A lesson in diplomacy

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.


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 “A lesson in diplomacy”

  1. Dear Gerald,

    While I do not claim to be an expert in international relations. Yet, perhaps when it comes to diplomacy, it is interest and not principles that matters. The Singapore goverment has in my opinion held on to this belief firmly. Call me a idealist but sometimes I wish our goverment will look at the principles more than the interests in our conduct.

    With regards to Taiwan, I believe its in their interest to show a strong stand against their independance and get into China’s good books. Granted, I am against Taiwan’s independance. There is no historical basis to support the independance of Taiwan. Taiwan has always been part of China.

    As for USA. Yes, our esteemed LKY had contributed to The Washington Post with an article that is a poorly veiled attack on Obama’s position. Is McCain a better choice than Obama? We may never know but when it comes to experience or the lack of it, I rather go for a man who has better judgement. Cheney had the experience but he made the wrong judgement to trust the neocons in Iraq war. Thus far, I felt Obama had been very impress. If his message of change is to come true, then we may see Washington less controlled by lobbyist.

    As for Myanmar. The less said, the better. Singapore probably wanted to pass the buck as there is no strategic or economic interest for them to pursue what is right.


  2. Well Cheney didn’t just trust the neocons. He WAS a neocon himself. I’ve been reading “Imperial Life in the Emerald City”, and it really disgusts me how the neocons manipulated the whole government to follow their flawed ideology.

    Re Myanmar, what I meant to say is that though it may seem we have no economic interest now, 30 years from now, will a democratic Myanmar look favourably upon us for our lack of support back when they needed it?

    On Taiwan, well I respect your views. But I think China has as much claim to Taiwan as Malaysia has to Singapore.

  3. I don’t think anyone can draw a parallel between Taiwan and Singapore. Taiwan is not independent yet and China has not agreed to give it independence; whereas Singapore is already accepted as an independent state and a member of the UN and Malaysia had agreed to give independence to Singapore.

    So, what claims are you talking about?

  4. “Taiwan is not independent yet…”

    Taiwan currently has its own currency, votes for its own president, maintains its own army and charts its own direction. The only thing that doesn’t give it de jure independence is the fact that it got kicked out of the UN when Communist China muscled its way in in the 1970s.

    I know to most Chinese Singaporeans who want to see the rise of a glorious, unified China, Taiwan is undeniably part of the Motherland. But have any of these Singaporeans stopped for a moment to consider what the Taiwanese people want? Who are we, overseas Chinese, to dictate whom these 23 million people belong to?

  5. Gerald,

    Not all Singaporeans agree that a prosperous China need to include Taiwan

    I am a Singaporean, I am also an Overseas Chinese and yes, I also do care about the Taiwanese people’s right to decide their future for themselves.

    If running an island uninterrupted is one key argument for territorial ownwership, then the Taiwanese have some claim too.

    Else, we should pack our bags regarding Pedra Branca as well.

  6. Dear Gerald,

    I do agree that our leaders failed on the Myanmar issue. They had allowed interests to override their principles. And yes, people do not forget. The day will come when Myanmar move towards democracy and the people who were involved in the bloody riots and democracy movement will remember how Asean had failed them when they most needed.

    This same principle of interests over principles was to run in their position on Taiwan. They are not concern on the history or legitimacy but on the interests of Singapore. That is maintain strong relationship with China who can benefit Singapore more.

    While I do believe that Taiwan does belong to China. I too am aware that many Taiwanese has no wish to be part of China having been self-ruled since Chiang Kai Shek flee from the mainland.

    My position and views on Taiwan stems not from a desire to see a prosperous China re-take Taiwan. I am no chinese chauvinists. Perhaps it is to see terrotorial sovereignty respected and protected.

    Having said the above, the area of territorial sovereignty is disputable in places like Tibet and Xinjiang. I had yet to conduct a thorough reading on it so am only speculating at best.


  7. “The fate of Taiwan is not decided by Singapore but by China, Taiwan, USA and to a certain extent, Japan.”

    Well, I agree. But I say that the fate of Taiwan should be decided by the people of Taiwan. Two generations have run the island successfully since 1949 to make it one of the most prosperous countries on earth.

    Anyway, the results of the referendum on whether to seek UN membership will be out soon. (A Yes vote means Taiwanese want independence, since only independent countries can be UN members.) Keep your eyes peeled on the news.

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