Shanmugam: We didn’t get where we are by ‘thinking small’
Shanmugam takes issue with Prof Mahbubani's assertion that S'pore must behave like a small state
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday that he found a commentary by Professor Kishore Mahbubani on foreign policy "questionable intellectually" for saying that small states must always behave like small states.
The piece, "Qatar: Big lessons from a small country", also drew criticism from veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, who described the view as "muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous".
Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong further warned that it is against Singapore's well-being if international relations are based purely on size.
All three men had taken issue with what Prof Mahbubani said was an eternal rule of geopolitics: "Small states must behave like small states".
But the professor, who is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), had a supporter in Dr Yap Kwong Weng, regional adviser on Indochina at the school.
Dr Yap said his colleague was merely saying that "prudence is required of small states when it comes to geopolitical calculations", adding that there was nothing dangerous with this line of thinking.
In his commentary published in The Straits Times on Saturday, Prof Mahbubani had mined the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its Arab neighbours, including the much bigger Saudi Arabia, for lessons for Singapore.
He said Qatar had mistakenly believed that it could interfere in affairs beyond its borders because of its wealth, and drew comparisons between this and Singapore's stance on the South China Sea maritime dispute.
He added that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who commented "openly and liberally on great powers", was an exception.
"Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly," he said.
On his Facebook page, Mr Shanmugam - who was formerly the foreign affairs minister - said Prof Mahbubani's assertion is contrary to some basic principles of the late founding prime minister that made Singapore successful.
"Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small. Did we get to where we are now, by thinking 'small'? No," he wrote.
"That is why Singapore was and is respected, despite being one of the smallest countries in the world. And Singaporeans are proud to be Singaporeans."
Mr Bilahari also took issue with the suggestion that Singapore should behave differently now, saying it is "wrong" and "offensive" not only to Mr Lee's successors but to all Singaporeans.
He said Mr Lee and Singapore's pioneer leaders were not reckless but did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles.
Giving examples of how Singapore diplomats held their ground when faced with larger powers, he said "Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle".
Describing Mr Bilahari's reply as "exaggerated and unnecessary", Dr Yap said the diplomat had misconstrued Prof Mahbubani's words.
He added that the professor had not said Singapore should lie low and favour larger countries but "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".
Meanwhile, Mr Ong said Prof Mahbubani's underlying concern seemed to be that Singapore was not exercising enough "savviness" in dealing with the South China Sea issues.
He questioned if that was truly the case, saying: "I personally thought that the thinking South-east Asians respect Singapore's strategic positioning and diplomatic efforts."
Mr Shanmugam drew on his experiences as foreign minister from 2011 to 2015 to illustrate his point.
He said he never forgot that Singapore was a small country, with limits to what it could do.
"But equally I also knew, that once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied.
"And I never allowed myself to be bullied when I represented Singapore," he added. - ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEW HUI MIN
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