Some thoughts on Singapore’s Interests from an “Opposition” Perspective

Numbers, sometimes, tell the best stories – whether they are about foreign policy, trade or the economy in general. These latest tables published by the Singapore Department of Statistics reveal that the United States and Japan are the biggest foreign investors in Singapore, their $250b accounting for almost 25% of all our foreign investments (Table 1). These countries have a vested stake to defend in Singapore and their investments – to a varying extent – create opportunities here. Table 1 also tells us why the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in principle, is of strategic importance to the Government. Countries like Norway, the Netherlands, and a host of tax havens make the list. But China is conspicuously missing.

Flip things around however (Table 2), and one sees that the overwhelming bulk of Singapore’s foreign investments are in China – about $110b to be exact. The US comes in at number 14. India and our immediate neighbours feature, but this table emphasizes how important China is to Singapore as a destination for our investments.

Broadly speaking, both tables are indicative of Singapore’s overall foreign policy posture, the imperatives behind our relationship with China and the US, the Government’s perspective on protectionism and global trade in general, amongst many other things.

While numbers are helpful in personifying foreign policy, big powers and bigger countries usually have a wider scope and spectrum for action. For a major power like China, the ongoing diplomatic spat with Singapore over the impounded Terrex fighting vehicles (and before that, over allegations of diplomatic impropriety by Singapore in China’s Global Times), is but one manifestation of statecraft insofar as China’s national interests are concerned, and how it wishes to express and exercise those interests. It knows what is at stake for itself (and for Singapore). Compound this with Singapore’s small size and our near total reliance on our neighbours and countries further afield like China for our economic well-being, it should not surprise anyone how delicate things can be for a small country in Singapore’s position. Add our racial demographics and population imperatives, and the conflagration becomes even more complex, something our neighbours, competitors and friends know all too well.

There must always be space to question our foreign policy or to find our more about its roots and imperatives, and to even disagree with it. But these tables tell us that one-dimensional conclusions about the Government’s strategy, whether one opines them to be right or wrong, are of limited utility, for an underlying question remains central – how differently would it be done, if someone else was in charge?

When Singapore is pushed around in the international realm, or belittled unceremoniously usually as a result of our size, our opponents do so with their interests in mind, and for those with more nefarious intentions – to drive a wedge among Singaporeans. Rather than to curse our misfortune or those seemingly in charge of our fate, a stronger sense of nation and identity should be the only take-away for Singapore and all Singaporeans as a result of this drawn-out diplomatic spat with China. For it is in our destiny as a small state that similar spats will inevitably come to fore again in future. But is far from inevitable that Singaporeans are destined to be divided.

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