NOT PRO-WEST, PRO-CHINA, PRO-UKRAINE OR PRO-RUSSIA, JUST PRO-SINGAPORE
by: Chua Mui Hoong
(Straits Times, 1April 2022)
Drop the tendency to polarise issues into pro- or anti-something. Just view foreign policy issues through Singapore lenses.
Some Singaporeans’ reactions to the war in Ukraine have been oddly ambiguous, given that Singapore is also a tiny state with large neighbours, several of which can claim historical ties similar to those Russia invoked to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
As the above capsule history shows, depending on how far back in history you want to go, any number of larger countries in the region can cite historical claims on today’s island city state Singapore.
They can’t do so under international law, which protects the sovereignty of states under the United Nations Charter. As many Singapore leaders have stressed, the principle that sovereignty, territorial integrity and national borders should not be violated in contravention of the UN Charter, is fundamental and existential to Singapore.
War with our neighbours may look far-fetched now; but the lesson from this invasion is surely how options that seem irrational today, can quickly become reality.
The Government’s stand on the war has support among many Singaporeans. It has condemned the invasion in strong terms and imposed sanctions that target Russian activities that can aid the war effort. An online survey by Blackbox Research found that 95 per cent of Singaporeans polled supported Ukraine, and 60 per cent supported the sanctions.
But on social media, some Singaporeans are sharing viewpoints that are sympathetic to Russia, or that take issue with Singapore’s stand on the war.
While citizens in a democracy are entitled to their views, it is disturbing when the views they are espousing are against their own, and their nation’s, interests.
THE FALSE ALLURE OF NEUTRALITY
One line of argument in many threads is that Singapore should remain neutral in this war between Russia and Ukraine; and which is highlighting US-China rivalry.
Typical comments chide the Government for forgetting that as a small country, Singapore should not behave like a big country or draw attention to itself; and that Singapore should just “relak one corner”, to use a local slang term about not bothering about things happening around us.
Some Singaporeans also fear that sanctions on Russia would upset China, which has a strategic partnership with “no limits” with Russia. China’s own position treads a narrow line: It supports Russia in wanting to stop Nato expansion and has not condemned the invasion; but it also says it respects the sovereignty of all countries, including Ukraine.
On social media, comments that urge Singapore to be neutral and not join in the Western-led sanctions are “Liked” by many because they operate under a veil of reasonableness and loving peace.
But such comments are disingenuous.
True advocates of peace stand up against war and aggression; they do not look away for fear of offending the aggressor and his friends.
Protecting peace and freedom is more than mouthing words about loving peace; they require action and commitment, which entail stepping up and taking risks.
Each time I read another comment about how Singapore should be “neutral” on this issue, I wonder if the habits of a lifetime inculcated in Singaporeans of my generation and older, are showing through.
For decades we internalised our parents’ fears of getting into trouble with the authorities; survival for an immigrant or working-class population meant taking care of our own and family’s needs, and never turning to the authorities. People who stood up for principles, activists who organised or lobbied for change, got into trouble.
And so generations of citizens were bred to think avoiding other people’s problems is the recipe to a serene life. They may then project their habitual ways of thinking onto the theatre of international events, believing that staying neutral, avoiding trouble, is a nation’s way to stay safe.
They forget that the decades of freedom and stability that allow them to lead peaceable lives are built on the backs of others who refused to remain neutral, but who fought hard to defend principles that ensure Singapore’s very survival.
Protecting Singapore’s sovereignty has meant taking a stand against those who invade others in contravention of international law: So Singapore took a stand against the United States’ invasion of Grenada at the UN General Assembly in 1983. It also opposed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia from December 1978 to 1989.
As Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is Coordinating Minister for National Security, said in a recent interview: “Our 1983 vote against the US did not mean that we were an adversary of the US. The US was a close friend and continues to be so; but we still had to express our disagreement.
Neutrality – or just looking the other way – is not an option when there is grave wrong being done, especially to a principle that Singapore relies on for survival.
In Singapore, which is far from the theatre of war, the Ukraine issue is often viewed through the filter of US-China rivalry. Discussions on the issue can quickly become a debate on whether one is pro-West or pro-China. For example, some may say Singapore is too pro-West, following the US and European Union in imposing sanctions.
Left neglected is whether the moves are pro-Singapore in the first place. This should surely be the main filter we use to see any foreign policy issue.
In any case, being against the Russian invasion is hardly being pro-West, as the move has drawn global condemnation. An overwhelming 141 of the UN General Assembly’s 193 members supported a resolution to reprimand Russia and demand that Russia immediately and unconditionally withdraw its military forces from Ukraine.
Within Asean, Laos and Vietnam abstained, while the other eight members voted “yes”. This included Singapore and Cambodia, which joined over 90 countries in co-sponsoring the resolution. That Cambodia had suffered a decade-long invasion and occupation by its larger neighbour Vietnam surely contributed to its decision to step up.
While US-China strategic rivalry is the defining geopolitical issue of the day, and one that Singaporeans must pay heed to, it is not helpful to see all international relations issues through that lens.
This is because the lens is polarising. Singaporeans are quite divided on US-China rivalry.
In an article on academia.sg, Professor Linda Lim highlights the gap in view between “elite” and ordinary citizens, with the policy elite in Singapore more pro-US and worried about China’s rise, and other Singaporeans having a more favourable view of China.
She cites a June 2021 Pew Research survey of 17 advanced economies (including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore), where Singapore was the only country with a more favourable view of China than the US. Across the 17 societies, 61 per cent said it was more favourable to have economic ties with the US versus 27 per cent for China, “but for Singapore it was the reverse, with 49 per cent for China and 33 per cent for the US”.
She concludes: “Singaporeans in general are more pro-China and less pro-US than people in other advanced economies, and than their own elites.”
This gap deserves attention to be closed. Singapore’s response to and Singaporeans’ attitudes to China and the US are complex and will continue to be debated, and will likely prove divisive for some time.
But it is important to set aside that China-US lens to look at the Ukraine issue and figure out what a pro-Singapore stance on the issue should be.
One rule of thumb is that being pro-Singapore does not mean one must be binary about being pro-others. One can be pro-China on many issues, and pro-West on others. There is no need for polarity.
As Singaporeans, most of us are used to operating in fluid cultural worlds. I like to think I have part of my brain in the West and part of my heart in the East. Our bilingual education policy means most of us are literate if not fluent, in English and one other (typically Asian) language.
We should not force ourselves or our compatriots into neatly packaged boxes of being pro-West or anti-West, or pro-China or anti-China. Such reductionist, polarising attitudes do not do us justice.
As the recent CloseUp documentary done by a Straits Times team, China Calling: The Growing Allure Of A Rising Power, shows, Singaporeans who consider themselves “pro-China” can be fluent English speakers exposed to Western ideas. But they are first and foremost pro-Singapore.
What might a pro-Singapore perspective of the Ukraine conflict be?
For a start, it might note the unprecedentedly swift and united way the United States and European nations are supplying military aid to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia and rallying the UN General Assembly to censure Russia.
At the same time, Singaporeans can also be aware of the double standards being practised.
European countries have taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, when not too long ago they have turned away refugees from Africa or the Middle East. Media coverage has tried to justify how this war is different because it is happening in a civilised European city to people who are blonde with blue eyes and “look like us” – the Western journalists and commentators.
It is a sad fact that being white, European refugees have a greater call on Western audiences’ sympathy than being brown or black. Singapore audiences and those in societies that tap directly into Western information sources can also imbibe similar sentiments.
We can decry the racism inherent in such attitudes that fuel political action, while understanding that tribalism remains a fact of human relations, and be aware that we too may view issues through racial lenses.
And we can note the double standards that lead so many countries to ignore other crises, without denying Ukrainians the sympathy they deserve in this one; and without taking our eye off the act of Russian aggression which was the first spark that lit this particular fire.
And we can remain clear-headed to conclude that Ukrainians remain deserving of help; and Russia remains deserving of opprobrium for its invasion.
As a country, we can decide that supporting Western sanctions against Russia today upholds our national interests; without being blind to how international law can be selectively applied. It would be foolish to refuse to support what works for us – international law that protects our sovereignty – just because it is imperfectly applied.
Singaporeans are used to handling complexities in our culture. We can take the best from each, filter them through the Singapore lens, and come up with positions that are good for us as a country and as individuals.
And so a pro-Singapore position would take a stand against the invasion, and uphold international law principles, because as a small country we cannot close one eye to such aggression. As a nation, we can support moves against the aggressor.
As individuals we can support Ukrainian victims in a humanitarian manner.
In conversations private and public, we can emphasise and support the importance of good diplomacy and neighbourliness, and do our part in our respective spheres of influence, to cultivate strong, mutually beneficial ties with our neighbours through win-win interactions.
We can hold ambiguity and imperfect application of international law in our head, and look to the north star of what will be in Singapore’s interests, and act from there.
This way, such acts are neither “pro-West” nor “anti-Russia” or “anti-China”; they are pro-Singapore, pro-peaceful relations, and anti-acts of aggression that go against principles of international law that we rely on for our survival.
As geopolitics becomes more complex, it is vital for Singaporeans to get over the distressing habit of seeing things in black and white terms; of casting fellow citizens or government in too simplistic terms as either pro-this or anti-that.
We can remember to take a step back, think harder, and suss out what it means to be pro-Singapore.