By Elgin Toh
THE single undiplomatic moment during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to New Zealand and Australia earlier this month was also the one that exposed Singapore's vulnerability as a small state in the international arena.
At an official lunch in Mr Lee's honour in Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott took turns making backhanded comments about former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his controversial warning in 1980 to Australia to reform or become the "poor white trash of Asia".
Some of the remarks, furthermore, were made not off-the-cuff but as part of prepared texts, and they took up large sections of the speeches. It was an awkward experience for the Singapore delegation, to say the least.
Of course, one might argue that the older Mr Lee's choice of words could hardly have been described as diplomatic in the first place. Also, one expert's analysis of the incident is that the two Australian leaders had brought up the past not to register any direct unhappiness with Singapore, but to score political points over each other, as each attempted to demonstrate his or her own party's historical accomplishments.
Nevertheless, to allow such inelegant bickering at an official bilateral event seemed unusually discourteous and petty.
The take-home point for Singapore may be that size does matter.
Would a United States president, for instance, have been made to sit through an uncomfortable public debate by his Australian hosts about a comment made 32 years ago by his predecessor?
But as much as Singapore's tininess in the larger scheme of things showed up as a distinct disadvantage during the visit, there were numerous other elements from the visit that optimists here can take comfort in.
Yes, there is a case to be made that being small presents its own set of advantages.
First, agreements made with smaller nations reap fewer benefits but also incur less costs; therefore, they tend to be seen as non-threatening, as low-hanging fruit to be picked more quickly.
It is not a coincidence that the first two free trade agreements (FTAs) that Australia signed were with New Zealand - its closest neighbour - and Singapore, both relatively petite nations.
It is also not a coincidence that Singapore and New Zealand have gone on to sign FTAs with many more countries than Australia has. Some of these are with major economies, with whom Australia is still locked in negotiations, such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.
The paradox for a large nation is that an FTA with it involves higher stakes and hence, stirs up stronger opposition from domestic lobbies in other countries.
Second, the Westphalian system - the modern international arrangement of nation-states - is designed so that modest-sized states are on paper legally equal to large ones. That often means a few small and nimble nations which manoeuvre themselves into a grouping of some kind - a common tactic they adopt - can quickly gain disproportionate legitimacy.
One example of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was mentioned repeatedly during the New Zealand leg of PM Lee's visit. The high-quality trade community was founded by Singapore and New Zealand, along with Brunei and Chile. Even though the four combined barely exceed Australia in size, they were accorded the status of a "community", which made it easier for them to later persuade larger nations - including the US and Australia - to sign on to an agenda that they had laid down.
Finally, a counter-intuitive but well-documented point: Small nations tend to be more knowledgeable about the intricate workings of international institutions and the complex webs formed by nations, for no other reason than that these matter more to them.
Professor Michael Corgan of Boston University wrote of this phenomenon in a 2008 article, citing the example of Denmark emerging "victorious" from negotiations with Britain, Germany and Norway - all nations with larger armed forces - over one reorganisation in 1993 of Nato's security command in the Baltics, thanks to its better understanding of Nato's staff culture. "What has given small states their occasional successes against the agendas of larger states is... better knowledge of the issues than larger powers, and an exquisite sense of when to act," he wrote.
A sign of the insularity in a larger nation like Australia was on display the day after the Canberra visit by PM Lee. Unlike their Singapore counterparts, Australian newspapers were preoccupied with domestic bickering - over the government's defence of a disgraced former House speaker and historical statements made by Mr Abbott that may have been offensive towards women - and all but ignored the visit, with just one captioned picture to be found in one national newspaper.
Admittedly, this could have as much to do with newspaper culture. But it stands to reason that the political elite would be responding to the same set of forces when deciding how to apportion their attention.
The historian Thucydides, a hard-power realist if there ever was one, once wrote that in international affairs, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". This may be true when a fight breaks out, but in an era of peace, smaller nations can rely on factors other than size and might to gain an edge.
And so, while Singapore may not have seen the last of indignities like the one suffered in Canberra, it should strive to do what it can in diplomacy, as small nations always have, and find its own rightful place in the world.