A year ago, a furious military government in Thailand cancelled all bilateral exchanges with Singapore because Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar met up with his old friend Thaksin Shinawatra when the latter was on a “private” visit to Singapore. Fast forward a year, and now newly elected Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who is on an official visit to Singapore, has immediately restored the Thailand-Singapore Civil Service Exchange Programme (CSEP) and the Singapore-Thailand Enhanced Economic Relationship (Steer) meeting.
Samak, who touted himself as Thaksin’s proxy, was recently elected by the people of Thailand, giving the generals who led the coup overthrowing Thaksin a big slap in the face.
Imagine for a moment, if Singapore had decided a year ago that since the generals were in charge, let’s not do anything that might offend them. Would Samak now be as friendly to Singapore as he now is? Cordial, yes. But friendly? Probably not.
Whether Jayakumar’s meeting with Thaksin was a calculated move is anyone’s guess. But knowing how our Foreign Ministry works, it probably was.
It is an important lesson in diplomacy that we should never write off anyone, because one day they may return to power and they won’t forget.
While Singapore may have played its cards right when it comes to Thailand, I fear it may not be the case for other countries.
With Myanmar, Singapore gave up the chance to take a more principled stand against the junta there while we held the ASEAN chair last year. Instead, we pushed this responsibility to UN Special Advisor Ibrahim Gambari. If Aung San Suu Kyi and/or her National League for Democracy were to ever come to power in our lifetime, would we regret not lending more support to their cause?
MM Lee Kuan Yew has not hidden his support for US Presidential hopeful John McCain over Barack Obama, on the basis that Obama lacks foreign policy experience. Going by opinion polls, it is likely that Obama will not only win the Democratic primary, but the November polls as well. Hopefully the President of the world’s only superpower will not be too small-minded.
On Taiwan, the Singapore Government and mouthpiece media keep rubbishing the aspirations of the majority of Taiwanese people to become a normal country free from Chinese threats. Is this how we bite the hand that has fed us with some of the best military training areas all these years?
Of course we all know that politics is unpredictable. Rather than bet on who will be the next leader of a country, it would be much better for Singapore to take a principled and balanced stand in dealing with such leaders, because one day, history, the people and future leaders of that country will judge us for what we stood for in the past.