Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability

Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability

N Ganesan

SINGAPORE’S FOREIGN POLICY: Coping with Vulnerability. By Michael Lee; fer. London, New York: Routledge. 2000. 177 pp. US$22.99 (CDN$34.99), paper, ISBN 0-415-23353-4; US$85.00, cloth, ISBN 0-41523352-6.

Singapore’s Foreign Policy, the last major work by Michael Leifer before his sudden death from cancer, serves to confirm the author’s status as an acute and knowledgeable observer of Southeast Asian politics and foreign relations. Leifer’s central argument in the book is that, notwithstanding Singapore’s economic development and wealth and its sophisticated military deterrence capability, the country suffers from an acute anxiety that stems from frailties associated with its immediate regional environment in the Malay archipelago. An existing environmental landscape that disfavours Singapore further complicates the context of foreign policy formulation. It is in this regard that Leifer posits his central hypothesis – that Singapore, despite its achievements into the post-independence period since 1965, has experienced an enduring sense of vulnerability, notwithstanding public articulations of achievement designed for a domestic audience.

The book is divided into five chapters and a short conclusion. The first two chapters provide the requisite historical background, including Singapore’s separation from the Malaysian Federation, the core members of the first generation of political elite, established foreign policy principles, early relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, regional ethno-religious sensitivities, and Singapore’s delicate defence relationship with Israel.

The third chapter further examines Singapore’s bilateral relations with Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Singapore’s membership and leadership of ASEAN, particularly its role in lobbying against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Chapter four fleshes out Singapore’s archrealist position in international relations, the country’s relationship with major powers and its preference for a sustainable regional balance of power that involves close alignment with the United States, the country deemed to have overwhelming power but benign intent. The chapter also explores some of the difficulties deriving from Singapore’s emphasis on Chinese ethnicity and culture and how such articulations have the potential to present foreign policy problems (pp. 118-19). Such difficulties arise from the domestic population’s inability to comprehend why Singapore has such close security ties with the United States. Additionally, such emphasis has the potential to unleash Malay nationalist sentiment, which is often expressed in anti-Chinese terms. Chapter five provides a treatment of Singapore’s regional initiatives within the framework of ASEAN, an update on Singapore’s bilateral relations with Malaysia and Indonesia and identifies the cognitive differences in the relationship between the various actors on similar issues. The conclusion quite simply restates the major argument that the country, despite its achievements, has come full circle, and continues to be concerned about the same issues evident at the time of independence (p. 161). However, I do believe that Singapore’s status as a major trading state has, in more recent times, tempered the competitive philosophical underpinning of realism.

The major strengths of this book are Leifer’s uncanny ability to decipher with great accuracy the motivations of Singapore’s policy formulators and deliver them to an audience in his trademark elegance. If there are any lessons the Singapore elite needs to learn, it would be to play down the sense of triumph that engenders and entrenches hostility with the country’s immediate neighbours. Singapore’s locale and miniscule size, even if significantly overcome, “…are facts of geopolitical life which cannot be wished away” (p. 139). Leifer’s other observation worthy of note is that the Singapore situation is unique and provides little by way of demonstration on how small countries in difficult situations can articulate a successful foreign policy. Additionally, he remains alert to the fact that despite his scholarly intentions, the book may appear to be a celebration of Singapore’s foreign policy successes. This book would make interesting reading for all who hope to understand the reasons underlying Singapore’s foreign policy positions and the reciprocal responses of its immediate neighbours.


National University of Singapore, Singapore

Copyright University of British Columbia Winter 2001/2002

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