The Buzz over Foreign Relations: A little red dot in a big, big world

By Alvina Koh

Let’s face it. News reports on foreign developments are usually far more interesting than those from this little red dot. Things like volcanic eruptions, bush fires and protests a la Hong Kong style don’t happen here. But beyond tales of woe, demonstrations of anger, and acts of heroism, there is another reason for keeping up with foreign developments — Singapore is just too small a country to be ignorant of global trends.

Just think about the recent coronavirus and its hasty spread from Wuhan, China to many parts of the world. The virus is a larger threat to bustling transit hubs like Singapore, which clocked 3.4 million visitors from mainland China in 2018. In fact, its first 18 cases were directly imported from Wuhan. The Grand Hyatt cluster in Singapore later contributed to its spread in multiple countries when international attendees of a conference returned home. This small, densely populated country is currently third in the virus ranking charts, with 89 infected people as of Feb 24. A few countries are already advising their nationals to postpone travel plans to Singapore.

Experts have predicted worse economic effects than the fall-out from Sars in 2003. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also warned of a recession in the offing. This could mean job losses in vulnerable sectors such as hospitality, travel and retail. A gradual loss of investor confidence could also generate knock-on effects throughout the economy, affecting more jobs and households in the long run.

Cities plugged into the global economy for survival are more susceptible to external circumstances. It thus made sense for Singapore to be among the first countries to ban those who had recently been to China from entering its borders.

Granted, the virality of COVID-19 has compelled many of us to pay extra attention to foreign happenings. But what about in less drastic times?

Think about the United States and China which have been swapping economic fire since 2018. How should Singapore navigate these tense relations without stepping on the toes of either of its allies?

Singapore’s foreign friends are critical to its “survival”, especially for trade and security. It traded $105 billion in merchandise with the US last year and $137.3 billion with China, both accounting for almost 24 per cent of total exports and imports in 2019. Among Asean countries, Singapore ranked as the largest exporter and importer in 2017.

That is not to say we are impregnable because of our economic connectivity. In fact, bigger countries tend to use a small country’s vulnerabilities like bargaining chips to demand its compliance or even allegiance to serve their economic or strategic goals. But doing another country’s bidding isn’t what sovereign countries do. Every country has its own interests to protect and should be able to decide its own destiny.

In coping with these physical and geopolitical realities, the Government says Singapore’s strategy balances both principle and pragmatism.

In being principled, Singapore will always uphold international agreements and subscribe to the ‘rule of law’ such as those enunciated by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This is because Singapore’s participation in international bodies allows it to stand up to bigger players on a more level playing field. In managing the coronavirus pandemic, for example, Singapore adheres diligently to the measures suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO). In doing so, Singapore garners trust as a cooperative nation invested in tackling transnational problems beyond its borders.

Singapore also takes on a pragmatic approach towards foreign policy, as seen from its multilateral engagements worldwide. This is evident from its membership and leadership in groups such as ASEAN, Forum of Small States (FOSS), and the Group of Thirty (G30). By participating in numerous institutions and pursuing multiple policy options, Singapore can afford to move around nimbly and hedge its bets.

Singapore scored a coup when it was asked to host the US-North Korea Summit on 12 June 2018. Costing about $16.3 million, it presented the country as even-handed and competent in bringing together conflicting parties for bilateral negotiations. It also demonstrated the importance of small states in playing the role of peacemakers when bigger powers are at play, demonstrating an ability to “punch above our weight” when the situation arises.

Of course, any kind of relationship between countries will always be tested by unexpected events and conflicting motives, such as the haze wafting in from Indonesia and complaints from Malaysia about water pricing.  The question, however, is how vocal countries should be in advancing its own interests.


Seizure of Terrex Vehicles in Hong Kong

A Terrex vehicle rolls downtown during a National Day 2010 rehearsal.

SOURCE: Limkopi/ Wikimedia Commons

There has probably never been more interest in SAF’s fighting machines than when Hong Kong seized nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex Infantry Vehicles in November 2016. 

Hong Kong said they had interrupted its passage home from Taiwan because the Singapore-based shipping firm, APL, did not own a licence to carry “strategic commodities’’. But it was understood that China was acting through Hong Kong to show its unhappiness with Singapore. Singapore had chosen to side against China’s interest in the South China Sea in a Court of Arbitration judgement made earlier that year. Then there was also Singapore’s attempt to lobby for a unified Asean statement in support of the ruling.

The seizure of the Terrexes also signalled Chinese frustration with Singapore’s unwillingness to toe its ‘One China’ policy, such as marginalizing Taiwan. Since 1975, Taiwan has provided Singaporean troops space for training under Operation Starlight.

The Terrexes event ushered in a period of strained tensions with China, where an annual bilateral event — Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) — did not take place for the first time since its 2004 inauguration. Singapore was also deliberately left out of China’s Belt and Road Forum in 2017, which was attended by neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Though the Terrexes were allowed back home in 2017, how the Hong Kong or Chinese authorities were persuaded remains a diplomatic mystery.

Bilateral relations with China have since picked up. Particularly so when both nations enhanced its Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation (ADESC) last year to deepen defence ties. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s visit to Chongqing in October last year also marked an improvement in friendly relations. Both parties signed nine agreements at their latest JCBC meeting in 2019, up from seven in 2018.

The Return of Dr M.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks at Chatham House in London on Oct 1, 2018.

SOURCE: Chatham House/ Wikimedia Commons

Few expected the 93-year-old veteran of Malaysian politics, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to rise out of retirement to become the next Prime Minister of Malaysia in 2018. Singapore-Malaysian ties, which were amicable during the leadership of former prime minister, Mr Najib Razak, were strained following Dr Mahathir’s win.

Dr Mahathir’s homecoming dragged out baggage from his previous stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. Besides resurrecting old ghosts like the water price issue, he reviewed bilateral agreements Mr Najib had signed with Singapore, including the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project. The project was to be scrapped, until he found out the potential abortive costs — and decided to defer it instead, pushing the deadline for operations from December 2026 to January 2031. Singapore, having already started work on the line, received $15 million from Malaysia in deferment cost. The neighbours faced hiccups over a shared railway line, which was eventually settled by dividing construction efforts and reducing the project cost.

Besides road bumps on rail projects, waves were made in shared sea territories and turbulence, in the shared airspace.

Sea changes: In Oct 2018, Malaysia extended Johor Bahru’s port limits eastwards, encroaching into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas. Malaysian vessels made daily intrusions into Singapore’s waters between Dec 2018 and April 2019. The intrusions stopped when both governments agreed in April 2019 to mutually suspend their overlapping port limits, returning to the status quo established in 1999.

Air turbulence: At the same time, Malaysia declared plans to reclaim its “delegated airspace” in Southern Johor, going against the 1973 agreement approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). It did so after objecting to flights taking off and landing from Singapore’s Seletar Airport under the newly implemented Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures that guarantee accuracy and efficiency of landing for the pilots. After a joint meeting on 8 Jan 2019, Malaysia agreed to suspend its permanent restricted area over Pasir Gudang in Johor while Singapore withdrew its ILS procedures.

The only ghost that was put to rest was the status of Pedra Branca, a small rocky outcrop located at the easternmost point of Singapore. Although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled in 2008 that it was owned by Singapore, the Najib administration claimed in 2017 that  it had uncovered British archival documents that could overturn the ICJ ruling. Some experts believed that the timing of the bid suggested that Pedra Branca was being used to stir up nationalist fervour in anticipation of a coming general election. In any case, when Dr Mahathir came into power, he withdrew the legal challenge.

In an interesting turn of events, Dr Mahathir made the unprecedented move to submit his resignation as Malaysia’s Prime Minister and Chairman of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) on 24 Feb 2020. This effectively seals the demise of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition as it no longer constitutes the majority in Parliament to form government. Many saw Dr Mahathir’s resignation as a tactical move to undo the PH transition agreement, under which Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was supposed to replace the 94-year-old leader before the 2023 elections. The former PM had also announced plans to establish a new ruling coalition with main opposition parties United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) in a closed door meeting on Feb 23 to replace and leave out PH allies.

These changes could mean many things for Singapore. Whether Singapore will benefit from a combination of ruling from Dr Mahathir and the opposition members is debatable. While UMNO leadership had improved economic relations between Singapore and Malaysia, it also sparked tension on issues such as the case of Pedra Branca, which was only put to rest under Mahathir’s mandate. Furthermore, Singapore has to contend with the possibility of an Anwar ruling which may present a shift in our diplomatic relations with Malaysia.

Should Small States Always Behave Like Small States?

Former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani (left) and Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan. SOURCE: World Economic Forum/ Wikimedia Commons & Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)/ Flickr

Former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani caused a minor fracas after writing a commentary for The Straits Times in 2017 about lessons Singapore could learn from Qatar. In it, he said “principle and ethics must take a back seat to the pragmatic path of prudence”. The fundamental principles and approach at the heart of Singapore’s foreign policy was the topic of public debate between him and Mr Bilahari Kausikan, two of Singapore’s foreign policy heavyweights.

The then-Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LSYSPP), who was also a former Foreign Ministry permanent secretary and ambassador to the United Nations, suggested that Singapore should “exercise discretion” in its treatment of affairs concerning global powers. He referred to Qatar’s restrained approach when bigger powers are “in the heat of a row”.

Referring to the Terrex incident, he said it “would have been wiser (for Singapore) to be more circumspect” in its actions following the judgement of the international tribunal on the South China Sea dispute.

At least three personages took him to task: Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, Mr Bilahari Kausikan and Mr Ong Keng Yong, both Singapore’s former and current ambassadors-at-large.

Mr Kausikan argued on Facebook that Singapore should never subordinate itself to bigger powers because of its small size. Rather, Singapore has survived and earned the respect of major powers by staying true to principle and standing up to them to protect their interests. While Singapore ought to recognize the asymmetries of size and power, the nation should never accept subordination as a norm of relationships, he said.

Both Mr Shanmugam and Mr Ong reiterated Mr Kausikan’s response, stressing the need for Singapore to stand up to bigger countries when their interests are at stake.

On Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea dispute, Mr Ong said that Singapore had acted correctly based on the prevailing circumstances, and that Singapore’s strategic positioning and diplomatic efforts had been well respected in the region. But Mr Mahbubani argued that the absence of a globally respected statesman like Mr Lee Kuan Yew should instead compel us to act in accordance with our size.

Hong Kong’s Anti-Government Protests

The first large march in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019, that marked the beginnings of months of protests against the extradition bill.


What began as peaceful protests in June last year against a proposed law in Hong Kong that would allow extraditions to mainland China quickly descended into months of violent clashes between the Hong Kong police and hardcore demonstrators. In Sept 2019, Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally withdrew the extradition bill, but that did not quell the protests. Many said it was “too little too late” — the protester’s demands had grown by then and demonstrations were no longer just about the withdrawal of the bill.

A common sight at demonstrations in the months that followed were groups of black-clad hardcore protesters whose all-or-nothing approach propelled them to engage in anarchic actions such as setting fire to police dormitories and the use of home-made explosives. United by a common sense of disenfranchisement, the leaderless movement managed to gain traction in many parts of Hong Kong. For months, Hong Kong was in shambles.

Singaporeans seemed to have paid special attention to the happenings in Hong Kong. After all, both countries are often dubbed as twin cities for their similarities. Besides the extent of economic prosperity present in both countries, one parameter that often stood out in the comparison was the high level of civil obedience observed. Singapore politicians have tried to turn the protests into learning points, possibly fearful that the people here might be influenced into adopting the same approach with the establishment.

“The responsibility starts with the government to get the basic issues right in society... If the fundamental issues are wrong, and 10,000 people go on the streets every day or every week, no police force I think can deal with it, including in Singapore.”

- Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam (source)

“Conflict resolution is not about telling the government what we want, and have others solve the problem for us. It is about all of us coming together to tackle the issues together. This is the true meaning of the democracy of deeds.”

- Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (source)

These days, most people would be voraciously gobbling up news of the virus here and abroad, in an attempt to read signs of what is to come. Hopefully, it will become a habit. A small country simply has to be in sync with the rest of the world, because we can be affected in so many ways.

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