Singapore predicament, Asean challenge

29 July 2017
Originally published in The Star Online

SINGAPORE is no longer a boring political place which finds its substitute excitement in neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia. It has plenty of its own now.

However in grappling with it and, no doubt, measuring cost-benefit, one probable consequence could be the strength of its leadership of Asean whose chair the island republic assumes next year.

The “small state should behave like one” debate among Singapore’s foreign policy elite that uncharacteristically broke into the open is as highly significant as its domestic political worries.

Politics in Singapore actually were exciting – sometimes too exciting – in the past, before 1965, when separation from Malaysia and the leadership of the towering Lee Kuan Yew focused almost all attention and energy on building a modern nation state.

There were race riots in July 1964 (22 killed), in 1969 as a spillover of Malaysia’s May 13 (36 lives lost) and incidents such as over the Maria Hertogh conversion in 1950 (18 died).

As Singapore’s first Prime Minister after attaining self-governing status, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew fought a huge battle for merger with then Malaya in 1961-2 against left wingers in his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). In two by-elections in 1961 the PAP lost as they did not support their own party.

During a vote of confidence in the legislative assembly on 20 July 1961, 13 PAP assemblymen abstained from giving support to their own government, were promptly expelled, and went on to form the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) opposition party.

A referendum on merger was held on 1 September 1962 and although there was a 71 per cent vote in support, there were 25 per cent blank votes as called for by Barisan Sosialis because there was no clear “against” choice in the poll. The opposition party gave the PAP a run for its money and won 13 seats (plus one independent opposition) in the 1963 general election even if the PAP romped home with 37.

It was the crackdown against leftists and their supporters on 2 September 1963 that paralyzed Barisan Sosialis which made the further mistake of getting out of Parliament in 1966 after separation from Malaysia. In the 1972 general election Barisan Sosialis failed to win a single seat before it finally disappeared from the political scene on absorption by the Workers Party in May 1988.

The period of feisty politics was pretty much over as Lee Kuan Yew’s post-Malaysia Singapore became the great success story well chronicled in the two volumes of his excellent memoirs and many other commentaries on the modern island republic.

There has been some excitement over drop of the popular vote and loss of a few seats by the PAP, as in the 2011 general election, but these were a far cry from what had gone before. Of course the relatively barren intervening years might have something to do with the easily raised level of excitement.

Just recently the public quarrel among the siblings over the future of their father Lee Kuan Yew’s former residence at 38 Oxley Road spiced up further some of the issues that are coming through in today’s Singapore after a long period of relative political abstinence.

Some of the most populist comments reflect on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a way not imaginable about Lee Kuan Yew. If he cannot even keep his siblings in line how can he control the country? He’s nothing like his father. And so on.

All this is rather harsh. Family, as we know, can be more difficult to control than even a nation. In public light any response at all would be deemed wrong, especially as one party may have all the power and authority. As for Lee Kuan Yew, he was one of a kind, and neither subsequent Singapore Prime Minister has been put up in comparison to him.

Still, all these throwaway comments must hurt. When coupled with what happened during the Singapore Prime Minister’s national day address last year, in the unforgiving world of politics the suggestion of weakness has ready audience.

One battle too many

All this too at a time when Singapore’s hitherto smart political succession planning has been thrown out of kilter by unfortunate illness of assumed heir apparent and by the reality that a person from a minority race, however well-qualified, cannot be made prime minister in the Chinese majority island republic. It would be one battle too many for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

For he has yet another front to fight. The relentless attack by China on what its Global Times calls “the tiny red dot”. China’s Yang Jieche had presaged this at the Asean Regional Forum meeting in 2010 when he glared at Singapore’s George Yeo as he thundered: Some countries are big and some states are small – and that is a fact!

What irks China is Singapore’s principled stand on the issues of international law in the South China Sea disputes. For Singapore a small state relies on the protection of the law in international society. Its violation or disregard by a big country, especially against smaller countries, sets a dangerous precedent.

There are some in Singapore who now openly say a small state like Singapore should behave like a small state. What is implicit is this: Singapore should not have crossed China. The suggestion is that the government under Lee Hsien Loong has made a serious mistake which has harmed Singapore’s interests.

However, the fact of the matter is that Singapore has always acted bigger than its size. Lee Kuan Yew towered not only in Singapore but among intellectuals, leaders and foreign policy establishments across the world. Even China – Deng Xiaoping and other leaders following him – took his advice.

If the suggestion is it does not now qualify and should not any longer do so, there will be ramifications in its relations with other countries, not just with China. For Asean, this could mean that when Singapore takes over as the chair next year, it should not provide any kind of leadership that could be construed, especially by the larger Asean members, as going beyond its remit.

This would be a setback not only for Singapore but for Asean as a whole. As a founder member of Asean, Singapore has always been among the more committed to the regional grouping which is crying out loud for leadership.

It can be expected Singapore will give the South China Sea disputes as wide a berth as possible – unless it has to do with cooperative endeavor. Which would be no bad thing as China seems to be in the mood for joint development of disputed areas as well as for some agreement on the Code of Conduct in whatever truncated form.

All the signs are that Singapore will give attention to digitization, the onset of the fourth industrial revolution in Asean. However Singapore should not stop at identification of new means of manufacturing and providing services, at new platforms for distribution, trade and payments – at robotics, internet-of-things, artificial intelligence etc. It must lead Asean into looking at the social and economic consequences of these new technologies, the impact on employment and unemployment, on education, training and re-training, and on disparities within and and between Asean countries.

Indeed the potential impact on Asean integration and cohesion.

Finally, Singapore should also lead Asean into thinking seriously and strategically about how to continue to be relevant in the next 50 years. It should propose that Asean ask the young people, for a change, on what they want of and from Asean.

Singapore has the capability to take Asean through all this. But would Singapore have the will to do so, given the so many matters on its plate, and the suggestions it should not over-reach and antagonise bigger states and therefore harm its own interests?

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.