MFA Press Release: Speech by President S R Nathan at the MFA Diplomatic Academy's Inaugural S Rajaratnam Lecture, 10 March 2008, Island Ballroom, Shangri-La Hotel

10 March 2008

Singapore's Foreign Policy: Beginnings and Future

Deputy Prime Minister
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen


Opening Remarks

1. Thank you for giving me the privilege to deliver the inaugural S Rajaratnam Lecture before such a distinguished audience and to launch the MFA Diplomatic Academy.

2. Every one present must be aware that our independence came suddenly. We had no previous diplomatic experience or the institutional memory with which to engage in diplomacy. It was against those circumstances that our foreign policy had to be developed on the run, so to speak. It fell on Mr S Rajaratnam, our first and longest serving Foreign Minister, to secure for our nation the international recognition and good ties with other nations that we needed for our survival. Over the course of two decades, he shaped our foreign policy with a steady hand.

3. This occasion brings back many memories for me of the Foreign Ministry that I entered in December 1965, as a young and ill-prepared civil servant. The late Professor Michael Leifer labelled us "a collection of information gatherers and messenger boys". This was not inaccurate. Given the circumstances of our independence, we, who were part of the Ministry during its founding years, really floundered - learning diplomatic practices on the job and struggling to learn about diplomacy through practical exposure. This applied to both the political leaders of the time and also officers of the Foreign Ministry. Fortunately, our political leaders of the time were men who were in touch with and had been touched by world politics, especially the independence struggles in Asia and Africa, and the aspirations of Afro-Asian leaders and peoples who were then contending with colonial and big power domination.

4. But we survived our mistakes and improvisations. Over the years, my colleagues, who were then few in number, developed skills and knowledge to make our diplomatic service what it is today. Looking back, it has turned out to be a great enterprise made famous, despite our smallness, by many distinguished colleagues like Professor Tommy Koh, DPM Professor S Jayakumar and many others. Among them were colleagues like the late Dr Wong Lin Ken, Chi Owyang, Ko Teck Kin, Ho Rih Hwa, Tan Siak Kew, Lien Ying Chow and P S Raman. We still have with us Lee Khoon Choy and Maurice Baker who, together with those no longer with us, were our founding ambassadors. They took on their diplomatic roles without any prior experience and made personal sacrifices not only of their own careers but also those of their wives, many of whom left their jobs without any financial compensation, to accompany their husbands abroad. Today we have other distinguished diplomats like Chan Heng Chee, Chin Siat-Yoon, Edward Lee, K Kesavapany, Kishore Mahbubani, Tony Siddique, Chew Tai Soo and Ong Keng Yong. They have all left their mark on our diplomatic history. Above all, there was our pioneer diplomat Ridzwan Dzafir, who was the first to set up and serve in our diplomatic mission in Kuala Lumpur immediately after independence, and later in Jakarta. He distinguished himself in both assignments and continued to serve with distinction in subsequent years.

5. In those early years, Singapore had to resort to the appointment of distinguished private individuals - not career diplomats; for we had none - to head our key diplomatic missions. Despite their lack of diplomatic experience, they took to their tasks and fulfilled them admirably, often under very trying circumstances. Although I have mentioned several of them earlier, I am afraid it will only be possible for me to highlight four of them and their achievements.

Founding Ambassadors

6. The late Mr Lien Ying Chow was called upon to head our Kuala Lumpur Mission after our first High Commissioner the late Mr Ko Teck Kin, who was appointed within a month of our independence, fell ill. Mr Lien took over after Mr Ko passed away, just seven months after being appointed to the post. Our relations following Separation were tense and marked by acrimonious exchanges. Mr Lien stayed above the fray and used his close friendship with the late Tunku Abdul Rahman to ride out the difficulties. His patience and humour helped smooth ruffled feathers. His quiet diplomacy defused misunderstandings and cooled temperatures on both sides. He knew nothing of diplomacy but practised it skilfully to achieve his objective of preserving and consolidating our relations.

7. Second, the late Mr Chi Owyang, who had the distinction of being Singapore's longest serving ambassador in a single country. At the age of 74, he started a new career as our Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand and served there from 1971 to 1988. He too knew nothing of diplomacy but accepted the appointment out of a sense of duty. With his profound knowledge of Thailand and deep understanding of the Thai people, their culture and traditions, as well as the working practices of the Court, he served Singapore with distinction until he was unable to do so because of ill health. His access to the Thai Royal Palace was legendary. His friendship with succeeding generations of Thai leaders and the respect that Thai officials accorded him, gave him access which other diplomats could only dream of. He used all those qualities and his humility to strengthen Singapore's relations with Thailand.

8. Next, the late Mr P S Raman, who assumed his post as our first Ambassador to Indonesia in 1968, in the aftermath of the Konfrontasi period. He had wide experience in various other fields, having been a teacher, journalist, PR consultant, broadcaster and even Head of the Adult Education Board. He was respected for his ability to separate the important from the fluff in political debates and his forthrightness in giving advice to our leaders. He provided calm and unwavering leadership in the tense atmosphere following the sacking of the Singapore Embassy by rioters in October 1968. His unflappable spirit stood him well as he engaged his host ministers and officials during a period of tension and anger at all levels in Jakarta. He persevered with developing bilateral relations until he had a heart attack and had to be brought back to Singapore. Thereafter, he served successfully as our High Commissioner in Canberra and later Ambassador in Moscow, where he succumbed to a massive heart attack.

9. Finally, Professor Maurice Baker, an academic at the then University of Singapore before he became Singapore's High Commissioner to India in 1967. Professor Baker readily responded to the call of duty. He subsequently served as Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia and later Ambassador to the Philippines. Wherever he served in his distinguished career, he left the clear imprint of sincerity and good faith with his host government and among fellow diplomats. His ability to inspire trust in people earned him acceptance and respect, as well as esteem and recognition for his country. In 1988, Malaysia conferred on him the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM), carrying the title of "Tan Sri", a rare Malaysian distinction for a Singapore diplomat.

10. Our founding ambassadors may have lacked formal diplomatic training but all had qualities which helped them fulfil important missions critical to bilateral relations and Singapore's well-being. Such occasions will arise again. It is indeed healthy to have a leavening of non-career officials to provide alternative views and to bring alternative perspectives to our diplomacy.

11. I am happy that Singapore's career diplomats have accepted the need to call on non-career diplomats and work well with them. Today, the Foreign Ministry has a pool of 36 Non-Resident Ambassadors (NRAs), most of them non-diplomats, covering 44 countries and 31 Honorary Consuls-General (HCGs) covering 26 countries. They augment MFA's talent pool and play a significant role in furthering Singapore's interest overseas.

My Beginnings

12. I entered the Foreign Ministry without any diplomatic training. On joining in December 1965, there was Mr Rajaratnam and there was also Mr Francis D'Costa, who was there to set up the Foreign Ministry. I asked the late Mr Rajaratnam what I was expected to do. He said, "Don't worry, it will come naturally." Indeed, it did. It took me some months to get an inkling of what I was there to do. With that little knowledge, I embarked on what was to be an exciting stint in the Foreign Ministry. Initially, it lasted till 1971 and later, over three years from 1979 to 1982.

13. The time I spent in the Foreign Ministry was when I learned diplomacy on the job. It was a time when important happenings were unfolding in the immediate years after independence. It was an exhilarating experience for me to be present in the Ministry at the time when the early history of independent Singapore was being made. Sitting in on conversations that the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister engaged with their foreign counterparts, diplomats from other countries and distinguished journalists, I felt that I too was participating in the making of foreign policy and important security decisions. Seized with the job and experiencing many challenges, I widened my knowledge of international affairs and learned what vulnerabilities Singapore faced, and the realities for our survival. Having suddenly been cut adrift in a turbulent region, Singapore faced many uncertainties - political, economic, security and the big question of whether it could survive. In being close to our political leaders, I understood what pre-occupied them each day.

14. Our independence was unanticipated. We had to improvise. We sought survival through economic growth. We had to simultaneously build our defence capabilities. We began our freedom from colonial rule in the belief that Singapore could not survive outside its hinterland - Malaya. Independence found us, without that hinterland. We were plagued with high unemployment; a shrinking entrepôt economy; communist-inspired labour unrest; communal discord; and insufficient infrastructure to meet our housing and industrialisation needs. We had no natural resources and little national savings. The dilemma for our leaders was how to provide for our two million people: not only their housing, education for their children, but also to give them the means for their economic survival. Under those circumstances, development of our economy and the build-up of a defence capability had to receive priority of attention. They dictated why diplomacy and its practice received less state resources and attention in those early years. Not knowing the totality of the problems and the priorities that needed to be accorded, we in the Foreign Ministry were sometimes unable to comprehend the low priority accorded to the development of our diplomatic strength.

Learning on the Job

15. The years immediately following our independence were also times of ignorance about diplomacy. Without deep knowledge of international affairs, let alone diplomatic and representational practices, we undertook the tasks of desk officers dealing with political and economic questions in the Foreign Ministry, flying blind, you could say.

16. Within government, other ministries and agencies were equally ignorant of the work of the Foreign Ministry. On occasion, when officials from other ministries visited the Foreign Ministry and found our officers reading newspapers, they would conclude wrongly that MFA officers were skiving. In fact, there was one recommendation to reduce the number of staff in the Foreign Ministry. What they did not understand was that with only two overseas missions at that point, reading newspapers was a vital way for MFA officers to get information and monitor international developments. Of course, things are very different today. All ministries, not just MFA, are engaging in foreign affairs and reading newspapers has become part of their daily routine.

17. Questions about opening up diplomatic missions abroad were often raised with us by foreign diplomats. We were urged to give priority to their capitals on grounds of special relationships they claimed with Singapore. We were able to fob them off, explaining that the decision lay with the Prime Minister's Office. There were also pressures on us to state Singapore's stand on various foreign policy or security issues that were being debated in the UN and other international fora. But with little or no background information, it was difficult to take positions. This disappointed many of our interlocutors and there was little appreciation of the unique circumstances that had made us a state conducting diplomacy without any institutional memory about international issues.

18. I do not want to leave you with the impression that all foreign diplomats then present in Singapore had exerted undue pressures on us in the Foreign Ministry. Far from it, many from the Commonwealth missions of the United Kingdom, India, Australia and New Zealand did much to be helpful to us. Recognising the circumstances of our sudden independence, their heads of mission and political officers showed understanding when we were not able to provide them with answers to their questions. They laid out for us the elements in the controversial issues of the times that needed to be taken into account in arriving at a policy response. No doubt their assistance also had a subtle tilt in their advice on what particular stand we should take on issues which merited our attention. Nonetheless, they showed us the ropes regarding the traditional functions performed by the Foreign Ministry and the various processes of diplomatic communications and engagements. They provided us much-needed background information about important issues before the UN and its agencies, and developments in the Afro-Asian countries and Non-Aligned Movement as and when we needed them. But we did not have enough officers at that time to absorb and act on what they provided.

19. Having had a presence in pre-independent Singapore from immediately after the War years, these Commonwealth missions in Singapore had the advantage of closely monitoring political developments in and around Singapore. In the course of that interaction, they had developed close dealings with and knew many of us in the civil service. Such links that they developed and the friendly terms of our engagement with them turned out to be a ready source of mutual support and reference as we groped our way in our daily tasks of addressing multilateral foreign policy issues that were prominent in those early years.

20. This inadequacy of experience also showed itself when the Ministry was called upon in the immediate months after independence to receive foreign dignitaries on official visits. Our colleagues in the protocol section insisted that proper protocol treatment should be accorded to all, without distinction of their importance. I remember one instance when we had to receive the Vice-President of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as Special Envoy of the late President Kim Il Sung. It was decided to accord the visitor all the courtesies of a Head of State, as he came with the rank of Special Envoy of the "Great Leader" and Vice-President of the DPRK. We gave him gun salutes, Guard-of-Honour and all the frills of a State Visit. It was only many years later that we learnt that every such Presidential Envoy was given the status of Vice-President for the occasion of his mission. In fact, there were some 30 to 40 Vice-Presidents in the country. After that first experience, we became wise to the dictum that protocol was our servant, not our master, and its arcane rules were for us to determine.

The Initial Years

21. In the initial years, the Foreign Ministry was focused on providing back-up services to our political leaders. Whether it be about political, economic, defence or security related diplomacy, it was our three principal leaders - Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Foreign Minister Rajaratnam and Defence Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee - who took the lead.

22. Our immediate priority was to consolidate Singapore's independence and sovereignty by seeking the widest possible international recognition, which the United Nations and its agencies quickly afforded us. Immediately after Singapore's admission to the UN on 21 September 1965, then DPM Dr Toh Chin Chye, Foreign Minister Rajaratnam and a small delegation, which included Mr Herman Hochstadt, embarked on an extensive two-month tour of Africa, Europe and Asia to explain the circumstances of our independence and project a new image of Singapore as an independent country.

23. Fortunately, since Singapore's leaders had already begun to reach out to the world during the years of self-government starting from 1959, they were known to leaders, particularly in the Commonwealth and Asia. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Rajaratnam had been travelling and attending regional and international gatherings to make foreign leaders conscious of Singapore's anti-colonial struggle. Then Prime Minister Lee had developed personal relations not just with British and Asian leaders but was friendly with such luminaries as President Soekarno, Prime Minister Nehru, President Nasser, Prince Sihanouk and other Afro-Asian freedom fighters.

24. The friendships our leaders enjoyed with their counterparts overseas helped to prevent, on Singapore's independence, any pre-emptive neo-colonialist moves to return us to colonial status. It was also why, on independence, we had sought quick recognition from the Afro-Asian group of countries to whom colonialism was anathema. At a time when we had no armed forces of our own, our concern was with how not to be squeezed by forces near and far. The bonds of friendship that we established pre-independence stood us in good stead. It gave Singapore elbow room and helped to prevent us from becoming isolated in a then turbulent region.

25. Beginning in 1966, having already established missions in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, the Ministry went about selectively establishing diplomatic missions in key countries which were politically or economically important to Singapore. Beyond individual countries, our Permanent Representation to the United Nations facilitated the establishment of contacts with leaders of other member countries, members of various regional and international organisations, and the Non-Aligned Movement. The Commonwealth link did not require much effort, as then Prime Minister Lee had already met his counterparts at the Meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in Nigeria in 1966.

The Expanding Role of the Foreign Ministry

26. The other priority task was to ensure Singapore's growth through economic development. The Finance Ministry, Economic Development Board (EDB) and then Department of Trade were the prime movers of our economic diplomacy. They were focused on attracting overseas investments, promoting trade and countering Indonesian efforts to thwart the unofficial inter-island "entrepôt trade", which was continuing to flourish despite Konfrontasi. Then Prime Minister Lee himself was most active in the promotion of investments from abroad, once the ground had been prepared by EDB officers. Our Cabinet Ministers also made it a point to meet businessmen during their overseas visits to sell Singapore.

27. In those early years, the Foreign Ministry played a secondary role supporting the economic agencies in their investment promotion work. In 1967, the Foreign Ministry led by Mr Rajaratnam took an active part in the establishment of ASEAN, giving it an overt economic focus, with the unspoken political purpose of gaining strength through solidarity in anticipation of the unwinding of the Vietnam War and a communist victory there. But, in the first 10 years of its existence, nothing of an earth-shattering nature emerged from ASEAN's annual Ministerial meetings and numerous Senior Officials' meetings.

28. In February 1976, the first ASEAN Summit was convened in Bali. The most significant outcome was the Declaration of ASEAN Concord or Bali Declaration. It was a comprehensive ASEAN response to the new security environment in Southeast Asia following the communist takeover in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975. The agreement to establish a permanent ASEAN Secretariat and to intensify intra-ASEAN consultations facilitated ASEAN cooperation in the years following the Bali Summit. The emergence of ASEAN as a diplomatic community was seen in the conclusion of the "Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia" (TAC) at the Summit. The forward-looking approach of the ASEAN Leaders was reflected in the provision for accession by the other states of Southeast Asia. The amendment to the TAC in 1987 enabled states outside Southeast Asia to accede to the Treaty and was the basis for the acceptance of non-Southeast Asian members into the East Asia Summit when it was established in 2005.

29. Although economic cooperation occupied the longest section of the Bali Declaration, significant ASEAN economic co-operation did not occur as some member countries were still focused on import substitution and were concerned about their lack of competitiveness if intra-ASEAN markets were liberalised. But the Bali Summit was significant for the introduction of the concept of "preferential trading arrangements" (PTA) to facilitate the expansion of trade among ASEAN countries. This PTA laid the foundation for the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), and the subsequent move towards the ASEAN Economic Community. The target date for the ASEAN Economic Community is now set for 2015 and when realised, the whole of ASEAN will be integrated into a single market and production base.

30. In the early years of our economic diplomacy, each ministry was focused on promoting its own interests. Over time, however, the Ministry of Finance and other economic agencies began working closely with the Foreign Ministry and its overseas missions. The economic role of the Foreign Ministry was thus expanded over time, leading to campaigns to oppose challenges and protectionist measures which could hurt our trade, shipping or air services. For example, in 1978, Australia announced its new International Civil Aviation Policy (ICAP) which would impact the tourist and airline businesses of ASEAN countries. The Foreign Ministry, with the support of our economic agencies, took the lead to mobilise the support of all ASEAN countries and the Group of 77 to mount a vigorous offensive against ICAP until the issue was resolved amicably in 1981. The Ministry also led the campaign to delay Singapore's graduation from the developed countries' Generalised System of Preference (GSP) benefits and took the lead in multilateral trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and later the World Trade Organisation (WTO).


Resort to Quiet Diplomacy and Defence Diplomacy

31. Within a few years of the Foreign Ministry's establishment, situations arose calling for both the prevention and the management of crises that developed in our relations with countries in the region. Closer interaction with our neighbours also alerted us to the varying power centres that asserted influence in each country in their conduct of foreign relations. Singapore had to move beyond the traditional practices of diplomacy and resort to quiet diplomacy and defence diplomacy with such power centres, without affecting the inter-foreign ministry ties that we had.

32. The first instance where we found it necessary to resort to quiet diplomacy was in dealing with the fallout from the hanging of two Indonesian marine commandos (Korps Komando or KKOs) who had planted a bomb at MacDonald House, killing three and injuring 33 in 1965. Efforts were made by both countries to ensure that no rupture in relations followed. Quiet diplomacy also helped in the management of the hijack of the "Laju" vessel by terrorists from the Japanese Red Army and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1974. In the immediate years following independence, without a clearly demarcated boundary along the Straits of Singapore, cross-border transgressions by various Indonesian naval, police and customs vessels were common. It was through quiet diplomacy that agreement was reached between the two countries on the demarcated boundary in the waters of the Straits of Singapore that is now in place.

33. In a crisis, timely establishment of a channel for quiet discussion to be followed by action to resolve the matter is critical. Quiet diplomacy allowed us the opportunity to quietly test out each other's positions and provided ways to identify preliminary concessions that could be offered without being bound by them. Sometimes it made it easier to even quietly solicit the use of third party channels, when negotiations reached an impasse or breaking point.

34. Quiet diplomacy is not something unusual; it is as old as diplomacy itself. Resort to quiet diplomacy allowed Singapore to carry out dispassionate dialogue and negotiations without being pressured by the curiosity of non-participants and away from the glare of the media. Having to respond to media-generated emotions or heat about issues under discussion would have aborted our efforts at resolving sensitive bilateral difficulties.

35. As the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was just being built up, it was natural to expect suspicions among neighbouring armed forces, with whom Singapore had no previous contact. We had to build confidence through contacts and exchanges. As leading military personalities were then dominating the power centres in some of our neighbouring countries, it became imperative that links be built with them.

36. Through defence diplomacy, Singapore could build confidence and mutual trust with the neighbouring armed forces and their key personalities. With that came opportunities for sharing our training and other experiences with them. In several cases, as mutual trust increased, we also secured training facilities in their countries. These contacts have resulted in joint exercises, sharing of staff training experiences and intelligence exchanges. Today, what began as defence diplomacy in the infancy of our diplomatic history has become the basis for more comprehensive military relations with our neighbours and beyond.

Multilateral Diplomacy

37. Another important aspect of our early diplomatic history is multilateral diplomacy.

38. As a small state, Singapore recognises the importance of a stable and open international order; hence, we have played an active multilateral role. From 1972, when it became apparent that a new legal order for the law of the sea was going to be developed, Singapore took an active role to shepherd a regime that preserved navigational freedom, especially the passage rights through international waterways like the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore.

39. DPM Professor Jayakumar, Attorney-General Chao Hick Tin and Professor Tommy Koh played a key role on this. We mounted our first lobbying effort at the UN General Assembly, and pushed through a resolution calling on the UN Secretariat to undertake a study that would shatter the myth that extensive national maritime jurisdictions benefited all developing nations. Our successful effort in championing this resolution led to the emergence of a new interest-based caucus of "landlocked and geographically disadvantaged" states, which went on to become a key player in the negotiations on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

40. Singapore's proactive role continued throughout the nine years it took to negotiate UNCLOS. In recognition of that role and his diplomatic skills, Professor Koh was asked to take over the Presidency of the UN Conference when the previous President passed away. This put Singapore in an ideal position to reconcile positions between opposing interest groups, and in the process, broker compromises in a package that balanced the interest of coastal states with the community interest of the maritime nations, while protecting Singapore's core navigational interest.

41. Annex 1 of the book The Little Red Dot lists the milestones of Singapore's external relations until May 2005, and gives one an idea of the road that Singapore's diplomacy has travelled.

Fundamentals of Our Foreign Policy

42. Let me now touch on the fundamentals of our foreign policy.

43. 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. As a newly-independent small country located in a then politically volatile region, our foreign policy, which was 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, with whom we were newly separated, and the restoring of ties with Indonesia, in the aftermath of Konfrontasi. Given their importance, relations with these countries were handled at the highest political level.

44. 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.

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

46. 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 US. I was then our Ambassador to Washington. There was a huge media storm in the US but we stood firm in the face of heat, while remaining calm and rational. After careful deliberation, the Singapore government decided to reduce the number of strokes from six to four for Michael Fay. The Administration was not satisfied and thereafter we had to spend time and effort to repair the damage to our bilateral relations. But at the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton took the historic decision to begin Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with Singapore.

47. Beyond fostering relations with our immediate neighbours on the basis of mutual benefit and mutual respect, we also sought to create and secure for Singapore external political, diplomatic and economic space. We reached out to the developed countries, particularly the US, Europe and Japan. 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 UN or international legal regimes.

48. We worked to keep the regional architecture open and welcomed the constructive engagement of major powers. Mr Rajaratnam famously described this 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...".

49. Through the decades, Singapore consistently insisted on and entrenched the principle of "open regionalism" as an intrinsic and vital part of the definition of regional doctrines like the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). We also worked with like-minded countries to create networks to enhance the region's openness, while maintaining ASEAN's diplomatic centrality. Over the years, we helped to initiate fora like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Forum for East Asia-Latin America Co-operation (FEALAC) and more recently, Asia-Middle East Dialogue (AMED).

50. Another approach which characterised Singapore's foreign policy was our pragmatism. As Lord Palmerston, a British Prime Minister in the 19th Century famously said, "we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow".

51. As a small country, we took a realistic view of its limitations and constraints. We knew very well that we had very little influence over our external environment, immediate and beyond. 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 us small states. We had to focus our limited resources and energies in areas which mattered. Our goals were clear - to ensure Singapore's independence, survival and growth. These were Singapore's core national interests, which we sought to advance.

52. 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 made an impact far exceeding our size. Hence, we remained alert, analysed situations clinically and remained flexible and nimble.

53. An example of our pragmatic and non-ideological approach is how during the Cold War years, we were forthright in highlighting the dangers of the Non-Aligned Movement taking sides in the great power rivalry. We were concerned to see attempts by the then Soviet Union, Cuba, and Vietnam to exert their influence in the Non-Aligned Movement and hijack the Movement's agenda. During the 1978 Belgrade meeting, Mr Rajaratnam took an active role in highlighting how "proxy war" had become the new technique of great power rivalry and urged the Non-Aligned Movement to become aware of this threat. The big fight came the next year during the Havana Summit. Mr Rajaratnam faced-off a room full of Soviet supporters. It was a fierce and emotional meeting. We lost that fight and the rightful Cambodian government-in-exile was prevented from taking its seat at the meeting. But we succeeded in preventing the pro-Soviet faction in the Non-Aligned Movement from establishing its thesis that the Movement and the Soviet Union were "natural allies".

54. Our pragmatic approach can also 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 in the defence, economic and people-to-people areas.

55. Another fundamental of Singapore's foreign policy was our non-alignment. On our assumption of UN membership in September 1965, Mr Rajaratnam explained Singapore's position in these words, and I quote "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 but had to make a stand when our interests were affected. This is what we have maintained since.

56. Let me cite two instances where we had to make a stand even though we were a new player on the block. At ASEAN's founding, Singapore defended its right to have the presence of British and Australian forces and the naval base in Singapore. The Preamble to the draft ASEAN Declaration that was for discussion by the Foreign Ministers at that meeting 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.

57. At the inaugural Bangkok meeting, Singapore stood firmly against such a provision, even though others were prepared to live with such a Preamble. Today, that provision as enshrined in 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 the founding and took part in the redrafting of that Preamble, I speak from personal knowledge of our stand and the resultant change.

58. In the late-1970s, Singapore made another stand. Despite our abhorrence of the tragedy heaped on the people of Cambodia 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 external aggression, which would have established an undesirable principle of international relations if left unopposed. Together with other ASEAN delegations, for a decade, Singapore diplomats helped lead the challenge to the position of Vietnam and its allies both in regional as well as international fora. Many of our career ambassadors like Tommy Koh, Kishore Mahbubani, and Tony Siddique and senior MFA officials cut their teeth and learnt their trade during this period. 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 Conference on Cambodia" and helped in the restoration of Cambodia's independence.

59. In both these instances, Singapore showed its determination not to remain passive for fear of offending others. While 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.

Trends in a Complex and Changing World

60. Today, international relations are becoming more complex. Many new issues need addressing. The scale and complexity of challenges have multiplied. As a result, the practice of foreign policy is also changing. But what remains permanent is the fact that, as a small state, we cannot ignore the dangers we face to our sovereignty and territorial integrity. History is littered with examples of small states which have succumbed after brief lifetimes. Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Kuwait in 1990 are reminders that as a small state, we cannot take our existence for granted.

61. The fundamental principles of our foreign policy remain valid - maintaining good relations with our neighbours, while connecting Singapore to the world, pragmatism, non-alignment with regards to big power rivalry and preparedness to take a stand when our interests are at stake. As we face new and complicated challenges, it is even more important that we are clear about our fundamentals and priorities, as they will serve to guide our foreign policy.

62. For Singapore to continue to survive and grow, we must maintain a keen sense of the key global trends. It is particularly critical for a small state like Singapore, to have a clear and clinical assessment of the world - seeing the world as it is and not as we hope or think it ought to be. Having an accurate understanding of the evolving geo-strategic picture will enable us to position ourselves appropriately and respond swiftly to changes.

63. I believe that four key trends will drive global developments and international relations in the coming years.

64. First, globalisation. There is now a more intricate matrix of great power relations, fuelled by growing economic interdependence. The technology that drives globalisation is also compressing space, accelerating time and broadening the scope of international change in historically unprecedented ways.

65. The second major trend is the evolving strategic framework in Asia. Tectonic shifts are occurring in Asia. For the foreseeable future, the US will remain the most influential global actor. But Asia is on a growth trajectory, lifted by the re-emergence of China and India. China's impact on regional and global matters is increasing steadily. India too will be a growing influence on the global economy and international affairs. This will lead to strategic realignments. At the same time, changing patterns of trade, investment and production and a web of bilateral and plurilateral FTAs are stitching the region together. Increasingly, the strategic situation in Asia will be determined by the complex and interdependent relationships between the US, China, Japan and India.

66. Against this shifting and dynamic backdrop, ASEAN countries have decided to accelerate and deepen integration. The ASEAN Charter will fundamentally transform the organisation and the entire region over the long term. It will deepen community building and turn ASEAN into a more effective and cohesive organisation, with a rules-based governing framework and streamlined decision-making process.

67. Third, global terrorism will remain a major threat to international security. September 11 brought to the surface the virulent threat of global terrorism, driven by an extremist religious ideology. Governments around the world have made some progress but the threat remains. Al-Qaeda has morphed into a movement and its radical ideology continues to attract many individuals and groups around the world. In Southeast Asia, the operational capability of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has been disrupted but, like Al-Qaeda, the JI has morphed into a loose web of dispersed individuals and small groups, making it more difficult to detect and contain.

68. The fight against global terrorism will take many years. Terrorism must be fought with both ideas and armies. This ideological struggle is far more complex than the struggle against communism because it engages not just reason but also religious faith.

69. Fourth, non-traditional security challenges like climate change, environmental degradation and competition for resources are coming to the fore of the international agenda. Although there is a growing international consensus on the need to tackle climate change, the views on how to do it remain divergent. Difficult trade-offs and balances, such as between environmental sustainability and economic development, will have to be discussed and managed. Given the scale and impact of climate change, concerted global action is required to evolve a new framework to tackle the challenge. The effects of climate change and environmental degradation will place even greater importance on the effective management of scarce resources like energy and water. The rising competition for energy resources could also alter the geostrategic landscape as energy security comes to the forefront of national agendas.

Relevance of Diplomacy for Singapore in Today's World

70. Some analysts have argued that in a world where the nature of international relations is being fundamentally transformed, diplomacy has lost its relevance. In an interconnected world of mass travel and communications, leaders meet frequently and deal directly with the business of foreign policy. This diminishes the traditional role of diplomats in helping their governments in the management of foreign relations. The conventional role of diplomats sending dispatches on political and economic developments in their host country is becoming less useful given the Internet and media networks.

71. Diplomacy is indeed being conducted in new ways and it must balance new, complex and diverse interests. But it is an extravagant claim that diplomacy has lost its relevance. We must continue to adapt the practice of diplomacy and find ways to create value, thus ensuring that diplomacy remains a useful instrument for the conduct of international relations. This is the challenge for foreign services all over the world, not just for Singapore alone.

72. Public diplomacy, for instance, has become important. With increased global interdependence, multilateral diplomacy too has gained in importance. A country's foreign policy agenda is being shaped by international institutions and norms, the media and civil society. As recent financial crises have shown, problems in one part of the world could spread very quickly. Global trade and financial imbalances could also pose political and economic risks. Economic and financial issues will increasingly occupy a large part of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

Qualities Needed to be a Successful Diplomat

73. Given the challenges that diplomats have to face, let me say a few words about some of the qualities needed to be a successful diplomat, and the role I envisage for the MFA Diplomatic Academy.

74. None of our founding ambassadors had formal diplomatic training. But when the urgent call of duty came, they did not shirk their responsibility but boldly went forth. Thrown into deep water, they used their own personal attributes, adapted and learnt on the job very quickly to achieve their goals. They displayed skills and were street smart - qualities which our Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) must imbibe.

75. Personal attributes like patience, calm, modesty, empathy and good humour as well as interpersonal skills are important because fundamentally, diplomacy is about human relations. Diplomats must also be curious about the people, places and cultures they cover. But beyond these, for our FSOs to succeed, they must have the following qualities:
i. Patriotism and Sense of Mission: they must be patriotic and motivated by a strong sense of mission of wanting to advance Singapore's national interests.
ii. Networking and Negotiation Skills: they must have good networking and negotiation skills to deal effectively with other governments, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and the media.
iii. Integrity and Honesty: they must have a strong sense of integrity. They must be honest, objective and professional in reporting developments and giving advice to the government.
iv. Adaptability and Spirit of Adventure: they must be highly adaptable to diverse environments and have the spirit of adventure to operate in difficult and even dangerous places.
v. Ability to Work Under Pressure: they must be able to work under pressure and think fast on their feet. They must have the courage to fight and defend Singapore's position even if they are the last person standing.
vi. Entrepreneurial mindset: they must be entrepreneurial, aware of the dangers but alert to opportunities to further Singapore's interests. They must be creative and responsive to change.
vii. Good Management Skills: they must be good managers, able to get the most out of their officers, while developing each of them to his or her full potential.
viii. Ability to Work as a Team in MFA and as Whole-of-Government: they must not only work together as a team within the Foreign Ministry but work in concert with other ministries in a whole-of-government effort to advance Singapore's interests.

76. To do their jobs effectively, our diplomats must have an accurate understanding of Singapore's core interests. Big states can occasionally tilt at windmills. Small states have no such luxury as chasing after mirages is a dangerous and wasteful pursuit. Increasingly, many of our domestic strategies and policies have an international dimension. FSOs must not only understand our domestic priorities but develop competencies in new areas like energy security and climate change, even though these are under the responsibility of other ministries in Singapore. In this way, they can help advance Singapore's overall interests internationally.

77. Our FSOs should also be mindful that diplomacy is not just about being nice. Diplomatic niceties are means to an end. FSOs should not confuse means and ends. Often, other countries will attempt to cajole us through appeals and urge us to take into account "special relationships" and "historical links". Many will couch their efforts to advance their national agendas in high sounding principles and moralistic terms. We should not be beguiled. The objective of every diplomat must be to advance and defend the national interests of the country he or she represents. We need not be shy about defending ours.

78. Diplomatic spouses play a significant role in the success of FSOs. Like the spouses of our founding ambassadors, many MFA spouses continue to make personal and career sacrifices. The nomadic lifestyle of diplomats places huge demands and stress on their spouses and families. I would like to recognise the role of MFA spouses and express my thanks to them for their sacrifices and their contributions.

Role of MFA Diplomatic Academy

79. Turning to the role of the MFA Diplomatic Academy, I envisage at least three aspects.

80. First, one of the Academy's key roles will be to give form to our focus on nurturing the key asset of the Foreign Ministry which is its people. It is about how to systematically extract lessons learnt and experiences accumulated by the first and second generations of diplomats and transmit them to successive generations. This is not necessarily through teaching in classrooms but through story-telling, master classes, roundtable sessions, "fireside" chats, research and publications.

81. The Academy has also embarked on the building-up of a repository of case studies to document the institutional knowledge of our first- and second-generation diplomats and use them as teaching tools. I am told that many of the Foreign Ministry's first- and second-generation diplomats and retired ambassadors are fellows and adjunct professors not only of the Academy but also other government think-tanks so that they can pass on their experience.

82. Second, the Academy's usefulness goes beyond that of training MFA officers. It should help to sensitise all public sector officials to international developments. Today, international relations impinge on all aspects of our domestic situation and policies. Every issue has an international dimension, whether it be dealing with avian influenza or climate change. Every Ministry is thus involved in foreign policy and must learn to act internationally. While the Foreign Ministry provides domestic ministries with advice and guidance on how to navigate the field of international relations, domestic ministries must take the lead and engage with external issues and international organisations. The role of the Academy therefore dovetails with the World.Singapore framework of the public service, which aims to create a mindset in our public officers to think and act globally, and to see the world as opportunity.

83. Third, while Singapore's experience in developing its diplomacy may not apply to other countries, there is much in Singapore's non-ideological and pragmatic diplomatic culture that could be of interest to other nations. The Academy could eventually serve as the focal point of sharing diplomatic experience and best practices between Singaporean diplomats and diplomats from other nations, especially from the Asian region. Its future role could expand into becoming a training centre for diplomats from the region and internationally, rather than just for Singaporean diplomats.


84. Let me conclude. Mr Rajaratnam, after whom this lecture series is named, has left for us both in his speeches and policies, the basic tenets of Singapore's foreign policy. They have served us well for over four decades and stood the test of time. The Foreign Ministry itself has come a long way from its humble beginnings when we had independence thrust upon us, building from scratch and surviving on improvisations. It has acquired greater professionalism and has been able to respond to sudden changes in the international environment.

85. But it would be a serious mistake to believe that we have already "arrived" or indeed, ever can, "arrive". This is a journey with no end; a constant process of adaptation and striving for new capabilities to deal with new challenges. I know that the Ministry understands this and so I am confident of its future and I am proud to have played a part in its beginnings.

86. For more than 40 years, the men and women of the Foreign Ministry have served this country with dedication and distinction. What has kept MFA going has been a clear focus on creating and securing Singapore's external space. This mission has kept MFA united and created a strong tradition in the Ministry. We must pass on that special commitment of the Singapore Foreign Service. We must have a good foreign service, agile and nimble, working in concert with the whole-of-government, so that Singapore continues to respond adroitly to the ever-changing world. Only then can Singapore's survival, growth and continued success be assured.

87. On that note and in memory of the late Mr Rajaratnam, I am pleased to launch the MFA Diplomatic Academy and wish it every success in its mission.


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