Singaporean ex-diplomat and author Kishore Mahbubani speaks at an Asia Society event in a file photo. Photo: Flickr Commons

In an opinion piece in The Straits Times titled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country,” Professor Kishore Mahbubani cited three lessons Singapore should learn from the recent diplomatic quagmire that the Gulf state found itself in, when its Arab neighbours – through whom it imports 40% of its food supplies – suspended relations.

Kishore said “small states should behave like small states” and illustrated this with examples of how Singapore could have better conveyed its “consistent and principled” position on the upholding of international law in relation to geopolitical disputes in the South China Sea and how the country could do more to strengthen regional institutions such as Asean.

His commentary was met with swift rebuttals from the likes of Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan. The crux of Bilahari’s rebuttal to lies in the ambassador’s vehement opposition to Singapore’s acceptance of “subordination as a norm of relationships” in the face of pressure from bigger powers.

As an admirer of both Kishore and Bilahari, I do not find this exchange of differing viewpoints particularly unexpected. After all, Kishore implied in his book Can Singapore Survive that the strongest assurance of Singapore’s continued success is an educated and more informed electorate, upon which sound domestic politics can thrive. In his recently launched compilation of speeches and essays titled Singapore is not an island, Bilahari asserted in tandem that sound domestic politics is the foundation for sound foreign policy.

In a livelier civil society, a political reality advanced by both foreign policy luminaries, it is inevitable that healthy debates on public affairs – both foreign and domestic – should ensue.

And while it might be rather reckless of me to jump to the defense of Kishore as if to (in his words) “stand in front of a charging elephant,” I would like to suggest that Kishore was merely true-to-form, as his “second incarnation as the outstanding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy” – a description attached to Kishore by Singaporean elder statesman Professor Tommy Koh.

Naysaying as a check on arrogance

In February this year, Kishore was a member of a panel of speakers at the Singapore Management University. They shared their thoughts on what is needed for Singapore to do well in the next 50 years. The panel espoused that “Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority,” as they lamented the reluctance of civil servants to challenge political office-holders. At the dialogue, the dean called for more naysayers and cautioned that Singapore cannot take its success for granted.

On foreign affairs, Kishore has never been shy about taking a contrarian stance

On foreign affairs, Kishore has never been shy about taking a contrarian stance – with the aim of sparking debates to arrive at out-of-the-box scenarios or merely standing up for one’s principles, as a “rebel struggling against bigger forces out there.”

Even before Singapore’s minister for law and home affairs, K Shanmugam, made his compelling case for the island state’s firm stance against drug trafficking at the United Nations in 2016, Kishore – the rebel – had already put up a stout defence of our policy to talk show host Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hardtalk eight years earlier.

The close of the Cold War saw the shaping of a Western hegemony. This was an era when, along with the generous export of economic wealth from the West, Asia was force-fed lessons in liberal values. Among these values was the universality of absolute freedoms of the individual even at the expense of the broader community. It was at the height of such dominant liberal thinking that Kishore penned books such as Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West, in which he railed against Western arrogance while standing up for values that were inherent to – and necessary for – smaller countries in emerging Asia.

It should be noted that while Singapore was not an insignificant beneficiary of this Western hegemony, Kishore had always cautioned that it was more important to uphold one’s sovereignty by taking principled positions in the interest of Singapore, at the risk of offending these larger powers.

Exercising discretion in foreign affairs

Kishore’s track record of standing up for Singapore runs contrary to the impression that the dean had implied that Singapore should take on a subordinate position when dealing with larger powers. In fact, what was noteworthy in Kishore’s recommendation, which these rebuttals hadn’t sufficiently recognized, is that small states like Singapore must exercise discretion in their “Machiavellian” approach to foreign affairs.

In The ASEAN Miracle, Kishore established a strong case for the regional grouping as a “catalyst for peace.” He reveals how Singapore has for many years played a discrete but leading role within Asean. While ideas such as the Asean Free Trade Area and the Asia-Europe Meeting were born in Singapore, then prime minister Goh Chok Tong shrewdly decided to allow other members to launch these initiatives, so as to stave off unnecessary resentment and envy from them.

Kishore is not alone in this exercise in discretion. Professor Tommy Koh, a strong proponent of a “prosper thy neighbour” philosophy in foreign affairs, has also cautioned that some of Singapore’s neighbors see our Little Red Dot as “being too boastful and arrogant, so there is a need for Singapore to be humble and modest” – or at least appear to be as it achieves its goals.

When Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister – about whom Kishore wrote that “great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman” – was asked by American television network host Charlie Rose if he had ever wished for a larger platform on the world stage, he humbly remarked that it is much harder (yet more satisfying) to craft “a small piece of jade beautifully.”

Shared assumptions in domestic debates

I am confident that Kishore remains a stirred up “rebel” for Singapore, albeit in a way that he believes best serves the country, as naysayer-in-chief in both domestic and foreign affairs. In fact, as discerning readers might have noticed, his naysaying has already achieved its purpose, by evoking strong public responses from experts like Bilahari, Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong and even Minister Shanmugam, forcing further clarification of (and interest in) Singapore’s foreign policy position on these key issues through platforms that could potentially reach a broader public. While Kishore’s commentary was carried in Singapore’s national daily, Bilahari’s rebuttal on social media was covered by popular blog sites and subsequently by the digital edition of the same national paper.

It was after all Bilahari who said, “Domestic debates over foreign policy are not necessarily a bad thing provided they take place within parameters defined by shared assumptions.” On that account, I would suggest that the underlying premise of Kishore’s commentary meets this criterion as set forth by the ambassador – the idea that in spite of Singapore’s shining achievements, we remain utterly vulnerable and would do well in the exercise of shrewd discretion in our conduct of foreign affairs.

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Marcus Loh

Marcus is Director, Asia Pacific Communication at Tableau Software (NYSE: DATA), the world's leading visual analytics platform. He is passionate about making brands matter in the data age and takes joy in giving back to the community by serving in various advisory capacities for academia, industry and non-profits. His views on brand strategy, data literacy and public affairs have been published in The Diplomat, Channel NewsAsia, The Straits Times, The Business Times, Singapore Business Review among...

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