Being Relevant: Singapore’s Diplomacy Since 1965

Dr. Chua highlights Singapores’ activist approach in foreign policy in order to be relevant.
Dr. Chua highlights Singapores’ activist approach in foreign policy in order to be relevant.

Dr. Daniel Chua Discusses Singapore’s Diplomacy since 1965

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) hosted Dr. Daniel Wei Boon Chua, Research Fellow from the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), for a Mabini Dialogue on Singapore’s diplomacy at the Institute’s Ambassador Francisco L. Benedicto Room, DFA Building, Pasay City, on 05 May 2015.

Dr. Chua’s presentation,  “Being Relevant: Singapore’s Diplomacy Since 1965,” provided an overview of Singapore’s diplomacy, including its intrinsic challenges and constraints since gaining its independence in 1965. He noted that Singapore’s priority was to gain admission to the UN to achieve recognition for its sovereignty since its separation from Malaysia. Non-aligned countries played a key role in Singapore’s admission to the UN.

Dr. Chua also discussed the geopolitical limitations in Singapore’s diplomacy. He added that Singapore’s size presented challenges as it lacked strategic depth due to its small population, domestic market, and labor force. Furthermore, Singapore was a demographic oddity in the region as it had a majority Chinese population situated between two Malay dominant regions. Territorial integrity and defense also became key concerns during this time.

Dr. Chua further stated that social stability in Singapore was very fragile at the beginning of its independence marked by racial riots, healthcare and housing problems. There was also a need to develop human resources through education. In addition, the economic development of Singapore proved difficult during this time as it posted high unemployment rates and the withdrawal of British military from Singapore sparked fears of an economic crisis. The lack of a common market with Malaysia also fueled the need to restructure the economy of Singapore.

As Singapore gained its independence during the height of the Cold War, Singapore found it prudent to avoid taking sides by adopting a non-aligned and non-Communist stance. From 1965 to 1975, Singapore also developed strong defense relations with the US. However, Singapore was careful not to be seen as biased towards the West, perpetuating the need to foster trade partnerships with the Soviet Union especially in shipping as well as trade relations with China and Japan.

Reiterating Singapore’s non-aligned stance, Dr. Chua added that Singapore welcomes all major powers that have interests in the region. It is greatly concerned, however, about the dominance of one power as it will tilt the geopolitics of the region and will have an impact on the smaller countries.

In conclusion, Dr. Chua highlighted that despite being a small country, Singapore constantly strives to be exceptional in order to be relevant to the region. It follows an activist approach on foreign policy to enable it to preempt problems and act early.

During the open forum, Dr. Chua explained that Singapore wants to play the role of an honest broker or mediator in the South China Sea conflict. He further emphasized that Singapore’s main priority is to ensure that there is no escalation of tensions and would like to assist in practical ways such as providing venue for talks or negotiations regarding the regional tensions.

Dr. Chua added that despite the current South China Sea tensions, Singapore maintains soft links with China through trade, tourism, and education, owing to the large Chinese population in the country, but exercises caution regarding defense or strategic issues that concern China in order to maintain its neutrality.

He also briefly discussed Singapore’s contributions to maritime security and freedom of navigation, citing Singapore’s active anti-piracy operations in collaboration with different states.  In addition, Dr. Chua said that Singapore has moved beyond the thinking that threats only come from conventional sources in order to address non-traditional challenges.

Acting Director-General Julio S. Amador III (left) presents the Certificate of Appreciation to Dr. Chua.