K Shanmugam: Kishore Mahbubani’s article on lessons from Qatar, intellectually questionable

The Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam has written a Facebook post on Sunday to applaud the writings of Bilahari Kausikan, an Ambassador-at-large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which criticised an article, "Qatar: Big lessons from a small country" by Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School Kishore Mahbubani. In the Minister's post, he wrote that Bilahari has given a brilliant response to Kishore's  intellectually questionable article on foreign policy.

In Kishore's opinion piece, he wrote that Qatar made a big mistake in its diplomatic relations because its belief that it could act as a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders due to it sitting on mounds of money. Citing Qatar's decisions that shocked him, its actions was a pattern of behaviour where Qatar believed that its mounds of money and its close relations with the United States would protect it from consequences.

Kishore argued that Qatar ignored an eternal rule of geopolitics: small states must behave like small states. He quoted the famous historian, Thucydides on the war between Athens and Sparta for why is it so, "Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

What many might find it objectionable is Kishore's comment that while LKY never acted as a leader of a small state but he had earned the right to do so because the great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman. He pointed out that Singapore is now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era and it will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee.

"As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly." wrote Kishore, referring to incidents such as the South China Sea dispute.

In relation to Kishore's article, Mr K Shanmugam states that he never forgot that Singapore is a small country and there were limits to what it can do during his time as the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He added, "But equally I also knew, that once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied. And I never allowed myself to be bullied, when I represented Singapore."

Recalling instances where ministers from other countries threatened Singapore in different ways, Mr K Shanmugam wrote that he just looked them in the eye and told them "we stood firm", with had them changing their attitude after that.

Pointing to Kishore's quote of Thucydides, the Minister states that quoting "without contextualising, may appeal to those who don’t know foreign policy, and lead to erroneous conclusions".

Below is Mr K Shanmugam's post in full

Kishore Mahbubani had written a piece on foreign policy which I found questionable, intellectually.

Bilahari has given a brilliant response – the response that Kishore’s article deserves. I have included the link to his response below.

Kishore’s comments for example: “Small states must always behave like small states” are contrary to some basic principles of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, principles which made us successful. Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small.

Did we get to where we are now, by thinking “small”? No.

That is why Singapore was and is respected, despite being one of the smallest countries in the world. And Singaporeans are proud to be Singaporeans.

As Foreign Minister, I never forgot that we were a small country and there were limits to what we can do. But equally I also knew, that once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied. And I never allowed myself to be bullied, when I represented Singapore.

There were Ministers from other countries who threatened us, in different ways, took a harsh tone, when we didn’t give them what they wanted.

As all our Foreign Ministers have done, I just looked them in the eye and told them we stood firm. They changed their attitude after that.

Handling international relations is not all toughness. It has its funny moments. One example for me, is a conversation with a former German Foreign Minister. I liked and respected him. Once he was trying to persuade me to agree with a German point of view. And he said: “We small countries should support each other” – bracketing Singapore and Germany as “small countries!” I laughed and responded to say I wished we were small like Germany, with the fourth largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe, and with a population in excess of 80 million. Charm is also part of diplomacy, and he was being friendly and charming.

We have to be clear about our interests, and go about it smartly. But not on bended knees and by kowtowing to others.

By definition almost every country, including our neighbouring countries, are all bigger than us. We treat each other with mutual respect. Once we are shown to be “flexible”, then that is what will be expected of us every time.

Quoting Thucydides without contextualising, may appeal to those who don’t know foreign policy, and lead to erroneous conclusions.

I will suggest that those with an interest in foreign policy read Bilahari. He is an intellectual, with a deep understanding of how foreign policy works.

This entry was posted in Current Affairs.
This entry was posted in Current Affairs.