Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan has slammed Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), for advocating that “small states must always behave like small states.”
The rare disagreement in views of how Singapore should tread in the world post-Lee Kuan Yew was sparked by Mr Mahbubani’s article in the Straits Times on 1 July.
In the article, titled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country”, Mr Mahbubani said there were three lessons Singapore should learn from the situation involving Qatar. The small middle-eastern country has been in the news recently after several other bigger Mid-East nations cut diplomatic ties with it. They accused Qatar of, among other things, “adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region.”
Mr Mahbubani said one of the “big mistake” which Qatar made was “[because] it sits on mounds of money, it believed that it could act as a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders.”
Mr Mahbubani, himself a former ambassador to the United Nations, said he was “shocked” in 2014 when Qatar joined the US-led bombing of Syria.
“I told myself then that Qatar would pay a price some day for not acting prudently like a small state should,” he wrote.
This, he said, went against the “eternal rule of geopolitics” – small states must behave like small states.
Therein lies a lesson for Singapore.
He said Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, “never acted as a leader of a small state” because “he had earned the right to [comment openly and liberally on great powers] because the great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman.”
But with Mr Lee’s passing, Mr Mahbubani said Singapore “should change our behaviour significantly.”
“What’s the first thing we should do?” he asked. “Exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers.”
He cited the example of the row over the International Court of Justice’s decision over the South China Sea dispute.
Mr Mahbubani said “it would have been wiser to be more circumspect” for Singapore when commenting on the dispute.
“The best time to speak up for our principles is not necessarily in the heat of a row between bigger powers,” he said, referring to China and the Philippines which had brought the case to the ICJ.
Singapore had taken the position that China should abide by the ICJ’s ruling, which was in favour of the Philippines, a position which apparently upset the Chinese government.
“Let us, therefore, use the Qatar episode to ask ourselves whether we have been Machiavellian enough in recent years,” Mr Mahbubani said.
His views, however, drew an unusually withering response from ambassador Kausikan.
Taking a dig at Mr Mahbubani who he said had “never tired of saying we must ‘punch above our weight’”, Mr Kausikan said the dean has “obviously changed his mind.”
“But the reason he has done so and what he has to say about the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the suggestion that now that he is dead we should behave differently, is not just wrong but offensive not only to Mr Lee’s successors, but to all Singaporeans who have benefited from what Mr Lee and his comrades have bequeathed us,” the ambassador-at-large said.
He then tore into Mr Mahbubani’s argument that since Mr Lee has died, Singapore should adopt a more “circumspect” foreign policy.
Mr Kausikan said:
“Kishore says Mr Lee never behaved as the leader of a small country and earned the right to state his views because he was respected by the major powers. True. But how did he earn that right?
“Mr Lee and his comrades did not earn respect by being meekly compliant to the major powers. They were not reckless, but they did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles when they had to. They risked their lives for their idea of Singapore.
“They took the world as it is and were acutely conscious of our size and geography. But they never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.”
Mr Kausikan then cited several examples of how Singapore, despite being a small country, had stood its grounds on principles, and earned the respect of the bigger countries.
He recounted how the relationship between Mr Lee and Indonesian leader Suharto was forged.
“Mr Lee and his comrades stood up to Indonesia and refused Suhato’s request to spare two Indonesian Marines the gallows. Their act of terrorism during Confrontation had cost innocent civilian Singaporean lives. The Marines had been convicted after due legal process and had exhausted all avenues of legal appeal.
“On what basis could we have spared them? Because Indonesia is big and we are small? What conclusion would Suharto, and others, have drawn about Singapore had we done so? How would the relationship have developed?
“The principle established, some years later Mr Lee laid flowers on the graves of the Marines. Both standing firm and being gracious without compromising principle were equally important and were the foundation of Mr Lee’s long and fruitful friendship with Suharto.”
Mr Kausikan says he is “profoundly disappointed” and “ashamed” that “Kishore should advocate subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy.”
“Kishore will no doubt claim that he is only advocating ‘realism’. But realism does not mean laying low and hoping for the leave and favour of larger countries. Almost every country and all our neighbours are larger than we are. Are we to live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks?
“What kind of people does Kishore think we are or ought to be?”