Projecting "soft power" but not going soft

In his speech in Parliament yesterday, Foreign Minister George Yeo said that “from time to time, we must expect countries to pressure us in the hope that we will then give way to their demands. Singaporeans know that if we give in to such pressures, we would only invite more such pressures. However, we are always prepared to build good relations with them on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit. We should still help them when they are in difficulty not because we expect gratitude or reward, but because that is the right thing to do.” (emphasis mine).

Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean echoed similar sentiments when he stressed that the SAF would continue rendering humanitarian aid and disaster relief to our neighbours, even though this help appeared to be taken for granted by some quarters. He said, “I still believe it’s the right thing to do. I suppose in some quarters, memories can be short. But heaven forbid, if we were to be called upon again…we will respond. We are all brothers in Asean.” (emphasis mine)

It is certainly heartening to note that the two ministers at the forefront of our foreign policy have emphasised the intrinsic value in rendering assistance to our neighbours, rather than solely focusing on a “balance of benefits” or quid pro quo. Although this by no means indicates that our leaders are becoming less “hard nosed” about foreign policy, I sense that there is a slight shift in the direction of using “soft power” to project our national interests. This will be a subject of a future post on this blog. Stay tuned!

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

7 thoughts on “Projecting "soft power" but not going soft”

  1. let’s wait and see. Those are words spoken in Parliament, and printed in our mainstream press. It will always sound positive.

    Have a read of English publications from other markets, or even their blogs. Let’s have a view of what the rest of Asia thinks of us.

    For me and my experience, Singapore and Singaporeans in general are seen as arrogant. During one of my reservist stints in Thailand 8-9 years ago – a Thai soldier said to me.. “Please, bring more of your money next time. And throw them at us.”

    A cab ride in Bangkok – and this was way before Temasek-Shin Corp issue – “Many Singaporeans come here, because they speak English, they think they are farang (angmoh), and act like farang. Just because we dont speak English well, doesnt mean we’re stupid.”

    Remember the Taiwan foreign minister calling us “pi sai” and “sar kar”ing China.

    Let’s not go into the comments i hear in HK and China about us! or even Nigeria.

    Correct me if i’m wrong here – but i have this perception that much of SEA, or even Asia, envy our success. but, we on the other hand, use our money, our good relationship with US, to work the hands of others in trade and socio-geographic politics to our advantage.


  2. Do share the comments that HK’ers and Chinese say about S’pore!

    We always say that our neighbours “envy our success”. Is that really true? Do poor people in Singapore detest “elites” because they are rich, or because they are arrogant (or perceived to be such)? It’s convenient for the Govt to keep harping on the “politics of envy”, but it distracts from serious introspection on our part.

  3. no one will scorn a truly humanitarian spirit. but people will caution or distance themselves from those whom they think may harbor ulterior motives. in an ultra capitalistic society and a city that seeks after mutual gain, there is no good generated that has not been tainted with the strength of money.

    this, i think our brilliance has failed to understand

  4. Recall during the Indonesian financial crisis. They were calling for help – some countries responded.

    Singapore also offered to give funds but it carried with it some demands. If i recall correctly, was it Habibie, he said, thanks but no thanks. and the “little red dot comment” was made. Readers – correct me if i’m wrong here…dont want to be passing on wrong history.

    HKers and Chinese – they say Singaporeans like to talk big and make demands when we come to HK/China to do business. We like the world to work according to our benchmarks and our standards – not according to the way things work in the countries where we do business.

    i have a lawyer friend who told me once that he always has a good laugh whenever he does confcalls/meetings with his HK colleagues – because they talk funny. (and here we are defending Singlish).

    they say that after all the big talking, we’re like cows when at home. Singaporeans like to pass comment or complain – but back in their country, they only listen. when it comes to making a decision, people just want to leave to a senior executive.

    The most oft-quoted statement – “You guys are not even allowed to chew gum!”

    You know how we often get annoyed with Americans in the way they push their way around in global politics, trade etc? thats the way people see Singaporeans in Asia.

    At least thats what i think.


  5. Oh yes, we’re all brothers in ASEAN when we don’t get sand, when we lose our newly acquired TV station. But we are a sovereign nation acting within our legal rights when another country wants to recover the ill-gotten gains parked in our banks or when we legally but insensitively acquire another country’s strategic assets.

    And yes, we’re all one big family who want what is best for Singapore, but if you live in Potong Pasir or Hougang then it is in Singapore’s best interests that your flats are not upgraded or upgraded last even if they’re the oldest.

  6. hah! good one, Jerome! well, what can you say – when you think like a businessman and not like a government?

    which circles back to our earlier conversation, Gerald. Whether people detest or envy us?

    When you approach people from a “i’m the one with the money, i’m investing in your country, so things better work out right” attitude, of course there’s a bit of unhappiness.

    I met with an investment banker from one of the top US banks. He told me his experience of dealing with a GIC executive. “He’s the most annoying and pushy person i’ve ever met – and in another place, another time, i’d probably wont even give him the time of the day. But what the heck, we need his money. So i do what i have to do.”


  7. Well, Americans can be pushy and arrogant and talk down to people, but most people and countries will still suck it up because they still need the Yanks.

    We, the Little Red Dot, sometimes start thinking we are just as high and mighty, just because the PAP says we top all the international rankings (except press freedom). We have all started believing our own propaganda.

    aygee – I believe our Govt offered like $40bn to the Suharto government to bail him out during the financial crisis. Chee Soon Juan got sued for aggresively questioning that.

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