On 3 April 2019, Mr Bilahari Kausikan discussed Singapore’s future foreign policy challenges as well as the nation’s best path forward at his fifth and final FASS90 Political Science Lecture on the Practice of Foreign Affairs.
A Foreign Policy Literate Populace
Foreign affairs and diplomacy are inherently nuanced – subtle endeavours that do not always lend themselves easily to the masses. “Most people in every country take only a cursory interest in foreign affairs, and thus find superficial narratives possible,” said Mr Kausikan. Combined with the fact that the effects of foreign policy are less visible on the home front, the general population will either be completely unaware of Singapore’s diplomatic actions or worse, come away with an inaccurate and superficial understanding.
Quoting the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, he cited the mistaken belief that statecraft can be performed in the same way as business negotiations.
“Our businessmen, in the ordinary course of work, have numerous dealings with government officials of these countries. They have to obtain licenses, concessions, contracts and permits. Thus, the Singapore businessman, in the eyes of these governments, performs the role of supplicant for favours. And as our businessmen often compete in their supplications, the image that this creates of Singapore can well be imagined…. Unfortunately, they do not understand, and I am afraid cannot understand, that in the nature of things, relations between independent sovereign states cannot be conducted on the basis of supplicant and overlord. The methods they found so successful in business are not available to us as a government.”
Both Dr Goh and Mr Kausikan emphasized a healthy relationship between two countries involves treating each other as fellow sovereign states first and foremost, regardless of any disparity in size, population or economy.
“Small States Cannot Behave Like Small States”
While undeniably succinct and memorable, Mr Kausikan would probably agree that a more complete statement would be that small states cannot behave in a manner proportionate to their size, especially when dealing with larger states. Singapore may be dwarfed by global superpowers like the United States and China, but it must not succumb to staying out of the way and “surrendering ourselves to our fates” especially when national interests are at stake.
“The pragmatic realism of our first-generation leaders recognises that even small countries are never without agency, and were willing to take risks when the interests at stake were important enough,” said Mr Kausikan, referring to instances such as Singapore’s rejection of Chinese demarches to support its position on the South China Sea disputes in ASEAN forums. His warning was clear: if Singapore did not stand up for itself and exercise its agency as a sovereign state to defend core national interests, it would soon find that agency taken away from it.
“Small states should not behave like small states, not if they want to remain states anyway.”
Singapore’s Foreign Policy and What the Future Holds
When discussing the way forward for Singapore’s foreign policy, Mr Kausikan reiterated from his first lecture: “Sometimes, trying to avoid risk is the riskiest option.” He cautioned against defaulting to the safest option available, “particularly at a time greater than usual international flux.” In particular, he was worried about the civil service becoming unnecessarily risk adverse when it came to international relations, especially since foreign policy inherently entails “more risk than in other domains.”
“Dealing with slices of problems rather than their broader implications, being narrowly transactional in relationships and blurring clarity by overly hedging assessments,” he cautioned.
Guarding against complacency in Singapore was a key point Mr Kausikan drove home. When asked by an audience member on Singapore’s next step given it acquired First World status some time ago and is no longer trying to simply survive from day to day, his reply was blunt: “You can never come to the conclusion that ‘Okay! We have done it, we are developed now, we are alright, we can relax.’ That is the way to destroy yourself.”
“In fact, the greatest challenge to Singapore is internalizing the sense that ‘we have arrived.’ We are never going to ‘arrive’; it is always going to be a journey, it is never going to end,” he said. “We have far more capabilities than we did several decades ago. But this is still a dangerous world… The goal is always the same: create a better life for your people given the changing circumstances and the higher expectations (of Singapore’s citizens), and to survive in a complicated world… as best we can.”
Watch the lecture here.
About the Speaker
Bilahari Kausikan is Chairman of the Middle East Institute, NUS. From 2001 to 2013, he was first the second Permanent Secretary and then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). He was subsequently Ambassador-at-Large until May 2018, having previously served in various MFA appointments, including as the Deputy Secretary for Southeast Asia, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York and as Ambassador to the Russian Federation.
FASS90 Political Science Lecture Series on the Practice of Foreign Affairs
This five part lecture series is organised by the NUS Political Science Society with support from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Department of Political Science. Established in 1929, FASS, one of the earliest and largest faculties is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Whilst witnessing numerous changes, we remain steadfast to our vision to strive forward as a premier faculty of excellence in humanities and social sciences that nurtures tomorrow’s engaged, thoughtful and creative global citizens. To mark this occasion, the Faculty is organising a series of events showcasing the strength and breadth of the Faculty’s research as well as kick start future initiatives that would benefit the generations of students who will come through our halls.