Periscope: Deep Dive Day Special – Friends to All and Enemy to None

Written by: Wong Sean Yew (19-U4)

Designed by: Lee En Tong (19-U2)

In conjunction with Deep Dive Day #3, this Special Edition aims to summarise Mr. V.P. Hirubalan’s speech on Singapore’s Foreign Policy in Practice. We were honoured to have Mr. Hirubalan, an illustrious diplomat, to provide insight into Singapore’s diplomacy, an issue which is especially relevant in this Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) era. Here are some key points that were highlighted during the session.

Mr. Hirubalan detailed several challenges for Singapore. He highlighted that Singapore, despite being multiracial, still has a Chinese majority. As a result, some may perceive that Singapore is heavily influenced by China. It is therefore imperative for Singapore to cement its status as a non-Chinese state, and as a state which is not a supplicant to China, for it to establish a strong Singaporean identity on the world stage. 

He further emphasised that the international rules-based order is currently threatened, possibly disrupting the multilateral trade regime. Singapore is especially threatened by this, given how trade constitutes a whopping 322% of Singapore’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and given the fact that it is at the crossroads of major trade routes. He also further discussed Singapore’s vulnerability to great power rivalry, with a prominent example being the ongoing US-China Trade War.

He then further explained several key principles in Singapore’s foreign policy. 

It is critical to assert Singapore’s rights to sovereignty. He mentioned that by their nature, small states are susceptible to pressure from major powers to concede, even when the national interests of small states are compromised. To do this, diplomacy with other countries and the continued effectiveness of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are key. 

Singapore must also maintain its hard-earned position as a leader in the region. This ensures our relevance so that other countries have an interest to us as small states have no irreplaceable role in the global ecosystem.

Singapore must then be reliable, credible and consistent in its stance on the need for constructive discussion on various issues. For instance, Singapore’s role as a host of the Trump-Kim Summit, and other important events encapsulates and entrenches its reputation as a reliable, credible and consistent nation, which will benefit us in the long run.

It is vital for Singapore’s survival that we promote the global, rules-based order. He mentioned the importance of the survival of small states in a rules-based order due to the power and influence exerted by larger countries. Hence, Singapore requires the power of intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations to ensure its survival in a world where might is a strength. For instance, airspace management has often been a point of contention between Singapore and various other larger countries. He brought up the airspace dispute between Singapore and Indonesia, which was brought up to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN agency for arbitration. The ICAO subsequently judged that Singapore should remain in control of the airspace, demonstrating the importance of such organisations to small states. 

Lastly, Singapore’s foreign policy is premised on the adage that she should be ‘a friend to all, and enemy to none’, in his opinion, a realistic approach for small states. Singapore even seeks to reach out to those who do not actively seek to establish relations to ensure bilateral ties can be established between all countries. To prove this, Mr. Hirubalan shared what he experienced in his stint as the first ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2006, where Mr. Lee Kuan Yew visited Saudi Arabia three times to demonstrate the emphasis Singapore places on bilateral ties. Furthermore, to become a country that is actively sought out by other countries, Singapore needs to be successful. Saudi Arabia saw Singapore as a model to develop a megacity and wanted to collaborate with Singapore on it. Saudi Arabia also sought advice to establish a new university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

In addition, Mr. Hirubalan felt that the lack of awareness of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s partnerships with Singapore among Singaporean youths was worrying, due to ASEAN’s importance to Singapore. 

So far, ASEAN has been successful in the promotion of peace, stability, and cooperation for five decades, allowing countries to focus on national development. According to him, it has fostered economic cooperation, as shown by how Singapore has invested heavily in many countries in ASEAN and how a common market has been created. As a result, it enhances the voice of the region, as a united voice from ASEAN can result in more effective results. ASEAN also allows the region to play a leading role, as seen by how ASEAN are partners with the Permanent 5 (P5) countries in the United Nations.

Mr. Hirubalan also commented on ASEAN’s relevance to Singaporean youths today. Firstly, ASEAN has engendered peace in the region, creating a liveable home for all. Secondly, it has expedited travel between ASEAN nations and now, Singaporeans will be able to seek help from ASEAN embassies if a Singapore embassy is unavailable.

He concluded by suggesting how youths in Singapore can contribute to the effectiveness of our foreign policy. As youths, we can contribute to the creation of a united and cohesive country. This is crucial as other states have already tried to impede national cohesion through tools such as fake news, which has proliferated through avenues like social media. He also reminded Eunoians to be alert and understand our vulnerabilities so that other countries cannot take advantage of our diversity.

Mr V.P. Hirubalan’s speech, though easy to understand, is certainly a tall order to carry into the future. Yet, for Singapore’s continued safety and position in this precarious sphere that is the world, it appears that the safest strategy is to stick to our principles.

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With great power comes great responsibility.

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