Vivian Balakrishnan's recent foreign policy speech echoes 1st Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam's 1965 United Nations speech

The core principles of S'pore's foreign policy can be found in his speech.

Henedick Chng | July 19, 2017, 06:35 PM

In case you're not aware, a debate has been going on lately on how small states, like Singapore, should behave around larger ones in the international arena. 

And on Monday (July 17), Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan outlined the following core principles that guide Singapore's foreign policy during a town hall discussion with officers from his ministry:

1) Singapore needs to be a successful economy; have stable politics and have a united society.

2) We must not become a vassal state.

3) We aim to be a friend to all, but an enemy of none.

4) We must promote a global world order governed by the rule of law and international norms.

5) Singapore must be a credible and consistent partner.

Vivian pointed out that these core principles were formulated by the founding fathers of Singapore's foreign policy, and have served Singapore well since its independence in 1965. 

Almost 52 years ago, Singapore's first and longest-serving Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam spoke at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, when Singapore had just become the UN's newest member.

In his speech on September 21, 1965, the late Rajaratnam made points that alluded to the core principles.

1) We must promote a global world order governed by the rule of law and international norms

Rajaratnam highlighted Singapore's adherence the UN Charter and its set of rules governing member states.

"Now that Singapore has been received into the fold of the United Nations, I would like to assure this Assembly that my country will join with other nations in their efforts to realise the aims and objects of the United Nations charter. For us the essentials of the Charter are the preservation of peace through collective security, promotion of economic development through mutual aid and the safeguarding of the inalienable right of every country to establish forms of government in accordance with the wishes of its own people.

My country stands by these three essential principles and will give loyal and unflinching support to the United Nations in its efforts to promote these ideals. We support these ideals because we realise that the well-being, the security and integrity of my country can be assured only on the basis of these principles. It is practical self interest and not vague idealism which makes it necessary for my country to give loyal support to these essential elements in the UN Charter."

He went on to explain why a global world order governed by the rule of law was necessary:

"World peace is a necessary condition for the political and economic survival of small countries, like Singapore. For one thing we want peace simply because we have not the capacity to make war on anybody. We are surrounded by bigger and more powerful neighbours with whom we cannot afford to settle issues by force of arms. So it is natural that my country should adhere firmly to the policy of resolving differences between nations through peaceful negotiation; by non-violent means."

2) Singapore needs to be a successful economy; have stable politics and have a united society.

Singapore, as an independent state at that time was only slightly more than a month old, and was still relying on the British military for defence. The government was also looking to develop the economy, and so Rajaratnam said this:

"Singapore is essentially a trading community. Almost all our energies, resources and talents are devoted to developing out trade and our industries. We have no military aircraft and no tanks. Our army is small. Instead, we have devoted our resources to building homes for the people, schools and hospitals. We seek a welfare state and not a warfare state. If independence and freedom are not to be empty slogans then we must continue to spend as much of our resources as we can on fighting the only war that matters to the people - the war against poverty, ignorance, disease, bad housing, unemployment and against anything and everything which deny dignity and freedom to our fellow men."

He also spoke about the Singapore society and how it can be united:

"The multi-racial and multi-cultural character of my country has made us somewhat sceptical of those who preach the superiority and exclusiveness of one culture and one race. In a multi-racial society one soon learns that no one people has a monopoly of wisdom and that one's own culture is not without flaws. This not only breeds tolerance for different viewpoints but also a readiness to learn and borrow from the accumulated wisdom of other people."

3) We must not become a vassal state

The point on Singapore's independence and how it would not be beholden to any country despite its size was made clear:

"At the same time my country is well aware that it is situated in a region of the world which has traditionally been the battleground of big power conflicts. Singapore itself by virtue of its strategic location has attracted the attention of nations who wished to dominate South-East Asia. Under British colonialism Singapore was developed not only as the commercial hub of South-East Asia but also as a military base for consolidating Western imperialism.

Today, with the granting of independence to Singapore, the role of this base is no longer to underwrite British colonialism in South-East Asia. My country has made it clear that it will never allow the base to be used for aggression. The base is there with our consent to ensure our own security in an area of increasing military instability. The moment we can be assured of effective alternative arrangements which will guarantee our security that moment foreign bases would have to go."

In the midst of the Cold War, Rajaratnam also pointed out Singapore's stance when it came to making friends with other countries, at a time when Singapore was nowhere near its present day stature:

"This is why my country has chosen the path of non-alignment. It simply means that we do not wish to be drawn into alliances dedicated to imposing our own way of life on other countries. Friendship between two countries should not be conditional on the acceptance of common ideologies, common friends and common foes."

4) We aim to be a friend to all, but an enemy of none.

Referring to Singapore's neighbours in the region, Rajaratnam said:

"And we want to live in peace with all our neighbours simply because we have a great deal to lose by being at war with them. All we therefore ask is to be left alone to reshape and build our country the way our people want it. We have no wish to interfere in the affairs of other countries or tell them how they should order their life. In return, we ask other countries to be friendly with us even if they don't like the way we do things in our own country."

Rajaratnam was probably also voicing a view that was ahead his time, when he spoke of the interdependency among nations:

"My country by the very nature of its historic experience is aware that in the contemporary world a developing country must learn to cherish independence without denying the reality of interdependence of nations. Our abhorrence of dependence on other should not drive us into embracing the dangerous myth of absolute sovereignty. In order to learn to live in peace with other countries there must be willing acceptance of the need for interdependence."

Same same but different.

In other words, four out of five core principles of Vivian's speech were similar to Rajaratnam's 1965 speech.

The outlier is Vivian's last point that Singapore must be a credible and consistent partner.

As Vivian said in his speech,

"Our views are taken seriously because countries know that we always take a long term constructive view of the issues. The bigger countries engage Singapore because we do not just tell them what they want to hear. In fact, they try harder to make Singapore take their side precisely because they know that our words mean something. We are honest brokers. We deal fairly and openly with all parties. And there is a sense of strategic predictability, which has enabled Singapore to build up trust and goodwill with our partners over the decades."

A probable reason why this principle was not in Rajaratnam's 1965 speech?

Many Singaporeans would not have expected that small tiny Singapore with no resources was able to build up trust and goodwill with other nations over the past fifty years.

And since the core principles of Singapore's foreign policy has served Singaporeans well, changing these enduring values for the latest international fad of nativism would be akin to one who is suffering a mid-life crisis.

Rajaratnam's full speech to the UN General Assembly in 1965 can be found here.

Top image from NAS.

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