Another important speech 

Our next post is a contribution by a reader who wants to be known as Tropper-Z. 

He wrote in to present the tl;dr version of the below speech, hoping more Singaporeans can learn more about it.

Here’s the post: 

Recently, PM Lee posted a speech by Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan who paid tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam also posted the speech as well. In the speech, the former permanent secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke about the legacy of LKY and his colleagues, the reasons why Singapore conducts its foreign policy the way it does, and the challenges to it. 

All countries are always at the mercy of the unknowns of the future. Therefore, we must always be prepared for any kinds of contingencies.

Big countries may delude themselves about being always in control of events. Small countries cannot afford such illusions. For small countries, foreign policy is usually a series of not always neat or consistent improvisations to a messy and unpredictable reality. The future can at best be only dimly glimpsed and in any case cares not a whit for your concerns. So you must pragmatically adapt yourself to it.

Many countries make the mistake of making wrong assumptions on how the world works.

Successful navigation requires a clinical – indeed cold-blooded – appreciation of the world as it is and not as you may wish it to be. This is harder than you may think. Diplomacy is an area of human endeavour that is more than usually susceptible to self-deception and wishful thinking.

Contrary to popular belief, LKY and his comrades were idealistic visionaries. Many forget that Singapore is a product of idealism: that a small island without natural resources can be richer and more successful on its own than its much larger and well-endowed neighbours.

Mr Lee and his comrades were not devoid of idealism. Singapore as it is today would not otherwise exist.

But there’s a difference between idealistic and delusional if they don’t understand human nature and power.

But idealism must be rooted in a hard-headed understanding of the realities of human nature and power. Without power nothing can be achieved. And even with power not everything desirable will always be feasible. No matter how fervently one may wish that they may be liberated from the surly bonds of earth, pigs are never going to sprout wings and fly.
Many believed that LKY was always right. But as Bilahari attests, that wasn’t the case.

Margaret Thatcher once said of Mr Lee: ‘He was never wrong’. That is of course, not true. Nobody can be always right, particularly in international affairs where most of the time most of the factors are going to be unknown or only partially known and where even the effort to know may change what you are trying to know.

While he was never always right, he had the extraordinary ability to maintain an unwavering focus on the core of an issue.   

What Mr Lee and his comrades possessed to a greater degree than anyone else I have ever met, was an uncanny ability to zero into the core of even the most complicated problem or situation. They wielded Occam’s razor with great intellectual ruthlessness, slashing through the pious obfuscations which too often shroud international issues.

His focus was constantly on Singapore’s national interest which he never confused with ideology.

But Mr Lee and his comrades were never shy about changing their minds. Again this is harder than you may think. Too often vested interests, stubbornness or just plain pride stands in the way. Too many people believe their own propaganda. Mr Lee and his comrades avoided this most common of pitfalls because their laser-like focus was always the national interest of Singapore. And they never confused ideology with interest.

Diplomacy is all about upholding your national interests, politely if possible, but by any means if necessary. There is no other option than to stand firm when defending them.

Diplomacy is not all about being pleasant or making oneself agreeable. It is about defending and advancing the national interest, preferably by being pleasant and agreeable, but if necessary by any appropriate means. In this respect, having to stand your ground in the face of the tiger’s roar – and in the shadows of diplomatic politesse lurk many wild beasts – was another valuable lesson.

Singapore stands out in Southeast Asia, and our Chinese majority is viewed unfavourably by our neighbours.

This is particularly so in Southeast Asia, where majority Chinese Singapore which organizes itself on the basis of multiracial meritocracy, is something of an anomaly. We live in a region where the Chinese are typically a minority and not a particularly welcome one, and where our neighbours organize themselves on the basis of very different principles.

Singapore learnt a hard lesson during the two years in Malaysia.

Perhaps Mr Lee’s greatest mistake was, during the period when we were part of Malaysia, to underestimate the lengths to which the Malay leadership in Malaysia would go to defend ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ – Malay dominance. It was not a mistake that he or any of our leaders ever made again.

Singapore’s exceptional success by organising itself as a Chinese majority multiracial meritocracy is offensive to some quarters in our neighbours who organise themselves differently.

The basic issue in Singapore’s relations with our neighbours is existential: the implicit challenge that by its very existence a Chinese majority Singapore organized on the basis of multiracial meritocracy poses to systems organized on the basis of different and ultimately irreconcilable principles. That we have the temerity to be successful, adds to the offence.

In spite of our vulnerabilities and problems, Singapore must conduct its diplomacy backed by formidable strength and power.

None of this means we cannot cooperate with our neighbours: we must, we can and we do. But we must do so from a position of strength. Mr Lee was a lawyer and had a deep belief in the rule of law. Yet as a former Chief of the Malaysian Armed Forces has recounted, Mr Lee told him: “if PAS comes into power … and tries to meddle with the water in Johor Bahru, I’ll move my troops in. I will not wait for the Security Council to solve this little problem.”

As a small city-state, Singapore needs to be exceptional to stay relevant. But staying exceptional is not always well received by our neighbours.

But we are different and we must remain different to survive. Small countries have no intrinsic relevance. To small countries, relevance is an artefact created by human endeavour and having been created, must be maintained by human endeavour. To remain relevant we cannot be ordinary. We cannot be just like our neighbours. We have to be extraordinary. Yet being extraordinary does not always endear us to our neighbours.

Much has changed since Singapore became independent 50 years ago. But the ways countries in the region organise themselves and Singapore’s location have not.

Singapore and Southeast Asia in 2015 is obviously not the same as Singapore and Southeast Asia in 1965. But some things do not change: our geopolitical situation and how our neighbours chose to organize themselves.

The regional environment remains complex and fraught with danger. 

Our environment is still complicated and perilous. The US and China are competing for influence with a greater than usual intensity as they grope towards a new accommodation with each other and the region. Malaysia is on a political trajectory that has heightened racial and religious tensions and may well lead to violence. The haze that regularly envelopes Southeast Asia is a reminder that post-Suharto Indonesia is still an incoherent and rent-seeking polity which has yet to reach a stable political equilibrium.

But the most pressing danger for Singapore’s foreign policy comes from the inside, from Singaporeans.

The key challenge is internal: that a new generation of Singaporeans will take the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades for granted as the natural order of things and be persuaded that we are no longer vulnerable.

He cited the examples of members of opposition parties and the intelligentsia in Singapore, who lack an important understanding where Singapore’s interest lies. Thankfully, the majority Singaporeans proved that they do not believe or support them.

Some opposition politicians and their fellow travellers among the intelligentsia have tried to do just that. They either do not understand their own country and region or place their ambitions above the national interest. Fortunately, as the results of our recent General Election have demonstrated, the majority of my compatriots do not believe them.





3 replies »

  1. …painting the intelligentsia which have a different perspective from the ruling party with the same broad brush. Very convenient. Hardly, can one expect anything different from a senior civil servant who is where he by virtue of holding such ‘party friendly’ views.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s