Vivian Balakrishnan: S'pore will never be leader of ASEAN, can at best be honest broker

He thinks less 'rah-rah' formal meetings and more quiet discussions between leaders would work best for his upcoming term as ASEAN chair.

Sulaiman Daud | December 05, 2017, 06:48 PM

Singapore cannot be ASEAN's leader, but we can be an "honest broker" between other countries to do good where we can.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan put forward this view of Singapore's role as the 2018 chair of ASEAN in a speech on Tuesday, Dec. 5. He was speaking at the 15th ASEAN Lecture at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute at NUS.

"Singapore is by land area, the smallest member of ASEAN. We will never be the leader of ASEAN. Our role, at best is to be an honest broker, to call it as it is. But in Tommy (Koh)'s style, to facilitate resolution. Don't aggravate things, don't make things worse. No need to grand stand, no need to posture.

Just do good, whether it works best by doing it quietly, which frankly in a nation context, that's often the most effectively. Quietly build trust, act in a way that is consistent with your declared values. And then hopefully by getting ASEAN members into this habit of acting collectively, we build reflexes for the future."

He said this in response to an audience question on whether Singapore plans to make any changes to the ASEAN secretariat in light of its upcoming role as the regional body's chair.

The ASEAN Secretariat was set up in 1976 by the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN, responsible for the administrative duties of the organisation. The chairmanship rotates on an annual basis among the ASEAN members in alphabetical order, and 2018 is Singapore's turn.

Fewer formal meetings, more quiet time

Vivian also explained that with ASEAN's consensus-driven model, leaders in Southeast Asia perhaps needed some quiet time alone away from the bright lights in order to get things done.

Consensus is a key feature of ASEAN, in which members need to see eye-to-eye and agree before a decision can be made and ASEAN can move forward on any issue.

"I think what is needed is for our leaders to be able to spend more time, not in secretariats... but just time with each other to build up trust, to understand each others' real red lines, each others' deepest fears and hopes and aspirations, and then to be able to cobble together a consensus on how to move forward.

So, for summits organised by Singapore, I would rather have less rah-rah, less formal meetings and more quiet time for our leaders to sit and talk without an audience, without gatherings, to solve these things."


We are not a leader, but an honest broker

Vivian again touched upon Singapore's role as a "small state" later in the Q&A session, when he was asked how Singapore would encourage others in ASEAN to follow the path it had set out.

While he acknowledged Singapore's physical limitations, he emphasised the importance of sovereignty. He also advocated again for a system where ASEAN's leaders build up trust in each other to encourage cooperation.

"On Singapore's role as a small state, we will always be a small state. However because of the peculiar way we came about, and the equally astonishing way in which we have reached our current level of development, we do not believe in surrendering to our fates. We do not believe in becoming a vassal state or a client state. We do believe that ultimately the best way to seek peace and prosperity for our own people and our own region is to build up sufficient strategic trust and to create habits of cooperation that will reinforce this behaviour.

So that's why you will never see us proclaiming to be a leader, you will never even see us pretending to be a role model, because you can't compare a city-state to a vast country. All we hope to do is to be able to maintain our own sovereignty and independence of action. To continue to do well for our own people. And then to be able to be an honest broker for all our partners and stakeholders, so that people know when a Singaporean leader says something, he means what he says."

Vivian added that Singapore's unique traits of being honest in its dealings and negotiating in good faith will work in our favour as ASEAN's chair.

"It is a carefully considered position that the whole of government subscribes to. And we get a reputation for consistency, for probity, and for action. These are our own national quirks or traits, but I do believe that it does enable us to play a useful role within ASEAN."

Should small states behave like small states?

Vivian's vision of Singapore's role calls to mind the essay written by Kishore Mahbubani, outgoing dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for the Straits Times in July 2017.

His three points were:

  • Small states (like Singapore) must always behave like small states.
  • Cherish the regional organisation.
  • Cherish the United Nations.

The first point triggered a sharp response from Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan, who wrote a lengthy rebuttal arguing that Singapore cannot be subservient to larger countries.

Even Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam saw fit to wade in, calling Bilahari's post "brilliant" and saying that Singapore should not "think small."

"As Foreign Minister, I never forgot that we were a small country and there were limits to what we can do. But equally I also knew, that once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied. And I never allowed myself to be bullied, when I represented Singapore."

It seems that Vivian is reiterating points made by both Kishore and Bilahari (and also Shanmugam).

Singapore should recognise its limitations as a small city-state, but it should also not hesitate to act in the interests of our own sovereignty and independence.

And from what Vivian has shared, his take is that the best way to achieve it is by quiet, patient discussion on a person-to-person basis, away from the cameras.

Come 2018, Vivian will be able to put this leadership style to the test.

Top image by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

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