By Ian Chong
Understanding a country, its history, its politics, its society is something that its citizens should at least try to engage in. This means examining challenges, successes, and, yes, even shortcomings and failures. In this respect, Bilahari Kausikan’s piece in the Straits Times, “Foreign Policy is No Laughing Matter,” (ST, June 8) is a useful reminder of the many things that Singaporeans can still learn about our country. I would like to offer some reflections that on the piece for consideration.
Mr. Kausikan points to common understandings as central. Beyond seeing the circumstances facing Singapore and how they evolve, acquiring a familiarity with our system of government may be just as important. Singaporeans can learn more about the different roles played by Parliament, the judiciary, and the executive, which consists of the cabinet as well as the ministries and agencies it oversees. This includes a better appreciation of the statutory responsibilities and limitations of each branch of government, and how they came to take their present form. Citizens can likewise have a better understanding of our constitution, what it protects, what it proscribes, and why.
Greater availability of information will likewise be helpful in developing shared understandings among citizens. Access to documents surrounding Operation Coldstore or other contentions moments in our history can put to rest questions about narrative that Mr. Kausikan worries about. Since the Cold War is over and communism bankrupt as an approach to governance, why not share with Singaporeans the reasons to be confident about the official narrative? Similarly, more information about the analysis that go into the making of specific policies along with reports evaluating the performance of government programmes can help inform the public and build up trust in policies. The authorities should have nothing to hide.
More open discussion and debate about contemporary issues, including on foreign policy, can help Singaporeans better grasp nuances and appreciate the situations we face. The Parliamentary debate over Singapore’s Middle East policy Mr. Kausikan cites was an opportunity for Singaporeans to gain an insight into how we, as a multi-religious country that includes Muslims, is conscientious in addressing this complicated matter. This can ease doubts that some Singaporeans may have about these policies. Indeed, that the reminder that Singapore is not a “Chinese country” may not be comfortable for some does not make it any less important. Silence on contentious issues could instead let uncertainties grow and insecurities fester.
Singapore can ill-afford to be ideological and doctrinaire about foreign policy and domestic politics. More informed and communicative citizens can help to avoid the rise of ossified positions and help safeguard Singapore at a time when there is more domestic and external friction. Singapore already has existing resources, such as university departments, that can foster the rigorous discussion central to understanding foreign policy and politics. Here, nationality may mean less than the relevant knowledge faculty can share and have others to respond to—in much the same way that Mr. Kausikan provides expert views on the United States and China.
This letter was first published on Straits Times but has been edited from the original letter shown above.
Mr Kausikan was a former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, is now ambassador-at-large.