Ambassador Bilahari tackles General Paper essay question: “Singapore is a small state located in Southeast Asia”

Bilahari explains the sovereignty of small states.

Bilahari Kausikan | January 26, 2015 @ 04:07 pm

Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan is Policy Advisor with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This is an excerpt of a speech, “The Sovereignty of Small States”, given at the Singapore Perspectives organised by the Institute of Policy Studies held on Jan. 26, 2015.

“Singapore is a small state located in Southeast Asia”

What does ‘sovereignty’ mean to a small country like Singapore?

We did not seek independence, but had independence thrust upon us.

I have been told that Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that ‘small island states are a political joke’. I cannot trace the source of that quote and if anyone can help I would be very grateful. But even if apocryphal, it implies a concept of sovereignty based on which our founding fathers sought independence within Malaysia rather than alone. I suspect it was difficult for that generation to even conceive of Singapore apart from what was then called Malaya. Obviously, and thankfully, that concept of sovereignty proved mistaken or was rendered mistaken by the Herculean efforts of our pioneer generation.

The concept of sovereignty is constantly evolving. Rather than try to define the elephant, I propose to take its existence for granted and instead consider what sovereignty means to Singapore by deconstructing a single sentence: ‘Singapore is a small state located in Southeast Asia’.

“Singapore is a small state”

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.

Sir Stamford Raffles established modern Singapore as a trading centre in 1819. Some recent archaeological studies suggest that we may have been a significant trading centre since the 14th century, even before the concept of sovereignty in its current form existed. Trade requires connectivity, logistics and finance. But the point is that they are essentially similar functions and we have performed them as a British colony, as part of Malaysia and only in the last fifty years – which is but the blink of an eyelid in the sweep of history — as a sovereign and independent country. There is therefore no reason to assume that sovereignty and independence are necessary conditions for us to perform such functions. We could conceivably do so even if our independence and sovereignty comes, by some blunder of policy, accident of politics or malicious whim of the Gods, to be severely compromised.

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 like the US, China, India, Indonesia, Brazil or Russia, or even without medium sized states like 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 fifty years. For small states relevance is not something to be taken for granted but an artefact: created by human endeavour, and having been created, preserved by human endeavour. The creation and maintenance of relevance must be the over-arching strategic objective of small states.

How do we create relevance?

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 due to 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 stupidest idea of a large country must be taken seriously, in fact the stupider 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.

Success must be defined first of all in economic terms. Will a barren rock ever be taken seriously? I know that it has become fashionable in certain circles to claim that economic success is not everything and that there are other worthy goals in life. I do not disagree as far as individuals are concerned. If any of our compatriots chooses to drop out of the rat race and devote his or her life to art or music or religion or even to just lepak in one corner, I respect their choice and wish them well.

But the country as a whole does not have this luxury. A world of sovereign states is in fact a rat race, and often a vicious one, in which the weak go to the wall. There can be no opting out for a sovereign state. And to be crass about it, small countries will always have fewer options than large countries but rich small countries have more options than poor small countries and that tilts the scales in our favour. This is crucial because a small state cannot be just ordinarily successful. If we were no different from our neighbourhood, why should anyone want to deal with us rather than our larger neighbours who, moreover, are well endowed with natural resources? To be relevant we have to be extraordinary. Being extraordinary is a strategic imperative.

“A small country in Southeast Asia”

And that brings me to the second part of the sentence with which I began. Singapore is not just a small country, but a small country in Southeast Asia; not the South Pacific or South America or Europe or, thankfully, the Middle East. This seems obvious but I think is nevertheless insufficiently appreciated.

A year or so ago I was flabbergasted and disturbed when asked — asked in all seriousness and not just to take the mickey out of me, which would have been acceptable — by a Singaporean PhD candidate in political science, why Singapore could not pursue a foreign policy akin to that of Denmark or Switzerland. The question aroused all my prejudices about the academic study of international relations. It makes a vast and I thought glaringly obvious difference where a country is situated. That a Singaporean PhD candidate who presumably knew something about her own country as well as the subject she was studying could ask such a question made me worry about the future of our country.

Southeast Asia is not a natural region. The main characteristic of Southeast Asia is diversity, which is another way of saying that there is nothing intrinsic to it. There are obvious differences of political form and levels of economic development. But the most important diversities of Southeast Asia are visceral: diversities of race, of language and of religion. ASEAN was intended, among other things, to mitigate these diversities to ensure a modicum of order and civility in inter-state relationships in a region where this was not to be taken for granted. ASEAN has been reasonably successful. But ASEAN can never entirely erase these primordial diversities because race, language and religion are the essence of core identities.

Singapore defines itself a multiracial meritocracy and we organize ourselves on the basis of these principles. We are not perfect – there is no perfection to be found this side of heaven – but we take these principles seriously. They are what make Singapore, Singapore. They also make us extraordinary because our neighbours organize themselves on the basis of very different principles. This is most obvious in the case of Malaysia. It was the irreconcilable contradiction between fundamentally different political philosophies that made it impossible for us to remain in Malaysia and, no matter how closely we cooperate — and despite occasional spats we do cooperate very closely in many areas — will make it impossible for us to ever be part of Malaysia again unless Malaysia abandons its basic organizing principle. And if you believe that will happen, there is a bridge I can let you have really cheap.

The essential issue is existential; not what we do but what we are: a Chinese majority country with neighbours whose own Chinese populations are typically a less than fully welcome minority and whose attitudes towards their own Chinese populations are too often projected upon us.

A Chinese majority multiracial meritocracy that has been extraordinarily successful compared to its neighbours is often taken as an implicit criticism of differently organized systems. That we are tiny speck on the map and have hardly any history to speak of is an additional affront. The intensity of such attitudes waxes and wanes; it manifests itself in different ways at different times. But it never disappears, because it is the structural consequence of the dynamic between two types of systems. Being extraordinary does not make us loved, but it is the price we must pay for survival and autonomy.

In different forms and various degrees such attitudes exist throughout Southeast Asia, and in China, Japan and even in western countries like Australia and the US. Examples spring to mind all too readily, but diplomatic prudence does not permit me to elaborate. Of course none of this is intended to imply that we cannot work with our neighbours or any other country: obviously we must, obviously we can and obviously we do and indeed, I dare say, we do so quite well. But these complexities are never going to go away and we ignore or deny them only at peril of compromising our autonomy, that is to say, our sovereignty. I believe that matters are going to get even more complicated because the external environment and our domestic environment are both changing and external and internal complexities will act and react with each other in ways that cannot now be predicted.

There are already signs of foreign policy being used for partisan political purposes. This is probably inevitable. Domestic debates over foreign policy are not necessarily a bad thing provided they take place within parameters defined by shared assumptions. Otherwise it is playing with fire. At very least it degrades the nimbleness of our responses if we have to argue everything out anew from first principles.

Shared assumptions come naturally, almost unconsciously, to countries with long histories. But with only fifty years of shared history, I am not entirely confident that this is the case in Singapore. There is something of an intellectual vacuum that is being largely filled by nonsense. We need to be better at educating ourselves about our own history. We do not in my opinion do a good enough job and the recent debates about our own political history are unfortunately notable only for their utter vacuity. What passes for critical thinking about our history is too often simply crying white if the establishment should say black. And social media exacerbates the situation by conflating information with opinion and treating both as entertainment.


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About Bilahari Kausikan

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