Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan rebuts LKY School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani

Kishore is wrong because Singapore cannot be subservient to bigger countries.

Belmont Lay | July 02, 2017, 04:18 AM

Bilahari Kausikan, ambassador-at-large and former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a lengthy and swift rebuttal to Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

This was after Kishore wrote a commentary in The Straits Times on July 1, 2017, on what lessons Singapore can learn from Qatar's recent predicament.

This was after Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar overnight -- a predicament, Kishore reckons, brought about by the tiny country after acting too big for her own good.

Kishore's key message in his article is that a small country like Qatar ought to know its role and shut its hole when facing up to bigger and mightier countries.

Singapore, likewise, can and should do the same moving forward in a post-Lee Kuan Yew world, effectively suggesting the undoing of Lee Kuan Yew's leadership lessons of not being pushovers.

Obviously, this did not go down well with Bilahari, a realist who is known for his nuanced take on international affairs and for being an undiplomatic diplomat.

In Bilahari's view, for Singapore to be cowed based on her sheer small size would be signalling its leaders are pushovers. And this was not the formula Singapore used to survive and prosper. Lee Kuan Yew and his team made concessions here and there, but they didn't budge unless necessary.

Moreover, there is no way for any meaningful relationship-building to be sustained in the long run once larger countries know they can get their way by muscling through.

Singapore, after all, was and shall never be determined by its physical size, but by the scale of its ambition.

For the uninitiated, both Bilahari and Kishore are both known to be thought leaders in Singapore who occasionally ply the lecture circuit that attracts the usual congregation of wonks and randos.

Kishore was also a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1993 to 1998, preceding Bilahari who held the same position from 2010 to 2013. Which means he was once Bilahari's boss.

The original article and the rebuttal are worth reading in full.

This is the original Kishore Mahbubani article:

This is Bilahari's rebuttal in full:

Kishore's article in the ST of 1st July, the link is below, is deeply flawed. There are indeed lessons to be learnt from Qatar's recent unhappy experience, but not the ones he thinks.

I have no quarrel with what Kishore has to say about regionalism and the UN. But his first lesson -- that small states must always behave like small states --is muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous.

Kishore once never tired of saying that we must 'punch above our weight'. He obviously has changed his mind.

But the reason he has done so and what he has to say about the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the suggestion that now that he is dead we should behave differently, is not just wrong but offensive not only to Mr Lee's successors, but to all Singaporeans who have benefited from what Mr Lee and his comrades have bequeathed us.

Kishore says that he has learnt a lot from Mr Lee, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Rajaratnam. I don't think he has learnt the right lessons or he has only learnt half a lesson.

Coming from someone of Kishore's stature -- he is after all the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy -- it is so dangerously misleading that it must be vigorously rebutted even at the cost of offending an old friend.

Kishore says Mr Lee never behaved as the leader of a small country and earned the right to state his views because he was respected by the major powers. True. But how did he earn that right?

Mr Lee and his comrades did not earn respect by being meekly compliant to the major powers. They were not reckless, but they did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles when they had to. They risked their lives for their idea of Singapore.

They took the world as it is and were acutely conscious of our size and geography. But they never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.

Independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates. They did not earn the respect of the major powers and Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle.

We will be friends to all who want to be friends with us. But friendship must be based on mutual respect. Of course we recognise asymmetries of size and power -- we are not stupid --but that does not mean we must grovel or accept subordination as a norm of relationships.

In 2010 then PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at an ASEAN meeting was reported to have publicly and pointedly reminded ASEAN that China was a big country, staring at then Foreign Minister George Yeo. Mr Yeo reportedly stared right back.

I was not at that ASEAN meeting so I do not know if the story is true, but it gained wide international currency

Neither was Kishore at that meeting. Still, he certainly seems to have absorbed the lesson Mr Yang was trying to convey very well even without being there.

Mr Lee stood up to China when he had to. To my knowledge Mr Lee is the only non-communist leader ever to have gone into a Chinese Communist Party supported United Front and emerged victorious. The Chinese respected him and that is why he later had a good relationship with them. I don't think anyone respects a running dog.

In 1981 then US Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge threatened to complain to Mr Lee and that there would be 'blood on the floor' if our then Foreign Minister S Dhanabalan did not not comply with American wishes.

Mr Dhanabalan calmly held our ground.

Mr Holdridge obviously did not understand either Mr Lee or Singapore. This is perhaps to be expected because the US, like China, is bigger and more powerful than Singapore. But Kishore ought to know better. He was after all part of the delegation to the international meeting where the incident occured. Apparently he does not remember or now finds it politic to feign amnesia.

Mr Lee and his comrades stood up to Indonesia and refused Suhato's request to spare two Indonesian Marines the gallows. Their act of terrorism during Confrontation had cost innocent civilian Singaporean lives. The Marines had been convicted after due legal process and had exhausted all avenues of legal appeal.

On what basis could we have spared them? Because Indonesia is big and we are small? What conclusion would Suharto, and others, have drawn about Singapore had we done so? How would the relationship have developed?

The principle established, some years later Mr Lee laid flowers on the graves of the Marines. Both standing firm and being gracious without compromising principle were equally important and were the foundation of Mr Lee's long and fruitful friendship with Suharto.

I am profoundly disappointed that Kishore should advocate subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy. It made me ashamed.

Kishore will no doubt claim that he is only advocating 'realism'. But realism does not mean laying low and hoping for the leave and favour of larger countries. Almost every country and all our neighbours are larger than we are. Are we to live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks?

What kind of people does Kishore think we are or ought to be?

Related articles:

Bilahari Kausikan’s new book for S’poreans to think critically about foreign policy based on S’pore’s interests

LKY School’s Kishore Mahbubani urges young S’poreans “to think big” and be “less kiasu” about their careers

Top photo via Pixabay