Saturday, June 11, 2011

S'pore 'must keep diplomatic edge or be marginalised'

Jun 10, 2011
S'pore 'must keep diplomatic edge or be marginalised'
By Amresh Gunasingham

SINGAPORE has 'punched above its weight' in the often complex arena of international diplomacy, but it is not a given this will continue to be so, former Cabinet minister S. Jayakumar said yesterday.

Sounding this note of caution, he said Singapore has relied on several factors to keep its edge: An international image as a successfully run state, the ability to attract talent to serve in politics and the various levers of government working cohesively.

For the present Government, he said that while the loss of former foreign minister George Yeo 'will be felt for some time', Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has amassed a strong team to take the country forward.

He said: 'Going forward, can Singapore guarantee that this combination of factors can be sustained? I do not know.

'What I know is that the moment we fail to do so, we will be marginalised in the international arena.'

The veteran politician, who stepped down as senior minister and left the Cabinet last month, was speaking at the launch of his new book, Diplomacy - A Singapore Experience, about significant episodes in Singapore's short yet storied history in foreign affairs.

At the event, attended by former Cabinet ministers, diplomats and other guests, Singapore Press Holdings chairman Tony Tan noted that as foreign minister for a decade until 2004, Professor Jayakumar dealt with significant events.

These included talks with Malaysia over water agreements and claims to Pedra Branca, Indonesia's tumultuous political situation after the 1997 financial crisis and the Michael Fay saga.

All are highlighted in the 319-page book, which took three years to write.

'He was right in the centre of the action,' said Dr Tan, Prof Jayakumar's former Cabinet colleague.

In the book, Prof Jayakumar notes that even during rocky periods with Malaysia, there were significant areas of cooperation - such as the launch of ferry services and the completion of the Second Link.

On last year's breakthrough on the Points of Agreement on railway land, he said it was a 'win-win' outcome for both Malaysia and Singapore.

On ties with Indonesia, he said Singapore must recognise that the dynamics of politics and decision-making there had changed. But politicians in Jakarta also needed 'to abandon their 'little red dot' mentality... Bilateral relations have to be conducted on the basis of equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit'.

Yesterday, he said his original intention was to cater the book's content to budding foreign service officers. But he was persuaded by Dr Tan and others that it had relevance to a wider audience.

The central theme - that a small country is disadvantaged compared with bigger nations in diplomacy and has to be continually proactive in its engagement of the world - is a message that has relevance even to the man in the street, he said.

'I make this point because all Singaporeans, and not just our civil servants and MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) officers, must understand that, for all our success and growth, we will always remain a small state, and vulnerability is an inherent condition of all small states,' said Prof Jayakumar.

Recalling his early days as a diplomat, he said he had to learn his craft on-the-job: 'There was no handbook on how to do it. We were learning as much as we were doing, and constantly innovating and adapting.'

With the accumulation of experience over time, he was concerned these lessons should not fade from memory.

One personal note he shares in the book is that his niece, Miss Geeta Pong, was a stewardess on SilkAir Flight MI 185 that crashed in Palembang in 1997.

The disclosure came when he cited the crash to illustrate how Indonesia 'speedily came to our aid in our time of need', and was one of several examples of countries cooperating in times of difficulties.

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