During his long tenure as Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong has stripped Singapore’s relations with China and the US of all subtlety, opting instead for courageous honesty. But Lee’s approach is likely not one his father would have approved.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has just turned 70, and his retirement after 17 years in the top job is imminent. The legacy of his period of leadership is broad ranging and complex, but on foreign policy it is relatively simple: he will be judged almost entirely on his handling of China and the United States. When Lee became prime minister in 2004, relations with China were relatively friendly and mutually profitable. Neither country’s foreign policy establishment really trusted or liked the other, but the differences — mainly centred on Singapore’s close security ties with America and China’s encroachments in the South China Sea — were obscured by constructed notions of shared aspirations and Chinese culture. By contrast, Singapore was broadly in lockstep with the United States, but was reluctant to put the security elements of this alignment — as opposed to the economic elements — on prominent display for fear of closing off other options.
Bringing a “China view” to foreign policy
On paper, Lee was exceptionally well prepared to take a leading role in foreign policy as PM — not only did he study at Harvard University and the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, but he grew up the eldest son of Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, which places him at the pinnacle of Singapore’s “natural aristocracy” (Lee Hsien Loong’s term, not mine). He also spent 14 years as deputy prime minister to Goh Chok Tong.
Yet looking at this record, one must wonder whether the years rubbing shoulders with the American elite has been a mixed blessing. He is certainly well versed in international relations (IR), but from the standpoint of the American establishment. This may not have mattered so much, but he inherited a foreign service that was just as thoroughly socialised into the Anglo-American world as he was. Most of his Cabinet colleagues, along with the peak leadership of the civil service, the foreign service, and the military, had also studied at Oxbridge or Ivy League universities.
To his credit, Lee regarded this reality as a problem and set out to diversify the pathways of training for the next generation of civilian and military leaders. This involved tweaking the system of bonded Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarships that funds university training for future leaders in the civil service, foreign service, and the military. Most significantly for foreign policy, his government introduced an incentive scheme designed to encourage PSC scholarship winners to study in China for their first degree by offering them automatic eligibility for a second postgraduate scholarship elsewhere. In its first year of operation (2009), this programme enticed nine out of about 85 scholarship winners to study at Chinese universities. Five of these nine studied IR in preparation for careers in the Foreign Service.
The Prime Minister’s Office celebrated this outcome as a landmark achievement, but in 2010, the programme attracted only two students to China out of about 70 — both studying IR — and since then has attracted only 19 students, 11 of whom have studied IR or a similar degree. These are modest numbers, and yet even allowing for disappointments and natural attrition, the infusion of up to 18 China-educated scholars into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with more in other ministries such as Finance and Trade, may prove to be an important medium- and long-term foreign policy legacy.
Lee’s other major foreign policy legacies are indirectly related to the scholarship programme but are of much more immediate and spectacular consequence. The first is Lee’s persistent record of creating avoidable problems in Singapore’s relations with China, demonstrating in the process the pressing need for China-literate advisers going into the future.
Maintaining friendly relations with an increasingly assertive China has not been easy for any leaders in the region, and doubly so for those with ties to the United States, but Lee Hsien Loong’s record suggests he has gone out of his way to invite trouble. All the more remarkable is that he seems not to have been aware of the likely consequences of his actions.
Under Lee Hsien Loong’s predecessors, Singapore’s relations with China were grounded in deliberate ambiguity. When Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong were at the helm, Singapore’s relations with China and the United States had their ups and downs but were always within well-defined limits that minimised offence to China while keeping the American relationship secure.
An important element in facilitating the China relationship used to be avoiding open and direct conflict. Early in Lee Hsien Loong’s premiership, however, Singapore took a leading role within ASEAN, opposing China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, despite having no claims in the area itself.
In 2016, Lee combined a high-profile attack on China over the South China Sea with disparaging references to China handing out “lollipops” in return for favours and loyalty and profuse expressions of affection for America. China’s retaliatory threats came swiftly — at the popular level through the semi-official Global Times newspaper, at the diplomatic level by carpeting the Singaporean ambassador in Beijing, at the economic level by China’s public refusal to invite Lee to the 2017 Belt and Road Forum, and quasi-militarily by impounding nine of the Singapore Army’s armoured vehicles in Hong Kong for several months as they were on their way back to Singapore from Taiwan.
To suffer such attacks as part of a quest is one thing, but in this case the suffering seems to have been prompted for no purpose. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the elite’s personal attachment to the American establishment is getting in the way of hard choices.
Furthermore, the only reason Singapore’s armoured vehicles even landed in Hong Kong was because earlier in the year the government had sold off its national shipping line, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), due to a downturn in the shipping industry. Then it put the transport of its military hardware up for commercial contract and accepted a layover in Hong Kong because it seemed like a good deal. Neither Lee Kuan Yew nor Goh Chok Tong would have sold NOL just because of a downturn in the shipping industry — they would have recognised that as an island state dependent on access to international trade routes, Singapore needed a national shipping line for strategic reasons.
An American Bromance
The final legacy I wish to identify came into renewed focus only last month. Having spent years stumbling into a hostile relationship with China without, it seemed, conscious intent, Lee has now deliberately placed all his bets on the United States. On 5 March 2022, Singapore condemned the invasion of Ukraine and announced a series of sanctions against Russia, including several that need to be taken particularly seriously because they capitalise on Singapore’s strength as a financial centre. Later in the month, Lee was in Washington DC leading a high-profile Cabinet delegation on a seven-day working visit to Washington and the Pentagon, during which he and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced with exuberant expressions of mutual fidelity that the military ties between the two countries were not just being renewed, but were likely to be escalated in the near future. The military relationship between the two countries was “stronger than ever,” Austin added, perhaps unnecessarily.
To be clear, Singapore has been diplomatically and militarily close to the United States since the 1960s, so this development is not new in itself. But under earlier prime ministers, every attempt was made to cover the de facto alliance with a veneer of ambiguity so that Singapore could display an element of autonomy in its international relations. Lee Kuan Yew in particular took this task very seriously, in part to ensure that Singapore retained credibility with its immediate neighbours in ASEAN, but also to facilitate a complementary ambiguity in its relations with China.
In what is likely to be Lee Hsien Loong’s final significant foreign policy initiative, he has thrown off both cloaks of ambiguity and has proudly and loudly hooked Singapore’s star to the Stars and Stripes for another generation. Perhaps the move has the virtue of honesty, but it is hard to see what advantage is to be gained by being so transparent.
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Michael Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and the author or editor of several books and many academic articles, mainly on Singapore politics and history. His most recent books are Singapore: A Modern History and The Limits of Authoritarian Governance in Singapore’s Developmental State, both published in 2019. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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