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  • The Convergence

Singapore’s place in The Commonwealth

By Wei Heng (Editor)



Introduction


The death of Queen Elizabeth II sparked a slew of condolences from nations and organisations across the world, including those belonging to The Commonwealth. Amidst an outpouring of emotions towards the late monarch who had ruled the United Kingdom for more than 70 years, there was a wide spectrum of reactions towards her death.


Singapore officially marked the death of the Queen by flying state flags at half-mast, while President Halimah Yacob attended the Queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey as the state representative. [1] Yet, Singaporeans’ reactions towards the Queen’s death were relatively more muted. Older Singaporeans lamented the passing of an era while most younger Singaporeans remain indifferent due to the fact that the British monarchy is highly disconnected from their daily lives. For some younger Singaporeans, they expressed delight that the monarch, whose empire once spanned one-third of the globe in its heyday and was responsible for the trauma and exploitation for the benefit of the metropole, was finally gone.


The Commonwealth


The Commonwealth is a political association of 56 independent nations, the majority of whom were previously ruled by the British Empire. At its height, the British Empire spanned one-third of the world. The British Commonwealth of Nations morphed into The Commonwealth with the London Declaration in 1949, with emphasis being placed on the fact that its members are "free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress". [3]


Singapore joined The Commonwealth on 15 October 1965, two months after attaining independence, and has since regularly participated in the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), constantly contributing towards the work of the Commonwealth.[4] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised that “Singapore has benefited from being part of the Commonwealth and will pay it forward by sharing its developmental experiences with fellow countries in the grouping.” [5]


Criticisms of The Commonwealth


Undeniably, The Commonwealth has come under criticism for possibly being just another way for the United Kingdom to retain its influence over former colonies despite the decolonisation, and that the organisation has done little to contribute towards the international system. [6] Given the historical ties within The Commonwealth, perhaps it comes as a surprise that many nations have chosen to continue associating themselves with their former colonial rulers. Even states that were not originally part of the British Empire, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, have opted to join The Commonwealth, signifying its growing international clout outside the former empire.


Although the British withdrew from Singapore in 1971, it left behind a colonial legacy that continues to exist until this very day. [7] Just recently, Singapore organised the Bicentennial Celebrations that commemorated colonial rule with much pomp and fanfare. These are all existing representations of Singapore’s connections to its colonial past. While the narrative that the British left behind a host of institutions, laws and policies that contributed towards nation-building in Singapore, it is a convenient tool to “re-imagine” what it means vis-a-vis Singapore’s standing in the world today, especially when the external environment is volatile. [8] This story of a vulnerable city-state that transformed from a sleepy fishing village to a cosmopolitan city as a result of colonial rule has been constantly contested.


Perhaps in the globalised 21st Century, such feelings of connection to former colonial masters and the wider Commonwealth are of lesser importance, especially to the younger generation, which has not experienced colonial rule. Indeed, as republicanism gathers momentum towards the twilight of the Queen’s reign and after her death, many nations in the Commonwealth which still retain the crown as their head of state have indicated their desire to cut ties with any remaining vestige of colonial rule.


While the first generation of Commonwealth leaders might have had sentimental links of a shared history and togetherness which led to the creation of The Commonwealth, however, these ties of empire seem much less prominent in 2022. Then what is it that motivates countries to remain in this post-imperial project that sprung up in the era of decolonisation? For Singapore, our ties with our former colonial master - the United Kingdom, and its various colonies (that have since gained independence), signify that there is value in continuing to retain and even expanding such ties.


Benefits of Institutions such as The Commonwealth


As bluntly put by Jawaharlal Nehru (prominent nationalist figure and first Prime Minister of India): “In an increasingly globalised world, it’s critical to retain allies—even their former coloniser—through organisations like the Commonwealth of Nations”. [9] Farrell emphasises that The Commonwealth is a grouping that possesses value, adaptability and could be harnessed to maintain useful links. [10] Singapore is able to utilise its position as a member of The Commonwealth to project its soft power and influence.


The use of international organisations like the United Nations and The Commonwealth is one of Singapore’s diverse strategies to punch above its weight. One of the hallmarks of Singapore’s foreign policy is its ability to utilise such international platforms to make its voice heard on the global stage. Mayall opines that the value of The Commonwealth lies not just in its material advantage, but also in its ability to provide governments with “diplomatic and political support”. [11] This is one of the key features of international organisations, where countries are able to leverage their membership within The Commonwealth to “lobby major donors and diplomatic players”. [12]


Singapore and The Commonwealth


Events that are organised by The Commonwealth such as the Commonwealth Games (which are held every four years) and the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay are platforms that provide opportunities for not only Singaporeans, but also Singapore as a nation, to showcase its prowess and capacity. Indeed, Singapore has excelled consistently in these areas. One poignant example would be the Commonwealth Games, where Singapore has constantly brought home medals with its latest haul in Birmingham in 2022 tallying a total of 12 medals. [13] The Commonwealth Games brings nations together in a colourful celebration of sport and human performance. Held every four years, the Games have grown to a global spectacle of 4,600 sports men and women from across 72 nations and territories. [14] The Games not only showcases Singapore’s sporting excellence, it also places a spotlight on niche areas of sports that Singapore has continuously shone in, such as swimming and table tennis. Underneath the promise of championing democratic values such as inclusion and advancing human rights, the point being driven home is that there are tangible benefits for countries that participate in the activities of The Commonwealth. [15]


Apart from the usual sporting events, the highlight of The Commonwealth is the platform that it provides for leaders to coalesce. The biennial CHOGM allows leaders from member countries to gather and discuss important developments globally. These discussions provide valuable opportunities for nations to interact with others that they may not otherwise have been able to interact with. For example, in the 2022 CHOGM, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with leaders from Zambia, Sierra Leone and The Bahamas. [16] As Singapore does not possess in-depth and fully developed ties with some of these countries, the biennial meeting allows leaders to touch base with each other, increasing Singapore’s diplomatic presence with its partners globally. This places Singapore in an advantageous position as the CHOGM is an area for like-minded countries to advance a particular agenda both regionally and globally. Such a point was reflected by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in his speech calling for greater collaboration across Commonwealth countries - “because of our [The Commonwealth’s] diverse membership, there is much more that the Commonwealth can and should do to contribute to inclusive solutions that take into account the interests, especially of small, developing nations”. [17]


The Commonwealth is a tool of diplomacy for Singapore. By contributing towards the work of The Commonwealth and participating in its activities, Singapore is able to amplify its voice while extending its diplomatic outreach towards the breadth and variety of the membership of The Commonwealth. This would eventually lay groundwork for the development of deeper level ties with a multitude of partners. Through engagement within The Commonwealth, this would inevitably increase Singapore’s diplomatic visibility.


Conclusion


While The Commonwealth may not function similarly to other international organisations like the UN, it is still an important arena for small states like Singapore to have a greater voice diplomatically. Despite the Queen’s passing and the gradual end of the British Empire, the relevance and value of The Commonwealth will continue to enable countries to meet their own foreign policy objectives.






Bibliography


[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/singapore-president-halimah-yacob-attend-state-funeral-queen-elizabeth-ii-2944041


[2] https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/queen-older-sporeans-end-era-youth-removed-colonial-ruler-1989046


[3] https://thecommonwealth.org/london-declaration-1949#:~:text=Accordingly%20the%20United%20Kingdom%2C%20Canada,of%20peace%2C%20liberty%20and%20progress


[4] https://www.mfa.gov.sg/SINGAPORES-FOREIGN-POLICY/International-Organisations/The-Commonwealth


[5] https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/singapore-has-benefited-from-being-part-of-commonwealth-and-will-pay-it-forward-pm-lee


[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43715079


[7] https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1001_2009-02-10.html#:~:text=On%2018%20July%201967%2C%20Britain


[8] https://www.jstor.org/stable/26938897


[9] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-the-commonwealth-of-nations-arose-from-a-crumbling-british-empire


[10] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/queen-elizabeth-death-monarch-commonwealth-head-state-king-charles-republic-2939891


[11] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2623908


[12] https://theconversation.com/the-commonwealth-rediscovering-its-radical-voice-could-make-it-relevant-again-156398


[13] https://youthopia.sg/read/team-singapore-earns-4-gold-medals-sets-8-national-records-at-2022-commonwealth-games/


[14] https://www.birmingham2022.com/about-us/our-history


[15] https://thecommonwealth.org/news/commonwealth-games-are-opportunity-promote-inclusion-and-advance-human-rights-through-sport


[16] https://www.straitstimes.com/world/pm-lee-attends-opening-ceremony-of-commonwealth-leaders-meeting


[17] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/world/commonwealth-small-nations-interests-vivian-balakrishnan-2766441



 

Wei Heng is a third year Political Science and History major (trying to make himself look employable) and is an editor for The Convergence. He strongly believes in raising awareness about political issues related to Singapore amongst his peers. He also places a deep interest in understanding history as a lens to explain our world today. In his free time, Wei Heng also can be found scrolling through Youtube or Spotify for the latest (albeit less mainstream) Mandopop songs.



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