Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address at the National Day Rally in August has been seen by many observers to be a landmark speech. Singapore is at a turning point, and the major policy shifts in housing, healthcare and education all aim to facilitate the country’s entry into a new phase of development and nation-building.
While the rally was ostensibly domestic in nature, external forces were also behind the changes Lee unveiled. These include increased regional and global competition, technological advances, fluid international finance and talent flows. It is a reminder of how the international environment directly impacts Singapore’s domestic politics, and how Singapore’s internal transformations will determine the country’s ability to succeed in the global arena.
There is also one other important shift to note. Small states like Singapore can, indeed, survive and thrive. As Lee acknowledges, Singapore is “stable and strong”; it is charting a bold, new way forward from a position of excellence and strength. This reinforces Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam’s recent remark that in becoming economically and politically successful, “Singapore has overcome its small geographical size.” Likewise, the recent 90th birthday celebrations of Lee Kuan Yew have sparked numerous reflections on Singapore’s achievements.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This shift in rhetoric suggests that Singapore’s longstanding narrative of vulnerability – a narrative that has galvanized its strategic policies for the last four decades in areas from education to defense to foreign relations – is evolving into one that is more about sustaining its success.
Given that the domestic and the external are intertwined within Singapore’s framework of Total Defense – which connects socio-economic factors and security matter – how might these domestic shifts influence Singapore’s foreign policy, its armed forces and the institution of National Service?
New Avenues in Foreign Policy
A more complex environment as highlighted by Lee in his rally speech means Singapore will have to continue honing its proactive stance in foreign policy. An acute sense of smallness and vulnerability has long pushed the government to adopt a complex mix of foreign policy strategies. These strategies range from the more hard-nosed belief of needing great power balancing and Singapore having its own credible military force, to being a firm adherent of international law and economic multilateralism while strongly advocating the construction of common norms, values, and identity, especially under the aegis of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
To date, Singapore’s foreign policy record has been reputed for its coherence and for being able to “punch above its weight.” In recent years, Singapore has begun to undertake more active, if selective, roles in the global arena. These include Singapore holding a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in 2001-2002, participating in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in places like Afghanistan, Indonesia, East Timor, Japan and China, as well as more recently becoming a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. These events reinforce the view that Singapore’s foreign policy has been shifting from one of merely “coping” with vulnerability, to one of strength and sustaining success.
Indeed, recent academic literature on small states suggests that contrary to prevailing assumptions, they are not necessarily powerless. They can deploy multiple dimensions of foreign policy power to effect changes in global politics. These take the forms of addressing international humanitarian and ethical issues, or of pushing through initiatives for regional cooperation. To these ends, Singapore has been exemplary in seizing opportunities to enlarge its diplomatic space and strengthen its security.
Interestingly, Singapore’s domestic shift towards a more “compassionate” paradigm of social policies can begin to open up new avenues in foreign policy; for instance, more proactive international advocacy in social equity, human development and rights. As highlighted in Shanmugam’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, poverty eradication and sustainability are integral to national development and global stability.