Discretion and principled firmness not mutually exclusive

Discretion and principled firmness not mutually exclusive

by Goh Wee Shian

Bilahari Kausikan’s impassioned response to Kishore Mahbubani’s article in The Straits Times is a stark, timely reminder of the importance of rigorous contest of ideas in clarifying the subjectivities of foreign policy approaches. As the geopolitical order undergoes a profound transformation, Singapore has to be prepared to adopt a more nuanced and flexible foreign policy approach, being firm and assertive in defending its interest while avoiding any careless entanglement with foreign affairs that do not directly threaten or harm our national interest.

The main thrust of Kishore’s argument is that small states should exercise prudence and “behave like small states.” He cites Qatar’s involvement in Syria – and subsequent diplomatic breakdown with key Middle Eastern countries – as a glaring example of the consequences that small states face when they act without discretion and overextend their reach.  In doing so, he is cautioning against the foolhardy and reckless involvement of Singapore in regional or global dispute.

Unfortunately, his provocative title – that “small states should behave like small states” – lends itself easily to misinterpretation and is inclined to ring alarm bells among foreign policy stalwarts, many of whom were steeped in the Lee Kuan Yew doctrine. This doctrine advocates, in broad terms, a hard-nosed realism underpinned by an unwavering and firm commitment to Singapore’s interest. Often this means a staunch, unflinching defense of Singapore’s position – not unlike the classic David versus Goliath parable – in face of intimidation.

There is an elegant logic to such a position: not standing up to bullies sends an unmistakable signal that they can get away with their behaviors, emboldens their aggression, and encourages them to demand for more in future occasions. That is why, as Bilahari mentioned, former foreign minister George Yeo stared back at his Chinese counterpart, and why Mr S Dhanabalan held his ground even in face of American browbeating.

So far so good.

The issues arises when Bilahari fails to see the fact that both positions are complementary; instead, he construes behaving “like small states” as a kind of “subordination” in foreign policy, a form of abdication of principle and self-respect. Such accusation, while without a doubt conceived in the best of intentions and unyielding patriotism, are an unfair exaggeration and even distortion of Kishore’s argument.

The world, as Bilahari sees it, consists only of two possibilities: one in which Singapore stands firm and tall, and the other in which Singapore passively and meekly bends to forces of the wind. It is through such rigidly bifurcated lens that Kishore’s call for prudence and discretion has been misconstrued as an appeal for Singapore to be deferential to larger powers, even at the expense of its own dignity and interest.

Yet, at no point does Kishore even suggest that Singapore should be ingratiating with or acquiescent to foreign powers! Instead, Kishore’s point – that nations should not meddle in costly international affairs to avoid having to wear an albatross around its neck down the road – is reasonable and cogent. There are no values compromised and no dignity relinquished when a nation refuses to participate in international sanctions or get entangled in burdensome wars.

To make matters worse, Bilahari further takes Kishore’s claims out of context by bringing up past, irrelevant scenarios. Indeed, it is erroneous to conclude that, just because Kishore believed small states should act in proportion to their constraints, he somehow finds unreasonable bullying tactics by Great Powers acceptable. It is even more ludicrous to suggest that he is partial to the notion of “sparing” the lives of the two convicted Indonesian Marines who had brutally taken the lives of many innocent Singaporeans during the Konfrontasi period.

That being said, Kishore’s article is not without foible; at the very least, his argument that we should become more discrete due to the passing of LKY is highly problematic. Firstly, the insinuation that LKY was not circumspect when commenting on the affairs of great powers is not borne by reality. While LKY was firm and bold in safeguarding Singapore’s position, he always treaded carefully when it came to the murky affairs of great power politics, measuring his words deliberately and prefacing them with thoughtful qualifications. Secondly, his suggestion that we should henceforth be more constrained in our speech is highly ambiguous and does not provide a clear prescription on how to strike a balance between firm assertion and strategic silence. This is where foreign policy stalwarts such as Bilahari is right in raising fears about whether such a prescription would lead to subordination and weakness.

Such fears are especially salient and pertinent in the South China Sea dispute, where Singapore’s actions, or silence, can have a significant impact on our long-term interest. Kishore pointed out that Singapore could have been “more circumspect” on the judgment of the arbitration lodged by Philippines against China. It is not clear what he had meant by being more “circumspect,” but presumably it involves reiterating less forcefully about Singapore’s principled stand, which is to abide by a rule-based international system. Again, such a proposition raises anxieties about the possible compromise of Singapore’s principles, since emphasizing legal resolution as the best way to solve international disputes is entirely consistent with Singapore’s interest. In other words, a more muted response would have been, in Bilahari’s words, tantamount to “laying low and hoping for the leave and favor of larger countries.” Kishore urged foreign policy counterparts to be more “Machiavellian”; is supporting a system that has become the cornerstone of Singapore’s survival not Machiavellian enough?

Ultimately, it is important to note that both positions are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to be both tough and discrete. I think Bilahari was alluding to this sweet spot when he mentioned how LKY handled the execution of the Indonesian marines with firm but gracious leadership. While the definitions of “discretion” and “prudence” have to be continuously shaped by robust conversations, the long-term interest and survival of Singapore must always be the guiding force for foreign policy decisions.

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