I unfriend you

Come 2015, Singapore will celebrate its 50th birthday since becoming independent from Malaysia in 1965. In typical Singaporean fashion, a committee has been set up to coordinate the country’s efforts in commemorating the special occasion[1]. Yet, while there is plenty to celebrate about, there is also plenty to ruminate about. In particular, beyond Singapore’s numerous domestic challenges, its foreign policy also deserves some renewed scrutiny in light of recent events. I am speaking, of course, of the recent altercation with Indonesia.

On 5 February, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a short and measured response to press enquiries about Indonesia naming a naval vessel KRI Usman Harun, after two Indonesian marines, Osman Hj Mohd Ali and Harun Said[2]. In that statement, MFA merely mentioned that Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with his Indonesian counterpart to “register Singapore’s concerns.” The two Indonesian marines were involved in a 1965 bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore during the Konfrontasi period, which killed three people and injured 33 others. Both were tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in Singapore for their crimes.

Yet, following up on 6 February, it came to light that Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister also spoke separately with their counterparts, noting that the naming of the ship would “re-open old wounds”[3] The following day, even the Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, formerly the Chief of Army, join in by saying that the statements of Indonesian leaders defending their decision “reflected either a lack of sensitivity, a lack of care for the bilateral ties, or both”[4]. Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin, formerly a Brigadier General in the Singapore army, also waded into the fray, saying that the Indonesians’ actions were reflecting “callousness and disrespect”[5] As a final middle finger, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence withdrew the invitation of senior Indonesian military commanders to the Singapore Airshow this week[6]. Also in typical Singaporean fashion, the local Straits Times published an editorial on 11 February condemning the Indonesians for “not taking adequate account of the public outrage the navy’s action has caused”[7].

It is truly puzzling why five Singapore cabinet ministers (four of whom are connected to the defence ministry) would find it necessary to create such a ruckus over something as insignificant as the naming of a ship after two very insignificant (and dead) people for something that they had done almost half a century ago with no connections to the present governments of either country. It is one thing for the Foreign Ministry to “express disappointment” but quite another thing for four other ministers to join in the chorus and for the defence ministry to retaliate. One cannot help but wonder why the Singaporean ministers are over-reacting so much to such a trivial issue[8].

One theory suggests that Singapore’s ministers are fond of playing up on Singapore’s vulnerability so as to remind Singaporeans that only they (and the ruling People’s Action Party), are legitimate “protectors” of the country. The frequent fear mongering about Singapore’s vulnerable past enables the justification for authoritarian rule in the present. Such a theory is all well and good, but ignores the viewpoint that their exaggerated responses resemble the petulant cries of the spoilt rich kid about an ant bite. Moreover, this theory becomes more suspicious when we consider the fact that it is unclear if the common Singaporean truly cares about the entire controversy at all. It is more likely that most common folk are too busy staring into the horizon wondering when the next packed-to-the-brim train or bus will arrive to care about the names other people give to their boats.

Another theory suggests that Singapore’s ministers are merely reminding its neighbours that Singapore, despite its small size, cannot be bullied and will stand up to any perceived acts of bullying from its bigger neighbours. If only that was the case. Indonesia’s naming of the warship as KRI Usman Harun was probably only an administrative matter-of-course which none of its leaders were concerned about. Most Indonesians are on the edge of their seats gossiping about Jokowi’s (the popular Jakarta mayor) potential entry into the Presidential elections later this year, and can hardly be bothered by the name of a puny ship. Seen in such a light, the over reactions of Singapore’s politicians are self-defeating at best, and hopelessly indulgent at the worst.

Within this puzzle and its possible explanations, there is one thing for sure -Singapore’s over-reaction is a sign that its politicians continue to buy into and perpetuate the age-old foreign policy narrative that Singapore is a small country, that it is vulnerable to bullying by its neighbours, and that it must be able to retaliate if provoked. Such a narrative is tied to the geopolitical exigencies of its independence as much as it is fundamental to its very ‘imagined being’ as a nation. But, as it approaches 50 years of independence, can it ever grow out of such a narrative? In other words, can it ever grow up?

To be sure, to grow out of such a narrative does not mean abandoning the foreign policy principle of bilateral respect and military capacity for robust self-defence. What it does mean, though, is that it applies its principles and resources appropriately, proportionately, and selectively. Grown ups do not indiscriminately cry foul and create a fuss whenever they encounter a decision they do not like. They take time to consider and respond in a mature manner that is reflective of their stature and hopeful image. Grown ups do not indulge in meaningless dichotomous pandering to the masses (i.e. “You are wrong, I am right.”). They take the lead to understand the perspectives of the other and respond appropriately under a climate of good faith. As much as we should not be na├пve about our defence and foreign policy, neither should we engage in petulant protest in a wanton fashion. Singapore risks hurting its own stature rather than protect and advancing its own interests.

So, in the next 50 years, can Singapore and its politicians grow up, or not?

Elvin Ong is currently a PhD graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. He can be reached at [email protected].