Singapore’s Melian Dialogue with China

Lee Kuan Yew’s dwindling soft power legacy and a rising China

By Pierre Marthinus

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Dean Kishore Mahbubani played the boy who cried wolf in Singapore’s foreign policy debate last month. As the dust gently settles down, Singapore’s diplomatic community must now revisit Aesop’s bedtime fable because many have missed the hidden punch line of the story entirely: that the boy was actually right and he simply miss-announced the wolf’s time of arrival. The biggest villain was neither boy nor wolf — it was the ignorance of a tiny village refusing to exercise collective caution, despite the prowling threats of a nearby powerful, predatory and murderous canine.

Taking lessons from Qatar’s crisis, Mahbubani argues for Singapore’s foreign policy to exercise restraint, discretion and refrain from needlessly meddling in the affairs of great powers, like China, and to put more chips into regional organizations and global institutions providing the best leverage for small states, like Singapore. Mahbubani’s invitation to an honest conversation on Singapore’s declining power in international relations, however, received an unexpected blow back, venom-spitting hostility and even vindictive attacks on his personal intellect.

I am, however, more concerned by the majority of arguments shying away from the topic of power, digressing into a Melian Dialogue: a regurgitation on the idealistic themes of principles, nostalgic accounts of diplomatic stare-downs and rhetorical standoffs, the importance of international law and rules, self-reliance, neutrality and consistency. The dusty pages of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue recounts the fate of Melos, a small city-state caught between the great power rivalry of rising Athens and mighty Sparta. After heartfelt appeals, identical to Singapore’s foreign policy debate, Melos was besieged, razed, its able-bodied men put to death, their women and children sold into slavery.

The razing of Melos (416 BC) showcased exceptional cruelty, even by the standards of its time. Today, the Melian Dialogue serves as the universally preferred — if not compulsory — historical introduction to the harsh reality of power politics.

Singapore’s criticism of China in the South China Sea spectacularly backfired with public display of Beijing’s displeasure to Singapore’s embarrassment in a number of instances. Although current Singaporean leaders and senior diplomats can mimic the rhetoric of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), none seems to master the mechanics of soft power like the great statesmen and diplomatic juggernaut himself. Not even close.

Firstly, Singapore fails at building and maintaining its most important source of leverage against China — soft power. The majority of Singaporeans believe that their country’s main power is its advanced economy, its educated and skilled workforce, its efficient harbors and airports, as well as its relatively sizable military. This is simply not true. Singapore’s power portfolio is disproportionately dominated by its soft power, which is her persuasiveness and attractiveness as a model for economic growth and development, good government and strong political leadership, as well as high-impact diplomacy.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singaporean model was seen as a success story that inspired Deng Xiaoping to establish China’s Special Economic Zones and subsequent legal reforms.

In the past, these soft power components were represented, merged and personified in the late LKY. Understandably, Singapore struggles to redistribute this heavy burden accordingly across (1) its next leadership and ministerial line up to improve the quality of governance, infrastructure, education and citizens’ well-being, (2) its academic community to maintain the prestige and highly sought-after counsel on regional and world affairs, and (3) its diplomatic circle to reinvent its strategic relevance to regional powers and global powers alike. Failing to prove that Singapore remains an “ecosystem of excellence”, instead of just a one-man show, will irreparably damage its soft power.

Secondly, failed Singaporean attempts at hard power rhetoric against China impairs, damages and compromises its soft power base. Perceptions of Singapore’s military, its diplomatic credentials and academic prestige suffered as a consequence. Nine Singaporean Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICV) were detained by China following a military exercise in Taiwan, Singapore’s invitation to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in May 2017 went missing in the mail, and the numbers of high ranking Chinese officials and diplomats enrolling at the very school that Mahbubani himself leads is likely to plummet with each new diplomatic row with China.

The lessons of Qatar was not that it shouldn’t pursue its interests in Syria and Yemen. The lesson was that Qatar’s stubborn insistence (and abuse) of hard power, naked coercion, economic sanctions, weapons transfer and covert funding of questionable militant groups, came at a hefty price. Singapore’s folly was much worse than Qatar’s because its use of hard power rhetoric, at least from Beijing’s perspective, was not backed by any adequate, relevant and credible sources of power.

Lastly, Singapore fails at navigating the regional and global geopolitical shifts that will impact –if not dictate — the outcomes of Singaporean power maneuverings. In ASEAN, countries are pivoting to China and Singapore remains the odd, proud and loud one sticking out. Indonesia’s interest in ASEAN has been sidetracked by its Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) ambition, coinciding with China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Malaysia is purchasing warships and working on its Melaka Gateway project with Beijing’s assistance. The Philippines is warming up to China, joining Laos and Cambodia. Brunei’s low-profile silence speaks volumes while Thailand is likely to roll out the red carpet for the Sino-Thai railway project.

In the UN Security Council, Chinese and Russian voting patterns are likely to result in deadlocks on most issues of conflicting interests between great powers. In Northeast Asia, Japan is rearming because it views US presence as an increasingly unreliable counterweight vis-a-vis China’s growing power, North Korea remains unflinching despite diplomatic threats and sanctions, South Korea prepares for the unmentionable, and Taiwan is witnessing countries around the world retracting their diplomatic recognition in fear of offending China meanwhile the deporting of Taiwanese citizen under criminal investigation to mainland China is becoming the new norm in Southeast Asia. Understanding the shifting tectonic plates of world politics allows Singapore a better position to surf the global currents.

If the regions of the world was a constantly shifting dough of power, Singapore should not care about the shape, form and taste of the final cake. It simply needs to make sure that “the little red dot” becomes “the little red cherry” atop of that cake. Understanding the shifting tectonic plates of world politics allows Singapore a better position to surf the global currents.

In conclusion, Singapore must learn to better maintain, build and exercise its greatest asset: soft power. As an independent, respectable and sovereign country, Singapore is always free to criticize others. But, criticism is the most exorbitantly expensive luxury of power. As it grows older and wiser, Singapore must carefully, cautiously and consciously decide on which luxuries of power are actually worth the trade.

Pierre Marthinus is executive director for the Marthinus Academy in Jakarta.