21 June 2017
21 June 2017 | 4.35 pm
Marina Mandarin Singapore
I am very pleased to be here with so many friends and former colleagues to launch Bilahari’s book on Singapore foreign policy.
All Singaporeans should be interested in Singapore’s foreign policy interests and concerns. It should be in the consciousness of all Singaporeans. However, like most countries, this is not in the natural order of things. Our general public, young and old, have their day-to-day lives occupied with many other demands. Hence those having knowledge of Singapore’s foreign affairs have been, traditionally, the professionals and academics who have to deal with it. This is too narrow a base.
With the fast pace of change today, Singaporeans have become much more aware of news breaking events taking place. This makes it all the more important that Singaporeans become aware of the parameters within which a small, multiracial country in Southeast Asia must operate. Otherwise we become susceptible to external influences that do not have the interests of Singapore at heart.
Some Singaporeans are more vocal and quicker than others to express their views or concerns. This can be seen especially in social media platforms today, where many Singaporeans and residents here express their views. Being vocal is however not the same thing as being informed. This sometimes creates dilemmas for policy makers
Not only must we be aware of our own national interests, but also we must not be blind to the fact that other countries will mount, and have indeed mounted, cunning tactics using social media to influence various segments of our people, to swing them to their side and be critical of our own foreign policy stance. This is all part of the big power game.
Hence the title of Bilahari’s book is most apt: “Singapore is not an island”. It is typical Bilahari. Of course, every school student knows that Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea. But anyone who knows Singapore well, will understand that our success could not have been predicated on being an idyllic tropical paradise, like a deserted island in the South Pacific, depicted in the illustration on the cover of Bilahari’s book. Our future depends on how well we understand and manage our connectedness to the rest of this region and to the rest of the world. Our past success depended very much on how we achieved this by balancing and bearing in mind the mutual interests of the other countries that we have built good relations with.
This means that what affects the countries that we are close to, will also affect us. We cannot live and prosper without constantly being aware of the implications of developments around us. During my time as Foreign Minister, foreign policy issues were not major issues in domestic politics. The opposition parties generally did not take issue with the government’s foreign policy decisions.
More recently however, there has been a worrying trend of groups that aspire to prescribe alternate foreign policies when they have only a superficial understanding of how the world really works. Singapore’s vulnerabilities have been dismissed or downplayed by such groups. Moreover, as Bilahari has rightly pointed out, “there are the first signs of failure by some to resist the temptation to use foreign policy as a tool of partisan politics”.
There will always be episodes arising from time to time, which will test us as a people. The haze (and Indonesia’s response) was a case in point. Developments in the Middle East and the radicalization of Muslims living in Southeast Asia would be another. When such episodes arise, it will be important that as a people, our reactions are not knee-jerk ones – they should be instead reasoned, on the basis of what are our national interests. A good understanding of our foreign policy by Singaporeans will add to our national resilience; it will give us the common instincts to act always as one people when faced with such challenges.
As Bilahari puts it, in the long run, a successful foreign policy must rest on a stable domestic foundation of common understandings of what is, and what is not possible for a small country in Southeast Asia. It is important that Singaporeans become more and more familiar with the fundamentals of our foreign policy, and of what constitutes our national interests. There is today a changing international landscape; while old problems remain, new challenges continue to confront the region. For example, the South China Sea territorial disputes have the potential to threaten regional stability. Singapore is not a claimant state but we have to position ourselves to safeguard our interests in the freedom of navigation in international sea lanes.
Events in the world are never predictable and we must always expect the unexpected. When surprising or important developments take place – whether the election of President Trump, Brexit, the Qatari situation, the siege of Marawi in Philippines, we should ask ourselves equally important questions. Especially, what these portend for Singapore? Then again, how do we deal with the bigger powers – who have a penchant to pressure or bully smaller countries? In one of my books, I gave an example of an ARF Forum I chaired as Foreign Minister, where both USA and China for quite separate reasons tried to bully and pressurize us. Bilahari worked with me closely on that issue to ensure that we stood firm and principled. For how long can Singapore continue to take an independent and principled position with such big powers? We do not go out of our way to annoy or provoke them but they need to understand that at all times we act in our interests and no one else’s interest.
Therefore I am pleased to launch this book, which is a collection of essays and public speeches by Bilahari. As Foreign Minister, I worked closely with Bilahari and found him to be one of the finest minds in Singapore’s public service. His unvarnished analysis of foreign policy trends is always refreshing. Our foreign service was fortunate that he chose to devote his life to diplomacy. The publication of this readable collection can help many more Singaporeans, especially the younger ones who have not lived through much of our 52 years of history as a nation, to have better insights to Singapore’s foreign policy, to know why it was conducted the way it has been all these past years, and how it should be approached for the present and for the future.
Last updated on 07/05/2019