On the one side, there are the Ambassador-at-Large, Bilahari Kausikan, and the Law Minister, K Shanmugam.
On the other stand the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), Kishore Mahbubani; Ambassador-at-Large, Ong Keng Yong; and the regional adviser for Indochina at the LKYSPP, Yap Kwong Weng.
At the centre of the disagreement is what Singapore’s foreign policy should be in a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore.
Kishore triggered the debate with an article in the Straits Times on 1 July, where he said Singapore should adhere to an “eternal rule of geopolitics” – that “small states must behave like small states”.
In brief, Kishore’s views were that Singapore, because it no longer has a statesman of Lee Kuan Yew’s international stature, “should change our behaviour significantly” when it comes to dealings with bigger countries.
Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari took offence at such a suggestion, and said Mahbubani’s views were “dangerously misleading”.
Bilahari, who is not known for mincing his words, said 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?”
The exchange drew a response from Law Minister K Shanmugam, who posted his support for Bilahari’s rebuttal, describing it as “brilliant”.
Shanmugam, who was Singapore’s Foreign Minister from 2011-2015, said Kishore’s article was “questionable, intellectually.”
He added, “Once we are shown to be “flexible”, then that is what will be expected of us every time.”
Mr Ong, for example, framed it thus:
“The issue is how modern states successfully preserve their independent foreign policy when caught between rising powers,” the ambassador said.
“Small states do this by being precisely what Kishore says: Machiavellian. They do not preserve the space to manoeuvre by being quiescence on the international stage or minding their own business. I am sure that Singapore’s leaders today understand this point very well.”
[Read Mr Ong’s full post here.]
Also responding to the debate was Mr Yap, who said on his Facebook page that he found “Bilahari’s reply exaggerated and unnecessary.”
“Bilahari’s response felt like an irrelevant knee-jerk reaction,” he added. “He tried to argue that Kishore had changed course on how Singapore should not ‘punch above our weight’. He also suggested that Kishore advocates “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy”. Both of Bilahari’s assertions are wrong and misleading.”
Yap says there is nothing “flawed” or “dangerous” about what Kishore had to say.
“Kishore stated that small states should not behave as if they are big states,” Yap explained. “He pointed out we will not have another Lee Kuan Yew any time soon. His key point was to be mindful not to overextend our capacity as a small nation. There was nothing wrong or disrespectful about this line of thinking.”
He also rebutted Bilahri’s claims that Kishore advocated that Singapore should “lay low” and favour larger countries.
“Kishore reminded us in his article that Singapore should continue to pursue a course that suits the world without trying to behave like a large country,” Yap says.
“All Kishore was trying to prove is that small countries shouldn’t make unnecessary moves to survive and thrive in a globalised environment. He merely pointed out that it is difficult to replicate what LKY did because he is a great leader. But Bilahari tried to relate Kishore’s arguments to LKY as if Kishore had denounced LKY in the first place.”
He says he is disappointed that Bilahari “had to criticise Kishore publicly”. Instead of this, he urged Bilahari to be more constructive.
“Given his long years of experience in foreign affairs, he should perhaps suggest ways on how Singapore can become more competitive in current times,” says Yap.