Singapore should continue to adopt a principled but adaptative foreign policy, says SMS Maliki Osman
Conversations | By Zhou Xizhuang Michael, Editor-in-Chief
When asked to join politics, SMS Maliki Osman saw it as a good opportunity to put his academic and teaching experience to practice.
In an interview with The Convergence, the Senior Minister of State (SMS), Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) shares that his academic background has been a useful asset to his political work.
“Having been in the system for the last 18 years, I find it very fulfilling because it does allow me to bring together that experience – the research experience – and make it relevant to policymaking and vice versa,” he adds.
For the ex-NUS Assistant Professor in Social Work, the transition from a professor to a politician has been about adapting to new circumstances and standing up to new challenges whilst staying true to much-valued principles.
The same can be said for Singapore’s foreign policy as the city-state makes its transition from a third world country to a first-world metropolis.
Fundamental foreign policy principles remain relevant but need to adapt to change
When The Convergence asked what Singapore’s guiding principles in foreign policy are, SMS Maliki sees the promotion of multilateralism and a rules-based international order as a top priority.
This is more so when global trade is in view.
Singapore’s economic progress has been undergirded by a healthy global trading ecosystem, which is in itself a product of a rules-based international order.
“We must uphold a multilateral, global trading system that respects the rights and sovereignty of all states. This is really important for a small state like Singapore, where economic growth is critical, global trade is important,” he adds.
Indeed, Singapore’s active participation and promotion of a rules-based global trading system have allowed it to be tightly knitted to the global trading network.
This has translated into Singapore’s success in negotiating bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA).
Apart from the economic realm, Singapore has also been active in international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), too.
Such active participation has enabled the Republic to be part of and contribute to processes of global norms creation and regimes construction.
For example, Singapore had been a valuable player in the negotiations of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Paris Agreement.
Besides promoting a rules-based international order, SMS Maliki also stresses that Singapore needs to remain credible and reliable to its partners, stay relevant to the international community and capitalise on its key strategic assets, and lastly, in his words, “be friends to everyone and enemy to none.”
In short, these four principles – promoting a rules-based international order, staying relevant, becoming a credible partner, and fostering a friendly international environment – have “pillared” Singapore’s foreign policy for the last 50 over years.
“The advocacy for a multilateral system, rules-based international trading system allows us to ensure that like-minded countries continue to advocate for such a system, such that we do not compromise on our own positions, we don’t compromise on our own ability to be part of that global trading system" - Dr Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Amid global uncertainty, it is tempting for one to ask if these principles remain relevant in helping Singapore navigate its new global environment.
On this, SMS Maliki posits that it is important for Singapore to recognise new shifts and changes to its external environment.
Nevertheless, he is confident that the aforementioned principles remain relevant amid changes, and have ensured that Singapore can continue to make the best of its geopolitical situation.
Take the ongoing US-China trade tensions, for example.
SMS Maliki argues that Singapore needs to acknowledge that a shift in power is unfolding and that protectionist and nationalist sentiments may ascend to dominate the global discourse.
However, such a scenario makes Singapore’s long-standing principle of advocating for a rules-based international order all the more important.
“The advocacy for a multilateral system, rules-based international trading system allows us to ensure that like-minded countries continue to advocate for such a system, such that we do not compromise on our own positions, we don’t compromise on our own ability to be part of that global trading system,” he says.
He later adds that such a principle rooted not only from a timely view of the global situation but, more importantly, from a pragmatic consideration of Singapore’s vulnerability to global shocks owing to its strong reliance on a functioning global economic system.
At the same time, SMS Maliki thinks that there are margins for change so that Singapore can remain relevant and adaptive to new situations.
This means active engagement with partners to find common ground, as well as constantly re-inventing itself and acknowledging that Singapore is always a “work-in-progress”.
“We need to be mindful how do we adjust in relation to the dynamics of those relationships. So, when I talk about being relevant, for example, how do we continue to engage our partners in different forums?”
“So, we continue to engage them and ensure that the key values remain to be part of the mindshare of majority of our partners out there,” he says.
Keeping the balance on the international stage
A common question that revolves around Singapore’s foreign policy is whether it should “punch above its weight” in international relations.
On this, the Senior Minister of State believes that Singapore should always take a position that aligns with its interests.
“We don’t go and tell people that we are good in ‘A, B, C, D’.
Rather, “we go out and share our perspective because it is of interest to us,” adds SMS Maliki.
He then cites the 2018 Trump-Kim Summit to illustrate this balanced approach. The decision to host that historic summit in Singapore was not a reflection of deliberate acts by Singapore to throw its weight around.
Instead, it “speaks volume of the confidence the organisers have of what Singapore can offer.”
At times, actions can speak louder than words.
Singapore’s achievements and contributions to the international community are self-evident. Thus, there is no need for Singapore to openly tell others what it can – or cannot – do.
As SMS Maliki emphasises, it is more important to look at how Singapore can articulate its interests and positions while not being engulfed in international disputes.
“We shouldn’t be silent, nor should we not take a position,” he cautions.
No taking sides
Relating to Singapore’s international orientations, The Convergence asks SMS Maliki if there might be a possibility that simmering US-China rivalry might explode to force Singapore or regional players to take sides in the future.
Without hesitation, SMS Maliki counsels against taking sides as he thinks “that is a wrong question to ask.''
Instead, the Senior Minister of State believes that Singapore and the ASEAN will be better off finding ways to manage their relations with both the US and China.
“I think what’s more important is really how do we manage the relationship with either parties.”
“we should do to manage the current situation and how we can move forward as we engage both parties,” he adds.
In an increasingly interconnected world, it is perhaps best that countries remain on good terms and not see the international situation as a zero-sum game.
Foreign policy starts from every Singaporean
While understanding global trends and making wise decisions at the international setting is certainly vital to Singapore’s foreign policymaking, we should pay equal attention to the domestic sphere, too.
To SMS Maliki, “foreign policy is not the role of diplomats alone” as it is also the people’s business and infused with the interests and identities of the people.
“Foreign policy ought to be in the blood of every Singaporean. It has to be the responsibility of every Singaporean,” elaborates the Senior Minister of State.
When asked about the forms of participation, SMS Maliki thinks Singaporeans should actively engage and interact with the international community just as diplomats and foreign policy experts do.
To do so, SMS Maliki thinks that the Government has to “[engage] Singaporeans on every aspect of Singapore’s life, preparing them to appreciate and share.”
Throughout the interview, SMS Maliki adopts a friendly, prudent, and encouraging tone when speaking about the various foreign issues.
By extension, this disposition of his can also be said to be reflective of Singapore’s foreign policy: friendly in outlook, prudent in action, and encouraging in substance.
The quickest way to learn about Singapore’s foreign policy, perhaps, is speaking to one who is involved in the foreign policy decision-making process.
Please check out the video below for more!
About the interviewee: Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman currently serves as the Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and as Mayor for the South East District. Prior to entering politics, Dr Maliki was an Assistant Professor at the NUS Department of Social Work and Psychology.