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Singapore not a vassal, must pursue the rule of law – Chief Justice Menon

During his speech at the 11th S. Rajaratnam Lecture on Oct. 15, Singapore's chief justice underscored the five core principles of relevance, defence, diplomacy, legality and consistency which shaped Singapore’s foreign policy

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Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon asserts that Singapore is not a vassal and that international rule of law is a necessity for the Republic. This he maintained during his speech at the 11th S. Rajaratnam Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 15 attended by nearly 850 government officials, foreign dignitaries, academics and students.

“Our future lies not in the naive tactic of tethering our fate to whoever we think is the strongest power, for that will mean reducing ourselves to the status of a vassal,” Menon said.

While Menon acknowledged that the long arc of history has shown that a mighty power might be able to bully those with less might — such as the capture of the island of Melos by Athens more than 2,000 years ago — he remains confident that in today’s world that is committed to the international rule of law, “no power can bully all of us, all the time.” This is because of the levers of foreign policy strategy in place in facilitating dialogue and diplomacy among states, instead of resorting to war.

Menon underscored the five core principles of relevance, defence, diplomacy, legality and consistency which shaped Singapore’s foreign policy.

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Successful and thriving economy

Singapore has to sustain its vibrant economy. This is because the country’s international standing is founded in part on the policies that have made it relevant as a centre of trade and finance, Menon said.

He also quoted the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said it is Singapore’s “economic imperative” to ensure that other countries have an interest in its “continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation.”

Robust defence force

Menon spoke about the importance of maintaining a “strong and respected” defence force, to deter potential hostile threats, as part of Singapore’s foreign policy.

He quoted Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean’s remarks that diplomacy and defence in Singapore are “twins”, where the military is the “last guarantor of our sovereignty”.

“In turn, our defence force must be backed by a society that is resilient, stable and united in the face of external threats,” he added.

Expansive political and economic collaborations

According to Menon, Singapore needs to continue to expand its network of political and economic relationships and alliances.

Singapore can do so by staying as an active and contributing member of multilateral groups, like the ASEAN, the Forum of Small States, and the Global Governance group.

These groups provide a forum for Singapore to advocate its interests and influence regional policies. They also allow small states to “make common cause”, “amplifying [their] influence in the world”, as he quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Fostering international legal order

The chief justice stressed the need for Singapore to continue promoting an international legal order that respects reasons rather than force. According to him, Singapore has done well in this aspect over the years, as an active and contributing member of international institutions.

Despite being a small nation, Singapore has performed notably well, from its contributions to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, to recent efforts in spearheading the Singapore Mediation Convention in August 2019.

Consistency in foreign relations

Singapore needs to remain as an “honest broker” in international affairs, as an independent and non-aligned, constructive member of the international community, Menon stated. On through this mindset can Singapore remain credible and consistent in its inter-state relationships, who “cannot be bought, nor bullied”.

To accomplish this, Singapore must steadfastly adhere to its international obligations, and urge others to honour agreements as well.

The event, organised by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is an annual platform for distinguished guests to talk about topics related to Singapore’s foreign policy and international relations.

Previous speakers included the late Lee Kuan Yew, the late President S R Nathan, former President Tony Tan, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and former Foreign Minister George Yeo. -/TISG

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