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JC H1 History Tuition - Singapore's Foreign Policy - JC History Essay Notes - Cold War in Asia

What is Singapore’s Foreign Policy?

Topic of Study [For H1 History Students]: 
Section B: Essay Writing
Theme II: Cold War in Asia [1945-1991] – Singapore’s Foreign Policy during the Cold War

Examine Singapore’s Foreign Policy towards Malaysia in view of the Merger-Separation issue. [Video by Channel NewsAsia]

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

— Lord Palmerston, House of Commons, 1 March 1848

What is a ‘foreign policy’?
It refers to a set of strategies employed by the state to protect its domestic and international interests. A ‘foreign policy’ affects the state’s interactions with other states. Ultimately, the policy is implemented to safeguard national interests.

Foreign policies can involve the use of aggressive (military force) or non-coercive means (diplomacy). Also, these policies can also be carried out through engagement with other states in addressing a common challenge, such as regional security threats.

Singapore’s foreign policy: A summary
There are two key foreign policy theories that are covered the A Level H1 History syllabus: Survival and Realism.

1. Survival
One key ideology that shaped Singapore’s foreign policy is the concept of survival. Following the sudden Separation that led to Singapore’s independence in 1965, the government had to deal with political threats and economic challenges.

Amidst the Cold War context, the rise of Communist insurgencies was a common concern that affected the political stability of Southeast Asian nations. In Singapore, the government was challenged by the Barisan Sosialis.

As for the economic viewpoint, the People’s Action Party (PAP) took the first step towards modernisation by embarking on state-led industrialisation. In particular, the government aimed to establish strong trade ties with other countries, including Great Powers like the USA.

The historical roots of Singapore’s political ideology of survival lie in the events following the country’s ejection from Malaysia in 1965. Survival in both political and economic terms for newly independent Singapore was a very real issue for the PAP Government. The government in the period 1965-67 was involved in an intense, often violent struggle, for power against the Barisan Sosialis and the communists.

…In terms of economic policy, the survival ideology is linked with the concept of the “global city” first proposed in 1972 by Singapore Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam. This concept suggests that if Singapore is to survive, it must establish a relationship of interdependence in the rapidly expanding global economic system.

An excerpt from “SINGAPORE: Reconciling the Survival Ideology with the Achievement Concept” by Lee Boon-Hiok [from the Southeast Asian Affairs 1978]

2. Realism
Realism describes the notion that states should act according to their best interest. From a realist’s perspective, the world is in a constant state of anarchy. Individuals are inherently egoistic and will do anything to pursue power. As such, states should protect their interests through means like the development of an independent defence force as well as the conduct of diplomacy.

Singapore’s interpretation of such a concept and practice was spelled out by Lee Hsien Loong in the same speech as follows:

This policy depends on the competing interests of several big powers in a region, rather than on linking the nation’s fortunes to one overbearing partner. The big powers can keep one another in check and will prevent any one of them from dominating the entire region, and so allow small states to survive in the interstices between them. It is not a foolproof method, as the equilibrium is a dynamic and possibly unstable one, and may be upset if one power changes course and withdraws. Nor can a small state manipulate the big powers with impunity. The most it can hope to do is to influence their policies in its favour.

An excerpt from “Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability” by Michael Leifer

More importantly, Singapore did not rely solely on the goodwill of external powers to manage security challenges. Its emphasis on regionalism and multilateralism was also another vital channel, seen in terms of Singapore’s diplomatic role in ASEAN and the United Nations.

Through Singapore’s consistent lobbying efforts at the United Nations General Assembly, the government was successful in publicise the Cambodian conflict at the international level.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs distinguished itself as a diplomatic dynamo during the course of the Cambodian conflict. The advocacy, lobbying and drafting skills of its officials were employed to great effect within the United Nations against Vietnam and its client government in Phnom Penh. For example, the declaration of the International Conference on Kampuchea held at the UN in 1981 was drafted by Singapore’s delegation. Singapore’s diplomatic success was accomplished through playing on the political sensibilities of states that had been alarmed by the example of a government despatching its army across an internationally recognised boundary to remove an incumbent administration recognised at the United Nations and replacing it with another of its own manufacture.

An excerpt from “Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability” by Michael Leifer

What can we learn from this article?
Consider the following question:
– Assess the view that Singapore’s foreign policy was largely shaped by Realism.

Join our JC History Tuition and learn more about Singapore’s foreign policy in response to the Second and Third Indochina Wars. We cover other topics for H1 and H2 History through online discussions and written practices. Also, students will receive summary notes to consolidate their content knowledge.

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JC History Tuition Bishan Singapore - How was Singapore's Foreign Policy during the Cold War - JC History Essay Notes

How was Singapore’s Foreign Policy during the Cold War?

Topic of Study [For H1 History Students]: 
Section B: Essay Writing
Theme II: Cold War in Asia [1945-1991] – Singapore’s Foreign Policy during the Cold War (1945-1991)

Learn more about Singapore’s Foreign Policy to understand how various challenges are addressed at the international level.

Foreign Policy and Singapore
By definition, ‘foreign policy’ is known as a government’s approach in dealing with other countries. Foreign policies are implemented by governments in response to various challenges at the bilateral or international level. In 2017, there was a controversial debate over how Singapore, as a small state, should conduct its foreign policy.

In this article, we will be examining how Singapore’s foreign policy was influenced by two major considerations: Survival and Realism

1. Perceived vulnerability: The concept of Survival
From the outset, when Singapore achieved independence in 1965, its political leaders held a firm belief that ‘survival’ was of paramount importance to the development of this new nation.

Given the lack of natural resources and its small geographical size, Singapore had to promote economic cooperation with other countries, including its neighbours, to advance its economy. The government capitalised on the strategic location of Singapore to facilitate international trade. Additionally, the heavy emphasis on state-guided industrialisation contributed to the entry of multi-national corporations (MNCs) that aided in job creation for the locals. Therefore, economic progress became one of the fundamental aims to ensure the survival of the Republic.

From the security viewpoint, there were external threats that endangered Singapore’s survival. As such, Singapore forged firm diplomatic ties with its neighbouring countries as well as Great Powers.

On 8 August 1967, Singapore was one of the founding members that signed the Bangkok Declaration, which formalised the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With this regional organisation, inter-state cooperation was encouraged, thereby strengthening diplomatic ties between Singapore and other member nations. Given that there were inter-state tensions in the region, such as the Konfrontasi, that strained political ties, the ASEAN Way was a critical mechanism to alleviate tensions and maintain amicable relations.

More importantly, the Cold War had spread to Southeast Asia by the 1960s, as seen by the outbreak of the Second and Third Indochina Wars. In anticipation of these ideological challenges, Singapore established diplomatic ties with Great Powers, such as USA, to prevent communist expansion that might create political instability.

However, Singapore did not publicly declare its diplomatic position towards USA due to contrasting perceptions held by other ASEAN members relating to the reliance of Great Power support until the late 1980s.

2. The concept of Realism
The second principle that shaped Singapore’s foreign policy involved ‘Realism’, which explains that states are driven by their pursuit of national interests. The assumption is based on the notion that the international order is chaotic and conflicts are highly likely. In this case, survival is one of the many national interests pursued by Singapore.

In addition, the preservation of Singapore’s sovereignty was prioritised throughout the Cold War. One notable event was the Third Indochina War, in which the foreign occupation of Cambodia was perceived by Singapore as an outright violation of the international law. As such, its foreign policy led to the frequent lobbying at the United Nations to galvanise member nations into action, particularly the International Conference on Kampuchea (ICK) of July 1981.

What’s Next?
In the next article, we will analyse Singapore’s foreign policy responses to the Second and Third Indochina Wars to understand its effectiveness.

What can we learn from this article?
Consider the following question:
– How far do you agree that Singapore’s foreign policy during the Cold War was largely shaped by realism? [to be discussed in class]

Now that you have covered the contributing factors that influenced the foreign policy of Singapore during the Cold War, it is imperative that you attempt H1 History essay questions to assess your knowledge application skills. On a separate but related note, you can consider registering for our JC History Tuition. You will receive organised summary notes, undergo enriching skills-based writing workshops and engage in thought-provoking topical discussions.

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