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Foreign Policy and the Opposition: A Response to Mr Bilahari Kausikan

By Pritam Singh

Former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Mr Bilahari Kausikan’s remarks at the fifth and final lecture of his IPS-Nathan Lecture Series titled Dealing with an Ambiguous World: Can Singapore Cope? revisited an intractable pessimism and lack of confidence about the approach of the opposition in Singapore – specifically the Workers’ Party – towards foreign policy in Singapore.

This opinion was apparently formed on the basis of a parliamentary question I asked the then Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2013, on Singapore’s decision to abstain on the successfully passed United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN to that of a non-member observer.

I say Mr Kausikan’s views on the matter are intractable because this is the second time the very same point he makes has been carried by the Straits Times, although it is the first time he refers to me by name.[1] In fact, Mr Kausikan, has consistently made the identical point, originally found in an endnote of his contribution to a book published by Straits Times Press in 2015 titled The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew.[2]

I will use the rest of this article to address Mr Kausikan’s misgivings, by putting my views on the drivers of my parliamentary question on Palestine in perspective. In doing so, I will identify the shortcomings and partisan nature of Mr Kausikan’s point about the Workers’ Party approach towards foreign policy, which he anchors on the basis of one parliamentary question, albeit recycled three times across three different contributions authored by him.

Before doing so, it would only be appropriate for me to acknowledge Mr Kausikan for his reflections on a broad canvas of topical issues on global affairs as the second speaker of the IPS-Nathan lecture series. They reveal a personality with an acute sense of Singapore’s interests and the trade-offs that determined Singapore’s foreign policies priorities in years past and present. I personally found his reflections on the management of a rising China in the years to come and importance of avoiding invidious choices, insightful.

In making his point that the Workers’ Party plays “fast and loose with foreign policy for partisan purposes”, Mr Kausikan posed three rhetorical questions. Firstly, if the Arab countries did not think Singapore’s relations with Israel and our position on Palestine were problems, why was the Workers’ Party asking questions on Middle East policy? Secondly, and rather sinisterly, was the Workers’ Party trying to stir our Malay-Muslim ground against the government? And finally, would Singapore benefit if Singaporean Muslims become alienated from the government or non-Muslim Singaporeans?

During the question and answer session at the lecture, in a moment of complete serendipity, a member of the audience asked Mr Kausikan, “What was the political reality of being a Malay-Muslim minority in Singapore?”

Mr Kausikan replied, “I have not the slightest idea what they experience and what they feel [as I am] not a Malay-Muslim.”[3]

Politicians in a multiracial and multi-religious country do not have the diplomatic immunity to deflect such questions.

It is apposite to note that nowhere in my parliamentary question did the Arab countries feature. The reason Mr Kausikan saw fit to introduce a red herring, which is not found on the parliamentary record, is best known to him. On the contrary, my parliamentary question sought to query whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider voting along with the majority of ASEAN members on Palestine-specific issues at the UN in future, particularly since all the ASEAN countries voted in favour of the resolution, barring Singapore.

The Straits Times published the Ministry’s position on the aforesaid resolution on 1 Dec 2012, in a short 125-word piece, citing the upgrade in Palestine’s status at the UN as a “unilateral move” that should be seen “in the context of its efforts for full UN membership.” This position, which largely mirrored that of the US – which voted against the resolution – was a wholly incongruous one for some of my Malay-Muslim constituents, some of whom follow the Israel-Palestine issue closely. Much more closely than I had cared to assume.

As Singapore supported a two-state solution, why was it abstaining from a vote that brought Palestine closer to that reality, they asked? A handful requested me to raise the issue in Parliament, and I duly did as it was a legitimate query in my view. It did cross my mind why Singapore would take such a position, which made it stick out like a sore thumb among its closest neighbours in a largely Malay-Muslim neighbourhood. Could such a position unnecessarily unsettle the Malay-Muslim mainstream in Southeast Asia? Was it a wise position to take? And how was it in Singapore’s interests? In fact, there was no readily apparent reason why the Singapore government chose to abstain, since it consistently supported a two-state solution with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a position the government takes even today.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs provided a lengthy, largely helpful and more detailed reply – in step with the political process in a parliamentary democracy – to say that Singapore had consistently voted in favour of Palestinian resolutions at the UN General Assembly. My point was that this consistent course of action had been lost on many Malay-Muslim Singaporeans as the diplomatic and political signature of Singapore’s decision to abstain from voting in favour of Palestine’s ascension to the UN as a non-member observer, overshadowed our earlier voting patterns on Palestinian issues at the UN.

Even so, the ground sentiments of the Malay community on Palestine did not start to manifest themself as a result of my parliamentary question. To this end, it is helpful to consider some of the public sentiments on the Israel-Palestine issue that have been published in the Straits Times from Singaporeans of all racial and religious stripes, particularly Malay-Muslims. These go some way to answer the loaded question posed by Mr Kausikan – would Singapore benefit if Singaporean Muslims become alienated from the government or non-Muslim Singaporeans? The answer is an obvious one, but wholly irrelevant and unconnected to the point Mr Kausikan seeks to make.

In 2005, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts and MINDEF organised an exhibition titledThe Changing Face of Terrorism, which featured the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a photo montage as a terrorist. More than one reader questioned this characterisation and whether it was fair or accurate.

In 2006, in response to a piece by the deputy chief of the Israeli embassy in Singapore, a Sikh Singaporean and Young PAP member questioned why the Straits Times published an Israeli perspective on Israel’s actions in the region without offering a Palestinian position on the same matter.

In 2007, the President of PERGAS (Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association), in response to the Israeli ambassador’s call for a dialogue with PERGAS, politely replied that any meaningful dialogue could only take place when Israel ceases its aggression and use of force in the Gaza strip and Southern Lebanon, urging Israel to take a more reflective stance on its past actions.

In 2009, a Malay Muslim wrote in to state that the bombing of civilians in Gaza was unconscionable, with another eloquently arguing why Muslim communities around the world were outraged over the death of innocent Palestinians.

In 2014, in an event organised by From Singapore to Palestine (FS2P), a group set up in 2012 to create awareness about the Palestinian situation gathered at Speakers’ Corner to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Whether Mr Kausikan cares to admit, the Palestine issue is on the minds of a not insignificant number of Singaporeans. He would have to offer a compelling reason why he considers such foreign policy questions off-limits, even more so in the context of our democratic system of government – and especially since Singapore’s position as an outlier in abstaining on Palestine’s elevation was out of the ordinary from its usual approach. That the Malay-Muslim ground did not “turn against the government” or see “the alienation of the community” by non-Muslim Singaporeans as a result of my question, suggests a flaw in Mr Kausikan’s understanding of the Malay-Muslim ground in Singapore on the Palestine issue.

In the same speech, Mr Kausikan, rather oddly, took issue with another question I asked in parliament on Palestine in 2014, which again, in his view, “could” have inflamed our Malay-Muslim ground. In arguing that the Workers’ Party’s views on foreign policy do not inspire confidence in him, a cursory check of the parliamentary record would show that the 2014 question he refers to, was actually filed by a PAP politician, who was later joined by his PAP colleague enquiring if Singapore could take a stronger stance against Israel!

I had asked a supplementary question on the back of the question filed by the PAP MP on the dangers of self-radicalisation amongst Singaporeans as a result of the shocking images coming out of Gaza, and raising the prospect of this possibility to Israel through the Ministry’s public and private channels. In the name of consistency – which Mr Kausikan argued, in reply to separate question after his lecture, was “overrated” – the ambassador would have to concede that the filing of the question on Palestine and subsequent supplementary questions by the PAP MPs could have inflamed the Malay-Muslim ground as well. Why he chose not to make this point is best known to him.

Mr Kausikan concluded his lecture by stating that he was not pessimistic about Singapore’s ability to cope with the complexities ahead. In so far as the Workers’ Party’s approach on foreign policy is concerned, he ought to have no difficulty in opining similarly.

A check of the parliamentary record would show that on defence and foreign policy issues, the Workers’ Party adopts a measured approach, best appreciated by the tone of the Committee of Supply debates between members of the WP MPs and PAP Ministers. We do not hold back from asking questions on defence expenditure and other difficult issues, as seen most recently by the back and forth between the Defence Minister and Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap on the challenging issue of halal kitchens on our warships. But we do so with the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at the centre of our objectives, and in the context of a multi-racial society where every community has a right to have its reasoned voice heard in parliament. That has been the guiding principle of the Workers’ Party and must be so of all Singaporeans, regardless of our political affiliations.

In the final analysis, however, it takes two hands to clap on an existential issue for Singapore such as foreign policy or for it “to stop at the water’s edge” as Mr Kausikan puts it. At this year’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Committee of Supply Debates, which included contributions made by PAP and Workers’ Party MPs, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan remarked, “Mdm Chairman, I thank the Members of the House for sharing their perceptive insights yesterday. I am gratified by our unity of purpose. The friends and protagonists that we have on the international stage will not be so much listening to what I have to say, but rather to the congruence of the discussions and the debates in this House. It is important that we demonstrate unity of purpose.”

Achieving such a unity of purpose on foreign policy in parliament is not an alien concept to the Workers’ Party. Nothing is stopping the government and ambassadors like Mr Kausikan from engaging opposition politicians with a view to achieve this unity outside parliament too.

This post was first published on Mr Pritam Singh's blog and reproduced with permission.

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[1] “Foreign Policy is no laughing matter”, The Straits Times, 8 June 2015.

[2]  In the book, Mr Kausikan also took issue with the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, Mr Low Thia Khiang for asking the Minister of Foreign Affairs why Singapore had brought the Indonesian transboundary haze issue to the UN in the past, but not in 2013, on the back of the worse episode of haze to affect Singapore. To Mr Kausikan, this was “politicking”.

[3] See video from 1.31.30 onwards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gViA1O9L934