Pursuing good relations with all who seek to work with us on the basis of mutual interest, our leaders and diplomatic corps have been tireless in making space for Singapore to be acknowledged on the world stage.

Few in the world knew about our sudden independence on 9 August 1965. A critical priority in the earlier years was to gain recognition for Singapore’s sovereign status from as many countries as possible. Immediately after Singapore’s admission to the United Nations (UN) on 21 September 1965, a small delegation of officials, including then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye and then Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam, spent months travelling to Africa, Europe and Asia to make known that this tiny island city-state in Southeast Asia was now an independent and sovereign nation. 1 To survive in a region then “marked by mutual jealousy, internal violence, economic disintegration and great power conflicts”, 2 we had to make as many friends as we could, as quickly as possible.

Years of official and personal diplomacy would follow, as our leaders travelled tirelessly abroad, building relationships with influential figures in government, business and other sectors who could help our fledgling nation find its place in the world and thrive. It is a testament to the persuasiveness and verve of our pioneering leaders, including our first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, that Singapore managed to attract the friendship and early support of leading figures in world affairs at the time, such as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and former United States (US) Secretaries of State Dr Henry Kissinger and Dr George Shultz. 3

Over the past 50 years, we have worked hard to expand the international space in which we can manoeuvre. As a small country, Singapore lacks strategic weight; in the world of international politics, we are price-takers, not price-setters, and we are vulnerable to international trends that we cannot avoid.


Singapore cannot afford to be ideologically rigid. In the 1960s, the prevailing conventional wisdom regarded multinational corporations (MNCs) as exploiters of cheap labour and raw materials, to be shunned by sovereign nations, especially those that had once experienced the yoke of colonialism. However, given the fragile state of Singapore’s economy immediately after Independence, we sought instead to attract and welcome MNCs to invest in Singapore, boost the economy and create jobs. 4 Our local firms were also strongly encouraged to venture abroad to grow. 5 To facilitate these efforts, we negotiated free trade agreements with other countries and regional groupings, 6 put in place attractive tax and fiscal incentives, 7 and cultivated a secure, transparent and business-friendly environment.


In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on the pretext of stopping the oppression of the Cambodian people by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. 8 The Vietnamese invasion overthrew the Pol Pot regime and installed a puppet government under Heng Samrin.

This presented a moral dilemma for Singapore. While the Pol Pot regime had gained global notoriety for its brutality, we held the view that it was the responsibility of the people of any country to determine who should govern them, and how they wanted to be governed, and no other foreign state ought to determine this. 9 If a country could justify invading another based on the latter’s internal developments, Singapore’s own security and sovereignty could one day be at risk. 10 Hence, while we refused to defend the Pol Pot regime, Singapore strongly contested Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia and did not recognise the puppet regime set up by the Vietnamese. 11 At the UN General Assembly, we galvanised support for the Khmer Rouge to be regarded as the rightful occupant of Cambodia’s seat at the UN, pending a resolution to the conflict. 12 Eventually, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia after the Cold War and the issue was resolved through the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991. 13


Our foreign policy and diplomatic efforts to carve out political and economic space for Singapore has been guided by several important principles: respect for national sovereignty, insistence on the rule of law, and relevance to the international community.


Respect for sovereignty is particularly important to small states. Without safeguards to protect and guarantee territorial integrity and national security, small countries such as Singapore would have no place in a world of larger and more powerful nations. Over the years, we have adhered to this principle in all our foreign affairs, including in our response to international developments. For instance, Singapore took a strong stance against Vietnam when they invaded Cambodia in December 1978, and again in March 2014 against Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Speaking to Parliament on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam stated that it had always been Singapore’s policy to “strongly object to any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext or excuse”. 14 He also pointed out that the Crimean incident illustrates how size continues to matter in international relations, and that the disparity between big and small countries is a fact of life. A small country which cannot protect itself puts its sovereignty and its people at risk. 15

We cannot take our sovereignty for granted; it must be actively defended. Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan has argued:

[W]e must never ever let challenges to our sovereignty pass, no matter where the challenges come from. We are nobody’s client state and from time to time we have had to prove it even to very friendly, powerful and important countries like the US or China. 16

Incidents such as the caning of American vandal Michael Fay in 1994, and the visit by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Taiwan in 2004, have tested our national resolve despite great pressure from countries many times bigger and more powerful than us, 17 but we have always stood by our sovereignty and national interest.


From 10 to 12 July 2004, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan on a private and unofficial trip, a month before he was to take over as Singapore’s Prime Minister.

Despite being informed of the trip in advance as a courtesy, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government protested with a strong statement on 11 July 2004, warning that “whatever pretext the Singaporean leader uses for his visit to Taiwan, the visit will damage China’s core interest and the political foundation for China-Singapore relations and hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people”, 18 and that “the Singaporean side has to take all responsibilities for the consequences arising thereof”. 19 They also cancelled all high level exchanges with Singapore.

Bilateral relations remained frosty for months, until Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with then PRC President Hu Jintao at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Chile on 19 November 2004.


In 1993, 18-year-old American Michael Fay was arrested for vandalism and related offences in Singapore and sentenced to four months’ jail, a fine of $3,500 and six strokes of the cane.

Through the United States (US) media, Fay’s parents rallied public opinion against the sentence, on the grounds that caning was too harsh a punishment. Bill Clinton, the US President at the time, wrote a letter to Singapore’s President, supporting Fay’s appeal for clemency. The US government also threatened to disrupt Singapore’s bid to host the inaugural World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in December 1996. Backlash from the incident also delayed negotiations of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. 20

Despite the political and economic cost of standing up to the US, Singapore could not accede to demands to repeal the caning sentence. To allow a foreign country to dictate how we deal with a matter of domestic law and order would have compromised the rule of law in Singapore and degraded our credibility both at home and abroad. However, as a gesture of goodwill to the US following Clinton’s appeal, the number of lashes Fay received was reduced from six to four.

By demonstrating that we were prepared to uphold our principles even if there was a cost, Singapore earned broad international respect – including from the US. After his Presidency, Clinton remarked to his hosts during a visit to Singapore that “you should have caned him more” and that Fay’s father should also have caned him earlier. 21

Rule of Law

Small states benefit from a world order in which interactions among states are based on international law, and not on relative power or size. In principle, the rule of law levels the playing field and holds all states accountable to the same rules despite their differences in size. 22

Singapore upholds the rule of law in international relations and encourages all countries to abide by the UN Charter and the international agreements to which they are party. It is only when bigger countries in the world play by the rules that small countries like Singapore have a better chance of protecting their sovereignty and national interests.

For this reason, Singapore holds the view that international disputes ought to be settled either through bilateral negotiations or through established third-party mechanisms such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Hence, Singapore and Malaysia referred their territorial dispute over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and the South Ledge to the ICJ in July 2003, where it was resolved by 2008.

In the same vein, Singapore has consistently advocated that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully and in accordance to international law. While Singapore has no claims and takes no sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, we want to see a peaceful resolution that upholds international treaties, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As a major trading nation that relies heavily on sea routes, it is important to Singapore that the region enjoys freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as a minimum of conflict or tensions that might disrupt key trade routes. Our position is that a Code of Conduct should be formalised in the South China Sea. While this may not resolve competing claims, it can help govern behaviour, build trust and confidence, offer ways to reduce tensions, and minimise the risk of inadvertent conflict.


In December 1979, Malaysia published a map which, for the first time, included Pedra Branca as part of Malaysia’s territory. 23 Singapore formally protested to Malaysia in February 1980, 24 leading to many rounds of negotiations between the two countries to try and resolve the dispute, but to no avail.

For years, the dispute continued to be an irritant in bilateral relations. In the mid-1980s, the Royal Malaysian Marine Police boats began to make regular intrusions into Pedra Branca waters. While the Singapore Navy had been given strict instructions to avoid escalating tensions, there was always a danger that an accident or miscalculation could happen at sea. After several protests to the Malaysian government, such intrusions eventually stopped. However, several Malaysian political parties started using the Pedra Branca issue to urge their government to defend Malaysia’s interests, 25 souring the tenor of bilateral relations. It was in the interest of both countries to resolve this dispute once and for all.

As early as 1989, Singapore began proposing to Malaysia that the dispute be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In September 1994, Malaysia finally agreed to Singapore’s proposal. 26 On 23 May 2008, the ICJ ruled that sovereignty over Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore, Middle Rocks to Malaysia, and South Ledge “to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located”. 27 The ICJ’s decision effectively put an end to a bilateral dispute between Singapore and Malaysia which had spanned three decades. 28 The result vindicated our principled approach based on the rule of law. 29


For a small country like Singapore to keep a place in the world, we need to stay relevant and be useful to the international community. Yet in a constantly changing world, relevance is transient. 30 Singapore’s relevance to the world cannot be taken for granted: it needs to be continually generated, maintained and updated.
One way in which we have sought to do so is to enmesh ourselves in regional structures: for instance, by becoming part of a larger Southeast Asian community. Hence, we have nurtured and strengthened the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 31 which Singapore co-founded in 1967 – just two years after our independence. ASEAN has helped Singapore and other countries in the region to maintain cordial relations among its member states, and to collectively expand our economic and political space. It has allowed Singapore to have a bigger voice in regional and international affairs relative to our size and strategic weight. 32

ASEAN’s credibility and coherence has grown over time, attracting more interest from other countries around the world. 33 To date, ASEAN has established Dialogue Partnerships with 10 parties, including Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia, and the US. In addition, there are also ASEAN-led platforms including ASEAN+3, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting.

Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee has written that “the power and possession of ideas and big ideas in international diplomacy can help us secure a voice in the world”, 34 and that Singapore’s vision, successfully implemented, has earned us a place on the regional and global stage: “Ideas successfully implemented provide a tangible track record. This is translated into credibility, a valuable currency for any country”. 35 We have earned this credibility by proposing and promoting new multilateral dialogues and forums that link different geographical regions, such as the Asia-Europe Meeting, the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation and the Asia-Middle East Dialogue. Through the successful implementation of these platforms, we have highlighted the role Singapore can play as an interlocutor and bridge-builder between regions. Such initiatives have earned Singapore diplomatic space, credibility and relevance. 36


Singapore was widely regarded as having brokered the historic “Wang-Koo talks” – one of the most important milestones in cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan since 1949. 37 The meeting, which took place in Singapore in April 1993, saw Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) 38 Chairman Wang Daohan and the Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) 39 Chairman Koo Chen-fu sign four agreements to promote trade and people-to-people exchanges. The “Wang- Koo” meeting was a follow up to the “1992 Consensus” that allowed both sides their own interpretation of the concept of “One China”.


The UN has always been a forum of crucial importance to Singapore, and our diplomats have sought to play an active and useful role there. We lobbied hard for a place as a non permanent member on the UN Security Council (UNSC) – perhaps the UN’s most important organ. It was important for Singapore to have an intimate understanding of the UNSC, the only body in the UN system that can authorise enforcement action. Singapore “had to be able to influence the UNSC process to our advantage, use it to obtain support and endorsement of the international community for our position, or at least neutralise it to buy us time”. 40 We were eventually elected by an overwhelming majority to the UNSC in 2000. 41 Singapore’s two-year tenure in the UNSC was to demonstrate that despite our small size, we were able to exercise leadership in a key international organisation.


During Singapore’s two-year tenure in the UN Security Council (UNSC), our delegates took their responsibilities seriously. They prepared for each meeting diligently, no matter how small the issue. They also chose to intervene carefully, based on whether Singapore had strong interests or whether we could make a difference to the matter at hand. 42

Nor were we only a passive partner on the council. Singapore was able to successfully lobby for the extension of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, allowing more time for the political situation in East Timor to stabilise, despite strong resistance from one of the five Permanent Member states of the UNSC. This earned us significant international regard. 43

Trade links countries together in a web of mutual interdependence, and creates stability in the international order. Within our own region, we have supported greater regional economic integration by promoting the ASEAN Economic Community, which will facilitate freer flow of capital and labour in the region when it is launched at the end of 2015, leading to lower costs and easier excess to markets. Internationally, Singapore is one of the strongest supporters of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and one of the most active proponents of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Among these, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is set to be among the most comprehensive and robust regional FTAs ever conceived. Since 2009, TPP has expanded to 12 negotiating partners, accounting for 40% of the global economy and one-third of world trade.


Part of the mission of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is to safeguard the welfare of Singaporeans abroad, especially during times of crisis. There have been a number of incidents in the past 50 years where MFA has had to help our people return home from troubles abroad. When riots broke out in Indonesia in May 1998, MFA worked with Singapore Airlines to help more than 5,000 people leave the country. 44

During Japan’s disastrous 2011 earthquake – which led to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown – MFA despatched its own officers to various locations across Japan to help more than 1,500 Singaporeans return home safely.


While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is primarily responsible for upholding and pursuing the fundamentals of Singapore’s foreign policy, it has not been alone in carrying out its mission. As the world becomes more globalised, and the line between foreign and domestic policies becomes increasingly blurred, many important issues have had to be tackled with a more comprehensive, whole-of-government approach. Singapore, as former Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar has pointed out, is “simply too small to afford the inter-agency rivalry which afflicts some other countries. All our agencies need to work effectively as a seamless whole. It is only then that we can effectively advance our interests as a small nation on the large international stage”. 45

Singapore is heavily reliant on international trade and foreign investments for our economic survival, and our foreign policy is conducted off the bedrock of our continuing economic success. Over the years, MFA has worked closely with Singapore economic agencies such as the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the Economic Development Board, and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore. They work in concert to defend and advance Singapore’s interests in the global economy such as during bilateral trade negotiations, or at platforms such as the WTO and TPP. In turn, MFA offers political counsel to our economic agencies, such as when a political push is needed to secure an economic deal: our diplomats in Washington D.C. and Tokyo lobbied hard to secure political support for our bilateral FTAs with the US and Japan, respectively. 46

In other areas, MFA has worked with the Ministry of Defence to negotiate and secure defence cooperation and agreements with other countries in order to safeguard our sovereignty and independence. The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (now the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth) and the Ministry of Education were important partners when Singapore re-joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2007. 47 Singapore’s many contributions on global health issues, including the prevention and combating of pandemics such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, have been facilitated by strong ties between Singapore’s Permanent Mission in Geneva, working closely with the Ministry of Health, and the World Health Organization. 48 MFA also cooperates regularly with the Ministry of Law and the Attorney-General’s Chambers to defend our interests under the international treaties to which we are party.


In December 1996, Singapore hosted the inaugural World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. 49 It was the biggest international event that Singapore had hosted up till then, with some 2,500 delegates and 1,500 press representatives from over 120 WTO member states in attendance.

An event of this scale and significance would not have been successful if our agencies had not gone beyond their individual remits and worked together to serve Singapore’s national interest. A joint Secretariat led by MFA and MTI was convened, mobilising over 1,600 officers from many other ministries and agencies across the public sector. Teachers from the Ministry of Education were trained and deployed as Liaison Officers, while National Servicemen were activated to support logistical and administrative arrangements.

The outcome was an efficient, well-planned and well-executed event that impressed the international delegates: traffic in the city was smooth and the heads of delegation were able to check into their rooms within an hour of touching down. 50

Despite an uncertain start to our independence as a nation, Singapore has been able to find a place in the world and to thrive. This has been in part due to the help we have received from others: friendly countries, as well as international institutions such as the UN. It is important for Singapore to give back to the global community where we can.

In 1992, MFA established the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) to offer technical assistance to other countries, with a special focus on ASEAN member states. Having ourselves benefited from technical assistance in our early years, the SCP is based on Singapore’s experience that technical aid can be as or more effective in creating sustainable conditions for a country’s development. 51

Through the SCP, Singapore’s various public service agencies have provided training to their counterparts in other countries, in areas such as public governance and administration, trade and economic development, urban planning, education, law, civil aviation and port management. In turn, they have formed valuable institutional links. Apart from the technical assistance provided, SCP also helps to connect countries to a broad network of Singapore-based agencies, institutions and training providers who can share Singapore’s development story, policy innovations, and governance framework. Hence, the SCP helps us make the most of our track record as a well-governed nation to further enhance Singapore’s credibility and influence abroad. 52 As of May 2015, almost 100,000 foreign government officials from over 170 countries in Asia Pacific, Africa, Middle East, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean have participated in the SCP.

As a responsible member of the international community, Singapore has also participated and rendered assistance in various regional emergencies. When a tsunami hit countries in the region in December 2004, the Singapore Armed Forces launched a rescue and relief mission to affected sites in nearby Indonesia and Thailand. Our Air Force flew support missions and supplies to tsunami-hit countries further away, such as Sri Lanka, Maldives and Mauritius. 53 After the disaster, civil organisations such as the Singapore Institute of Architects, and the Association of Consulting Engineers, worked closely with the Building and Construction Authority to help Maldives with reconstruction efforts. 54
Similarly, when a massive earthquake hit eastern Sichuan in May 2008, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) sent a contingent equipped with advanced equipment to aid in the rescue efforts. 55 SCDF search specialists and tracker dogs were also dispatched to assist in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. More recently, our navy vessels and Disaster Victim Identification team aided investigations after the Air Asia flight 8501 tragedy in December 2014.


Fifty years ago, Singapore’s key foreign policy imperative was survival. While we have worked hard to establish our place in the world, the fundamental realities of size and geography have not changed for Singapore. However, the larger environment has shifted, and will continue to change. The strategic landscape in our home region will be shaped by an increasingly complex tapestry of interweaving relationships between different powers and interests. Unresolved disputes and potential flashpoints remain. Singapore will have to navigate this tangled web of regional and global links, trying to maintain our relevance to each major player, while retaining our independence and avoiding being forced to take sides. Domestically, the nature and makeup of our society are also changing rapidly. A key challenge will be maintaining our competitive edge and global shine, as we adjust to changing circumstances at home.

To stay relevant to the world, a small country such as Singapore, with no natural resources and no hinterland, cannot afford to be mediocre. We have no choice but to be extraordinary. If Singapore were not exceptional, not even our most brilliant diplomats would be able to wield any significant influence on the world stage on our behalf. 56 While foreign policy is never static, and our approaches have to adapt to changing circumstances, our objectives remain the same. Ultimately, our Foreign Service Officers and the Public Service are working to protect and advance Singapore’s national interests; not for international prestige and stature but to make a difference for Singapore and Singaporeans.