Ministry of Foreign Affairs Committee of Supply 2019 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered on 1 Mar 2019)

Strategic Focus of Foreign Policy – Low Thia Khiang

Chairman Sir, as a highly connected small city state at the heart of Southeast Asia, Singapore is extremely vulnerable to upheavals in the region. China’s peaceful economic rise has taken a different turn with military manoeuvres in the South China Sea and its soft and hard power diplomacy vis-à-vis individual Asean states.

China’s rise has led other powers to turn to Southeast Asia. America was the first to do a pivot to Southeast Asia, entering into bilateral comprehensive partnerships with Asean member states. India elevated its “Look East” policy to the “Act East” policy in the shadow of China’s One Belt One Road investments in South Asia. Japan has also shifted its geo-strategic focus from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific.

We have forged close relationships with the US and then with rising China, and more recently India, guided by economic pragmatism and geopolitical realism. We have maintained our sovereignty and our commitment to peace and international rule of law. We should continue to do all these, but does the new complex environment mean that Singapore should consider pursuing its own strategic pivot to Southeast Asia?

There are at least two reasons why we should focus on Southeast Asia.

First, Asean is fast becoming an economic powerhouse. Through the Asean Economic Community and other initiatives aimed at economic integration, GDP per capita increased by 70 percent from 2007 to 2017. The combined GDP of $2.77 trillion places Asean among the top 10 economies in the world. ASEAN has a young population, many countries are still in the earlier phases of development, so there is a lot of scope for growth. We should not miss this new growth story, right here in our neighbourhood.

Second, with the global and regional powers turning their strategic focus to Southeast Asia, we should be careful. History has shown that when the great powers turn to a region and bring their strategic interests to bear on the countries, well meaning intentions could easily turn to hostile rivalries. We cannot afford to let the powers compete over us and disrupt our unity with divide-and-rule or containment strategies.

We have painstakingly building up Asean after the Cold War. In the event that great power conflicts should erupt again, Singapore would fare better in an Asean standing strong together against foreign interferences.

Realizing the Asean motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” may well be the key to Singapore’s survival and success for the next 50 years.


Soft Power Diplomacy – Low Thia Khiang

Chairman Sir, some foreign policy pundits and political scientists have emphasized the importance of soft power in the exercise of influence on the international stage. The American political scientist who pioneered the concept of soft power, called the ability to combine hard and soft power in a successful strategy, “smart power”. It is time we deepen our soft power diplomacy to effectively implement what I believe should be a strategic shift to focus our foreign policy on Southeast Asia.

Since 2015, communications consultancy Portland and the University of Southern California have published Soft Power 30 Index to measure the soft power of the top 30 countries on the international stage. In the last report, Singapore came in 21st. It comes with no surprise that the report ranked Singapore top in the category of “enterprise” due to our favourable business, rule-of-law and innovation environment. The “smart nation” initiative, underpinned by excellent digital infrastructure and digital government, has also led to a high ranking in the category of “digital”.

We need to change the perception by our neighbours of Singapore as an arrogant nation that likes to compare itself favourably to other developing countries. Oftentimes, the perceived condescension is due precisely to our success as a business hub and a global city adopting the most advanced technologies. Success breeds envy among neighbours, and this envy can turn toxic if our neighbours come to believe that our success is due to our taking advantage of their weaknesses.

I believe we can do three things to enhance our soft power diplomacy to correct the perceived condescension and prevent envy from turning toxic on us.

First, our government-to-government engagement should deepen with the objective of facilitating economic development of our neighbouring countries. We have done so much with China in this respect. For instance, last September, we inked deals with China to promote the replication of the Tianjin Eco-city development in other Chinese cities, establish a NUS institute in Chongqing to conduct scientific research as well as technology transfer and commercialization, and develop start-ups and partnerships in emerging industries in Suzhou. Is there a reason why we are not reaching the same level of intense engagement with our Asean neighbours?

Second, Asean is made up of countries with complex histories and cultures. We are one ourselves and it will take more than government-to-government engagement to develop our soft power diplomacy. We should enhance our people-to-people networking at institutional and practitioner levels for our cultural sector. We have signed arts and culture agreements with Australia and China that had led to intense professional exchanges and curatorial collaboration between museums. We should do the same with our Asean neighbours, especially since we share much historical and cultural kinship.

Third, we should turn our attention to digital diplomacy. We already have the digital infrastructure to do so. The next step is to develop our capabilities in making use of it to achieve our diplomatic objectives. For instance, we could have made use of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit last year to enhance our soft power when people all over the world searching “where is Singapore”.

I also welcome the launching of Asean Smart Cities Network. Singapore should become a smart nation exercising smart power.