished assessment and discussion of Singapore’s foreign policy and how the city-state retains its relevance in a world that, in his words, “will probably get along well without a completely sovereign and independent Singapore”. To those who have made the study of Singapore’s foreign policy both a professional and a personal affair, much of what is in the book is not unknown. Indeed, Kausikan’s worldview echoes the thinking of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who in the early years of independence until today had no illusions about the extent of the city-state’s political challenges and the extent of its vulnerability. Given the style and accessibility of Kausikan’s writing, this book is likely to be a key staple for Singapore foreign policy students and scholars interested in understanding how the island nation seeks to involve the world in international affairs.
In the book, Kausikan offers us a broad excursion to the most important topics and questions of Singapore’s foreign policy. Kausikan sets the stage by reminding readers – and one might guess this was written primarily for a younger Singaporean audience – that Singapore’s national interests (e.g., economic development, a stable international environment, and conservation the Singaporean way of life) should not be taken for granted and that the principles of its foreign policy (such as its innate vulnerability, the need to see the wide world as its hinterland and to be friends with everyone) will not be easily forgotten in the early years of Singapore’s independence should.
Kausikan then takes up the topic of “sovereignty of the small states”, a topic that generations of foreign services in the Foreign Ministry are very familiar with as part of their work. Kausikan likes to remind us: “For small states, relevance is not a matter of course. The creation and maintenance of relevance must be the overarching strategic goal of small states ”(pp. 40-41). Such thinking is widespread in the minds of Singapore diplomats and can be demonstrated in the country’s very open and business-friendly economic policy. The idea that Singapore must continually reinvent itself to ensure its relevance to the outside world is a fundamental challenge that generations of business leaders and policymakers must face.
Kausikan goes further into Singapore’s value and position vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, an important topic that takes up nearly a third of the book and that is obviously close to Kausikan’s heart. Some of the key topics of Singapore’s foreign policy are discussed here, including the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore’s thinking about ASEAN (and, more broadly, Asia), and the future of the region’s security architecture. All of these are big and difficult subjects and deserve academic theses. It is thanks to Kausikan that he has analyzed these topics in a way that will benefit both scholars and the average reader. With examples and practical illustrations, Kausikan reminds us that what diplomats occupy in their profession has concrete consequences and that we should take care of foreign policy – even if their everyday life takes place outside the public eye.
The book then leads us into more demanding terrain, that of great power competition. Given that this book was published in 2017, much of the existing tension in the US-China rivalry was not as pronounced then as it is today. But as Kausikan warns: “The relationship between the USA and China is complex, difficult to put into one sentence or sentence”. [and] is characterized by deep interdependence as well as deep strategic mistrust ”(p.195-196). At the same time, the countries still have room for maneuver (even if this may be limited), and a predetermined future for the region should not be naively accepted. As Kausikan suggests, it is “precisely the existence of competition that offers the possibility to preserve the autonomy” (p.197). As a bonus, Kausikan also offers some comprehensive insights into other major global issues such as nuclear weapons issues, the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, and the relevance of developments in the Middle East and Brexit to Southeast Asia.
The last two sections of the book cover more limited, but no less important, topics. First, the human rights issue that Singapore has exposed to Western criticism over the years, and second, Lee Kuan Yew’s view of the world, which continues to play an important role in the way Singaporean diplomats see the world and Singapore’s place in it. In a way, the two issues are intertwined in that they reflect Lee’s understanding of Singapore’s place in the world. Although Singapore has learned a great deal from the West, particularly in terms of domestic institutional building, the city-state remains geographically and culturally separate from the West, its own unique characteristics that are reflected in its practice and approach to foreign policy. To this end, Mr. Lee once quipped that “reasonable men adapt, unreasonable men change the world” (p.273).
It is this adaptability of Singapore that has, as some say, allowed the island nation to surpass its weight in international affairs. The often-quoted adage that the world must be viewed as it is, not as it should be, continues to shape the mainstream representation of Singapore’s foreign policy and is clearly explained by Kausikan’s views. However, Singapore’s foreign policy is by no means static, and given the changing international situation, its leaders and policymakers are also aware of the need to adapt to a new international reality. Kausikan’s views seem to emphasize the need for greater continuity with the past – which Singapore has undoubtedly served well – but he is less clear about the future challenges Singapore faces and what changes, if any, may be required to re-establish Singapore’s interest in one fast changing world. Undoubtedly, the nature of Sino-US competition will be a challenge that Singapore will have to grapple with. Unlike his well-known colleague Kishore Mahbubani (the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy), whose writings have much more sympathy for China, Kausikan’s position remains one that references an old blueprint – one that has certainly been effective but may be less relevant in the future. Given Kausikan’s impressive intellect and diplomatic flair, it’s a subject that he is good at addressing and that could be clearer in his book. Nonetheless, the provision of a first edition (and the author suspects a future update of Kausikan’s thoughts will be available) of a much-needed exposition of Singapore’s diplomatic worldview makes this book a frequently cited edition if one is interested in the signposts and outlines Singapore’s foreign policy.
Further reading on e-international relations