Governance of a City-State
Retooling Resilience

The late, great historian, Barbara Tuchman, came over the course of her life’s work to formulate a somewhat playful dictum: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five to tenfold.”

Deplorable and unwelcome developments in various hues have not exactly been in short supply in the news recently, contributing to a pervasive gloom. This could easily lead one to think that the world order as we know it is teetering on the edge of a precipice.

Recent speeches by Singapore’s leaders have been noteworthy for their sombre tone. In his recent speech at the Debate on the Motion of Thanks to President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted three key tensions and pressure points: Ukraine; the alarming deterioration in relations between China and the US (with Taiwan as a particular flashpoint); and the breakdown of the international multilateral trading system — a system that had enabled free and open economies like Singapore to thrive. 

In his speech, PM Lee referred to a troubling and “dangerous” external environment. Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, as circumspect and measured as any cabinet minister, used the word “dangerous” several times in his recent speech at Australian National University to describe the global situation.

Singapore’s leaders being on the same page is the norm. But leaders speaking in unison in the same time frame and using calibrated language expressing grave concern of this magnitude is unusual. Beyond acting and thinking in a deliberate, planned way, the current leadership, as well as the generation to follow, is clearly concerned — not just in terms of painting a stark picture, but also in terms of challenges in rallying the people.

Perhaps it is because they know that the Singaporeans — especially the younger generation  who will inherit our society —need to be aware that our problems are not the world’s problems, but that the world’s problems are quite often indeed Singapore’s problems.


The current meta-crisis carries within a challenge to Singapore and our interests not seen since independence. If carried to its negative conclusion by no means foregone, there will be immense repercussions.

This is first point in our history as an independent nation where external events can come together in combination to cause friction and polarise within to a level where potentially deep rents may be torn in our body politic. An economic downturn (say, in the event of a hot war) will fuel already-existing resentment and xenophobia as people fret about competition for jobs. Even without an actual war, global instability carries with it the risk of escalation of threats that come from the grey zone, including hostile influence campaigns and disinformation.

PM Lee and other leaders would not have spoken in the way that they have done recently if there was not already some sense of these tensions working to a level where the fraying of society is either likely or beginning to happen.

Leitmotivs and Narratives

The toughest principled foreign policy call the government has made in recent times is the condemnation of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the imposition of sanctions on Russia. On the ground, there were clear signs that segments of the populace either did not agree, or had deep discomfort with the call made. On social media and elsewhere, questions were asked about why Singapore had “gotten involved” in this way.  Singapore is a small country and is simply inviting retaliation — isn’t taking a position on the Ukraine invasion a departure from our policy of not taking sides?

The overall approach to the conduct of foreign relationships risks being misunderstood by Singaporeans. There is a new, discernible emphasis in recent government messaging when it comes to making certain that Singaporeans understand what the narrative is. Illustrative of this is Senior Minister of State Sim Ann’s 19 April 2023 speech: she observed, correctly, that Singapore’s foreign policy is not about always maintaining neutrality and not taking sides. Instead, Singapore’s foreign policy is driven by our unchanging principles.

We are not interested in taking sides in big power contestation, but the big powers are interested in us. China and the US will of course continue to attempt bending us to their will. Some of this pertains to diplomatic needs of the moment. Witness the recent flurry of high-level US trips and other overtures to the region. But some are long term — civilisational and cultural — and potentially insidious. Both our friends and those less well disposed to us will be watching with interest when it comes to what nascent but ongoing polarisations reveal about the true nature and make-up of Singapore. What could be thought of as Singapore’s strengths — a multi-ethnic, plural society — could be seen as potential fissures and pressure points where individual civilisational appeals or united front tactics might gain egress. SMS Sim Ann, who was speaking in Mandarin, observed trenchantly that “national identity and cultural identity are two different matters.”

Hence, warnings by our leaders concerning foreign interference and influence operations come as no surprise. In his own speech on the very day SMS Sim Ann spoke in Parliament, PM Lee talked of our population being subject to emotional pulls and influence campaigns as a result of US-China tensions. The seemingly small but significant differences between the English and Mandarin versions of PM Lee’s 2022 National Day Rally speech would also not have escaped the notice of careful observers. The English version warned briefly of influence attempts, but in the Mandarin speech, PM Lee warned in greater depth about messages in English and Mandarin stirring up sentiment following the war in Ukraine, urging vigilance and caution, and specifically warning against hostile foreign influence operations.

The actors in question are not precisely called out. When it comes to attribution, there is a diplomatic calculus at work here given that we are a small state and a price-taker in these matters. The fact that the Foreign Interference and Countermeasures Act (FICA) has not yet been employed should not mislead us, either. States will always operate at the threshold of being caught. Indeed they are increasingly good at this, brazenly claiming their activities are legitimate cultural outreach efforts with countries they have excellent bilateral relations with.

We should make no mistake. These attempts are ongoing. They are tracked by think tanks engaged in this type of work, and by relevant government agencies. At the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in March 2018, a security agency briefed the committee behind closed doors on how Singapore has been the subject of foreign disinformation operations by various States.


Foreign leaders have occasionally been known to do us favours when trying to put us in our place. In 1998, then-Indonesian president B. J. Habibie called Singapore a “little red dot” on the map.  In July 2010, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is said to have told Southeast Asian Foreign Ministers (with Singapore’s then Foreign Minister George Yeo the focus of his attention) that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

When threats are made, implicit or otherwise, we are reminded of our vulnerability. But with current challenges, Singapore’s leaders appear at present to be focused on narratives of exhortation.  The can-do spirit, and how our founding fathers led Singapore to overcome considerable odds are leitmotivs.

The difficulty this time round comes from within. Although the space we have here in the middle for tolerant discourse and agreeing to disagree is stronger than in several other countries, there are clear signs of erosion beginning to happen. Increasing polarisation elsewhere in the West has the potential to feed culture wars and identity politics (on issues from race, class to LGBTQ issues and everything in between). The confection of issues does not make for a short list.

While it is perfectly understandable that politicians are trying to warn of the dangers of Singapore being split from within, the focal issue is the longer-term plan this should be paired with.

Three things could be considered here.

Firstly, the refining of agency approaches when it comes to strategic communication, particularly when it comes to the reframing the resilience narrative. This narrative was until recently somewhat in danger of losing steam, despite big ticket government initiatives such as SGSecure. For some time, agencies privileged a certain type of resilience in the face of what was then seen to be the main threat — terrorism. Now, digital defence and cohesion have come to the fore. While these are useful developments, in addition to explaining how vulnerable we are, more emphasis should be placed on co-opting youths (to whom narratives of the past will inevitably have only limited relevance) on what they can do and how they can play a part.

Secondly, getting the serious messages which PM Lee and other ministers are trying to put across in their coordinated speeches to as wide a spectrum of ordinary Singaporeans as possible. In particular, there should be a greater focus on people who do not follow parliamentary speeches and who for that matter, do not follow the mainstream media. For example, more closed-door town hall meetings building on what Forward Singapore has tried to do could be organised. Such methods will reach out to grassroots, whatever their political affiliation.

Finally, there is the retooling of the social compact with the people. The promises of refreshing this compact through Forward Singapore, while a reasonable start, is unlikely to suffice. Non-Government Organisations and Civil Society Organisations, including those which do not necessarily agree with government, should be engaged, and taken into a greater degree of confidence than has hitherto been the case. This necessarily entails a degree of risk — the government first sets the overall parameters for discourse, leaving considerable latitude for civil society organisations to interpret and carry the message of cohesion. This devolved approach requires tolerance on the part of government agencies, for it may well be that in the current context, expanding the middle ground demands not just greater inclusion of plural voices, but some dissenting ones too.

There will need to be accommodation of the political variety, too. Here, exchanges in parliament would seem to suggest more mature conversations with the Opposition concerning present and future challenges. But inevitably this will be tested in any coming election. The previous election in 2020 was on the whole conducted in a civil manner, but it was at the edges, and thanks to the efforts of party-aligned internet brigades, more bruising (and polarising) than it should have been. Where control can be exercised in real world or online discourse, it should be — this is incumbent on all the parties, not just one. Failure to do so will inevitably have effects lasting beyond the campaigning period.

Divided, we stand no chance, as PM Lee has observed.

We should make no mistake concerning the magnitude of the task. There is no country that I have seen in the contemporary era, where the polarisation and hollowing out of the middle ground has set in, that has successfully stemmed and reversed the tide.

Analysts and observers in times past often took the view that they were at the hinge of history — the conviction that the times they lived in were the most portentous, and the most consequential for the future.  Quite often they were wrong. Still, one cannot quite dispel the nagging feeling that this time, it might be different.


Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Top photo from Freepik.

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