With Singapore forging bilateral agreements with its neighbouring countries, can it handle foreign interference in its domestic politics?

If Singapore is working to be “friends with everyone” in order to advance its own interests– how can it capably deflect from countries that seek to challenge its political system and demolish its societal framework?

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Photo: You Tube screengrab from govsingapore

The escalating threat of foreign interference in domestic politics has become a major theme in Singapore’s Home Affairs discourse.

These threats include foreign actors mounting disinformation campaigns and exploiting sensitive issues to break social cohesion or interfering in domestic politics by influencing political players through funding and donations.

However, with the country’s core foreign policy to be “friends with everyone” in order to advance its own interests, protect its sovereignty, and preserve its independence – can Singapore competently ward off countries that seek to undermine its democracy and tear down its duly constituted social fabric?

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan clearly stated that the ultimate objective of Singapore’s foreign policy is to protect its independence and sovereignty, and expand opportunities for its citizens to overcome the country’s geographical limits.

The Foreign Affairs Minister stressed that “Diplomacy is not just about having ‘friendly’ relations at all costs,” it is also “about promoting friendly relations as a way to protect and advance our own important interests.”

“When others make unreasonable demands that hurt or compromise our national interests, we need to state our position and stand our ground in a firm and principled manner,” he added.

As Singapore pursues bilateral opportunities with neighbors like Malaysia and Indonesia, it also works to maintain excellent relations with China and hopes to continue pursuing mutually beneficial ties and friendship with the Asian giant. Simultaneously, the city-state is “watching carefully” what policies the US pursues domestically and internationally.

“The US is an important power in the region, which contributes to peace and stability in Asia,” PM Lee said in a previous speech. “And we hope that even with a new administration, even with a different mood in the US, this can continue…Because if the US continues to cooperate with Singapore and other countries, I think it is good for Singapore, and it is also good for the US and for the world.”

Fending off threats while maintaining foreign relations
According to Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, antagonistic information crusades have been employed to destabilise Singapore’s determination to preserve peace and level-headedness when there are existing tensions with another country.

While the government takes so much effort to accomplish this, foreign actors also attempt to undercut democracy and even elections which can divide the country and destroy its social structure.

To be able to fight, one needs to know the enemy and Singapore does this by studying the experiences of other countries which are being confronted with similar threats, like Germany and Australia.

In Australia, there are laws that ban foreign political donations and those who act on behalf of foreign nations or entities must declare such relationships. Likewise, those who engage in foreign interference aimed at influencing elections or supporting foreign intelligence face up to 20 years’ jail.

As such, Singapore sees detection and exposure as vital in combating these threats. In like manner, authorities must be able to act quickly and keep up with new digital-age tactics. Another way is to highlight the importance of subscribing to a rules-based global order, to the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

The Singaporean government  believe this is specifically significant for a small state like Singapore, as “in a system where ‘might is right’, and the laws of the jungle prevail, small states like us have very little chance of survival” Dr. Balakrishnan once stated.

This is one reason why Singapore is an active participant of the United Nations. The country’s representatives stand up on issues and speak with conviction, so that people know Singapore’s position.

At the same time, it actively counters the tactics of other powers who may try to influence its domestic constituencies in order to make its foreign policy better suit their interests.

Examples of this strong stance include the caning of American teenager Michael Fay for his vandalism acts in 1994 despite pressure from the US, and the hanging of two Indonesian marines in 1968 for the bombing of McDonald House during Konfrontasi.

These examples send a clear message to other countries — that Singapore will uphold its laws, and will not be “intimidated into acquiescence.”

Another move it has consistently applied is to constantly look ahead to anticipate developments, so that it can position itself  to protect its interests, whichever way events may break. For instance, the third G-to-G project between Singapore and China in Chongqing positioned Singapore at one end of the “One Belt, One Road” project. it made the country a part of the “belt” passing through Eurasia as well as the “road” passing through South-east Asia.

Finally, during noteworthy conferences and debates, Singapore brings something wise to the table. Considering that it does not have deep pockets of money to disburse nor power to coerce others, it works hard to master the issues and bring constructive ideas, so that every diplomat in the team attending global talks can add something notable and worthwhile to the discussions.

Singapore believes that diplomacy is not always about boosting cooperation. Occasionally, it also means managing disputes and frictions, just like what it has done with the South China Sea. While Singapore is not a claimant state, it does have important interests at stake — freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for international law.

It aims to be a straightforward and truthful negotiator, dealing fairly and candidly with all parties so that it can preserve stability and peace in the region, at the same time, establish its reputation as a reliable country to deal with.

Once the world knows what Singapore is and what it stands for, foreign “bullies” and overseas provocateurs will not stand a chance as the small city-state can effectively outsmart them.