Commentary | Ayisha Sithika, Events Associate Editor
2018 was a huge year for foreign affairs in Singapore.
With the ASEAN chairmanship, Trump-Kim Summit and the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Singapore was busy in international affairs.
According to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s current priority in foreign policy is to protect our independence and sovereignty and to expand opportunities to overcome our geographic limits.
Singapore maintains diplomatic relations with 189 countries and it is a member of many international bodies such as the UN and ASEAN.
The friendly nature Singapore has adopted aligns with the view that we must expand opportunities with different countries to overcome disadvantages that come along with our small size.
Recent events and developments in international affairs have caused many to question the direction that our foreign policy is heading towards.
There are two main issues in which people are concerned about: Singapore’s role as a middle man and its bilateral relations with Malaysia.
Pundits argue that Singapore should relook its position as a “Middle Man” as international tensions are pulling Singapore in different directions.
The role of an intermediary in international affairs has long been familiar with Singapore. For instance, the nation hosted the first ever meeting of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeouin 2015. Both countries last met in 1992 Hong Kong to discuss their relationship before the 2015 meeting.
Dr Balakrishnan posits that Singapore gains much international prestige by playing an important role in international relations.
For example, the Trump-Kim summit made images of Singapore to go viral and helped reinforce Singapore as a safe place to travel and do business.
Critics, however, may argue that acting as an intermediary may only bring trouble to Singapore and it should not always punch above its weight.
Such concerns were further highlighted following the severance of diplomatic ties by nine Arab countries with Qatar and closed their borders and airspace to Qatari aircraft and ships.
The bloc adopted such extreme measures in response to Qatar’s insistence on maintaining ties with Iran.
This incident has invited reflection on Singapore’s own stance on foreign affairs. Both Qatar and Singapore are small states who are deeply entrenched in foreign affairs.
Some argue that Qatar’ situation is an example of how small states should act like a small state and not get too deeply involved with affairs beyond its own border.
Another issue of debate is Singapore’s bilateral relations with Malaysia. Changes to the Malaysian political landscape has led to greater tensions between the two parties. The strain is commonly seen to be triggered by recent disputes over water, maritime boundaries and airspace.
Indeed, Malaysia’s supply of water to Singapore has always been a fragile and sensitive issue. With the return of Prime Minister Mahathir to the office, the water agreement proves to be a tacky issue once again.
While Malaysia sees the price of treated water sold back to Malaysia as being too expensive, Singapore also believes that its neighbour intrusions into territorial waters and airspace are infringing upon the nation’s Singapore’s sovereignty.
Hence, in view of these developments, PM Lee believes that these territorial issues would be difficult to settle.
There are many ways in which talks between both countries can go, but Singapore hopes to maintain its overall relationship with Malaysia.
The shared history between both countries should not be discounted during these talks and better communication mechanisms should be developed to better the ties between Singapore and Malaysia.
About the author: Ayisha Sithika is a first-year Political science major from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She now serves as the Associate Editor (Events) of The Convergence. Ayisha adores to read and watch Korean dramas. She currently hopes to gain a better understanding of exercise and develop a love for it.