These new developments are widely considered as China’s “punishment” for Singapore’s pro-US stance, and have caused much anxiety within the city state regarding its future prosperity, a sentiment further aggravated by the Trump administration’s “America First” policy.
In the past couple of months, there has been some serious soul-searching among Singapore’s foreign policy experts regarding the role Singapore should play in a region which sees more and more major power rivalries.
In an article published in Singapore’s The Straits Times on July 1, entitled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country,” Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore, argued that Singapore, as a small state, should behave like a small state and be more prudent in matters involving great powers.
Drawing lessons from Qatar, a small Gulf state with a population of 2.6 million which is enduring diplomatic isolation and a land blockade imposed by an international league led by its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia, Mahbubani said Singapore would “have been wiser to be more circumspect” on the South China Sea disputes, “especially since the Philippines, which was involved in the case, did not want to press it.”
He further argued that the only reason Singapore had wielded some global influence was due to Lee Kuan Yew, whom he said was treated with great respect by all major powers as a global statesman. Lee Kuan Yew passed away in March 2015. “[But] we are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era … [and] as a result, we should change our behavior significantly,” Mahbubani added.
Quoting Thucydides’s famous proclamation, “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.” Mahbubani added that Singapore should be more “Machiavellian” in its diplomacy.
For many, Mahbubani’s remarks, especially those regarding the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, are implicit criticism of current leader Lee Hsien Loong, son of the senior Lee. Analysts in both Singapore and China have attributed Singapore’s perceived deviation from neutrality to the junior Lee, who had angered China by paying a visit to Taiwan in 2004, a month before he became Singapore’s Prime Minister for the first time.
Mahbubani’s article immediately triggered a heated debate and serious criticism from the city state’s top diplomats and officials. Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, Bilahari Kausikan, accused Mahbubani of advocating “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy,” a point he said was “dangerously misleading.” Kausikan was later joined by Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister and former foreign minister K. Shanmugam, who described Mahbubani’s view as “questionable intellectually.”
But Mahbubani does have supporters. His colleague at the LKYSPP, Yap Kwong Weng, a regional advisor on Indochina at the school, for example, said that the criticism was exaggerated and there was nothing dangerous about pointing out that “prudence is required of small states when it comes to geopolitical calculations.”