There is an old adage that politics should stop at the water’s edge.
It is commonly associated with post-World War II American politics, a tacit agreement that both political parties would pursue an anti-communist foreign policy, but also that foreign partners could make long-term plans with the United States, knowing that opposing political parties would still adhere to agreements that previous administrations made.
In a Singaporean context, it speaks to the similar notion that Singapore's security and foreign policy are not for politicking, not for partisan politics, that Singapore's foreign policy is too important.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong put it like this when he spoke in the Nov. 6 debate, regarding the parliamentary motion on the Israel-Hamas war:
“Politics must stop at the water's edge.
And that means on external matters where national security is at stake, political parties should not try to outflank the government just to score political points.”
But as the debate on Nov. 6 underlined, the current conflict, despite its distance from Singapore, involves almost as many domestic concerns as it does international ones.
Navigating the difference between serious politics and petty politicking, especially in foreign policy, is not simple.
The debate spoke about the importance of not letting the conflict harm the racial and religious cohesion of Singapore, as well as fears that terrorists might be emboldened, and the possible targeting of Singapore as a result.
It also addressed the perception some may have that having a good diplomatic relationship with Israel is tantamount to being pro-Israel and its policies. As Wong pointed out, Singapore has expressed opposition to some Israeli actions like expanding settlements in the West Bank, and voted against the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in the UN.
Some may also overlook the strong relationship that Singapore also has with the Palestinian Authority, perhaps best displayed in the S$10 million Enhanced Technical Assistance Package, which provides the Palestinian Authority with capacity building support.
It was clear there is significant worry about the prospect of spillover of strong feeling into Singapore, with Wong noting increased regional traffic to extremist sites, as well as increasing negative sentiment towards Singapore.
WP broadly aligned with the government's debate motion on Israel-Hamas
So it was again emphasised by the government, particularly Wong and foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan, that it was good that the Workers’ Party chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh had aligned with the debate motion, and had made sure that politics had “stopped at the water’s edge”.
This has, generally been the approach that the WP has taken on foreign policy issues.
While maybe jabbing at particular points, the WP has broadly aligned with Singapore’s long term positions.
It has done so with the two other major regional and international crises of the past three years, Myanmar and Ukraine; but also raising its own points.
For instance, when the UN special rapporteur questioned whether Singapore was adhering to its commitment to not ship military materiel to Myanmar, both PAP and WP MPs asked about it in Parliament.
Convergence, after a while
The Israel-Hamas conflict is no ordinary geopolitical issue, with the interwoven threads of race, religion, nationalism, ideology, history, and economics meaning that there are many ways to agree, and dozens more to disagree.
The WP ultimately voted for the motion, but the debate, and the clarifications asked of and given by Singh as LO made it clear that there were significant points of contention, bubbling under a united front.
This contention could have been detected as early as the WP’s Oct. 18 statement, which Singh read out in full in Parliament, which ultimately had a more detailed critique of Israel's historical actions, as well as its actions since Oct. 7.
Also notable, because both Wong and Vivian noted it in their own speeches, the Oct. 18 statement did not mention Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, let alone call it an act of terrorism; resulting in both pressing Singh on the issue.
Both ministers pressed the WP on this, making sure that the WP made explicitly clear that they acknowledged the Oct. 7 attack was terrorism, and that the WP condemned it; with the WP's Gerald Giam saying in his speech that the WP also supported Israel's right to self-defence, caveated by the restrictions of humanitarian law, finally bringing the WP back in line with stated Singaporean foreign policy.
And it was quite an exception, when this author was collating all the official statements made by the government and parliamentary parties, that omission did really stand out, as did its description of the Israeli Defense Force’s actions thus far as “marked by overwhelming disproportionality”.
The government's own responses were more measured, and also more numerous, and it was possible to imagine that as the situation developed, a growing concern about the scale of the retaliation developed too.
However, from the very first statement made by the MFA on Oct. 7 that condemned Hamas' attack, MFA was already urging "for all sides to do their utmost to protect the safety and security of civilians", with subsequent statements calling on Israel to act within the bounds of the laws of war and international humanitarian law.
On Nov. 7 itself, both the deputy prime minister and the leader of opposition spoke about why Israel must resist imposing "collective punishment" on the Palestinians in Gaza, even though it has a legitimate right to defend itself. This is as strong a use of language about Israel's actions as this author could recall being used on this topic by Singaporean parliamentarians in recent times, and an indication of how severe the situation in Gaza had become.
Getting their feet wet
Placed in the tapestry of responses, the WP’s statement is not out of place. It was just the first to frame its response and concerns about Israel's actions.
But being first probably speaks to political underpinnings and its role as a longtime opposition party, probably changing the nature of its own response and picking up on particular aspects of the conflict that the government had not at that point in time.
While both sides see the scale of the crisis in Gaza, the government naturally focuses on aspects of international law, of foreign policy, first.
The WP, as Singh alluded to in his speech, likely fields more complaints and messages of concern from the public; and perhaps is more strongly attuned to the concerns of proportionality and restraint on the part of the more obviously powerful.
Another example is Giam’s critique of the decision to not allow public gatherings related to the conflict, even in the Speakers’ corner.
“Suppressing political debates does not prevent extremism; rather, it could lead to the debate being driven into radicalised corners of the internet, which is where the real danger lies.”
This does not push against the foreign minister’s 7-point framework, that probably does not cross “the waters edge”.
But it is political, and speaks to the differences the WP has with the PAP.
In the responses, there is a reflection of each party's long-held concerns and approaches and that, while not petty politicking or "trying to outflank" the other, is still politics.
If politics stopped at the water's edge, it appears to still have gotten its feet wet.
Top image via MCI/YouTube