Instructions in Singaporean pragmatism


I had a chance to join 14 other Asean journalists in a wide-ranging interview with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week. ANC’s Coco Alcuaz, formerly of Bloomberg, has already written of Lee’s pragmatic approach to the territorial disputes between China and some Asean member-states.

It is worth repeating the most important quote from Lee. Asked by Siti Hajar of the Borneo Bulletin whether the territorial disputes between certain Asean states and China can be resolved sooner rather than later, he replied:

“It cannot be resolved. These are territorial disputes. I say it is mine, you say it is yours. Whose is it? So either I say sorry, I made a mistake, it is yours; or you must say sorry, you made a mistake, it is mine. And no government can say that. So therefore, I do not think that the overlapping claims can be cleared up. They will remain overlapping. But what you can do is manage the situation, avoid some escalation at sea, on the land or sea itself, and where possible, do joint development of the resources which are there, which I think is Brunei’s approach from what I can see.”

It is certainly very much Singapore’s approach. From what I can see, the Singaporean success story is predicated on a clear-eyed understanding of its limits: It is a very small country, with hardly any natural resources; it cannot afford the luxury of indulgent denial. Lee’s stance on the South China Sea disputes seems to me to reflect this almost fatalistic acceptance of limits. The most that can be done, he says, is to “manage the situation.”

* * *

I thought it might be useful to run an extended excerpt from the group interview with Prime Minister Lee, the better to track his thinking. (Among other characteristics I’ve observed, he tends to tailor his answer to the questioner, in terms of specifics offered or milieu addressed.) The passage below is from the transcript his office produced; I have done some minor editing.

Nery: “Prime Minister, I would like to ask about China. How do you engage the region’s largest economy, with the largest military? Has the relationship evolved or changed since the days of Deng Xiaoping?”

PM Lee: “Yes, the relationship has evolved. China is much more developed, much more open, much more exposed to the world and familiar with the world and at the same time, our relationship with China has grown. Our trade with China has increased enormously. Our cooperation projects with China have evolved. If you look at it in terms of official government cooperation, we used to have, we started off with one major project in the Suzhou Industrial Park. We now are doing a Tianjin Eco-City. We have a knowledge city in Guangdong province, near Guangzhou. We have other science and tech IT parks in other cities in China and we have a lot of commercial projects, private sector investing in China, some properties, some infrastructure, some manufacturing, some hotel, hospitality services. In fact, we have 20, 30 billion dollars worth of investments in China. More than that, I think US$60 billion worth of investments. I just looked up the number recently. And I think the opportunities are there. So China is developing. I think that is good. China will be a strong country. We believe that China intends and sees it in its interest to be a peaceful member of the international community and we think that is good for China and good for the region and we have said so. I know that they have problems in the South China Sea, particularly the Philippines has problems in the South China Sea with China. You call it the West Philippine Sea, they call it the South Sea.”

Nery: “And Vietnam calls it the East Sea.”

PM Lee: “And Vietnam calls it the East Sea, so it is very complicated but it…”

Nguyen Thi Truc [of Viet Nam News]: “A big neighbor.”

PM Lee: “Yes, it is a big neighbor but you can live with a big neighbor and I think it is better for us that the big neighbor is prospering than if the big neighbor is having problems.”

Nery: “At the same time, Mr. Prime Minister, you are one of the United States’ principal allies in the region.”

PM Lee: “No, no, we are not a treaty ally, you are an ally. So is Thailand. We are a friend of the United States. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement but we are not a treaty ally.”

Nery: “I was going to ask, how do you define this balancing act between China and the US.”

PM Lee: “As long as China and America are friends, it is easier. If not, it is more difficult. But we want to be friends with both. And on security matters, I think America plays an indispensable role in this region. It is not just the forces which visit Singapore, the LCS (littoral combat ships), or the aircraft but their overall security presence in the region which makes a big difference to the whole of the Asia-Pacific. And I think we will continue and that is not a role which China can take over from the United States, nor can Japan.”

Even here, in his discussion of the American security umbrella, he speaks of limits (neither China nor Japan “can take over from the United States”) as much as of possibilities.

* * *

Just before the 25th anniversary of the first People Power revolt, newly elected senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made a bold assertion: If his father had not been ousted but instead continued in power, “siguro  Singapore  na  tayo  ngayon.”

Many have since taken the son to task, for taking liberties with history’s truths. I will not question his sincerity; perhaps he does think of his father as another Lee Kuan Yew, only betrayed by trusted associates.

But in Singapore, eliminating corruption is a simple matter of pragmatism. In that sense, Marcos’ so-called New Society was exceedingly impractical.

* * *

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  • Tristanism

    “But what you can do is manage the situation, avoid some escalation at sea, on the land or sea itself, and where possible, do joint development of the resources…”

    But what happens when China starts claiming part of Singapore? :)

  • ConnieLee90

    From what I’ve read, Singapore has one of the best foreign ministries in the world. This cadre of diplomats knows their brief, and comes to international meetings always prepared. In the United Nations, they try to magnify their influence with their knowledge and expertise. They stand up to big powers. Small as the country is, they make it a point not to be overlooked. Though Singapore might have disagreements with other countries, they try to avoid inflaming the opposition by taking the less confrontational path.
    Singapore knows how to play both ends against the middle. This scheme is prudent and advantageous. While offering basing rights to the US, Singapore also pursues vigorous commerce with China. With this arrangement, Singapore relies on the US military to maintain the peace in the region and to protect them against Chinese adventurism, while at the same time allow them to fulfill their trade and economic objectives with China.
    Unlike Singapore, the Philippines had cast its lot completely with the United States.

    • tarikan

      And the Philippines has the habit of sending retired generals, has-been celebrities, even has-been businessmen as ambassadors. Mga sipinunin sa global affairs.

    • hai_nguyen

      We can always look back and attributed plenty of missed opportunities and self-blames for where the Philippines found itself today and/or appreciated where Singapore is in the world stage. However, it can’t just be blanket associations with Singapore’s ” best foreign ministries, stand up to big powers, avoid inflaming the opposition…” or the Philippine’s ” cast its lot completely with the US”. Argument can easily be made of US’s closest Asian powers such as Japan and S. Korea and I can’t recall the last time Singapore stands up to big powers for anyone but itself.
      As Asean co-founders and current leaders, Singapore behaves as spineless opportunist

  • mariovill1950

    Filipinos learn from the success of the Singaporeans, Filipino politicians are full of Bullsh*ts, too legalistic, full of rhetorics and a bunch of braggadocious.

  • tarikan

    Kung hindi lang napaalis sa pwesto si Marcos Sr. siguro nakapagbayad na sya ng utang kay Mr. Lee Kuan Yew ng more than US$300M. Yung Ilokanong yun marunong mangutang (saan kaya ginamit, ah pinang-shopping ni Madame) hindi marunong magbayad. Itanong mo man BongGong kay Hsien Loong pero hwag na baka masingil ka pa haha.

  • tarikan

    Easy for you Mr. PM Lee Hsien Loong to say “do joint development of resources” on the disputed areas. The other party has practically grabbed your front yard, you’d like to develop your front yard with your distant neighbor? Eh baka agawin na si mrs ko nyan nasa looban ko na ok lang ba? As the saying goes: Don’t do to others as you won’t like others do unto you. Sa Batangas: Hwag kang gay-an, kung mag-gagay-an ka eh hwag gay-an!

    • longganisa lucban

      Ala eh, tama ka dyan, kabayang Tarikan. Talagang gay-an. Ang chekwa ay kakampi sa kapwa chekwa. Nabasa mo naman ang sinabi ni Lee Hsien Loong. Meron daw $60 billion investment ang Singapore sa China. At hindi raw sila ally ng US. So, malinaw kung sino ang kinakampihan ng Singapore.

  • RayP1766

    Lee’s comments are typical of Singapore’s attitudes with regard to most international issues, challenges, or principles – it turns it back on them or simply appeases. They take the meaning of national self-interest to a whole new level! One really has to wonder about Singapore’s commitment not only to ASEAN and the wider region but also to facilitating a better and fairer world in general.

    It’s no coincidence that Singapore likes to see itself as Asia’s Switzerland, supposedly “neutral” but of course not averse to ‘playing both sides’ and making as many bucks as possible out of everyone else’s misery. If I might make an analogy, Singapore’s politicos are the guys that turn up a day after floods have ravaged Manila and tell you “hey, we’ve arrived to help….sorry, no cheques…but we’ve brought a plane load of coffins going cheap”!

    In the early 1990s, the Australian Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating described the then leader of the country’s Liberal Party opposition as a “shiver in search of a spine”. If I might borrow this clever quip, it would seem an extremely apt description of Singapore’s political leadership since independence.

    Yes sir, Mr Nery, Singapore is certainly pragmatic…..and, insular, self-obsessed, selfish, humorless, and self-righteous to name but a few of the other national attributes which I suspect it’s too gutless to own up to.

    But principled…it certainly ain’t!!

  • Mang Teban

    John Nery:
    I regret that ASEAN journalists have to seek the thoughts of the prime minister of Singapore on the matter of territorial limits. He has no idea at all where the historical basis for the Philippine claim is and, yet, it was so easy for you to be mesmerized with what you call his “pragmatism”. If we are to take Singapore’s PM Lee Hsion Loong’s advice, we will lose our fight to RECLAIM what rightfully belongs to us.

    The premise that China says that the shoals and islets that they had occupied are theirs and we say that they are ours also is completely out of context. China had never installed a single platform in any of those disputed areas west of the Philippines since Marcos regime. It started to intrude in our waters from Cory’s time to the present when the budget for maritime defense on that area was reduced tremendously and we allowed China to abuse our hospitality and took advantage of the situation when the USA pulled out the bases after the damage wrought by Pinatubo volcanic eruption.

    Singapore under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was “pragmatic” alright by tolerating foreign investments into their country even if it meant unfair advantage to the locals in terms of employment and business opportunities. Until now, the voice of the ordinary Singaporean to diminish foreign monopoly of their small state remains unheard. The national policy is to bring in foreign currency and up the prices of their basic consumer needs (food, energy, housing, education) and let tourism be the primary selling point. It is so easy to implement when 25% are foreigners residing in Singapore where bank secrecy is utmost and money laundering from neighboring nations, Malaysia and Indonesia, is “unofficially permitted.” I don’t think that our country, the Philippines, will benefit from being awash with foreign currency and we become a quasi-tax haven for money launderers. At least, our laws have remained steadfast to protect our communities from unfair trade and unfair competition with the stringent 60:40 ownership in equity – on paper though. Well, we have dummies like MVPangilinan who lets Indonesian capital enter our country using himself as conduit.

    Therefore, John Nery, I am not impressed with the “words of wisdom” from Singapore’s PM. He has his point of view and let us keep it that way. We must be focused that our sovereignty over those disputed islets and shoals (including Sabah stolen by the Brits for their former colony, Malaysia) has a solid basis. Let China propose a joint-use of some areas for development but not us who has been adversely affected and bullied by China’s ulterior motives. Sorry but we have to caution ourselves from being swayed by “pragmatic” solutions. What is pragmatic with building casinos all over Singapore in complete reversal of Lee Kuan Yew’s previous pronouncements that no casino will ever be constructed in his country? Pragmatism? No, greed to maintain economic standing to the detriment of its own citizens who are now merely taxpayers and consumers of foreign capitalists.

  • Fulpol

    so what a stupid Philippines lead by BS Aquino-makapili III..

    in the end, who is the true ally of Philippines against China??


    idiot Pilipinos believing on BS Aquino-Makapili III…

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