Singapore behaving like a small state

From ‘Minister Shanmugam backs Bilahari’s brilliant response to Kishore’s article on small states’, 2 July 2017, article in CNA

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has weighed in on differences about foreign policy ideas between Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan and dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani.

In a Facebook post on Sunday (Jul 2), Mr Shanmugam, who used to be Minister for Foreign Affairs, said he found Professor Mahbubani’s piece on foreign policy “questionable, intellectually” and commended Mr Kausikan for a “brilliant response”.

…In his Facebook post commenting on the article, Mr Kausikan took issue with the first lesson mentioned by Professor Mahbubani in his article: “Small states must always behave like small states”.

The Ambassador-at-Large described the statement as “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous”.

In Kishore’s original article, he quoted the great Thucydides to back up his ‘eternal rule of geopolitics’ that small states should know their place, specifically – ‘..the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must’. The context for this was the ‘Melian dialogue’, which is basically a powerful nation (Athenians) threatening to annex the island state of Melos (a colony of Sparta). 

Melos resisted initially after attempts to appeal to Athens’ higher sense of morality but were eventually destroyed. But what’s curious about this is not Darwinian logic passing for political truth, but that the passage by Thucydides was ultimately a ‘dramatisation’ of the negotiations between the mismatched states and may not have happened in reality. For anyone else not familiar with Greek wars, using Sparta may not be the best example to justify capitulation as pragmatism and prudence if you’re a little red dot. Because This is fucking Sparta that’s why.

Of course, one can also quote from another ancient text to counter the political law of the jungle. It’s called David and Goliath. It’s even the name of a Malcolm Gladwell bestseller. Times have changed since; we don’t throw spears at each other. We don’t pillage and rape other peoples’ women. We don’t lay siege with catapults and battering rams. These days, for one small country to bring a bigger one to its knees you don’t need a physical army. You just need one really brilliant hacker, or a megalomaniac on a small deserted island with a doomsday machine.

Or maybe just one Lee Kuan Yew. Here’s another passage from Kishore’s article, which suggests that our current leadership can no longer stand toe to toe with the powers that be.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew never acted as a leader of a small state. He would comment openly and liberally on great powers, including America and Russia, China and India. However, he had earned the right to do so because the great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman. We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly.

Owwwch. Once a barking terrier in a big arena, now a puppy cowering in the corner with its tail between its legs. Or in Bilahari’s exact words – a tame poodle.

What’s a small state to do? According to Kishore, the key is ‘exercising discretion’. Every small state is small in its own way, big in others, and I would like him to cite an example of the WIMPY KID of small states, the one that sneaks out of the back door when the house burns to the ground. The state that exemplifies the saying ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.

Maybe the real takeaway from his piece is that Singapore should not overstep its boundaries and refrain from interfering with bigger shit beyond us. He used the South China Sea as an example, but at the same time advocated that statelings like ours should adopt a ‘Machiaveillian’ approach in order to survive, a philosophy straight out of the LKY/Goh Keng Swee/Rajaratnam school of thought. You could say ‘Machiaveillian’ is how LKY treated his political rivals, pushed through his population policies, or how he wanted the Oxley Road house handled after his death (But that’s for a certain Parliamentary debate to mull over). A small Machiavelli is pretty much how I would describe Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones.

The Terrex incident is still fresh in our minds, with China being the perennial big brother trying to bully little Singapore out of the last piece of candy. Bilahari and Shanmugam preferred to view the commentary not as a reality check, but one that downplays Singapore’s prowess in the international stage, where we’re traditionally seen as ‘no pushovers’ despite our size. We do what we think is right despite global pressure or mockery. We didn’t give in to the US when Michael Fay was caned for vandalism. We didn’t give a fuck when we banned the import of chewing gum. We also hate the word ‘Syonan’ because WE ARE SINGAPORE, dammit!

An article which hints at selectively kowtowing to greater powers being the best policy may be construed as a slap in the face of the Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew built, a small nation with big-ass balls, but with the side effect of becoming a nation still struggling to move on from the former elder statesman’s influence, to the point that quarrels over his private knick-knacks have become a matter of intense national interest.

Kishore closed the ‘small states’ discussion with an analogy from the animal kingdom.

In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal’s home territory.

Well, not if we’re a mouse though.

 

 

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