The Practice of Foreign Policy for Sustained Growth – The Singapore Experience
1. I learnt to swim in the swirling ocean of foreign affairs from Rajaratnam, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Rajaratnam, we called him Raja. I read their speeches, I was taken by them to many meetings, and observed how they engaged other leaders, and I benefited from their advice. Together, they laid down the fundamental tenets of Singapore’s foreign policy – to safeguard our sovereignty and freedom of action, stay relevant, make maximum number of friends and - if possible - no enemies, and respect international laws and norms in our dealings with other countries. These tenets continue to be salient today.
2. For today’s lecture, I shall focus on the practice of foreign policy and these tenets.
3. As Prime Minister, my foreign policy had always taken a pragmatic and helpful approach. It should – where possible – seek to advance the interests of other countries too, or at least not hurt them. But make no mistake: we should defend our interests stoutly, sometimes even at the expense of short-term tensions in bilateral relations.
4. To advance our foreign policy interests, we must:
- have clear objectives;
- build consensus to achieve them; and
- deliver on our proposals.
5. A successful foreign policy requires clearly defined goals against which its success can be measured. We must know what we want, and we must pursue them – against the odds and despite others’ misgivings - if need be. Three imperatives have shaped our foreign policy goals over the decades: preserving Singapore’s sovereignty, enhancing our security and that of the region, and expanding our international space.
6. First, preserving our sovereignty.
7. Today, we take our independence for granted, but this was not the case in our immediate post-independence years. Singapore was born out of Separation. The fear was that we might not survive without a hinterland and might succumb to external threats.
8. Raja played a key role in seeking international recognition for Singapore as a sovereign state. At the United Nations General Assembly in September 1965, he said, “[Singapore] by the very nature of its historic experience is aware that in the contemporary world, a developing country must learn to cherish independence without denying the reality of interdependence of nations.” Raja also helped Singapore gain diplomatic allies.
9. For the same reason, we uphold the sanctity of sovereignty in the conduct of foreign relations. When other states have had their sovereignty trammelled, we have stood up for them.
10. I witnessed this first hand in 1978 when I went with Raja to the UN. Vietnam had occupied Cambodia and was trying to install the puppet Heng Samrin regime to replace the Pol Pot government. The issue presented a dilemma for many countries, including Singapore. The morally reprehensible Khmer Rouge had committed genocide against millions of its own people. But Singapore chose not to conflate recognition of a legal government with approval of its policies.
11. Raja argued forcefully that the Pol Pot government should retain the UN seat. Recognising Heng Samrin would have legitimised the overthrow of a legal government by external military force. For more than 10 years, under Raja’s leadership, Singapore worked with ASEAN to block international recognition of the Heng Samrin regime and to keep Cambodia on the international radar. This eventually paved the way for the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
12. Next, ensuring our security. When the rhetoric of inviolable sovereignty confronts realpolitik, only we ourselves can defend our sovereignty and independence.
13. In 1971, we introduced National Service to build up our military. But we had no experience and hardly any land to train on.
14. As a result, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew turned to Israel after Egypt turned down his request for help. He also secured training spaces for the SAF in Taiwan, Brunei, Thailand and later, Australia and New Zealand.
15. In an anti-US mood following the downfall of President Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines closed down both Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base in 1991 and 1992 respectively, the US’ two largest overseas military facilities. We thought that this was a big mistake. The US’ security presence in Southeast Asia was a stabilising influence; Southeast Asia would be less secure if the US were to depart. To anchor the US in the region, we offered to host a small logistics command post in Singapore.
16. Knowing Indonesia’s sensitivities to any new foreign bases in the region, I flew to Jakarta to apprise President Soeharto of our proposal. I explained to him and emphasised that it was not a base which we were offering the US but a logistics command post which would have fewer than 100 American servicemen. Soeharto smiled, he nodded, he said that as a military man, he knew the importance of a logistics command post in the military chain. But fortunately, he did not object to it. Because by then, I had built up strong, personal relations with him. Singapore’s initiative launched the “places, not bases” concept, which was later replicated elsewhere.
Expanding International Space
17. When I took over from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990, survival and security concerns had receded.
18. We had stable relations with our immediate neighbours – Malaysia and Indonesia. Within the region, our neighbourhood was secure. The ASEAN member states, then just six of us, had also developed cooperative relations with one another.
19. So we shifted our foreign policy attention to increasing Singapore’s geopolitical and international economic space.
20. Singapore’s continued growth depended on establishing open links with regional and global partners, through which we could advance our economic and strategic interests. We did this by establishing a number of regional and inter-regional forums, as well as the ASEAN Economic Community. We also pursued FTAs or Free Trade Arrangements as an integral part of our foreign policy, when conventional wisdom frowned upon FTAs as being incompatible with the multilateral trading framework.
21. I will now discuss how we built consensus around our interests and delivered on our ideas to enlarge Singapore’s international space.
Building Consensus, Aligning Interests
22. Getting countries of different sizes and levels of economic development to come to a consensus on every issue is impossible. Countries have different interests and priorities. Even where values are aligned, there may be deep contradictions on how different countries realise these values.
23. The challenge, therefore, is to find the common purpose that is embedded in our different national agendas, to connect like-minded people and to focus on mutual benefit.
24. To do this requires the ability to empathise, to look at the world through the eyes of others, so that we can understand their concerns and interests, work with them and not be perceived as working against them.
25. This in turn calls for warmth, candour and trust not just in the overall bilateral relations, but also in the context of personal interactions between leaders.
Expanding Singapore’s Geopolitical Space – ASEM
26. The genesis of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is an example of this - the value of understanding and aligning interests.
27. In the early 1990s, China had just begun to open up, but it was still very much shrouded by a bamboo curtain. At the same time, East Asian economies were growing rapidly and there was much international interest in the region.
28. While the so-called tiger economies were known to the West, few countries had direct links to the Chinese leadership, or had acquired an understanding of developments in China.
29. In October 1994, the World Economic Forum (WEF) held its regional meeting in Singapore with the theme of Asia-Europe Cooperation. That inspired me to think about linking Asia with Europe. I believed that the Europeans would be interested in forging closer links with China, the awakened dragon, and other Asian economies; and certainly, Asia wanted more investments from Europe. Singapore was well-placed to play this role; we had established strong links with the Chinese leadership, and were well-regarded as a reliable interlocutor.
30. MFA’s concept paper which we circulated to prospective members explained the strategic rationale:
“Three major centres of economic power – North America, Europe and Asia – are likely to dominate global trade and investment activities well into the 21st Century. It is vital to ensure that there are well-established channels of communication between the three centres. North America is linked to Europe through the rich network of trans-Atlantic institutions. East Asia and North America are linked by APEC and other Pacific Basin Networks. What is palpably absent is a strong high-level Europe-Asia link. This missing link needs to be bridged.”
31. The timing of my official visit to France in October was fortuitous. The French were due to assume the European Union Presidency in January 1995.
32. In a restricted meeting with French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, I outlined the ASEM proposal. He saw the strategic benefits of the proposal and agreed to bring the EU members on board.
33. In turn, I was able to canvass ASEAN leaders’ support for this a month later, when APEC held its Summit in Bogor, Indonesia. So again it was good fortune. It was an APEC Summit, but I was also thinking of ASEM.
34. At the Summit, I first sought out Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. I explained the rationale for ASEM and then invited Thailand to host the first ASEM. He agreed. Why did Singapore not want to host it, when it came up with the idea? It’s because Thailand’s buy-in and active participation would remove any misperception that Singapore was proposing ASEM purely to boost its own international stature. After Chuan Leekpai, I briefed the other ASEAN leaders separately. They all welcomed the concept of ASEM.
35. ASEM was a big idea from a small country. We pulled it off because we did not think only of our own interests. We sold its strategic benefits to others, aligned their interests and ours, and secured their buy-in.
36. As the country which mooted ASEM, Singapore gained recognition for its strategic thinking and ability to deliver on an idea. But it would not have been possible had we not seen nor acted upon the confluence of interests between Asia and Europe.
37. Bridging regions and countries was a recurring theme during my premiership. Besides ASEM, we also initiated the Asia-Middle East Dialogue (AMED) and the Forum for East Asia–Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC). In addition, we stepped up engagements with India, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Central European countries.
Expanding Singapore’s Economic Space – the USSFTA
38. Beyond widening Singapore’s geopolitical space, we also focused on expanding Singapore’s economic space and building an external wing for our economy. This was vital to sustain Singapore’s economic growth.
39. In the late 1990s, Singapore’s economy was affected by the Asian Financial Crisis. The global economy then looked like it was in danger of coalescing into regional trading blocs; and the WTO Doha Round of negotiations was floundering.
40. We decided to pursue bilateral and plurilateral FTAs even as global trade negotiations were taking place in parallel. Some fifteen FTAs were eventually signed or conceptualised during my tenure. The US-Singapore FTA was one of the most important but concluding it was a drama.
41. We had our eyes on an FTA with the US for some time, but some quarters in President Clinton’s Administration were less enthusiastic.
42. You may recall that in 1994, Singapore sentenced Michael Fay, an American teenager, to jail and caning, for vandalism and theft. President Clinton requested that we grant Fay clemency from caning. We were put in a dilemma. On the one hand, we need to stand firm on the rule of law. Otherwise, we lose credibility in the eyes of Singaporeans and in particular President Soeharto, amongst other foreign leaders. Again you might recall that we had proceeded with the hanging of the two commandos from Indonesia who bombed MacDonald House and killed some innocent Singaporeans, despite Soeharto’s appeal. On the other hand, had we granted clemency, we would not have done our relationship with the US a favour, because we would be seen to be a client state of the US. So, we deliberated with this issue carefully and we decided that we should show that we had given President Clinton’s appeal serious consideration and yet, stood by our principle of the rule of law. We decided to cane Michael Fay but reduced the number of strokes from six to four.
43. Clinton’s White House staff kept Singapore at arm’s length after this to show the US’ displeasure. My request to visit the White House was turned down – we could not get through the White House gatekeepers. But as luck would have it, I had become friends with an American whom I played golf with in the Augusta National Golf Club. When this friend visited Singapore a little later and learnt that I had not been able to get access into the White House, he said that he would try and do something about it. He was a friend of Bill. He was from Little Rock, Arkansas, same place as Bill Clinton, so I left it at that.
44. And it was only two years ago when I met this friend again at Augusta for a golf game, that he told me he had actually spoken to President Clinton about my inability to visit him because of the block by his gatekeepers. So that explained a mystery which I suspected but which I could not quite confirm, as to why at the APEC Leaders meeting in Vancouver in 1997, out of the blue, Clinton invited me to play golf. So that’s Clinton’s clever way of by passing the gatekeepers. So I had my first golf game with him in Vancouver because of this mutual friend that we had.
45. The following year, I was welcomed at the White House.
46. As a postscript, Michael Fay had several brushes with the law after his return to the US. When I hosted Clinton to dinner in Singapore in 2002, he mentioned Michael Fay in a light-hearted moment. He quipped, “You should have caned him more” and added that Fay’s father should also have caned him earlier.
47. Well, I recount this story to show how we stood by our principles to the world’s most powerful country, to the world’s most powerful man, when knowing that there would be a cost to pay. So standing by principles is very important, even though there will be costs to pay. But it is also to provide the background to the conception of this idea of USSFTA, US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement – conception on a golf course again.
48. The APEC Leaders meeting in Brunei in November 2000 was the backdrop. I knew Clinton was a night owl. I’ve done my homework. So before the state banquet started, I approached him. I said, “what would you be doing after the banquet?” I told him I’m looking for a partner to play golf. He said yes, he’s also looking for a partner. So I said, “okay, let’s go and play golf.” I anticipated that. I had my golf bag and my golfing attire all packed in my car, ready to go!
49. Then, horrors, before we departed, while we were still waiting for the car, a sudden rain storm erupted. It was one of the heaviest thunderstorms I had come across. And a Clinton aide told me, “Looks like the game is off.” So I put on a bold front and told him no, I know my weather, this is a tropical thunderstorm, it will blow over in half-an-hour’s time. And I added, the golf course is30 minutes away. So knowing a little bit about psychology, I told him I am going anyway. I leave it to the President but I’m going.
50. So I went, and when President Clinton arrived at the course after me, the rain had become a light drizzle. Then he changed into his attire, his golfing attire. By the time he finished that, the rain had stopped completely. You might not know this but this is about midnight. You know, night golf, where they have these lights on the golf course which you could play in Brunei.
51. We played 18 holes. After we had finished at about 2.00 am, I made a pitch for a USSFTA. My argument was a simple one. The FTA would signal strongly the US’ strategic interest in Asia and anchor the US in Asia. He said that it was worth doing so we agreed to launch the FTA, all in under 20 minutes.
52. Our agreement, and the occasion, place, time, manner and speed in which it was reached amazed the American and Singapore officials! The next day of course, the officials started to work to draft the press statement on this agreement to have the FTA.
53. My good personal relations with Clinton also helped to restore normalcy to our bilateral relationship following the Michael Fay episode. But the crucial factor was having a strategic and decisive counterpart. Bill Clinton was such a leader. Our two countries’ strategic interests in having a bilateral FTA were aligned. Ultimately, trade is strategy. The FTA was for geopolitical reasons, not just about lowering tariffs and more trade.
54. National interests are foremost in determining a country’s foreign policy; but personal chemistry and relationships are important enabling factors. No leader operates in a vacuum. He must work with other leaders to succeed together. But we must know how to get the other person to see the benefits of our idea from his perspective, and from his country’s point of view - not from yours, but from his. So, the art of persuasion lies in aligning our interests with that of our foreign friends’, and getting them to see that the benefits to their countries far outweigh the potential costs, if any. Personal warmth provides the opening and a helpful push. That was the same way I was able to persuade the Japanese prime ministers to come on board to do an FTA with Singapore, as mentioned by Ong Keng Yong.
Seeking Win-Win – the Initiative for ASEAN Integration
55. A foreign policy based on winning at the expense of others is doomed to fail. The grandest visions forged in the absence of the ability to perceive others’ interests will come to naught. In the course of growing Singapore’s economic space, both bilaterally and multilaterally through ASEAN and other platforms, we have to be cognisant of the challenges faced by others. They may not be the same as ours.
56. Following the admission of Cambodia in 1999, there was a real possibility that ASEAN would become a two-tier grouping, with an income divide between older and newer members.
57. To facilitate the smooth integration of the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) and to reduce the development gaps within ASEAN, I proposed the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) at the 4th ASEAN Informal Summit in 2000. We decided to focus on two main aspects – skills and education, because without skills and education, it will not be possible for any country, and in particular the CLMV countries, to build their economies. So I kick-started the IAI by pledging S$60 million towards human resource development projects. Under the IAI, Singapore has trained some 29,000 officials from these countries.
58. A narrow-minded approach to foreign policy would have questioned the need to commit so many resources with so little material reward. But we took a broad, strategic view. It was not in our interests, or ASEAN’s, to let ASEAN become divided, or to have tensions build up because of a widening income gap. Such tensions would have detracted from the vision of building an ASEAN Economic Community in the longer term. By providing real, measurable, and lasting support for the development of the newer ASEAN members, we were able to achieve a win-win outcome and advance ASEAN’s economic agenda.
Delivering on Vision and Ideas
59. I now come to the third component in my practice of foreign policy – how to deliver on our vision, ideas and initiatives.
60. Singapore has consistently exercised influence beyond our small size in international fora. We are respected because of Singapore’s successful domestic track record. We are also known for delivering on good foreign policy initiatives like the Forum of Small States (FOSS) and the Global Governance Group (3G).
61. In this regard, a well-led government and a competent public service are decisive. While political leaders may persuade other foreign leaders to accept their ideas, the public service must be able to deliver them. If a government is mired in parochial institutional interests and turf sensitivities, the best ideas will come to nought and our international credibility will suffer. As veteran diplomats know well, the hardest diplomacy is often back at home. Fortunately, the Singapore Government takes a whole-of-government approach, and we have capable, dedicated and professional public officers to execute and implement our foreign policy.
62. ASEM, the IAI, and other initiatives like AMED were brought to life by able and innovative diplomats from MFA. They took an activist approach and engaged their counterparts in other countries. They had the skills of persuasion and, if need be, cajoling.
63. The economic initiatives like the Bangalore IT Park, the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park and the FTAs were undertaken by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) but MFA provided valuable political assessments, inputs and leadership in the negotiations. Both Ministries worked tenaciously, and in lockstep with other government agencies, to expand Singapore’s external space. There were also many other ideas which required MFA to work closely with other Ministries.
64. Let me end by encapsulating my main points on the practice of foreign policy through the Tianjin Eco-City - that’s a project which we started with China some years ago. This project would have clear goals - in other words, we went in with clear goals in mind: make friends, align interests, build consensus, and execute the project well. So these are the main elements in the practice of foreign policy.
65. Again, I had by then a warm and personal relationship with Premier Wen Jiabao. So when I saw him in 2007, I was then no more the Prime Minister; I was Senior Minister. I approached the subject of the Tianjin Eco-City. He listened. Our goal was not a commercial target. We were not looking out for commercial profit for our companies; it was strategic. We wanted to have another vehicle after the Suzhou Industrial Park, which was by then many years old, to allow our leaders to engage Chinese leaders - young leaders - constantly. So you need to have a platform, and we thought that Tianjin Eco-City project would be a nice platform.
66. But then we had to align our interest, because we might be interested in this strategy, but the Chinese would be interested in other things. China at that time was emphasising the environment, green development, urbanisation without too much pollution. So, we had the expertise in Singapore, so I was able to align our expertise with China’s interest of wanting to have a clean environment for its urbanisation. So Premier Wen Jiabao agreed and we had this project, but I must say that the Chinese are also good politicians. Premier Wen Jiabao, after the meeting with the officials, offered us I think three or four sites to choose from - Tianjin, then Xinjiang, Urumqi, then there’s one site up in the north, Tangshan, and another site in some remote place. So we asked the Chinese which one is the best to develop. They said, you choose. So we knew Premier Wen Jiabao could not decide. So we understood, we studied all the four sites, and finally we chose Tianjin.
67. Well, implementation is not just MFA or MTI - you know we have both – and also MND, Ministry of National Development, because it involves town planning for the new city. And we also needed to have a company to do this, and Keppel Corporation provided this spearhead for the commercial development of Tianjin Eco-City. Measured against the goal, have we succeeded? Well, commercially I think it will take quite some time. As we all know, that is to be expected, but it’s on the right path.
68. So six years on, President Xi Jinping visited the city in May last year and he remarked that this is a city which is worth being “replicated and extended” (能复制, 可推广) to other parts of China. And I have been following the progress of the Tianjin Eco-city, I can understand why President Xi said that. Tianjin Eco-city is the only city in China which provides potable water from the tap.
69. Has it succeeded against the goal of creating a strategic platform for our leaders on both sides? Well, Zhang Gaoli was the Party Secretary of Tianjin and he was very actively involved in the project. Today, as Vice Premier and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, he has proposed doing a third Government-to-Government project in the western part of China to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
70. So, this suggests that the Tianjin Eco-city has achieved its strategic purpose of building ties between each successive generation of leaders in Singapore and China.
71. The paradox of today’s globalised world is that countries are more self-absorbed than ever – including Singapore.
72. Yet it should be apparent that, like a bird, a country needs two wings to fly – a domestic wing and an external wing. One cannot do without the other. Besides sharing my personal experience in the practice of foreign policy, I’ve have also highlighted examples which demonstrate the interdependence between domestic success and foreign policy.
73. As a small country, Singapore has no inherent strategic weight. Our ability to exercise influence disproportionate to our size comes from our reputation of being a successfully run country. If Singapore did not have good governance, policies and programmes, other countries would not have paid any attention to us. A mediocre Singapore would not command the respect of foreign leaders, and even the most brilliant diplomats would be powerless to wield much influence on Singapore’s behalf. To exercise influence in foreign policy, Singapore leaders must be supported by their record of good performance at home.
74. But does foreign policy reap any benefits for Singapore’s domestic economy and population? Definitely. We live in an interdependent world. My experience has shown that a robust, effective, and credible foreign policy is vital to creating the space and vehicles necessary to sustain Singapore’s domestic growth. Singapore’s external trade is four times larger than its GDP - the highest trade to GDP ratio in the world. We need the world more than the world needs us. Practising good foreign policy is essential for us to meet the challenges of a complex, globalised world. This is why Singapore’s Prime Ministers have always played an active role in advancing our external interests, even as they pay attention to domestic priorities. Any leader seeking to govern Singapore must similarly have the same facility on the world stage to help Singapore succeed.
75. Like the external environment, our domestic environment has also become more uncertain, challenging and complex. PM Lee and his team have ably steered Singapore through treacherous seas over the last decade. But we must always be conscious of the need to leave our politics at the water’s edge. If Singapore is hobbled by fractious domestic politics, our leaders will have less time and energy for foreign policy. Our external wing will be weakened.
76. The impact of foreign policy initiatives, no matter how important to Singapore’s sovereignty, security, survival, growth and prosperity, is not always immediately apparent. Yet, foreign policy is the necessary second wing to fly us into the future.
77. We cannot afford to have an inward, barricaded, small island mentality. We must be open and outward-looking, confident that we are able to compete with the best in the world and able to make a contribution. We cannot take for granted the sovereignty, independence, stability and prosperity that our pioneers had struggled so hard to bequeath unto us. The Singapore Story for the next fifty years and beyond depends on how present and future generations build upon the domestic and foreign policy successes of earlier generations. As Raja said in 1965, “cherish independence without denying the reality of interdependence.” Thank you.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
17 OCTOBER 2014