Navigating a changing world: Perspectives of a small state (PART 3)

Professor Ezra F. Vogel and Singapore's Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

By Goh Chok Tong

ESM Goh Chok Tong was invited to Harvard University Asia Centre in October as an Ezra F. Vogel Distinguished Visitor. Prof. Vogel is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard.

While at Harvard in Oct. 2012, ESM Goh gave a public speech on the role of small states in the global arena. His full speech is as follows:




Managing Changes for Small States


How do small states continue to prosper in this fluid international environment?  Given our size, it is imperative that we continuously enlarge our diplomatic, economic and strategic space.  And one way Singapore has done so is by building strong relationships.  As a small state, friends, partners and networks are invaluable assets.  Singapore has therefore actively participated in multilateral forums and organisations such as the UN, ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), WTO (World Trade Organisation), and IMO (International Maritime Organisation).


Over the years, we have undertaken diplomatic initiatives and created new multilateral forums to address international challenges or to build bridges between peoples and regions.  We play an active part in APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.  We started the Forum of Small States (FOSS) back in 1992 and continue to steer this group today; in fact, FOSS just commemorated its 20th birthday two weeks ago with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in attendance.  We helped establish the Global Governance Group, or 3G, in 2010 to provide small and medium-sized countries with a platform to engage the G20. Singapore was also instrumental in forming the Asia-Europe Meeting (in 1996) and the Asia-Middle East Dialogue (in 2005) to strengthen links between these key regions.  Such initiatives not only allow us to make friends, but to also meaningfully contribute our perspectives to the discourse on global issues.


But good relationships alone are not enough.  Singapore must also have big ideas that benefit others.  We must maintain the capacity to seed sound ideas, to mobilise partners and work together with others to realise them.


Our role in ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) is an example of this.  ASEAN is especially important for Singapore because it acts as an influence multiplier and serves as a platform for us to engage major powers such as the US, China, India and Japan.


ASEAN was formed in 1967 to address the threat of communism in the region, and to foster trust and understanding between member countries.  Singapore played a key role in the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum or ARF in 1994 to provide a forum to enhance confidence-building and to discuss political and security issues.  Maintaining regional stability remains ASEAN’s core objectives today but the challenges now are different.  Globalisation redefined the concept of security from a narrow military sense, to encompass other non-traditional aspects, ranging from transnational crime and terrorism to financial, economic, energy, infectious diseases and food-related issues.  ASEAN, therefore, has to adapt to deal with these new issues.


But this is no easy task given that ASEAN member states are at very different stages of development.  To narrow this development gap, Singapore proposed the Initiative for ASEAN Integration or IAI in 2000.  The IAI provides a framework for the more developed ASEAN member states to help newer ASEAN member states such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar better integrate into ASEAN through technical assistance.  This is a necessary step towards the establishment of an ASEAN Community.


Singapore is too small to shape the dynamics between large powers on our own.  However, we played an active role in the establishment of the East Asia Summit, or EAS, in 2005 which brought key regional players such as India, Australia New Zealand.  Later, EAS was expanded to include the US and Russia.


As a small country, we also need a stable and rules-based international environment to survive.  Principles such as the non-use of force, peaceful settlement of dispute and non-interference in a country’s internal affairs as set out by the UN Charter, provide the framework for small states to co-exist and have a voice alongside larger countries.  It was on the basis of such principles that Singapore participated in the coalition against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait during the first Gulf War.  These principles also motivated our stance against Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978.


Creating Economic Space


With no natural resources and a small population, the enlargement of our economic space has been one of Singapore’s most important strategies for survival.  It is in our interests to have an open rules-based multilateral trading system, to strengthen the WTO and the multilateral trading system and to resist protectionism.  Trade liberalisation, however, has been slow.  With 155 members and working on a consensus-based approach, the current impasse in the Doha Round reflects the challenges confronting the WTO model of corporate globalisation.  Sheila Page of London-based think-tank Overseas Development Institute once described the experience of following the Doha Round as “watching paint that never dries”.


So while we continue to support the conclusion of the Doha Round, we have concurrently pursued a policy of bilateral FTAs as an insurance policy, as well as a building block for the multilateral trading system.  We did so to avoid being excluded by large trading blocs and economies.  In fact, we were the first Southeast Asian country to propose FTAs with key partners such as Japan and the US.  Today, Singapore has signed 11 bilateral FTAs, many with the world’s major economies, as well as 9 other multilateral FTAs.


Embarking on these FTAs required more than technical expertise and negotiating skills.  Among leaders, personal chemistry and trust in each other’s judgment are important.  You may find it incredulous, but the US-Singapore FTA (USSFTA) was, in fact, conceived after midnight between President Clinton and I in Brunei in 2000 where we were attending the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting.  So eager were we – for a round of golf that is – that we headed straight to the golf course after the official banquet for APEC leaders, a raging tropical thunderstorm notwithstanding.  Auspiciously, the thunderstorm stopped by the time we arrived at the golf course.  I was able to persuade President Clinton that the USSFTA was worth doing, not because he played good golf and beat me, but because I convinced him of its strategic significance.  Beyond enhancing US-Singapore economic relations, it would also signal and entrench the US’ long term engagement with South-East Asia.  Looking back, it was the right decision Trade has become a strategic asset and the US’ engagement of our region today would be incomplete without this economic link.


Again, it was trust and judgment which helped me persuade Japanese leaders to do an FTA with Singapore.  From the start, Gaimusho, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, was not supportive of a FTA with Singapore.  There were the usual domestic political objections.  But there was also an ideological objection.  Gaimusho rightly feared that pursuing the FTA route might signal Japan’s abandonment of the multilateral trading system which it depended on for its exports.  A breakthrough only occurred following my meeting with then Minister for Finance, Kiichi Miyazawa, whom I had known earlier when he was Prime Minister.


I convinced him that the Doha Round was unlikely to be completed anytime soon and that Japan must view bilateral FTAs strategically, so as to advance its trading interests.  As for domestic objections by the farmers, I told him that as Singapore did not have a significant agricultural sector, there should not be much domestic opposition to an FTA with Singapore.  Besides, Japan might want to use Singapore to familiarise itself in negotiating FTAs with others later.  He agreed with my points but I told him that his Foreign Minister was not supportive.  I added that his Foreign Minister was having a parallel meeting with my Foreign Minister at that moment.  He picked up the phone there and then to instruct his Foreign Minister to drop his objection.  Again on looking back, that was the right decision for Japan.  Japan now has FTAs with 13 countries, and is in negotiations with another 4, while the Doha Round remains mired politically.


While some countries criticised us then for going against prevailing conventional thinking, many countries have since caught on to FTAs.  Chile, Brunei, New Zealand and Singapore came together to start the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which we envisage as the seed catalyst for a more comprehensive pan-Pacific multilateral agreement.  Since then, larger countries such as the US and Australia have also seen the value of TPP and joined our negotiations.


The Need for a Domestic Consensus


Singapore’s experience has shown that while small states may not have inherent strategic heft or economic viability, they can overcome the odds and play a meaningful role in the international arena.  But this is contingent on us being a successful country.  Our economy must be vibrant, our national institutions effective and forward-looking, and our society progressive and prosperous.  Our governance must be outstanding and there must be a national consensus on where the country is heading and how problems are to be solved.  Unless we are respected as a successful country, we cannot expect to exercise any international influence.  Why should others listen to us or deal with us if our house is in disarray and we cannot even solve our own problems?


Singapore has been able to navigate changes in our international environment because we have had far-sighted, competent and decisive leaders at the helm of the ship since independence.  But just as the world is changing, so is Singapore.  We have succeeded in building a prosperous society.  But Singaporeans now have even higher expectations and aspirations of a comfortable life.  With globalisation, income inequality has widened.  Urbanisation, more widespread tertiary education, gender equality in the workforce, and lifestyle changes, have lowered our Total Fertility Rate to 1.2, just enough to replace one parent.  We have therefore turned to immigration to top up the population and to ensure that our economy can continue growing.


But this has led to other domestic problems such as overcrowding, infrastructure deficiencies and some push back against foreigners.  The political climate is more open and competitive.  Singaporeans are now better-educated than their parents, well-travelled and internet savvy.  Singaporeans now want to have a greater say in their future and to have their diverse interests taken care of.  They are also more vocal in expressing their opinions, especially via social media.  But the Internet and social media have also given rise to a cacophony of voices on any issue – with far more noise than music generated.  It is harder to forge consensus on key issues in this environment.  But this is not just the reality for Singapore.  Citizens all over the world are asking more of their governments, who are expected to respond in an effective and just way.


But some facts for Singapore remain immutable.  However successful Singapore has been in navigating a changing world, there is no guarantee that it can continue to do so successfully in future.  Neither has the present high standard of living and prosperity removed its basic vulnerabilities and constraints as a small city state.  These are perpetual.  Even though we are more successful now than at our independence in 1965, Singapore has to continue to strive to stay ahead of the curve, adjust our policies in a rational and pragmatic manner and stay united as a people.  We must see the world as it is – an ocean of big fish, small fish and shrimps – and not what we wish it to be.  And therein lies the challenging task of having to forge a consensus with greater political diversity and citizen involvement, while retaining our agility to respond decisively and quickly to challenges and opportunities.




In conclusion, the perennial challenge for small states like Singapore is to preserve its independence and remain relevant and competitive in the midst of the global and domestic challenges.  The global geo-political system is undergoing profound change.  We will have a long, bumpy journey with recurring political, economic and financial crises, and even regional conflicts, along the way.


And with our own changing domestic landscape, Singapore will have its work cut out.  Navigating the choppy seas of the changing world order will require Singapore to remain exceptional by remaining cohesive as a nation with first rate leaders at its helm.


Thank you.




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