MFA Press Release: Speech by Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, Former President of Singapore, at the 10th S Rajaratnam Lecture on Tuesday, 28 November 2017

28 November 2017


Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam delivering the 2017 S Rajaratnam Lecture, 28 November 2017 (Photo credit: MFA)

The Domestic Context of 
Singapore’s Foreign Policy

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

I am indeed honoured and privileged to be here today to deliver the 2017 S Rajaratnam Lecture.

Our relations with other countries take many dimensions – economic, political and cultural. Many of these aspects have been covered in previous Lectures. I do not intend to go over the same ground. What I want to discuss this afternoon is looking at foreign policy from a different aspect, how our domestic context influences Singapore’s foreign policy.


Foreign Policy in Domestic Discourse

During my six years as President, I have had many opportunities to engage Singaporeans both at home and abroad. These were occasions to better understand the preoccupations and the concerns of Singaporeans today. Many spoke to me about day-to-day issues, bread-and-butter issues, insurance, education, their jobs, and how they live. But many Singaporeans also shared with me their views on global developments, and by extension, Singapore’s foreign policy.

In recent years, we have seen foreign policy feature more prominently in Singapore’s domestic discourse. One possible explanation is that the global footprint of Singaporeans has expanded rapidly, and continues to do so. More Singaporeans are venturing overseas for business and studies. Many more choose to holiday abroad today. Singapore citizens and permanent residents made nearly 9.5 million overseas trips last year alone. With this exposure comes a more global outlook and mindset, and at the same time a keen awareness of Singapore’s place in the world.

The revolution of the digital media has further transformed the way we perceive the world. For most people, the digital media is now the primary and indeed most immediate source of information. As avid consumers of information, we are invariably plugged into the rapid news cycle through our mobile devices. Our feeds are not only flooded with breaking news, but also political commentaries and lively online exchanges. Technology has allowed us to put out content as easily and as rapidly as we receive it. Modern media has also given prominence to those who are more vocal and faster in expressing their views, especially if the views are contrarian. The stronger and more divisive the opinion, the more air and screen time it occupies. All these perspectives collectively shape how we view the world, whether we are aware of it or not. Unfortunately, in recent times, a number of these views have not been constructive, accurate or properly sourced.

In the past year alone, we have witnessed some worrying global trends. Protectionist sentiments threaten the consensus on globalisation and free trade, which is central to Singapore’s prosperity. More individuals also seem to be self‑radicalising from materials off the internet, and committing atrocious acts of terrorism and violence around the world, including in places many Singaporeans frequent.

However, we should not be pessimistic. Not all developments are negative. One example – the rise of China has generally been a great plus for the region. But it requires both China and other countries to adjust their foreign policy approaches to issues which affect their bilateral relations or have implications for the region. And, as underlined by President Donald J Trump’s recent 12-day visit to the region, the US will continue to be engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to political and military engagements, trade issues, in particular a focus on bilateral and reciprocal trade, are likely to be a priority in the US’ relations with countries in the region.

All these trends beget the question – how should Singapore position itself within the global order, to ensure that we tide over the challenges and tensions of today, and seize opportunities to stay relevant and successful in the future? This global uncertainty is not new to us, and should not shake our confidence in Singapore’s foreign policy.


Singapore’s Foreign Policy Approach

When independence was thrust upon Singapore in 1965, our region was in disarray. Singapore faced ongoing conflict within our immediate neighbourhood, coupled by the threat of communism at our doorstep. Singapore did not have a defence force then to safeguard our sovereignty. We had no foreign policy to speak of. And while we knew it was important to make friends to secure Singapore’s interests, we were acutely aware that Singapore could not simply rely on having friendly relations to safeguard our interests and sovereignty.

Singapore has resolutely pursued an independent foreign policy based on one key principle. We make as many friends as we can while insisting on our right to be treated as a sovereign country, where our interests are not subservient to anyone else’s. At times, Singapore may have differences with other countries, including bigger powers. Skilled diplomacy is then needed to manage such delicate situations and keep a fine balance to our external relations.

But diplomacy should not be confused with foreign policy. Diplomacy is a tool of foreign policy to advance our national interest, just as Free Trade Agreements are tools to advance our economic agenda. While it is important to carefully consider any positions we take and to make as many friends as possible, we should not seek to appease or ride on the bandwagon for fear of retaliation, especially when Singapore’s vital interests are at stake. It is in the implementation of our foreign policy that diplomacy comes in and takes an important role.

At the end of the day, our policy decisions must be based on one simple question – is this in Singapore’s interest? Where possible, we should try to find a mutually beneficial approach to resolve issues. But we must stand firm to preserve Singapore’s fundamental interests, even if we come under heavy pressure, or if it means a temporary downturn in bilateral relations.

Since our independence, there have been several instances where we have been tested by big and small countries on issues fundamental to Singapore’s sovereignty and national interests. Some of these include issues concerning our sovereignty, such as the dispute over Pedra Branca; issues concerning the honouring of important international agreements such as the terms of the Water Agreements with Malaysia, as well as the Points of Agreement (POA); or issues concerning our rights to apply our laws and enforce our penalties, such as the death penalty and other punishments, in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. Each time and at each test, we have stood firm.

And because of this, there will always occasionally be downturns, even between the closest of friends. But we should not shy away from standing up for our vital interests, even if things inevitably turn sour for a while. Nor should we hesitate to seek solutions through diplomacy, negotiations or third-party settlement of disputes. What is important is that we as a nation have the confidence to stand together and weather such occasional turbulence. 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 sequence matters. But that is not to say that we should underplay the importance of friendships in international relations.

Let me take one example – the Yemeni civil war. As the crisis worsened in April 2015, MFA arranged for a coach to evacuate eight Singaporeans and nationals from Brunei, Cambodia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam out of Yemen to neighbouring Oman. Our goodwill was reciprocated as other countries rendered assistance to Singaporeans as well. Such cooperation was only possible due to the wide network of friends Singapore has developed over time.

Ultimately, foreign policy serves to safeguard Singapore’s interests and Singaporeans’ freedom to chart our own paths. As a small country, Singapore is often buffeted by forces that are beyond our control. In fact, the world today is one in which no single dominant player, let alone a small country like Singapore, can determine the trajectory of world events. This does not mean that we should simply accept our fate. But it makes it imperative that Singapore remains nimble and adaptable to global trends.

As a small country, Singapore should continue to support an open global architecture and a rules-based multilateral system. We cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. Respect for international law is essential for peace and stability. And in the face of complex, transboundary problems today, we need a spirit of constructive interdependence to find solutions to global challenges, because no one country, large or small, can succeed on its own.

Singapore should also look to its immediate neighbourhood for opportunities and a collective voice. ASEAN has been, and will continue to be, a key cornerstone of Singapore’s foreign policy. Collectively, ASEAN has a population of more than 600 million people and a GDP that makes the region the 7th largest economy globally. A united and successful ASEAN will ultimately benefit Singapore and Singaporeans.


The Resilience of a Country

For a small country like Singapore, domestic and foreign policies are inextricably linked. Foreign policy allows us to create opportunities for Singaporeans. And domestic policy prepares Singaporeans to seize these opportunities. Both go hand-in-hand to advance the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans.

Our success in this regard is predicated on: First, Singaporeans’ continued confidence in and support for our foreign policy and its long-term objective of safeguarding Singapore’s independence and sovereignty; and second, Singapore’s continued cohesion, resilience and economic progress.

On the first point, I believe that an emerging threat would be the proliferation of misinformation in this digital age. As I mentioned earlier, technological advancements have changed the way we communicate and consume our media. The same technology which allows information to reach us almost instantaneously is also responsible for delivering distorted and even false information. The so-called “post-truth era” poses many challenges for both domestic policy and foreign policy. Big nations and smaller states have realised that they can increasingly achieve their objectives through misinformation, which undermines the will and resolve of nations that they have problems with. It is not only the larger powers, even smaller players can use social media manipulation to undermine resilience in the targeted countries with little expense.

These techniques may be cloaked in new-fangled terms such as fake news and election campaigns, but the aims of achieving of national and diplomatic objectives are in fact very old.  They seek to divide a country against itself.

Singapore is certainly not immune to these advanced, persistent threats. Recent events elsewhere have shown us that elections can be influenced through these techniques. We are one of the most internet-connected societies in the world. We are also one of the most diverse nations on earth. Recent events and investigations have shown us that countries that have differing constituencies and demographic compositions can be influenced, and set up in contention against each other.

With the free flow of information and dis-information across geographical barriers, the onus is on everyone to exercise judgment and not take information at face value. So, the next time you read a foreign policy commentary or op-ed, ask yourself who stands to benefit from the proposed course of action. What we need is a well-informed society that understands not only the multitude of views, but the corresponding trade-offs in each policy position. Take one example – our international climate change commitments for instance. As a low-lying coastal city, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As part of the Paris Agreement, Singapore made the commitment to reduce emissions intensity by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030, and to stabilise emissions with the aim of peaking around 2030.

Needless to say, these commitments have painful domestic implications. For example, some of our industries and businesses will face higher operating costs with the introduction of a carbon tax from 2019. However, these are necessary pains and adjustments, as Singapore believes that a global approach towards climate change is the best chance for us to manage its consequences.

Another example is Singapore’s provision of technical assistance. Under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, Singapore has trained over 115,000 participants from more than 170 countries and territories in our capacity building programmes, which include areas such as leadership and governance, sustainable cities, and water and sanitation solutions.

Some may wonder why we have chosen to allocate our finite training resources in helping other countries. After all, we could have invested the resources domestically in a different way. But such a view would have been too insular. As a member of the international community, and a beneficiary of assistance in our early years of independence, Singapore is in a good position to support the emerging developmental priorities and challenges around the world, and particularly in our region. Through these programmes, Singapore also generates goodwill at the Government-to-Government level, as well as establishing strong personal relationships and friendships at the people-to-people level. Many of these friendships could be mutually beneficial in the long term, as these officials move up to leadership positions subsequently. In fact, both our climate change obligations and technical assistance programmes directly support the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Ultimately, Singapore’s continued success will depend on our resilience as a nation and as a society. As a multiracial and secular society, our social cohesion has been tried in the past, and will continue to face challenges. There may be attempts by external forces to divide us along racial and religious fault lines. We already see cases of foreign influences such as religious extremism exacerbating societal divisions in countries around the world. It is imperative that Singapore remains vigilant against those who seek to mount insidious information campaigns to influence segments of our population for their own ends. Singapore cannot tolerate attempts by foreign countries or entities to manipulate our people’s sentiments. Singapore’s future is for Singaporeans to decide. In the face of such attempts, the ties that bind us together as one people, which I would describe as “social reserves”, are vital. In the same way that we have built up our financial reserves, we should build up our social reserves as an investment for the future because these social reserves will come in handy and helpful during difficult times.



Ladies and Gentlemen, with the vision of our leaders, the diligence of our diplomats, and support of the people, Singapore’s foreign policy has proven successful over the years. Through active diplomacy abroad, our network of overseas Missions continues to work round the clock to promote Singapore’s national interest by:

    i) Pushing the economic frontiers to secure jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans and our companies;
    ii) Providing consular assistance to Singaporeans who are in need; and
    iii) Feeding the latest information back to Singapore, so that we can make sense of developments around the world and make better decisions.

An independent, sovereign and successful Singapore is contingent on everyone playing his or her part. At the end of the day, a successful foreign policy also requires strong domestic support at home. Notwithstanding any differences we may have internally, we have to close ranks and stand firm on issues that have significant impact on Singapore’s national interests. Being well-informed and adaptable are key traits that Singaporeans should continue to develop as we “go global”.

Looking ahead, we must continue to make ourselves relevant in today’s rapidly changing world, and stay ahead of the curve to seize the many opportunities out there. I am confident that so long as we are resilient, innovative and united as one people, Singapore’s future is bright. 

Thank you.

.     .     .     .     .

28 NOVEMBER 2017



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