Behaving like Small States versus Staring Back and Standing Firm? Options for Singapore’s Grand Strategy

I don’t normally write about diplomatic issues, but the on-going spat between two of Singapore’s top diplomats has been, at least for me, riveting.

In one corner, there is the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani, who had a commentary published in The Straits Times on 1 July 2017, entitled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country”. In Kishore’s opinion, “Qatar ignored an eternal rule of geopolitics: small states must behave like small states. Why? The answer was given by the famous historian, Thucydides, when writing about the war between Athens and Sparta: ‘Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.'”

Kishore’s argument, in my reading, can be summarised into three points:

  1. Singapore, unlike Qatar, should not “act as a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders.”
  2. Singapore should “invest more in Asean”, especially in the ASEAN Secretariat, whose annual budget is “only US$19 million, or S$26 million” despite servicing a reported 630 million people.
  3. Singapore should “cherish the UN”, which hasn’t necessarily prevented small states from “bullied or invaded and occupied by their larger neighbours”, but the UN Charter nevertheless “has made the world a safer place for small states.”

In the other corner, there is Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, who, in his Facebook post of 2 July 2017, argued against Kishore’s commentary, and characterised it as “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous.” He further argued that Kishore advocates “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy” and that Singapore will have to “live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks.” Bilahari’s argument is that small states like Singapore “will be friends to all who want to be friends with [them]. But friendship must be based on mutual respect. Of course [small states] recognise asymmetries of size and power … but that does not mean [they] must grovel or accept subordination as a norm of relationships.”

Later, Bilahari also recommended Ambassador Chan Heng Chee’s review of his own book as a more nuanced, careful and “far more balanced” approach to Singapore’s diplomatic strategy

The debate drew responses from Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong. The former characterised Bilahari’s initial rebuttal as “brilliant”. Shanmugam objected to Kishore’s small states behaving as such argument, arguing instead that such recommendations are “contrary to some basic principles” of the first Prime Minister, Mt Lee Kuan Yew. Shanmugam further added, “Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small.”

The latter also took issue with Kishore’s commentary. As The Straits Times reported, Keng Yong sought to draw attention to ” the elephant in the room: what happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics.  Or do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests?” Keng Yong also took issue with Kishore’s reading of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: “This was  actually mouthed by emissaries from Athens sent to the small state of Melos. The Athenians did not like Melos staying neutral in Athens’ war with Sparta and demanded tribute and submission from the Melians who maintained they were neutral and that Athens need not subjugate them. The Athenian emissaries responded with the now oft-cited quote and  said that if they accepted Melos’ neutrality, others would think that Athen was weak. Athens then proceeded to conquer Melos, killing its men, selling its women and children into slavery, and colonising Melos with its own people.”

Others also took to commenting on the debate. Kishore’s colleague at the LKYSPP, Dr Yap Kwong Weng, in The Straits Times on 3 July 2017, characterised Bilahari’s reaction as “exaggerated and unnecessary”, that Bilahari misconstrued “what Kishore had to say” and took Kishore’s “arguments out of context”, and that “Bilahari’s assertions are wrong and misleading.” Rather, Kwong Weng understands Kishore’s argument as “small countries like Singapore [needing] to exercise discretion concerning matters that involve great powers.”

Kishore himself has some out swinging. On 3 July 2017, in TodayOnline, Kishore wrote, “senior officials have been imprudent in their public statements. As a result, there have been some serious mishaps in our external relations”.

Interestingly, the Chan Heng Chee review that Bilahari cited has this to say: “I believe our foreign policy must be guided by a set of principles, but we should not highlight it in every speech we make, to say we have a “principled” foreign policy. We can make the point now and again, but it is for others to see our actions and conclude we have a “principled” foreign policy. Our foreign policy should be based on principles, but we should not be ideological about it.”

My own view? I don’t think Kishore’s commentary actually made the assertions that Bilahari alleged it did. I don’t agree with much of what Kishore has said over his long and distinguished career, but I have some sympathy for Kishore on this. I also tend to agree with Kishore’s assessment that small states should not stick their necks out, at least not without prior provocation. Bilahari is right on one thing: where small states have their core interests being challenged, they need to stand up to their larger neighbours and adversaries, in whatever way they can. They should not be cowed into submission by sheer disparity of size or power. But don’t stick your neck out. Don’t do stupid stuff!


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