Bilhari Kausikan: Foreign Policy Is No Laughing Matter

PoliticsĀ in Singapore is becoming more complex.

Basic assumptions and policies are being challenged, not just by opposition parties but also by civil-society groups and ordinary citizens. There is nothing particularly surprising about this. It is a natural consequence of democratic politics and a more educated electorate and we will just have to learn how to deal with it.

Foreign policy, too, will inevitably be drawn into domestic politics. The first signs are clear but not promising. In 2013, for example, an opposition MP who should have known better than to play with fire asked a question about Singapore’s Middle East policies that could have stirred up the feelings of our Malay-Muslim ground against the Government. Fortunately, the Foreign Minister could easily demonstrate that the Government had been consistently even-handed in its relations with Israel and Palestine and that the Arab countries understood our position and had no issue with Singapore.

Such irresponsible attempts to use foreign policy for partisan advantage are dangerous. At the very least, they degrade the nimbleness that small states need to navigate an increasingly fluid and unpredictable environment. But they are not the only challenge.

Tussle for influence

IT IS in the nature of international relations that countries will continually try to influence the policies of other countries, openly through diplomacy, but also through other means.

As Singapore’s political space becomes more crowded, with civil-society organisations and other advocacy groups as well as opposition parties vying to shape national policies, multiple opportunities will open up for foreign countries to try to cultivate agents of influence. Those targeted will not always be witting.

And try they certainly will.

The United States and China are groping towards a new modus vivendi between themselves and with other countries in East Asia. These adjustments will take decades to work themselves out. Competition for influence will hot up.

The challenge for all countries in East Asia is to preserve the maximum range of options and avoid being forced into invidious choices. Both the US and China say the region is big enough for both of them, implying that they do not seek to make other countries choose. Their behaviour, however, already suggests otherwise.

I doubt they will eschew any instrument in their quest for influence.

As the only country in Southeast Asia with a majority ethnic-Chinese-origin population, and with arguably the most cosmopolitan and Westernised elite, Singapore faces unique vulnerabilities.

Chinese leaders and officials repeatedly refer to Singapore as a “Chinese country” and argue that since we “understand” China better, we should “explain” China’s policies to the rest of Asean. Of course, by “understand” they really mean “obey”, and by “explain” they mean get other Southeast Asian countries to fall in line.

We politely but firmly point out that Singapore is not a “Chinese country”.

But China seems incapable of conceiving of an ethnic-Chinese-majority country in any other way. The concept of a pluralistic, multiracial meritocracy is alien to them.

Singapore cannot do China’s bidding without losing all credibility with our neighbours and other important partners like the US and Japan. And if we were ever foolish enough to accept China’s designation of us as a “Chinese country”, what would it mean for our social cohesion?

This mode of thought is deeply embedded in China’s cultural DNA and will not change. China still has a United Front Work Department under the Communist Party’s Central Committee. As China grows and becomes more confident and assertive, this instinct will probably become more pronounced. It would be prudent not to discount the domestic resonance that this could have.

Any attempt to garner influence by one major power will inevitably provoke a counter-reaction from other major powers.

Singapore’s brand of democracy already sits uneasily with many in the West and, indeed, with some members of the Singapore elite. In the late 1980s, an American diplomat was expelled for trying, with the support of his State Department superiors, to interfere in our domestic politics by encouraging the formation of a Western-oriented opposition party.

More recently, a European diplomat had to be warned for encouraging some civil-society groups and opposition figures to pursue agendas that he thought were in his country’s interests.

Diplomats legitimately meet a variety of groups and individuals – in government, the opposition and in civil society – in order to better understand the countries they are posted to. Our diplomats do so too. But the line between legitimate gathering of information and trying to influence domestic politics is thin. Western diplomacy is infused by a deep belief in the superiority of their values and too often motivated by a secular version of missionary zeal to whip the heathen along the path of righteousness. Some Singaporeans already find it fashionable to ape them; unscrupulous local politicians or “activists” may find it convenient to aid and abet them to advance their own agendas.

Neither the Chinese nor the West are going to change their reflexes. We will just have to be alert and firm in dealing with them. An informed public will be less vulnerable to influence by external parties or their local proxies.

Debate informed by realities

BUT most Singaporeans are not very interested in foreign policy, which they regard as remote from their immediate concerns, and do not pay much attention to international developments. When something catches their attention, it is usually only cursorily and superficially.

It is crucial that domestic debate about foreign policy be conducted within the boundaries defined by clear common understandings of our circumstances, chief of which is the inherent irrelevance of small states in the international system and hence the constant imperative of creating relevance for ourselves by pursuing extraordinary excellence.

Countries with long histories instinctively share certain assumptions that bridge partisan divisions. But we are only 50 years old; a mere blink of an eyelid in a country’s history.

And even Singaporeans who profess an interest in foreign policy can be breathtakingly naive about international relations and astonishingly ignorant about our own history and the realities confronting a small, multiracial country in South-east Asia.

More than a decade ago, I was infuriated when a journalist – a person whose profession was presumably to inform and educate Singaporeans – told me that there was no “national interest”. Please note that this was not disagreement over what constituted our national interest in a particular case – it is quite in order to debate this – but over whether there was such a thing at all.

More recently, I was flabbergasted when a Singaporean PhD candidate in political science in a local university asked me why Singapore could not pursue a foreign policy like that of Denmark or Switzerland.

It was quite a struggle to remain calm and reply blandly that it is because Singapore is in South-east Asia, not Europe, and the circumstances of these regions are obviously different.

If a PhD candidate could ask such a silly question, I shudder to think what the average Singaporean understands of our circumstances. It does not help that the political science department in at least one of our universities is staffed mainly by foreigners whose understanding of our region and circumstances is theoretical if not downright ideological.

Knowledge of our history should not be only a matter for specialists. The puerile controversy over the 1963 Operation Coldstore and whether those detained were part of the communist United Front exposed the extent to which the public lacuna of understanding allows pernicious views to gain currency. Historical narratives must, of course, be constantly revised. But critical historical thinking is not just a matter of braying black when the established view is white.

I can understand academics wanting to enhance their reputations by coming up with novel interpretations. But the recent debate over the detentions was more than a mere academic exercise: For some, it was a politically motivated, or at least politically hijacked, attempt to cast doubt on the Government’s overall credibility by undermining the Government’s narrative on one particular episode in our history.

Young Singaporeans who have known only a prosperous Singapore do not understand how unnatural a place this is; they are sceptical when we speak of our vulnerabilities, regarding it as propaganda or scare tactics designed to keep the Government in power.

In the long run, a successful foreign policy must rest on a stable domestic foundation of common understandings of what is and is not possible for a small country in South-east Asia. This does not yet exist. We have not done a good job of national education. What now passes as national education is ritualised, arousing as much cynicism as understanding. And we are paying the price for de-emphasising history in our national curriculum.

Some steps are now being taken to rectify the situation, including in the civil service which, the foreign service aside, generally has yet to develop sophisticated foreign-policy instincts.

But these steps are still tentative, sometimes executed in a clumsy manner that does more harm than good, and, in any case, will take many years to have an impact on the public’s understanding. Social media is a new complication. It conflates and confuses opinion with expertise, and information with entertainment.

Extreme as well as sensible and balanced views can be widely disseminated on social media; indeed, the former probably more widely than the latter because netizens generally find such views more amusing. But foreign policy is no laughing matter.

Or at least it ought not to be, if we are to survive as a sovereign state to celebrate SG100.

The writer, a former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, is now ambassador-at-large. He has also held various positions in the ministry and abroad, including as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York and ambassador to the Russian Federation.



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