Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers from around the world for their diverse insights into US policy in Asia. This conversation with Dr Ja Ian Chong, Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, is the 323rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Examine the impact of the legacy of the Lee Kuan Yew family on Singapore’s system of governance, national identity, and political culture.
The Lee family has, of course, been closely linked to Singaporean politics since the 1950s, before independence. Harry Lee Kuan Yew, a Cambridge graduate, first made a name for himself as an advocate for the independent trade unions that existed at the time. He was Prime Minister of independent Singapore from 1965 to 1990, but remained a dominant political influence until his death in 2015. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, was a career army officer who entered politics partisan in 1984, before becoming Prime Minister in 2004.
Singapore had been a thriving port and trading center since the 19th century, taking advantage of its geographical position at the intersection of several important shipping lanes. Singapore’s commercial success was also based on its ability to benefit from the post-WWII and post-Cold War liberalization of the global economy and a US-backed rules-based order. Singapore historically seeks to maintain close ties with the United States, China, Europe, Japan and its neighbors.
Compare and contrast how the new leadership under Lawrence Wong will differ from the political leadership of the Lee family.
Little is known about Lawrence Wong’s political leanings. As a career bureaucrat before entering partisan politics, the Singaporean public is also less familiar with Wong. Like the other PAPs [People’s Action Party, Singapore’s ruling party since 1959] politicians of his generation, Wong is not associated with any major policy initiative or key policy idea. However, he has a reputation for being a good policy maker and somewhat open to dissenting opinions within the political establishment and the civil service.
There is speculation that Wong is a compromise candidate for PAP leader. Such conditions suggest that Wong’s leadership is likely to be a continuation of that of younger Lee. That said, it’s possible that Wong could further display his own distinct set of preferences after solidifying his position.
Identify the top three strategic priorities for the new Singapore administration.
I suppose these are likely to manage relations with Washington and Beijing; seek to engage key partners such as the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia and others; and working with its Southeast Asian neighbors through ASEAN.
The stability of US-PRC relations allows for predictability; escalating tensions can prove detrimental to the regional peace on which Singapore’s prosperity depends. Singapore’s strategic partnership agreements with the United States mean it could become an important logistics hub in an eventuality in East Asia involving Washington. Should such an emergency result in a confrontation with the PRC, Beijing could be incentivized to disrupt Singapore’s ability to play this role.
The engagement of other partners aims to unlock more strategic and economic opportunities for Singapore. This helps it diversify somewhat from the US and PRC. There is also the hope that the involvement of these other actors in regional affairs may encourage them to exert a restraining influence on Beijing and Washington.
Singapore must work with its neighbors because of the geographical reality. Good relations with its neighbors can help secure Singapore’s immediate environment. Singapore also has substantial societal, family and economic ties with its neighbours, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia.
How could Singapore balance east and west with rising stakes in US-China competition under the new prime minister?
Wong and Lee have declared their desire to maintain stable cooperative relations with Washington and Beijing. They also want the two great powers to resolve their differences amicably, or at least find modes of competition that limit negative externalities.
Given the trajectory of growing tension between the US and the PRC, questioning the feasibility of the hopes expressed by Wong and Lee is reasonable and probably quite pragmatic. The two countries’ positions toward each other are hardening, with few signs that there are strong domestic incentives to moderate those views. Washington and Beijing have floated ideas such as decoupling and dual circulation, which point to a curtailment, if not a reduction, of globalization trends taken for granted in recent decades.
Singapore must prepare for contingencies that will result in a world that is less like what it knows and underpins its past economic success. This means both having policies in place and preparing the public. It goes beyond the trope of “not wanting to choose sides.” Singapore needs to present a positive vision of what it wants to do and how it intends to mitigate the apparent risks it faces.
Assess the calculus behind Wong’s approach to maintaining Singapore’s partnership with the United States and, simultaneously, managing China’s aggressive regional ambitions.
Based on Wong’s statements – and those of Lee Hsien Loong – Singapore seems hopeful that the world of tomorrow won’t be too different from the past. A key consideration is to maintain consistent, pro-status quo US involvement in Asia so that it remains an active force for stability. These considerations may underlie Singapore’s reiteration of a preference for a rules-based international order.
Singapore’s leaders were not comfortable with [former U.S.] President Trump’s unpredictable and confrontational approach to foreign policy, including longtime US allies and partners. This is observable from the repeated laments over Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the previous isolationist turn. Thus, a key consideration is to maintain consistent, pro-status quo US involvement in Asia, so that it remains an active force for stability. This desire to tie Washington to regional cooperation and stability may explain Singapore’s willingness to engage in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and other US initiatives, such as its relative openness to AUKUS and the Quad. .
Singaporean leaders, Wong and others included, are probably not keen on the idea of an overly assertive PRC, as such actions can be destabilizing and disrupt multiple regional players, not just the United States. These considerations may underlie Singapore’s reiteration of a preference for a rules-based international order. However, Singaporean leaders are wary of actions that Beijing sees as overtly critical, especially after a period of friction over arbitration in the South China Sea in the middle of the last decade. The state of Singapore has been very careful in attributing influence operations, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and espionage cases that independent observers suspect have to do with the PRC, for example. They may opt for quiet diplomacy with the PRC, but whether that is effective remains to be seen. After all, there are few reasons why Beijing, or for that matter Washington, will sway Singaporean opinions more than other considerations.
The risk for Singapore is that its middle ground approach will make it worse off in the eyes of Washington and Beijing. Either or both major powers might suspect Singapore of duplicity, siding with the other while declaring the opposite to interlocutors and the public. Singapore could also end up being perceived as an uncommitted and unreliable partner. These risks could increase if the competition between the United States and the PRC intensifies, which will lead Washington and Beijing to be less tolerant of each other’s initiatives and to consider the actions taken by other states to veer from board as detrimental to their own interests. This was the case between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Statements from Beijing that an economic initiative like the IPEF is actually “containment” may prefigure such thinking. As mentioned earlier, how Singapore intends to mitigate these risks is currently less clear.