By: Ong Keng Yong
On Saturday, The Straits Times published an article by diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, “Qatar: Big Lessons from a Small Country”, in which he said the experience of Qatar reminds Singapore of the need for small states to behave like small states, and to cherish regional and international institutions. For example, he said small states should exercise discretion, that “we should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers”.
He added: “When I hear some of our official representatives say that we should take a ‘consistent and principled’ stand on geopolitical issues, I am tempted to remind them that consistency and principle are important, but cannot be the only traits that define our diplomacy. And there is a season for everything. The best time to speak up for our principles is not necessarily in the heat of a row between bigger powers.” He also wrote: “A small state needs to be truly Machiavellian in international affairs. Being ethical and principled are important in diplomacy. We should be viewed as credible and trustworthy negotiators. But it is an undeniable ‘hard truth’ of geopolitics that sometimes, principle and ethics must take a back seat to the pragmatic path of prudence.”
The article sparked much discussion online. Here are three responses to the article from academics.
Kishore Mahbubani has written an article about three big lessons to be learnt from the Qatar crisis. The situation in the Gulf is still developing and the world should watch it closely as there are, and will be, implications for everyone.
I wish to comment on his argument that small states should act like small states. What is a small state? Is it small based on physical size or size of the population or economy? Singapore is a member of the Forum of Small States at the United Nations, a useful mechanism Singapore diplomats helped to create.
Singapore is the smallest country in ASEAN in terms of its land territory. People in bigger ASEAN neighbours have never hesitated to say Singapore is a “little red dot”. But we know that size is a relative thing.
The article seems to suggest that a small state should know its place and not try to stand up for its national interests if these are going to get in the way of big-power politics. It does not seem particularly interested in examining the elephant in the room: What happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics. Or, do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests?
Singapore has always adopted a friendly approach to states which want to be friendly with us. We have always been particularly sensitive in managing foreign policy. We do not go around looking for trouble. But when necessary, Singapore has stood up to pressure from other states when its interests were at stake.
There is no choice but to stand up.
Doing otherwise will encourage more pressure from those bigger than ourselves. Does it come with a cost? Of course, and there will be short-term, perhaps even medium-term, effects. But for a state like Singapore, we want international relations to be conducted on an equal basis.
While we understand some states are bigger, richer and more powerful than Singapore, it is not to our national well-being if international relations are based purely on how big you are.
Singapore is the smallest country in ASEAN in terms of its land territory, but it has been successful in creating a space for itself on the international stage. Continuing to build on its contributions to develop a united ASEAN will offer Singapore, and other small states like it, more opportunity to sustain growth and prosperity.
We would rather have a world in which states find ways to cooperate — we all have our respective comparative advantages — and there are many ways states, big or small, can work together to make the world a better place. It takes all sides to do so.
For years, Singaporeans have been successful in creating space for ourselves. Some have called it “punching above our weight”. I believe Kishore has used this term very often in the past. Has something changed so much that he now disagrees with this Singapore trait?
As a state, we will have to continue to search for new avenues to create space for ourselves even as the world around us continues to change. And this could mean we may, at times, have to stand up for our national interests against bigger powers.
Basically, Kishore’s underlying concern is that Singapore is not exercising enough apparent savviness in dealing with the South China Sea issues.
Is that the case? I personally thought that thinking South-east Asians respect Singapore’s strategic positioning and diplomatic efforts. We have done what is needed based on what we know and the prevailing circumstances. Domestic politics in member states impinging on Asean external relations is something beyond Singapore’s control.
Regarding what the ancient Greek historian Thucydides said, it is important to bear in mind the context. Kishore refers to the quotation: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
This was actually mouthed by emissaries from Athens sent to the small state of Melos. The Athenians did not like Melos staying neutral in Athens’ war with Sparta and demanded tribute and submission from the Melians who maintained they were neutral and that Athens need not subjugate them. The Athenian emissaries responded with the now oft-cited quote and said that if they accepted Melos’ neutrality, others would think that Athens was weak. Athens then proceeded to conquer Melos, killing its men, selling its women and children into slavery, and colonising Melos with its own people.
Two thousand years on, small states may still have limited options, but human society has come together to create international norms and legal frameworks that govern the conduct of relations between states, big and small. The issue is how modern states successfully preserve their independent foreign policy when caught between rising powers.
Small states do this by being precisely what Kishore says: Machiavellian. They do not preserve the space to manoeuvre by being quiescent on the international stage or minding their own business. I am sure that Singapore’s leaders today understand this point very well.
I agree with Kishore on the need to invest in ASEAN to make it a more effective regional organisation, and cherishing the UN in promoting global peace and security.
On ASEAN, the challenge is to converge the diverse views among ASEAN member states and take into account the organic capability of South-east Asia. There is the constant yearning to model after Europe. The fact is, the two regions are fundamentally different.
As the secretary-general of ASEAN from 2003 to 2007, I saw ASEAN leaders managing their group chemistry and dynamics to handle the ups and downs of regional cooperation and institutional building. It may be time-consuming and there are many imperfections. Yet, there is peace and steady economic development notwithstanding the complicated relations among member states and between ASEAN and the major powers.
Singapore’s economical contribution to ASEAN’s organisational development is regularly belittled. More money does not mean more desired outcomes. In fact, Singapore spends many times the amount of its annual contribution to the ASEAN Secretariat budget on projects under the Initiative for ASEAN Integration to narrow the development gaps among member states.
The key thing going forward is to increase public support for a cohesive and united ASEAN which offers small states like Singapore more opportunity to sustain growth and prosperity.
Notes: A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline ‘Increasing support for cohesive Asean is key’. It is available online also at: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/increasing-support-for-cohesive-asean-is-key [accessed in Bandung, Indonesia: July 4, 2017].
Ong Keng Yong is Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.