Singapore: shrewd, principled and pragmatic

By any historical standards, Singapore has been an extraordinarily successful small state, with a land area 5 times that of Lake Como, only one of Italy’s many beautiful lakes. Many factors explain this extraordinary success. One was luck. Singapore was blessed that its founding fathers in the 1960s, especially Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam, were as brilliant as (if not more brilliant than) America’s founding fathers. They also hard-wired some key attributes in Singapore’s national DNA, which explain its continuing success, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. These key attributes include an unusual combination of being shrewd, principled and pragmatic.

The shrewdness rests on one bed-rock principle: small states are price-takers and not price-makers in the international arena. When great power relationships change and evolve, Singapore adapts. Hence, in the Cold War, even though Singapore was decidedly more pro-American, it sent clear signals that it was not anti-Soviet Union. In 1976, I accompanied Mr S. Rajaratnam, the then Foreign Minister to Moscow, when he called on the legendary Soviet foreign minister, Mr Andrei Gromyko. Rajaratnam told Gromyko that while the Singapore government was anti-communist at home, it was not anti-communist in its foreign policy. Hence, even though Singapore welcomed American naval vessels at its legendary port, it also welcomed Soviet naval vessels. Earlier, Rajaratnam had sent a similar message in a key foreign policy speech in the UN in 1965 when he declared that Singapore would remain non-aligned in the Cold War: “My country is well aware that it is situated in a region of the world which has traditionally been the battleground of big power conflicts. Singapore itself by virtue of its strategic location has attracted the attention of nations who wished to dominate Southeast Asia…This is why my country has chosen the path of non-alignment. It simply means that we do not wish to be drawn into alliances dedicated to imposing our way of life on other countries. Friendship between two countries should not be conditional on the acceptance of common ideologies, common friends and common foes…”

Similarly, in the major geopolitical contest that has now broken out between the US and China, Singapore has also firmly declared that it will remain non-aligned, even though its defence ties with the US have become even closer, with Singapore described as a “strategic partner” of the US. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong wrote in Foreign Affairs in July/ August 2020, “Although [Singapore and other Asia Pacific countries] may not have much influence over how things will turn out, they fervently hope not to be forced to choose between the United States and China… They want to cultivate good relations with both.” Many in East Asia have quietly agreed with the approach taken by Singapore.

However, this shrewdness in staying out of great power contests doesn’t extend to Singapore remaining silent when fundamental principles of international law are at stake. As a small state, Singapore believes strongly in Article 2.7 of the UN Charter, which declares that there should be non-interference in the internal affairs of states. Hence, great powers shouldn’t invade small states. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and supported the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Singapore was among the most outspoken in condemning these invasions. Similarly, Singapore criticised the American invasion of Grenada.

This belief in international law is deeply rooted. Singapore has been quite brave in speaking out in defence of international law. Hence, when China promulgated its nine-dash line in the South China Sea, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, was one of the few world leaders to question its validity. Singapore has also demonstrated its commitment to international law by agreeing to refer its disputes with neighbouring Malaysia over an island, Pedra Branca, to the World Court. Both China and Japan as well as Japan and South Korea should try to emulate Singapore and Malaysia in this area.

Singapore also recognises, pragmatically, that many inter-state disputes in the Indo-Pacific will not be resolved soon. However, instead of allowing these disputes and differences to interfere with inter-state and regional cooperation, Singapore has quietly and forcefully pushed for greater regional cooperation, even among states that distrust each other. As I document in full in “The ASEAN Miracle” (which has also been published in Italy by Il Mulino), Singapore played a key role (behind the scenes) in launching or steering key ASEAN initiatives like the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the East Asian Summit (EAS). Yet, the credit cannot go to Singapore alone. Indonesia, the largest member state of ASEAN, had wisely injected its culture of “musyawarah and mufakat” (consultation and consensus) into the DNA of ASEAN.

This culture of consensus explains other geopolitical miracles ASEAN has achieved. Firstly, after the Cold War ended, the European Union alienated its erstwhile Cold War adversary, Russia. By contrast, ASEAN integrated Vietnam. Secondly, both South Korea and Japan are staunch American allies. Yet, Washington DC can’t even get these two countries to talk to each other. By contrast, ASEAN succeeded in persuading them to effectively sign an FTA with each other by joining the world’s largest FTA, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

In short, by being shrewd, principled and pragmatic, the tiny city-state of Singapore has quietly contributed to significant regional cooperation initiatives which have in turn made the Indo-Pacific region one of the most promising economic regions of the world, despite the daunting geopolitical challenges.