Remarks by Tan Lian Choo, Editor, at the RSIS Distinguished Book Launch of “Singapore is Not an Island: Views on Singapore Foreign Policy”
21 June 2017 | 4.50 pm
Marina Mandarin Singapore
First, let me say a big thank you to everyone for being here today. I also wish to express my special thanks to the many distinguished guests who have made time to join us here, in particular Prof Jayakumar for addressing us as the Guest-of-Honour on this occasion. My thanks also go to RSIS for organising this event and to the Straits Times Press for wanting to publish this book (in particular Susan Long, Eunice Quek and Ilangoh Thanabalan). But of course we would not be here today if the author himself, Bilahari Kausikan, had not consented in the first place to have his writings and speeches compiled into this book. So I would like to place on record here my thanks to Bilahari for agreeing to this endeavour.
Some of you may wonder why I undertook this editing project since Bilahari’s writings (except for the Epilogue in the book) have been reproduced in one form or another, in The Straits Times, or elsewhere, including in his much followed Facebook page.
People say that the young today don’t like to read books. Certainly I do not expect many of them will want to read a book on Singapore foreign policy from cover to cover. But it is my conviction that young Singaporeans do want to be better informed. And I believe that this can be facilitated by their having a ready access to insights with bite-size, stand-alone essays put in a framework for better understanding of our past and present foreign policy concerns and interests. I have therefore put this collection together with the hope that our young can be better engaged, and, in the process, we may as Singaporeans forge a common understanding of what is, and what is not possible for a small, multi-racial country like Singapore in Southeast Asia.
I must be the only one in this room who has read every line of this book at least half a dozen times (each time with a different purpose, I should add). But I can honestly say that I would not mind reading these essays again. Those of us who have known and worked closely with Bilahari know how he thinks, how fast he works, and how impatient he can be. His public speeches and writings reflect this. But what is often forgotten by the occasional listener or reader, is that Bilahari has been reiterating, consistently, the fundamentals upon which all our reasoned policies have been, or must necessarily be based. These appear as recurring themes in the book.
Bilahari is very widely-read, and has a wonderful facility with the English language – so much so his candid reiterations (impatient or otherwise) often come across with clarity and wit, even as they are thought-provoking and profound. I can do no better here than to pluck a few of his statements from this book to illustrate what I mean:
Quote #1: “The bedrock of relevance is success. I have always told our foreign service officers that if Singapore’s foreign policy has been successful, it is not because of their good looks, natural charm or the genius of their intellect; the most brilliant idea of a small country can be safely disregarded if inconvenient, whereas the most stupid idea of a large country must be taken seriously. In fact, the more stupid the idea, the more seriously it must be taken because of the harm a large country can do. If we succeed, it is only because Singapore as a country is successful. Singapore’s success invests our ideas and actions with credibility.”
Quote #2: “..consider what sovereignty means to Singapore by deconstructing a single sentence: ‘Singapore is a small state located in Southeast Asia.’
This seems straightforward, but is it really? What do we mean by ‘small’? We are, of course, a physically small country. A moderately athletic person could without too much difficulty walk across it in a day. But as a trading centre, as a logistics hub, as a port and airport, and as a financial centre, we are far from ‘small’. In trade, connectivity and finance, among others, we loom quite large internationally, far larger than our physical size may lead one to expect.”
Quote #3: “Size – physical size – matters and small states are intrinsically irrelevant to the workings of the international system. It is impossible to conceive of a world without large countries such as the United States, China, India, Indonesia, Brazil or Russia, or even without medium-sized states such as Australia, Japan, France or Germany. But the world will probably get along fine without Singapore as a sovereign and independent country. After all, it has only had to put up with us for some 50 years. For small states, relevance is not something to be taken for granted. The creation and maintenance of relevance must be the over-arching strategic objective of small states.”
Quote #4: “We have to take the world – or even that little part of it we call Southeast Asia – as it is, and not mistake our hopes and wishes for reality. This does not mean that we should not be aspiring to change things in accordance with our ideals. But such an effort is doomed to failure unless it starts from an unsentimental understanding of reality.”
Quote #5: [On the rise of China] “By changing itself, China changed the world and many Western countries are now struggling to come to terms with what China’s re-emergence implies for their own histories and sense of identity.”
Quote #6: “Policy options for a small city-state are narrow, as are margins for error. History teaches us that city-states are particularly vulnerable to rapid technologically driven changes in the structure of the global economy, such as those the world is now experiencing. There are no easy or perfect solutions. What is necessary will not necessarily be popular. To continually adapt and survive, trust between the government and people must be maintained. This requires all citizens to be aware of the unique possibilities and limitations of a city-state and the confidence to remain ourselves.”
Ladies & Gentlemen, without much further ado, allow me to pass the floor to Bilahari Kausikan himself to make his comments.
Last updated on 07/05/2019