Sunday, December 12, 2010

WikiLeaks Singapore: Singapore diplomats' frank assessments on Southeast Asia

To netizens who have been following Singaporean defence and security issues, the WikiLeaks expose on comments allegedly made by Singaporean diplomats contain nothing new.

It merely confirms coffeeshop talk that the way Singapore sees its position in the region has stayed the same despite recent chumminess with its neighbours.

A cable, said to have been trawled from the American State Department's communications in 2008, credits former Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary, Mr Peter Ho, for his take on Malaysia's political scene.

"As for... Najib Razak, he is an opportunist. Although he has not been critical of Singapore, he will not hesitate to go in that direction if it is expedient for him to do so," Mr Ho reportedly told United States official of Tun Najib Razak, who is now Malaysia's Prime Minister.

Is this earth shattering news?

Probably not, as Singaporean ministers openly admit that the island Republic's take on geo-politics borders on being paranoid. This explains Singapore's energetic diplomatic efforts with its neighbours through official and unofficial channels. Such outreach continually underscores the view that a prosper thy neighbour approach, where Singapore's neighbours are prosperous and stable, is one sought after by the Lion City.

On the defence front, this includes participation in social outreach programmes alongside the Indonesian Navy, codenamed Bhakti Surya Bhaskara Jaya (SBJ), and Singapore's readiness to assist its neighbours through fund raisers and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

But while the Wikileaks expose doesn't plow new ground, neither will the expected reactions from neighbouring countries.

As we wait for the other shoe to drop, Singapore can expect the more vocal quarters (north and south) to repeat the same tired arguments. The barbs will come from the usual suspects and the lines used are likely to be a rehash of diatribes launched during past hiccups in bilateral ties.

We probably won't have long to wait before various parties dust off old files to pick their stock phrases. Inflammatory comments are likely to be made and newspaper editorials will propagate whatever viewpoints will push street sales.

Each side must calibrate its responses carefully because a botched public relations and information management strategy is likely to provide a bonanza of material for a Total Defence campaign - on both sides of the Causeway.

In my opinion, stunts like flag burning and terse communiques only provide rich material for Singapore's next campaign to drum up support for activities which support security, survival and success. Such acts beat all the taglines that Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) copywriters can think of.

Jingoistic statements are just the thing MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would love to hear. Make no mistake, with Singapore's budget season looming on the near horizon, neighbours who engage in sabre rattling will unwittingly justify big ticket purchases for FY 2011/12 and beyond.

At the same time, Singapore must be mindful how it describes the realpolitik of foreign relations in Southeast Asia. All too often, we get our foot in the mouth with blisteringly frank descriptions of events or situations while underestimating the readiness of the rakyat to hear such points of view.

If Mr Ho was accurately quoted, the realpolitik the former permsec alluded to is a reality that will stay with Singapore, regardless of who is in charge of running the country. As defence-aware netizens will probably realise, the little red dot has had its resolve tested on several occasions in the past, a noteworthy example being heightened military tension over the CIQ issue.

Perhaps its high time such debates be done in an open forum so younger Singaporeans will learn and appreciate why the SAF maintains its high state of defence readiness. Singaporeans must also understand that a call to arms cannot be taken lightly because many things could go wrong during operations. What Singapore may view as a option of last resort may seem to neighbouring countries as an unsettling option for a first strike, such is the asymmetry of military forces.

Propose such a dialogue with Malaysians and you may be surprised that their defence thinkers and commentators are more rational than you imagine.

And with the Republic's proactive push to punch above its weight class by taking an active part in international fora, from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Asia, the Gulf Dialogue in the Middle East to the Werkunde Conference in Europe, we must expect Singapore's name to pop up in future WikiLeaks-style releases.

The comments made thus far are not necessarily a bad thing for Singapore. It would have been far more damaging, not to say embarrassing for Singapore, if her diplomats were exposed as bumbling idiots whose viewpoints were sought after only for comic relief. Thankfully, these WikiLeaks exposes have shown that behind closed doors, our diplomats do shine.

Though the comments said to come from leaked diplomatic correspondence make controversial reading, the crux of the arguments are nothing which heartlanders on both sides of the Causeway don't already know.

Indeed, in hush hush diplomacy as in real life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


mumuchi said...

Malaysia sabre rattling on SG to get ATM a bigger slice of the budget? That will be the day. We know the common adversary that actually gets money for both armed services. Note adversary, though some other neighbours potray theirs as enemies outright.

FinalFive said...

I have no training in political science or similar subjects, but my feel is that as more and more US cables get revealed by Wikileaks, the more dangerous the situation becomes. While we might argue that the veil of diplomacy is just a veil, it is not without purpose. If a group of nations are bothering to maintain the veil, doesn't it show that they recognize the ugly side of things and, rather than deal with it - let's just keep the veil intact and go on with life?

Now the veil is off and everyone is showing their hand. So you know that we don't like you very much.

What does that say? How does SG react at the next ASEAN forum to Indonesia and Malaysia? For instance, the Five Powers Defence Arrangement - was in place to guard against external threats to the safety of Singapore and Malaysia. Now it's doing HADR exercises most of the time. No prizes for guessing what this "External Threat" is. But it's still there, and the veil of the FPDA still exists to pull the countries into a cohesive defense whole.

Now let's pull the veil aside and uncover how each nation has its little agenda in partaking in the exercises today. One would immediately see that the exercises would be unsustainable. Decades of diplomatic efforts would have been destroyed.

Kudos to our Singapore Ministers and Policy Office. But this Wikileaks matter might turn out to be something beyond their control.

Anonymous @ 11.36am said...

I'm not worried about how those criticised by our diplomats will react. Seasoned diplomats themselves, they know it's part of the game. It's not personal - it's business.

My main worry is how those who aren't seasoned diplomats, but political opportunists, will run with this. What type of crap will they stir up?

More significantly, will they use this to mislead an emotional citizenry to discredit the established government?

Will diplomatic ties between countries be broken not because these diplomats we have criticised choose to do so, but because they are (unfairly) deemed to be weak, soft or useless by a stirred-up citizenry, and replaced by newcomers to the game, with no prior relationship with Singapore. Will all the good work between seasoned diplomats and political figures on both sides be erased because one side is replaced by unknown quantities?

The abuse of WikiLeaks for domestic politics, with a resultant impact on foreign policy - that's what I'm afraid of.

Anonymous said...

Well, the truth, harsh as it sounds, hurts doesn't it? What's telling is the the contents of the MFA officials' remarks are basically the same as those espoused by many in the same countries being criticized.

Also, what politicos in other countries say about SG in public statements are far more offensive than the discreet comments made by Tommy Koh and the Perm Secs, just read today's (13-Dec) copy of 90c and you can see the hypocrisy of the so-called "offended leaders"...

- K