Transcript of Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the MFA Townhall on 17 July 2017

17 July 2017


A very good evening to all our colleagues from MFA, and I believe we also have colleagues from SAF as well as from the administrative service and the civil service. I bid you all a very warm welcome. Let me start by saying it is not by coincidence that today we are at peace, we are at peace with all our neighbours, and we have good relations with all the major powers of the world. We owe a debt of gratitude to all our leaders and diplomats, both present and the past, for this happy state of affairs.

But more recently there has been lively debate on Singapore’s foreign policy, and I think this debate is especially on the part by retired officials, academics and commentators. But there is one key difference for all the people in the room here tonight. The key difference is that we are serving members of the MFA, and we in this room have line responsibility for the actual conduct of foreign policy on a daily basis. What this means is that the deliberations today are not a theoretical debate, and this not an academic word spinning exercise on a lecture circuit.

Some questions that have been raised include the following: First, has Singapore overreached? Have we forgotten our permanent status as a small state in the large dangerous world and tough region? Next question, should Singapore adjust our foreign policy posture given the evolving geopolitical situation, or even because of leadership changes in Singapore? And the third question has been, has our insistence on a consistent and principled approach actually limited our flexibility, our ability to adapt to new circumstances?

These are valid questions but I believe we need to go back to first principles. The ultimate objectives for our foreign policy are first, protect our independence and sovereignty, and second, to expand opportunities for our citizens to overcome our geographic limits. These are our ultimate objectives. It’s easy to state them, difficult to achieve. The existential challenge is how do we achieve these ultimate objectives, given our circumstances that we will always be a tiny city state in South East Asia and with a multi-racial population.

We must not harbour any illusions about our place in the world. History is replete with examples of failed small states. Our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew always reminded us repeatedly that we have to take the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be. But that does not mean that Mr Lee advocated a ‘do nothing, say nothing’ posture, or that Singapore should simply surrender to our fates. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has recently reminded us, on issues where our national interests are at stake, we must be prepared to ‘stand up and be counted’.

Some people have suggested that Singapore lay low and “suffer what we must” as a small state. On the contrary, it is precisely because we are a small state that we have to stand up and be counted when we need to do so. There is no contradiction between a realistic appreciation of realpolitik and doing whatever it takes to protect our sovereignty, maintain and expand our relevance, and to create political and economic space for ourselves. The founding fathers of our foreign policy – Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr S Rajaratnam, and Dr Goh Keng Swee, and their team – understood this acutely and they formulated a few core foreign policy principles. These principles have served us well since independence but are still worth reviewing again.

Core principles

What are these principles? First, Singapore needs to be a successful and vibrant economy. We need to have stable politics and we need a united society. If you think about it, if we were not successful, if we were not united and if we were not stable, we would be completely irrelevant. All of us in this room have witnessed how delegations of less successful small states are ignored at international meetings. And I am always mindful that foreigners do not speak to us because of the eloquence of our presentations or because we have the highest EQ in the room. We only merit attention because everyone knows that we come from Singapore and Singapore has made a success of itself despite our size, and that we are represented by smart, honest, serious and constructive diplomats.

Second principle- we must not become a vassal state. What this means is that we cannot be bought nor can we be bullied. And it means we must be prepared to defend our territory, our assets and our way of life. This is why we just celebrated 50 years of National Service, and we maintain at great effort an SAF that everybody takes seriously. This does not just depend on the military technology that the SAF possesses, but on the courage and resolve of our soldiers, particularly NS men, to defend what we have and to fight for what we hold dear.

Third, we aim to be a friend to all, but an enemy of none. This is especially so for our immediate neighbourhood where peace and stability in Southeast Asia are absolutely essential. Consequently, Singapore was a founding member of ASEAN and we remain a strong advocate of ASEAN unity and centrality. With the superpowers and other regional powers, our aim is to expand our relationships, both politically and economically, so that we will be relevant to them and they will find our success in their own interest. This delicate balancing act is easier in good and peaceful times, but obviously more difficult when superpowers and regional powers contend with one another. Nevertheless, our basic reflex must be and should be to aim for balance and to promote an inclusive architecture. And we must avoid taking sides, siding with one side against another. While we spare no effort to develop a wide network of relations, these relations must be based on mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and the equality of nation states, regardless of size. Diplomacy is not just about having “friendly” relations at all costs. It is about promoting friendly relations as a way to protect and advance our own important interests. We don’t compromise our national interests in order to have good relations. The order matters. So when others make unreasonable demands that hurt or compromise our national interests, we need to state our position and stand our ground in a firm and principled manner.

Fourth, we must promote a global world order governed by the rule of law and international norms. In a system where “might is right” or the laws of the jungle prevail, small states like us have very little chance of survival. Instead, a more promising system for small states, and frankly even a better system overall for the comity of nations, is one that upholds the rights and sovereignty of all states and the rule of law. Bigger powers will still have more influence and say, but bigger powers do not get a free pass to do as they please. In exchange, they benefit from an orderly global environment, and do not have to resort to force or arms in order to get their way.

This is why Singapore has always participated actively at the United Nations, and in the formulation of international regimes and norms. We were a key player in the negotiations for the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS) in 1982. Professor Tommy Koh still remains with us. And I’m sure that is one of your proudest achievements of your diplomatic career. We play an outsized role at the WTO, and in negotiating a web of free trade agreements at a bilateral and multilateral level. As a country where trade is 3.5 times our GDP, we must stand up for the multilateral, global trading system. And as a port at the narrow straits that ultimately connect the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, freedom of navigation according to UNCLOS is absolutely critical to us.

More recently, we participated actively in the negotiations for the Global Agreement on Climate Change. I spent five years, several of them as a Ministerial facilitator, for what ultimately resulted in the Paris Agreement. And we did so because we are especially susceptible to climate change as a low-lying island city state. So Singapore must support a rules-based global community, promote the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. These are fundamental priorities. They reflect our vital interests, and they affect our position in the world. We must stand up on these issues, and speak with conviction, so that people know our position. And we must actively counter the tactics of other powers who may try to influence our domestic constituencies in order to make our foreign policy better suit their interests.

Ultimately, we must be clear-minded about Singapore’s long-term interests, and have the gumption to make our foreign policy decisions accordingly. During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians were warned of the consequences they would suffer were they to give in to initial Spartan demands. Greek statesman Pericles told his fellow Athenians that if they were frightened into obedience by the initial demands of the Spartans in order to avoid war, then they would instantly have to meet a greater demand. Actually, contained in the Spartans’ demand was actually a test of the Athenians’ resolve. And if they give in once, they would have to give in again, and ultimately they would be enslaved. On the other hand, a firm refusal would make the Spartans clearly understand that they must treat the Athenians more as equals.

Now I know we live in a very different era and different geopolitical situation, but this lesson, this warning against appeasement remains instructive for Singapore. Whether we are dealing with a key security and economic partner or a large neighbour, Singapore has always stood firm when it comes to our own vital national interests, particularly where it impacts on sovereignty, security and the rule of law.

When the US teenager Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism, back in 1994, we upheld our court’s decision, even under great pressure from the US. In 1968, to take an example further back in our history, we proceeded to hang two Indonesian marines for the bombing of MacDonald House during Konfrontasi. I want all of you to bear in mind the political and strategic circumstances in 1968. We had just been kicked out of Malaysia. The British had just announced their intention to withdraw their forces from Singapore. We were still fighting a communist insurgency. Can you imagine the guts it took for the leaders in 1968, facing such circumstances, to stand up and do the right thing?

These episodes, painful though they may be, established clear red-lines and boundaries. The message was clear: Singapore may be small, but upholding our laws and safeguarding our independence, our citizens’ safety and security was of overriding importance. So we cannot afford to ever be intimidated into acquiescence. And the fact that we have consistently demonstrated this in action, put our relationships with neighbours near and far, other states big and large, on a more solid and actually stable footing.

And this is why we speak up whenever basic principles are challenged. When Russian troops took control of Crimea, Singapore strongly objected to the invasion. We expressed our view that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine, and international law, had to be respected. 

Which brings me to my fifth principle – that we must be a credible and consistent partner. Our views are taken seriously because countries know that we always take a long term constructive view of the issues. The bigger countries engage Singapore because we do not just tell them what they want to hear. In fact, they try harder to make Singapore take their side precisely because they know that our words mean something. We are honest brokers. We deal fairly and openly with all parties. And there is a sense of strategic predictability, which has enabled Singapore to build up trust and goodwill with our partners over the decades.

And because we are credible, Singapore has been able to play a constructive role in international affairs, at ASEAN and at the UN. We have helped to create platforms for countries with similar interests. For example, in 1992, Singapore helped establish the Forum of Small States. As a group, we’ve been able to foster common positions and to have a bigger voice at the United Nations. And today, the Forum of Small States has grown to 107 countries, more than half the membership of the UN.

We play a constructive role in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). We also launched the Global Governance Group (3G), to ensure that the voices of small states are heard, and to serve as a bridge between the G20 and the larger UN membership.  Our credibility has won us a seat at the table, even when our relevance is not immediately obvious. We are not the the 20th largest economy in the world, but yet we’ve just come back from the G20, where we got invited.

You want to take another example even further afield? When we first expressed interest in the Arctic Council, there were many who wondered what role a small equatorial country would play on Arctic matters.   But rising sea levels and possibility of new shipping routes impact or potentially impact our position as a transhipment hub, and so it is useful for us to be on the Arctic Council.  We have gained observer status in the Arctic Council since May 2013.  And we participate actively and contribute our expertise on maritime affairs. And if anyone wants deeper insights into this, speak to MOS Sam Tan who has represented us resolutely and repeatedly on the Arctic Council.  

Looking Beyond

Now let’s look beyond these five principles. Let me make a few observations. Small states are inconsequential unless we are able to offer a value proposition and make ourselves relevant. Singapore’s economic success, our political stability and our social harmony and unity has attracted attention from others to do business with us, and to examine our developmental model. And this is why our diplomats, both those of you in this room as well as the other half of our family overseas, work so hard all over the world to find common ground and to make common cause with other states. And we search for win-win outcomes based on the principles of interdependence. For example, we have participated in major cooperation projects in Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing in China, Amaravati in India, Iskandar Malaysia in Johor, the Kendal Industrial Park in Semarang, Indonesia, and the multiple Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks.  When we embarked on these projects, we contribute novel ideas and we implement our plans on a whole of government basis. And what this means is not just MFA, but our colleagues in all the other Ministries who also contribute whole heartedly into these projects.

Singapore’s position today is far more secure than it was at our birth in 1965. But the challenges of small states will be perennial. They cannot be ignored, or wished away. A strong and credible SAF is an important deterrence and foreign policy begins at home. Our diplomacy is only credible, if we are able to maintain a domestic consensus on Singapore’s core interests and our foreign policy priorities. And if our politics does not become fractious, or our society divided. We have safeguarded our international position by building a successful economy and a cohesive society; making clear that we always act in Singapore’s interests, and not at the behest or the bidding of other states.  We have been expanding our relationships with as many countries as possible, on the basis of mutual respect for all states regardless of size and on a win-win interdependence. Upholding international law has been a matter of fundamental principle for us; and being a credible and consistent partner with a long term view has given us a role to play and relevance on the international stage.

Colleagues, geopolitics will become more uncertain and unpredictable.  But we need to ensure that our foreign policy positions reflect the changing strategic realities whilst we maintain our freedom, our right to be an independent nation, with our own foreign policy. We must anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time. But our task is to maintain this whilst keeping in mind the broader relationships. Our approach as a state with independent foreign policy cannot be like that of a private company. Our state interests go far beyond the short term losses or gains of a private company.  So, we have to stay nimble, be alert to dangers but seize opportunities. 

But we need to also remember that some aspects remain consistent.  We need to advance and protect our own interests.  We must be prepared to make difficult decisions, weather the storms, if they come. We must be prepared to speak up, and if necessary, disagree with others, without being gratuitously disagreeable. We may always be a small state, but all the more reason we need the courage of our convictions and the resolution to secure the long term interests of all our citizens. 

Thank you very much.

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