S'pore must be a 'poisonous shrimp' to survive in a world of 'big fish', LKY said in 1966

A policy of deterrence.

Tanya Ong | Belmont Lay | December 10, 2018, 04:31 PM

Something that Lee Kuan Yew said 52 years ago is reverberating again, if events in the past few days involving the neighbours up north is anything to go by.

Beyond diplomacy

Back in 1966, Lee, the first prime minister of Singapore, said the country had to develop good diplomatic ties with other countries, regardless of size or governing ideologies, if she was to have any chance.

This principle was predicated upon the idea that the world should be taken as it is and not what it should be.

And this also meant that diplomatic ties alone are necessary but insufficient.

Lee described then what Singapore had to become in order to survive in a sea of big fishes -- and that was to be a "poisonous shrimp".

In order to become that, Singapore had to build up its capabilities, which consisted of forming a credible military as a deterrence.

This is Singapore's idea of defence-signalling.

LKY speech in 1966

In 1966, Lee gave a speech at the University of Singapore speaking about Singapore's place in the world.

In his speech, he quoted a Chinese proverb: "Big fish eat small fish; small fish eat shrimps".

There are different types of shrimps, he said.

Some develop defence mechanisms while others are poisonous: "If you eat them, you will get digestive upsets."

Given the size of other countries and their military capabilities, Singapore was merely a shrimp in the global sea.

According to him, we had to at least become a poisonous shrimp.

If not, we may very well be absorbed by the "bigger fish".

Political context at that time

Shortly after Lee made that speech, National Service started a year later in 1967.

As a newly-independent nation that was two years old, Singapore experienced great vulnerabilities that necessitated a citizen army.

And on top of that, political vulnerabilities with our neighbours -- such as Konfrontasi with Indonesia and separation from Malaysia -- fuelled our insecurity.

A solution to this precarious position was for Singapore to build up a capable military force by relying on whatever resources available to us.

The goal, ultimately, was to show Singapore as being capable of retaliation and to deny the success of an offensive attack from hostile foreign actors.

Deterrence evolved to other forms

While the poisonous shrimp posture raised the cost of any offensive against Singapore, it still meant that significant damage might be incurred by us.

To ensure survival, Singapore had to constantly adapt.

In the 1980s, Singapore's military strategy evolved to emphasise pre-emptive strikes.

And subsequently, with the development of the 3G (Third Generation) Singapore Armed Forces in the 21st century, the defence strategy was refined once again.

By honing military superiority on all fronts, Singapore is better primed to handle both conventional and unconventional military threats effectively.

Deterrence continues to be the most important though

An update of Lee's "poisonous shrimp" maxim was reflected in one of his last books, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.

The 2011 book featured Lee's musings on our bilateral relations with Malaysia and the importance of Singapore's policy of deterrence.

Lee said:

You speak to the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) commanders. Why do they do this -- two years of every young man's life, 5 to 6 percent of GDP and a frugal government that builds up reserves? We do this because of hallucinations? Or because that's the only way we can be left alone to survive and prosper?


We should not gloss over our worries. They are real problems. And we are what we are because we can stand up for ourselves. If we can't, we've had it... Who's coming to our rescue because of water? The US? No. We rescue ourselves. Either the media grows up, especially the young reporters, or we're going to bring up a generation that lives in a dream world of security when none exists.

Singapore an irritation

Lee's views on Malaysia was also recorded for posterity in his book, where he engaged a reporter in a back-and-forth over what a strong defence force means for Singapore:

Journalist: The Malaysians I meet tell me that Singapore is an irritation and that the politicians and media there may kick you now and then but it makes no sense for Malaysia to go to war with Singapore.

LKY: That's good.

Journalist: So that should give us some comfort.

LKY: Because the assumption is, Singapore is strong enough to defend itself.


Journalist: I grew up thinking that really the economic miracle was actually quite fragile, not politics and our neighbours as the key imperative.

LKY: They are two sides of the same question. You cannot have a strong defence unless you have a strong finance. And you cannot have strong defence and strong finance unless you have a strong, unified, well-educated and increasingly cohesive society. They are all part of one whole.

Top photo via cyberpioneer