On the Conundrum of Small States

Image courtesy: Tom Page, Wikimedia Commons

A small, heedful crowd gathered last Wednesday evening for the 7th Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue organized by NTU Para Limes, featuring the distinguished Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan. Within the comfortable space of Blu Jaz Cafe, Mr Bilahari shared some insights from his years in foreign service, delivered with his signature biting humor. Sensitive issues were raised about Singapore’s foreign policy, among them the recent debate regarding how Singapore should behave as a small state.

“The bedrock of relevance is success…no successful foreign policy can be built on a barren rock.” — Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore is Not an Island

Navigating the Waters of Power Politics

The original debate was ignited in light of the diplomatic crisis in Qatar, where the small Gulf state was blockaded by a coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia, on the charge of supporting subversive militant groups. The incident inspired an article by Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani, arguing that Singapore should “always behave like a small state,” and refrain from partaking in regional conflicts like Qatar did.

Professor Mahbubani’s remarks received swift rebuke from many of the country’s intellectuals, including Mr Bilahari, who pointed out that “[Singapore’s founding fathers] never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.” He finds Professor Mahbubani’s mindset particularly “dangerous” during this period, when the ruling government is passing the baton to its fourth generation of leaders, whose mettle is being increasingly tested by China’s adventurism in the South China Sea.

During the dialogue, Mr Bilahari reiterated that while Singapore must recognize its constraints as a small state, it should not treat China’s rise — and its expectation of deference by Southeast Asian states — as a norm in international relations, much less compromise its national interests for the sake of appeasement. Indeed, it was only by standing up to larger powers that Singapore could defend its sovereignty in many sensitive issues, including China’s detainment of nine SAF armored vehicles in late 2016, as well as Indonesia’s honoring of two marines who had launched a terror attack in Singapore fifty years ago.

In addition, Mr Bilahari pointed out that conventional interpretation of Qatar’s diplomatic crisis — as a result of Qatar’s ties with Iran and its promotion of free press through Al Jazeera — is simplistic and short-sighted. The Saudi-Qatari conflict, he explained, dates back to 1995 when Qatar sought autonomy from vassalage under the Saudis. As such, Qatar’s resistance of Saudi demands has been a triumph, for it has undermined the credibility of Saudi Arabia as a supposedly more powerful state. In other words, far from Professor Mahbubani’s metaphor of a “small animal [standing] in front of a charging elephant,” Qatar has behaved like a tiny mouse which the elephant fears to approach. That being said, Mr Bilahari conceded that Qatar’s disregard of its neighbors’ interests through its support of Iran and anti-Assad groups would be foolhardy for Singapore to emulate.

Whatever conclusions we draw from Qatar, Singapore’s entry into the First World clearly presents a new set of challenges. Ultimately, we must all confront the never-ending problem of maintaining our relevance as a small state.

“You are intrinsically irrelevant.” — Mr Bilahari on small states

What can Small States Offer the World?

Before the United Nations General Assembly in 1965, then Minister of Foreign Affairs S Rajaratnam proclaimed that Singapore’s commitment to international cooperation is out of self-interest, not “vague idealism”. Indeed, the only consistent geopolitical stand that small states can afford to take is that of its own interests. In that light, Qatar’s subversive military actions were not a punch above its weight, but rather blind partisanship in superpower politics. Professor Mahbubani was therefore correct in his observation that Qatar assumed its close relations with the US would “protect it from consequences”. Small states cannot rely on major powers to defend them, nor can it hope to gain relevance by partaking in divisive regional conflicts.

What can small states do then, to be taken seriously by the international community? The model adopted by Singapore’s founding fathers remains relevant today.

Mr Bilahari asserted astutely that to stay relevant, small states must not only be successful, but exceptionally so. In other words, Singapore must not only ensure its own economic security, but also actively create value for the international community. Singapore’s founding fathers did just that, leaving the city-state’s mark on the world by pioneering many initiatives that promoted international cooperation. Prominent examples include the establishment of the Forum of Small States (FOSS) in 1992, the spearheading of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and later the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); today, Singapore is a regular host of major international events, from F1 racing to the inaugural Youth Olympic Games.

The effect of such initiatives on Singapore’s reputation cannot be emphasized enough. Above all, they established Singapore’s name on the global stage, and proved that the island nation has the confidence and capacity comparable to larger powers in executing diplomatic responsibilities. In fact, from Singapore’s stellar performance in this respect, the International Peace Institute (IPI) concluded in a study that small states play a unique role in fostering international cooperation, as detailed below.

Firstly, the IPI concluded that small states excel in multilateral diplomacy. As observed by Mr Bilahari, it is in the interests of small states that major powers cooperate and observe international rule of law. As such, successful small states like Singapore endeavor to build strong ties with superpowers on all sides, thereby acting as a useful mediating force in the UN, especially when working through institutions like ASEAN and the FOSS. For this reason, the ARF has been trusted as a platform for sensitive negotiations, such as the potentially volatile North Korean nuclear talks.

Furthermore, the IPI concluded that small states help ensure accountability in the UN in a way larger powers cannot. Because of their interest to have superpowers checked by rule of law, small states work hard to ensure that treaties are obeyed, and promises followed through. For example, the much-delayed establishment of the International Criminal Court was expedited by Trinidad and Tobago in 1989, and the UN Conventions of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) was drafted by a Singapore-led group of maritime states in 1994. Here, the asymmetry of size suffered by small states works in their favor, as it encourages larger powers to honor their commitment — perfunctory as it may be — to respecting supranational authority.

To conclude, there are merits to both Professor Mahbubani’s and Mr Bilahari’s arguments. On one hand, Singapore as a small state should always be cognizant of its challenges and realities lest it descends into complacency as Qatar did; on the other hand, behaving like a small state should not entail fecklessness or submission. Singapore must continue to punch above its weight, not by contributing to the world’s instability but helping to alleviate it. The little red dot must remain a visionary among nations, and bring the wisdom of its successful governance to the international community. Hopefully, we can help make the world order a little less anarchic than it is today — that would certainly be in our best interests.