Navigating a changing world: Perspectives of a small state

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:


I must thank Professor Ezra Vogel for inviting me here. I visited the Harvard campus way back in 1967 when I was a young government official studying at the Center for Development Economics in Williams College. I was overawed by the hallowed grounds and dreamt of going back to do my Ph.D. I never dreamt that 45 years later, I would return to give a public lecture in this august institution.

Professor Vogel is one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars on Asia. His Japan as Number One, a slim book, was required reading for Singapore Ministers and senior civil servants in the Eighties. We were then learning from Japan on how to increase productivity through QCCs (Quality Control Circles), zero defects, and harmonious labour relations. His latest book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, is an intimidating scholarly tome of 876 pages. Fortunately, it is not required reading.

Today, I am delighted to have this opportunity to share my thoughts with so many bright minds, young and old, and to hear your views in exchange.

In the 14 years that I was Prime Minister (1990 – 2004), my singular mission was to “Keep Singapore Going”. I had to safeguard Singapore’s independence, secure its future, grow the economy, improve the economic livelihood of Singaporeans, preserve social harmony and expand Singapore’s international space.

The challenges faced by Singapore are existential. Small states perform no irreplaceable functions in the international system. They have to navigate a constantly changing environment, amidst larger neighbours and global powers. These changes and the global environment are not always benign. They include not just geopolitical shifts, but also economic competition and the impact of technological advancements. One wrong turn, and the consequences may be disastrous.

However, this does not mean that small states are inherently destined to be the vassals or chameleons of the world. That is not how we in Singapore see ourselves. Instead, we take a realistic and strategic view of the world. We make ourselves relevant to others in vital areas, play a positive international role and contribute constructively to global issues as a small but independent state. Today, I would like to share my experiences and perspectives on how Singapore, a small country in both physical size and population, navigates, survives and even thrives in such a challenging world.

Geo-political Realities of a Small State

Singapore is a tiny city state, smaller than New York City’s 300 square miles. On most world maps, the island Singapore is smaller than the scale of the dot depicting its location. Former Indonesian President B. J. Habibie once chastised Singapore as a “little red dot in a sea of green” for not doing more to help Indonesia during the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis. President Habibie’s remark had a galvanising effect on Singaporeans: we are now determined to be the shining little red dot in Southeast Asia!

While we can be self-deprecating about our size, there is no running away from its consequences. The Chinese have a saying – “Big fish eat small fish, small fish eat shrimp”. Issues of sovereignty and security are magnified for countries with limited territory. In defence, they lack the strategic depth of bigger nations. For example, their air defences may have only a few minutes’ warning time to fend off hostile intrusions. Economically, sustaining a population densely packed into a small piece of territory (18,000 per square mile) with no natural resources is like perpetually rolling a huge boulder up a mountain side. You pray that the gods are not punishing you like King Sisyphus who had to repeatedly push a boulder uphill only for it to roll down again.

Students of international relations know that the existing global order is shaped largely by the West. Small states have to accept and live in this international system even though they form the majority in the United Nations. Today, there are 105 members in the Forum of Small States (FOSS), an informal grouping of countries with populations under 10 million. They form more than half of all 193 UN member states. However, the FOSS members are not all cut from the same cloth. Being a small state in Asia is very different from being a small state in Europe, like Finland or Luxembourg, or in the Caribbean, like the Bahamas and Jamaica or in Africa like Botswana and Rwanda or in the Middle East like Bahrain and Qatar. Each small country has its own geopolitical realities to face up to. Challenges, issues and threats will differ from region to region, each requiring a unique set of solutions.

The hard truth for small states is that they do not have any intrinsic relevance to others, or strategic heft. Their ability to shape developments and dynamics around them will always be limited. Their markets are small and so is their international purchasing power. They cannot take their existence for granted nor can they expect the world to owe them a living. They have to take a practical view of the world and understand the strategic options available to them. In economic jargon, they are price-takers, not price-setters. In short, small states have to create, and assiduously maintain, some relevance to the world to survive.

Inherent limitations due to size mean that small states have to be plugged into the global economy or go unnoticed, like an appendix in the human body. In developing our economy, Singapore’s approach is no different from many small states like Denmark and Dubai in the Middle East. We strive to be exceptional, outwardly oriented, competitive and strategically useful, both regionally and globally. Over the years, Singapore has learnt to engage and work with external partners to develop our economy, secure resources and protect our interests. That we have to constantly surf the wave of change is a matter of survival. The same is true of other small states that have opened their doors to the world. It is therefore no coincidence that the top four most competitive countries listed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013 are all small states, namely Switzerland, Singapore, Finland and Sweden.

Ironically, in this respect, small size has its advantages: small states have a greater capacity for nimbleness in policy making. Big countries often have broader and more complex policy challenges. For example, the US Government needs to deal with domestic challenges such as its fiscal cliff while managing international expectations for it to play a leadership role in addressing global challenges. In China, the central leadership needs to deliver economic growth while addressing fundamental internal challenges such as growing income disparity, labour disputes, and rural-urban migration, which could cause social disorder and instability if not handled well. In contrast, small states have a narrower set of challenges that allows them to be more focused and targeted in what they do. This makes it easier to achieve internal coordination and policy coherence. The ability to quickly bend the sails as you cannot bend the winds (African proverb) also gives small states an advantage over bigger states.

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