Governance of a City-State
SP 2015: Singapore’s Sovereignty: Choices, Change and Adaptation

Professor Tan Tai Yong
Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs),
Yale-NUS College;
Director of Institute of South Asian Studies,
National University of Singapore;
Nominated Member of Parliament

Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Professor Evelyn Goh
Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies,
School of International, Political and Strategic Studies,
ANU College of Asia & the Pacific,
The Australian National University

The first panel at the annual Singapore Perspectives conference explored the topic of Singapore’s sovereignty. Professor Tan Tai Yong opened the panel, noting that Singapore was now one of only three remaining city-states; the other two being Monaco and Vatican City. He also pointed out that Singapore’s independence was itself an aberration when compared to its historical context, passing through several empires such as the Srivijaya, Majapahit, British, and Japanese empires, by way of the Johor Sultanate and Malaysia.

Ambassador (Amb) Bilahari Kausikan’s presentation proposed to deconstruct the sentence: “Singapore is a small state located in South-East Asia”. Singapore, while physically small, loomed large internationally, being a trading, logistics and financial hub. Amb Kausikan argued that Singapore would best preserve its sovereignty by maintaining and enhancing its relevance in the world; and the way to do this was by remaining both successful, especially economically, and nimble.

Professor Evelyn Goh spoke about how the concepts of sovereignty had changed over time — from territorial sovereignty to ideology and protection of citizens. Professor Goh expounded on three possible changes that could occur in Singapore’s sovereignty: merger with another country; greater regional integration, for example, a greater ASEAN; or becoming part of a wider global state. The last scenario was used to highlight her view that a larger size might not benefit Singapore. Instead how “plugged in” Singapore is to a wider, globalised world would be more influential in determining Singapore’s future success.

The Question-and-Answer session revolved around three major themes: change, choices and adaptation.

When asked about the changes that might directly affect Singapore’s sovereignty, both speakers said that change could come suddenly or gradually; and as a small nation, the largest threats were where Singapore had a limited ability to affect, such as conflict between major powers, natural disaster, global economic catastrophe or even alien invasion. Prof. Goh noted that it was rare that the erosion of sovereignty was rarely ever a single event, and it took several events to “break the will of a nation”.

An example of this change was the constant readjustment of major powers that has been going on since the end of the Cold War. While small countries had no desire to see large countries engage in conflict to resolve differences, if major powers were too cosy, smaller countries would find themselves frozen out. Singapore would have to remain nimble to take advantage of the gaps that emerged while these major powers readjusted — failure to take advantage of the situation would leave no one for Singapore to blame but herself.

When questioned about the rise and fall of classical city-states, Prof. Goh said that Singapore’s circumstance as a city-state made it the last of a rare breed, with illustrious predecessors in the form of Venice, Florence and the ancient Greek city-states. Those states existed at a time when they were vital nodes in “the assemblages of authority”. It was noted that several modern cities occupied similar positions in present day but did so without their predecessor’s sovereignty; most sit within the nation-state paradigm. This did not mean that Singapore’s days are numbered, for nothing about the fate of a city-state was necessarily inevitable; and the return to prominence of cities as critical nodes in international infrastructure would make city-centric organisation fashionable again.

Amb Kausikan said that while sovereignty and circumstance would change, the element of choice would be a significant determinant for Singapore. As long as Singapore could say that it made active choices towards its future, regardless of whether the choice was to join a larger federal international body, it could be said to retain her sovereignty as long as it was her choice to do so.

Those choices were important for Singapore as a state, but would also be important for her citizens. As Singapore continued to tap into the globalised world, its citizens would be required to focus more on the choice between their national and international identities. Which version of their identify they let dominate would be an important question for Singaporeans, and the Singapore government might find itself compelled to make policy to try to mitigate the zero-sum nature of the decision; partly to allow Singaporeans to try to establish themselves on the international stage, as well as allowing newcomers to settle and contribute to Singapore.

When asked what choices Singapore should make in the face of such unpredictable and relentless change, Amb Kausikan said that while our choices were important, some choices were clearer than others. While individuals might be able to take less aggressive paths through life, Singapore had very little choice but to relentlessly strive for further success. It was financial and economic success that lent to Singapore’s hard power, allowing for the subsequent viability of any soft power strategy. This risked Singapore becoming unloved in the region and the world, but he felt that while undesirable, it was a better outcome than fading into irrelevance, and thus no longer having any choice, limited as it already was, in the events that faced Singapore.

In order to maintain this success, adaptation was key. Due to the nature of choice, it was impossible to know how any one decision would turn out. Even the best thought out choices might hinge on circumstances that the decision-maker would have no way of knowing. Singapore’s options in these circumstances would be determined by her ability to not only make the best choices possible, but also to build strategic capacity, notably different from tactical capacity, and to keep an open and honest mind about how past success was achieved. This would enable Singapore to deal with situations as they arise and thus be able to choose from the widest array of options when it came to the crunch.

Tan Min-Wei is a research assistant with the Politics and Governance Cluster at IPS. He also helped with the conceptualisation of Singapore Perspectives 2015.

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