Kishore Mahbubani, the former Singapore’s Permanent Representative to UN and a favorite of the late LKY, wrote an article for ST today (‘Qatar: Big lessons from a small country’, 1 Jul 2017).
In his article, Kishore said that the recent Qatar episode holds many lessons for Singapore. “We ignore them at our peril,” he said.
Last month, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya abruptly cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar, citing Qatar of meddling with with their internal affairs. As a result, these countries have closed their airspace between their countries and Qatar. This has caused much sufferings for Qatar because as much as 40 per cent of its food comes through the Saudi border.
Saudi said Qatar was “dividing internal Saudi ranks, instigating against the State, infringing on its sovereignty, adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”.
In his article, Kishore said that Qatar has made a mistake thinking that with its oil money, it could act as “a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders”. In other words, Qatar is poking its nose into other people’s affairs and being an interfering “kah poh”.
“Qatar believed that its mounds of money and its close relations with the US would protect it from consequences,” Kishore added. “In so doing, Qatar ignored an eternal rule of geopolitics: small states must behave like small states.”
He went on to cite the historian Thucydides, who famously wrote, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
In other words, “might” is truly “right”.[LKY is an exception]
However, in the past, LKY as leader of small Singapore, would comment openly and liberally on great powers, including America and Russia, China and India. But Kishore noted that LKY was an exception, “He had earned the right to do so because the great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman.”
So even though Singapore is a small state, the great powers considered LKY a “global statesman” and respected him. “We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behavior significantly”, Kishore warned.
“What’s the first thing we should do? Exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers.”
To put it bluntly, Kishore meant that if one is not seen as a “global statesman” like LKY, don’t behave like one.[PM Lee should have been more circumspect on tribunal judgement over South China Sea dispute]
Kishore continued, “Hence, it would have been wiser to be more circumspect on the judgment of an international tribunal on the arbitration which the Philippines instituted against China concerning the South China Sea dispute, especially since the Philippines, which was involved in the case, did not want to press it.”
Clearly, Kishore is trying to tell PM Lee’s govt to be more pragmatic in handling matters, because PM Lee has always been insisting on “upholding international law” with regard to the international tribunal on the arbitration of the South China Sea dispute.
This was what PM Lee said at last year’s National Day Rally:
“Upholding international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes, is a vital interest for a small country like Singapore… However, in reality, big powers do not always act like that. Big powers can insist on their own interests and often do. They do not submit to adjudication by international tribunals, they may not comply with their rulings and China is not the only country to do this and nor is this the first time something like this has happened.”
“Nevertheless, Singapore must support and strive for a rules-based international order. We have to depend on words and treaties. They mean everything to us. We cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. If rules do not matter, then small countries like Singapore have no chance of survival,” he added.
Unfortunately, PM Lee’s words further angered China resulting in a series of actions by China threatening Singapore.
On social media, most Singaporeans blame PM Lee for being a “kay poh” and unnecessarily antagonizing China. They don’t really give a hoot about the South China Sea dispute as they understand Singapore has no claims over any of the islands. It’s essentially other people’s business, not ours.[Be pragmatic]
Kishore’s writings echoed the feelings of many Singaporeans.
Kishore continued in his writings, “When I hear some of our official representatives say that we should take a ‘consistent and principled’ stand on geopolitical issues, I am tempted to remind them that consistency and principle are important, but cannot be the only traits that define our diplomacy. And there is a season for everything. The best time to speak up for our principles is not necessarily in the heat of a row between bigger powers.”
He was referring to the row between China and US, especially over the South China Sea dispute. US doesn’t want to see China grow its presence in South China Seas.
“Being ethical and principled are important in diplomacy. We should be viewed as credible and trustworthy negotiators. But it is an undeniable ‘hard truth’ of geopolitics that sometimes, principle and ethics must take a back seat to the pragmatic path of prudence,” Kishore further explained.
“In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal’s home territory. Let us, therefore, use the Qatar episode to ask ourselves whether we have been Machiavellian enough in recent years.”
One thing is certain. From Kishore’s writings, it is quite obvious that he doesn’t think PM Lee is a “global statesman”, like his father LKY was.