20 July 2023
1 I want to thank all of you here in-person or online for attending this book launch. I am grateful you have taken the trouble to be here this afternoon. I am sure there were better ways of spending your time.
2 A very special thanks to my old boss, Mr. Wong Kan Seng, for agreeing to be Guest-of-Honour; to my old comrade Ong Keng Yong for getting RSIS to organize the event, and to my old friends Peter Ho and Chan Heng Chee for not resisting being dragooned into appearing on the panel.
3 Heng Chee was also my teacher at the then University of Singapore, so I must emphasize that if anyone takes umbrage at anything in this or my previous book, it is not in any way her fault. She is not to blame. I wasn’t a very obedient student.
4 When my friend Tan Lian Choo first suggested collecting my ramblings 8 years ago, I was reluctant. I allowed myself to be persuaded only after she agreed to do all the hard work, as she has done again for this second collection. So an extra special thanks to you, Lian Choo.
5 When Lian Choo suggested this second collection, I was less reluctant because the intervening years had convinced me that Singaporeans needed to be more exposed to the complexity of international relations. There was a growing awareness that the world around us could not be ignored and consequently there was greater interest in international developments, at least among a certain section of Singaporeans. But this increasing interest did not necessarily result in better understanding. Indeed, it seemed to me that too often, the greater the interest, the more simplistic the view.
6 Among those who consider themselves sophisticated observers of international developments, the intellectual fad of the moment too often passes for analysis; and far too many in the majority who have only an occasional interest in international affairs, turn to social media to tell them what to think, and the wildest theories are passed on uncritically as the received Truth. Consequently, there is even confusion over the very idea of the national interest.
7 I do not think that my views are definitive views. Let me be absolutely clear about this: mine is a view but I do not claim that it is the view. In fact, there is no such thing as a definitive view because assessments of international developments are always contingent and subject to revision. International relations are not physics and diplomacy is not engineering that must always conform to the laws of physics. There is always room for debate even among informed observers of international relations.
But it seems to me that many discussions on international issues, even among the informed, was drifting away from fundamentals – fundamentals about Singapore and fundamentals about the very nature of international relations. This is dangerous.
8 Assessments are always contingent and subject to continual revision, but at any point of time, the authoritative statement of our position on any particular international issue must come from the government. That is after all one of the functions of government – to form a view on foreign policy issues and keep revising that view as circumstances evolve, in the light of our national interests. An authoritative view should not be the same thing as a static view. But as I have a certain practical experience of foreign policy and diplomacy, my views while only those of a pensioner, may nevertheless have a certain utility regardless of whether the reader agrees or disagrees with me. As a pensioner, I now also have the ability to speak clearly in public. This is a luxury that governments cannot always indulge in and which too many academics avoid because they get no professional credit for doing so.
9 As for our newspapers and TV, the ‘mainstream media’– the term has acquired a faint whiff of the disreputable — let me say that while I am sure they try their best, they have their own limitations and constraints. The new editor of Straits Times was an experienced Foreign Service Officer (FSO) before he went into journalism, and I am sure that if he is allowed the leeway to use his experience, the quality of its international coverage should improve.
10 But I digress.
11 It has become axiomatic that the world has become a more complex and uncertain place, in no small part because US-China strategic competition is now clearly a structural condition of 21st century international relations.
All that has happened in the last eight years has convinced me that the key to successfully managing the increasingly complex international environment, particularly our relationships with the US and China, lies in our domestic politics. I don’t mean just the domestic politics of foreign policy, but domestic politics more broadly understood.
12 Our relationships with the US and China intersect with and confronts us with a crucial – indeed, existential – question, encompassing every aspect of policy: how to preserve the essential values on which independent Singapore was established amidst the often contradictory imperatives of day-to-day policy-making and politics? That essential value is multiracialism. If we can maintain this core value, we can manage the external complexities. Unfortunately, the converse is also true.
13 The essential political task is to maintain the psychological poise of Singaporeans amidst complexity and uncertainty. Psychological poise comprises first of all and most crucially, belief in our own agency; that our interests are ours to define and our destiny is in our own hands. There is always something even the smallest country in the most dire of circumstance can do. If this were not so, Singapore as we know it today would not exist.
14 Psychological poise also requires us to take a balanced view of US-China relations seeing them in proper perspective, neither exaggerating the complexities nor under-playing them and, of course, maintaining situational awareness of where our national interests lie in the sometimes disorienting swirl of events.
15 This seems obvious. But Singapore’s unique status as the only sovereign state outside Greater China with an ethnic Chinese majority but largely English-educated population, sometimes makes the obvious easier said than done.
16 About 35 years ago, I was a young note-taker when the late Lee Kuan Yew, then PM, told the American ambassador that the Singapore ground was not naturally pro-western. We were then in a quarrel with the Reagan administration over the attempt of a group of its diplomats to interfere in our domestic politics. We expelled an American diplomat and the squabble was soon smoothed over as we had other more important interests in common. But what Mr. Lee said about the Singapore ground has been indelibly etched in my mind ever since.
17 Not being naturally pro-western doesn’t mean that our ground is naturally anti-western. These are different attitudes, but the ethnic sentimentality of some Singaporeans coupled with not being naturally pro-western can lead to muddled thinking over what are our national interests in the current external environment.
18 Most Singaporeans don’t understand either China or America as well as they think they do. When it is explained to them, most Singaporeans generally will support the government’s position on the specifics of US-China relations such as the South China Sea (SCS) and Taiwan. But there is nevertheless a certain segment of the public — not the majority, but I think not an inconsequential number either — to whom China can do no wrong and America can do no right.
19 This segment, some of whom are highly educated, operate on stereotypes derived from the media, and not just the PRC media either. Strangely, if you point out China’s mistakes or weaknesses to those to whom China can do no wrong, more often than not, their response is not to rebut what you say about China, but to point out America’s weaknesses and mistakes.
20 There is no great harm if all they mean is that every country has its own strengths and weaknesses. But the peculiarity of this mode of thought is that in their minds America’s weaknesses and mistakes somehow erases or excuses China’s mistakes and weaknesses.
21 And often, while they – correctly – point out the western – specifically the American — media’s biases about China and therefore reject the American media’s analyses of China, they are quite happy to accept the American media’s biases about the US. To be hyper-critical is part of American media culture and applies as much or even more to the US, as to foreign countries. These are all symptoms of muddled thinking, and as a sound foreign policy must rest on a sound domestic consensus, potentially dangerous.
22 Ladies & Gentlemen: I have spoken for too long. So let me wrap up with a final point.
23 Seeing US-China relations in their proper perspective entails understanding that the conditions that brought them together in 1972 – their common enemy, the Soviet Union – no longer exists and cannot be recreated. Nostalgia is the most futile of emotions in international relations.
24 From 1972 to about 2010 or thereabouts, the were periods of tension in US-China relations and differences over issues such as Taiwan and human rights. But their common enemy ensured that differences did not escalate too much and kept them focused on engagement. Now the emphasis has reversed. Engagement will not entirely cease and, as Mr Wong has pointed out, there were a number of recent high-level discussions between the US and China. However, the overall emphasis is now on competition. This makes engagement brittle, although I think nuclear deterrence will keep the peace between the US and China as it kept the peace between the US and the former Soviet Union. The risk is not war by design but an accident getting out of hand.
25 Some degree of competition is inherent in any system of sovereign states. And competition sometimes turns to conflict whether by design or accident. The 20th century was one of the bloodiest in world history. For a short and historically exceptional period of perhaps twenty years from 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, this harsh reality was masked by the overwhelming dominance of American power and even during this exceptional period there were genocidal wars in the Balkans and Africa and the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. We have now returned to a more historically normal period of world history.
26 In 1965 when Singapore had independence thrust upon us, the US-Soviet Cold War was hot in Southeast Asia. We had far less capabilities at our disposal than we do today to deal with a more immediately dangerous environment. Yet we not only survived but prospered as an independent and sovereign country pursuing our own national interests. There is no a priori reason why we should not do so again in this latest iteration of the historical cycles of great power competition provided we keep our composure, remain focused on our core interests, and get our domestic politics right.
27 On that note, I shall end. Thank you for listening to me.
Last updated on 20/07/2023