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“Singapore relies on international law”
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“Singapore relies on international law”

Ashley Tan Yu YiSino-Singapore relations have been strained by tensions over the South China Sea dispute and the seizure of Singapore ships in Hong Kong. Ashley Tan Yu Yi, 16, a Correspondent from Singapore, looks at Singapore’s response to the political tensions.

In the face of convoluted yet delicate quandaries, Singapore has continually maintained its adherence to international law and upholds a foreign policy of non-alignment, strategies that its ministers and lawmakers have reiterated time and time again since the nascent stages of its independence.

In the case of the South China Sea dispute, Singapore urged all parties to respect The Hague Tribunal, which ruled in favour of the Philippines, thereby invalidating China’s territorial claims on the nine-dash line.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs elaborated on the ruling with a statement: “Singapore is not a claimant state and we do not take sides on the competing territorial claims. However, we support the peaceful resolution of disputes among claimants in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including Unclos, without resorting to the threat or use of force. As a small state, we strongly support the maintenance of a rules-based order that upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states.”

To understand the reasons that Singapore continues to adhere to its strict policy of non-alignment, it would be useful to, quite literally, start from the beginning. If one were to look at Singapore’s history, he would find that the small nation-state’s longstanding narrative of vulnerability in a largely anarchic world stems from how it was grudgingly thrust into independence. Before becoming a sovereign state, Singapore had initially merged with its close neighbour Malaya to form Malaysia. However, due to complications arising from clashes between antithetical views of its politicians, Singapore was quite literally “cast out” of Malaysia. In this sense, while other nations were fighting for independence, Singapore was fighting against independence because of its perceived vulnerability as a nation-state with no natural resources and an ethnically diverse population, amongst others.

With this innate siege mentality, it is particularly vital for Singapore to support international rulings to ensure its own survival in the wilderness that is international relations. Without rules-based international order, small states like Singapore would be susceptible to the push and pull of bigger and more powerful countries. Singapore’s then Foreign Minister, Professor S. Jayakumar, expounded on this notion in his 1997 speech, stating that “the dynamics of international relations bear a striking resemblance to the laws of the jungle: not all creatures are created equal and only the fittest survive”. Hence, to date, social Darwinism has become a key concept in Singapore’s foreign policy, especially in a world where countries clamour to exert dominance.

In the words of Dr. Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Singapore has sought to use international law as a sword to advance our aggressive interests and as a shield to protect our defensive interests.” But at the same time, Dr. Koh also acknowledged that “the International Rule of Law is weak and cannot deter an aggressive big power, such as, Russia, from using its superior military force to secure its strategic objectives”.

However, preventing superpowers from assuming ascendancy to promote their own interests is inexorable too. Thus, Singapore, with its inherent vulnerabilities, must continue to safeguard its sovereignty by remaining firm and consistent in its non-alignment stance, even if this may differ from other influential nations. If Singapore relents and succumbs to pressure by taking sides, it will set a precedence for future international conflicts, which is detrimental to its success as a country.

Ultimately, if there is one word to succinctly capture the leitmotif of Singapore’s foreign policy, it would be “pragmatic”. To quote Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “As a small state, Singapore’s foreign policy is a balance between realism and idealism. We know we have to take the world as it is and not as we wish it to be, but we believe that we can and must defend ourselves and advance our interests through cooperation with the international community.”

How Sino-Singapore relations, and to a larger extent, Singapore’s role in the global arena, evolve in the next few years remains to be seen. If there’s anything that history has taught us, it would be that international relations are a nuanced and complex affair, with world leaders bearing the onerous responsibility of handling them, especially in the face of manoeuvering through uncharted waters. After all, diplomacy is an art, of which its shades and strokes will always be difficult to master, no matter the environment.

Reach me on Twitter@sparklypinksnow

Sources

https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2016/201607/press_20160712_2.printable.html?status=1

http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/speeches/view-html?filename=1997073005.htm

http://cil.nus.edu.sg/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Tommy-Koh-Speech-Singapore-and-International-Law-A-50-Year-Review.pdf

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-s-foreign/2298768.html

photo credit: Christian Junker | Photography Airbus | A380-841 | Singapore Airlines | 9V-SKP | Hong Kong | HKG | VHHH via photopin (license)

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About me: A teenager who holds a penchant for cute fluffy unicorns and everything pink, I am a loquacious girl who relishes the power of knowledge. I pride myself on being an epicurean, doing my best to devour every morsel of news possible, ranging from feminist issues to socio-political affairs.

One day, I hope to dominate in a tiara and fairy princess dress to help make the world a better place. Because who ever forbade warriors from dressing in style, too?

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

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