SINGAPORE: It is not a coincidence that we are at peace with all our neighbours today and that we have good relations with all the major powers in the world. We owe a debt of gratitude to all our leaders and diplomats, both present and past, for this happy state of affairs.

Recently, there have been lively debates on Singapore’s foreign policy, especially on the part of retired officials, academics and commentators.

But there is a key difference for everyone in this room tonight. We are serving officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) – and we have line responsibility for the actual conduct of foreign policy on a daily basis. What this means is that our deliberations today are not a theoretical debate or academic word spinning exercise on a lecture circuit.

Some questions that have been raised include the following. First, has Singapore overreached and forgotten our permanent status as a small state in a large dangerous world and tough region? Second, should Singapore adjust our foreign policy posture given the evolving geopolitical situation, or even because of leadership changes in Singapore? Third, has our insistence on a consistent and principled approach limited our ability to adapt to new circumstances?

These are valid questions but I believe we need to go back to first principles. The ultimate objectives of our foreign policy are to protect our independence and sovereignty, and expand opportunities for all Singaporeans to overcome our geographical limits.

These are our ultimate objectives – they are easy to state but difficult to achieve. The existential challenge is how we achieve this, given our circumstances that we will always be a tiny city-state in Southeast Asia with a multi-racial population.



We must not harbour any illusions about our place in the world. History is replete with examples of failed small states. Our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew always reminded us repeatedly that we have to take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. But that does not mean that the late Mr Lee advocated a “do nothing, say nothing” posture or that Singapore should simply surrender to our fate.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has reminded us, on issues where our national interests are at stake, we must be prepared to “stand up and be counted”.

Some people have suggested that Singapore lay low and “suffer what we must” as a small state. On the contrary, it is precisely because we are a small state that we have to stand up and be counted, when we need to do so.

There is no contradiction between having a realistic appreciation of realpolitik and doing whatever it takes to protect our own sovereignty, maintain and expand our relevance, and create political and economic space for ourselves.


The founding fathers of our foreign policy – Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr S Rajaratnam, Dr Goh Keng Swee and their team – understood this acutely and they formulated a few core foreign policy principles. These principles have served Singapore well since our independence but are still worth reviewing again.

First, Singapore needs to be a successful and vibrant economy. We need to have stable politics and we need a united society. If we were not successful, united or stable, we would be completely irrelevant. We have all witnessed how delegations of less successful small states are ignored at international meetings. I am always mindful that foreigners do not speak to us because of the eloquence of our presentations or because we have the highest EQ in the room.

We only merit attention because everyone knows that we come from Singapore and Singapore has made a success of itself despite our size, and that we are represented by smart, honest, serious and constructive diplomats.

Second, we must not become a vassal state. It means we cannot be bought nor can we be bullied. It means we must be prepared to defend our territory, assets and way of life. That is why we just celebrated 50 years of National Service, and we maintain at great effort a Singapore Armed Forces that everybody takes seriously.

This does not just depend on the military technology that the SAF possesses, but on the courage and resolve of our soldiers, particularly NSmen, to defend what we have and fight for what we hold dear.

2017 marks 50 years since National Service was first introduced in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY)

Third, we aim to be a friend to all, but an enemy of none. This is especially so for our immediate neighbourhood where peace and stability in Southeast Asia are absolutely essential. Consequently, Singapore was a founding member of ASEAN and we remain a strong advocate of ASEAN unity and centrality.

With super-powers and other regional powers, our aim is to expand our relationships, both politically and economically, so that we will be relevant to them and they will find our success in their own interest.

This delicate balancing act is easier in good and peaceful times, but obviously more difficult when super-powers and regional powers contend with one another. Nevertheless, our basic reflex must be, should be to aim for balance and promote an inclusive architecture, and we must avoid taking sides, siding with one against the other.

While we spare no effort to develop a wide network of relations, these relations must be based on mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, and the equality of nation states, regardless of size.

Diplomacy is not just about having friendly relations, at all costs. It is about promoting friendly relations as a way to protect and advance our important interests. We don’t compromise our national interests to have good relations. The order matters.

So when others make unreasonable demands that hurt or compromise our national interests, we need to state our position and stand our ground, in a firm and principled manner.


Fourth, we must promote a global order governed by the rule of law and international norms. In a system where “might is right” or the laws of the jungle prevail, small states like us have little chance of survival.

Instead, a more promising system for small states, and frankly, a better system overall for the comity of nations, is one that upholds the rights and sovereignty of all states and the rule of law. Bigger powers will still have more influence and say, but bigger powers do not get a free pass to do as they please.

In exchange, they benefit from an orderly global environment, and do not have to resort to force or arms to get their way

This is why Singapore has always participated actively in the United Nations (UN), and the formulation of international regimes and norms. We were a key player in the negotiations on the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS) in 1982. We play an outsized role at the WTO, and in negotiating a web of free trade agreements at a bilateral and multilateral level.

As a country where trade is 3.5 times our GDP, we must stand up for the multilateral, global trading system. And as a port at the narrow straits that ultimately connect the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, freedom of navigation according to UNCLOS is absolutely critical to us.

More recently, we actively participated in the negotiations for the Global Agreement on Climate Change. I spent five years, several of them as a Ministerial facilitator, that ultimately led to the Paris Agreement. We did so because we are especially susceptible to climate change as a low-lying island city state.

Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan (left) with China’s Xie Zhenhua and US’s Todd Stern after the signing of the Paris Agreement. (Photo: Vivian Balakrishnan/Facebook)

Singapore must support a rules-based global community, promote the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. These are fundamental priorities. They reflect our vital interests, and they affect our position in the world.

We must stand up on these issues, and speak with conviction, so that people know our position. We must actively counter the tactics of other powers who may try to influence our domestic constituencies in order to make our foreign policy better suit their interests.

Ultimately, we must be clear-minded about Singapore’s long-term interests, and have the gumption to make our foreign policy decisions accordingly.

During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians were warned of the consequences they would suffer if they gave in to initial Spartan demands. Greek statesman Pericles told his fellow Athenians that if they were frightened into obedience by the initial demands of the Spartans in order to avoid war, then they would instantly have to meet a greater demand.

Contained in the Spartans’ demand was a test of the Athenians’ resolve. If they give in once, eventually, they would have to give in again and ultimately, they would be enslaved. On the other hand, a firm refusal would make the Spartans clearly understand that they must treat them more as equals

While we live in a different era and geopolitical situation, this lesson, this warning against appeasement remains instructive for Singapore. Whether we are dealing with a key security and economic partner or a large neighbour, Singapore has always stood firm when it comes to our vital national interests, particularly when it impacts on sovereignty, security and the rule of law.

When US teenager Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism in 1994, we upheld our court’s decision, even under great pressure from the US.

In 1968, to take an example further back from history, we proceeded to hang two Indonesian marines for the bombing of McDonald House during Konfrontasi. I want you to bear in mind the events surrounding 1968. We had just been kicked out of Malaysia. The British had announced their intention to withdraw their forces from Singapore. We were still fighting a communist insurgency. Can you imagine the guts it took for the leaders in 1968 facing such circumstances to stand up and do the right thing?

A Konfrontasi memorial ceremony was held on Mar 10, 2016. (Photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

These were episodes, painful though they may be, that established clear red-lines and boundaries. The message was clear: Singapore may be small, but upholding our laws and safeguarding our independence, our citizens’ safety and security was of overriding importance.

So we cannot afford to ever be intimidated into acquiescence. The fact that we have consistently demonstrated this in action puts our relationships with neighbours near and far, other states small and large, on a more solid and equal footing. This is why we speak up whenever basic principles are challenged.

When Russian troops took control of Crimea, Singapore strongly objected to the invasion. We expressed our view that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and international law had to be respected.

Which brings me to the fifth principle that we must be a credible and consistent partner.


Our views are taken seriously because countries know that we always take a long-term constructive view of issues. The bigger countries engage Singapore because we do not just tell them what they want to hear. In fact they try harder to make Singapore take their side precisely because they know our words mean something.

We are honest brokers, dealing fairly and openly with all parties. There is a sense of strategic predictability, which has enabled Singapore to build up trust and goodwill with our partners over the decades.

Because we are credible, Singapore has been able to play a constructive role in international affairs, in ASEAN and at the UN. We have helped create platforms for countries with similar interests. For example, Singapore helped establish the Forum of Small States (FOSS) in 1992. As a group, we have been able to foster common positions and have a bigger voice at the UN. Today, the FOSS has grown to 107 countries, more than half of the UN membership.

We play a constructive role in the Alliance of Small Island States. We also launched the Global Governance Group, 3G to ensure that the voices of small states are heard, and to serve as a bridge between the G20 and UN membership.

Our credibility has won us a seat at the table, even when our relevance is not immediately obvious. We are not one of the 20 largest economies in the world, yet we just got back from the G20, which we were invited to.

When we first expressed interest in the Arctic Council, there were many who wondered what role a small equatorial country could play on Arctic matters. But rising sea levels and the possibility of new shipping routes potentially impact our position as a trans-shipment hub. So it is useful for us to be on the Arctic Council.

We gained observer status in the Arctic Council in May 2013 and we participate actively and contribute our expertise on maritime matters. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan has resolutely represented us on the Artic Council.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (centre left), meets Singaporeans at an early National Day reception at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany. (Photo: Kenneth Lim)


Small states are inconsequential unless we are able to offer a value proposition and make ourselves relevant.

Singapore’s economic success, political stability, our social harmony and unity has attracted attention from others to do business with us, and to examine our developmental model.

This is why our diplomats work so hard all over the world to find common ground with other states. We search for win-win outcomes based on the principle of interdependence. For example, we have participated in major cooperation projects in Suzhou, Tianjin, Chongqing in China, Iskandar Malaysia in Johor, the Kendal industrial park in Semarang, Indonesia and the multiple Vietnam-Singapore industrial parks.

When we embark on these projects, we contribute novel ideas and we implement our plans on a whole-of-government basis, involving our colleagues in other ministries who contribute whole-heartedly to these projects.

Singapore’s position is far more secure today than ti was at our birth in 1965. But the challenges of small states will be perennial. They cannot be ignored, or wished away. A strong, credible SAF is an important deterrence.


Foreign policy begins at home. Our diplomacy is only credible, if we are able to maintain a domestic consensus on Singapore’s core interests and foreign policy priorities, and if our politics do not become fractious, or our society divided.

We have safeguarded our international position by building a successful economy and cohesive society, making clear that we always act in Singapore’s interests, and not at the behest or bidding of other states. We have been expanding relationships with as many countries as possible, on the basis of mutual respect for all states regardless of size and on a win-win interdependence.

Upholding international law has been a matter of fundamental principle for us. Being a credible and consistent partner with a long term view has given us a role to play and relevance on the international stage.

Geopolitics are becoming more uncertain and unpredictable. We need to ensure that our foreign policy positions reflect the changing strategic realities while we maintain our freedom, our right to be an independent nation, with our own foreign policy.

We must anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time. But our task is to maintain this while keeping in mind the broader relationships. Our approach, as a state with an independent foreign policy, cannot be like that of a private company. Our state interests go far beyond the short term losses or gains of a private company.

So we must stay nimble, be alert to dangers but seize opportunities. We need to also remember that some aspects remain consistent. We need to advance and protect our interests. We must be prepared to make difficult decisions, weather the storms if they come. We must be prepared to speak up, and if necessary, disagree with others, without being gratuitously disagreeable.

We may always be a small state, but all the more reason we need the courage of our convictions and the resolution to secure the long-term interests of all our citizens.

Courtesy of Channel News Asia