Be friends with all and enemies with none, but don't compromise national interests: Vivian Balakrishnan

Be friends with all and enemies with none, but don't compromise national interests: Vivian Balakrishnan

As a small state, Singapore has to "stand up and be counted" when needed and not "suffer what we must," Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday (Jul 17).

SINGAPORE: As a small state, Singapore has to "stand up and be counted" when needed and not "suffer what we must," Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday (Jul 17).

Speaking at a town hall event at his ministry, Dr Balakrishnan reminded foreign service officers of the principles of Singapore's foreign policy - to "protect Singapore's independence and sovereignty" and to "expand opportunities" for Singaporeans.

Achieving these has always been an "existential challenge", he added, as Singapore is a small country. 

"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 to create political and economic space for ourselves," said Dr Balakrishnan.

This is something that the country's founding leaders understood, he added, referring to Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, former deputy prime ministers Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam.

Some of the key principles they had formulated was that to stay relevant, Singapore's economy must be thriving, and its political landscape stable. The country must not be bought or bullied - or what Dr Balakrishnan called a "vassal state." Instead, Singapore aims to be "a friend to all, but an enemy of none."

"Diplomacy is not just about having 'friendly' relations at all costs," said Dr Balakrishnan. "It is about promoting friendly relations as a way to protect and advance our own important interests."

"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," he added.


Dr Balakrishnan also reiterated the importance of subscribing to a rules-based global order, the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

This is particularly important for small states like Singapore, as "in a system where 'might is right', and the laws of the jungle prevail, small states like us have very little chance of survival" said Dr Balakrishnan. This is why Singapore has always been an active participant in the United Nations.

"We must stand up on these issues, and speak with conviction, so that people know or 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," he added.

Some examples he cited include the caning of American teenager Michael Fay for his vandalism acts in 1994 despite pressure from the US, and the hanging of two Indonesian marines in 1968 for the bombing of McDonald House during Konfrontasi.

Dr Balakrishnan said these examples sent a clear message to other countries: That Singapore will uphold its laws, and will not be "intimidated into acquiescence". 

The Foreign Minister's comments come on the back of recent questions over how Singapore should conduct its foreign policy, sparked by a commentary by the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani earlier this month. 

Professor Mahbubani had written that "small states must always behave like small states," a view that Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam as well as a few diplomats took issue with. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had also stated Singapore's foreign policy position last week, that the country must "stand up and be counted."

"Some people have suggested that Singapore lay low and 'suffer what we must'," said Dr Balakrishnan on Monday. "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."


Singapore has also become what Dr Balakrishnan called an "honest broker", and it must continue to be credible and consistent.

"Because we are credible, Singapore has been able to play a constructive role in international affairs, at ASEAN and at the UN," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"Our credibility has won us a seat at the table, even when our relevance is not immediately obvious," he added.

But beyond that, Dr Balakrishnan underscored that 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 our foreign policy priorities, and if our politics do not become fractious, or our society divided," he said.

Singapore has sealed its spot in the international arena thanks to its prosperous economy and society, being clear that the country must act in its interests and not at the behest of other countries.

"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 win-win interdependence," he said.

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

And as global relations become more uncertain and unpredictable, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore must ensure that its positions on foreign policy reflected the changing strategic realities, while at the same time maintaining its sovereignty.

"We must anticipate frictions and difficulties from time to time," he said. "But our task is to manage this whilst keeping in mind the broader relationships."

Source: CNA/nc