Domestic politics and external challenges

Regional and international security issues as well as foreign policy have had a minor role in Singapore's post-independence elections.

The focus has always been on domestic issues.

While leaders of the ruling party have discussed external challenges facing Singapore, these have been largely ignored by the opposition parties.

The 2015 General Election last week was no different. Because of the responsibility of Members of Parliament for the management of town councils, the campaign has sometimes felt like a municipal election.

Previous elections had seen opposition candidates calling for respect for human rights, an end to preventive detention, the repeal of the Internal Security Act and the abolition of the death penalty.

Such issues have a domestic impact but they also attract external attention. These demands have not resonated with the electorate and candidates have learnt that votes are not won by highlighting these themes.

Although Singapore's critics abroad and civil liberties advocates within Singapore continue to raise these issues, it is difficult to mobilise political support at the electoral hustings.

This time around, no party has made these topics the central platform of its campaign. Neither is the presence of serial numbers on voting slips even mentioned as a cause for concern today. Critics realise that drawing attention to this will only cause the more wary to avoid supporting the opposition.

No candidate has made foreign policy or international security issues the focus of the campaign.

One opposition party has proposed moving from an armed forces based on universal conscription through national service to a professional military, while another has mentioned a reduction in defence budgets but there has been no sustained discussion of these issues.

Labour issues have been hotly debated during the campaign. The liberal provision of employment permits has been widely criticised. This issue could have an impact on Singapore's relations with states that are exporters of manpower to the Republic, such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Social media sites supporting the opposition have also criticised the provisions of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), which provided for the granting of visas to Indian nationals who were professionals and skilled workers in approved occupations.


The next five years will provide new challenges for the incoming government. A rapidly changing international environment will test the capacity of policymakers to adapt, change, innovate and even discard sacred cows.

This is the difference with policymaking for Singapore during the Cold War years of the 1970s and 1980s. Lines were clearly drawn and you knew who your allies and partners were and who were your adversaries. There was predictability to policymaking.

In retrospect, relationships were stable and constant adjustments did not occur. Singapore's major markets were in the West, which matched the broad foreign policy positions adopted by an independent Singapore.

In today's more fluid international environment, coalitions and alliances coalesce around issues. An ally on an issue today may be a critic on a different issue tomorrow. Flexibility, pragmatism, responsiveness and an open-minded approach are the hallmarks of effective decision-making in foreign policy and international security affairs today.


In the decade ahead, with the rise of China, the United States will no longer be the sole superpower.

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union was a strategic and political competitor of the US but an economic pygmy next to American economic prowess.

By contrast, China will present a more formidable challenge with a rapidly growing economy, even though it may not attain the stellar double-digit annual growth of the previous decade. A rising China will be a political and strategic competitor but it will also be involved in many cross-cutting collaborative economic relationships with the US. Calibrating their bilateral relationship will be the critical responsibility of policymakers in the US and China.

Managing bilateral relationships with the major powers will pose no less a challenge for the states of the region. Traditional political allies of the US in the region such as Australia and South Korea already have China as their leading trading partner, even as security relationships with the US are strengthened.

Although China's defence capabilities will grow in the decade ahead, the US will remain as the leading military power globally. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US spent more on defence last year than the next seven top-spending countries combined.

While Singapore does not have a formal alliance with the US, close defence ties have developed. Under the US-Singapore Strategic Framework Agreement, US Navy littoral combat ships are deployed on a rotational basis to Singapore.

When the Philippines sought the withdrawal of American forces from Clark airbase and Subic naval base in 1992, Singapore provided the use of its facilities to the US navy and air force.

Today, Changi Naval Base is the only facility in South-east Asia where an American aircraft carrier can dock. At the same time, Singapore is the United States' leading trading partner in ASEAN. The US trade surplus with Singapore is the fifth-largest US surplus in the world while US investment here exceeded US$116 billion (S$164 billion) in 2012.

Balancing Singapore's ties with the US and China will be a critical task in the decade ahead. China is already the Republic's largest trading partner with total trade of $121.5 billion last year and Singapore has been China's leading investor since 2013.

As Beijing develops a blue water fleet and positions itself as a regional military power, Singapore will develop a stronger defence relationship with China.

We should expect more port visits by Chinese naval vessels. More such naval deployments in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore will occur as it is a major choke point in China's sea lanes of communication through which oil and other raw materials destined for China are shipped.


Even as Singapore deals with a changing global environment, there will be continuing strategic certainties. Malaysia and Indonesia will remain the Republic's principal security concerns, as they have been since independence in 1965.

Singapore has enjoyed an excellent relationship with both countries in recent years facilitated by the close ties fostered through ASEAN and the development of informal networks at the bilateral level. These ties were buttressed by growing inter-dependence as the economies of the region focused on economic growth and welcomed foreign investment.

The establishment of an ASEAN Community will be proclaimed by the end of this year. Regional economic integration will be highlighted, characterised by a single market and production base, an economically competitive region which is integrated into the global economy and greater connectivity within the region. But there will be growing worries as conflicting claims in the South China Sea involving China and claimant states test intra-ASEAN political relationships.


The next few years will be more taxing in Singapore's bilateral relationship with its closest neighbours. Rising domestic tensions in Malaysia, with an economic slowdown and political challenges to the Najib Razak administration, as well as growing protectionism and nationalism in Indonesia under the current Joko Widodo presidency, increase the risks for Singapore.

During periods of domestic stress and tension in neighbouring countries, Singapore has been an easy target to rally domestic support and deflect criticism. Threats by Malaysian politicians to cut off water supply from Johor, allegations that Singapore benefited from the outward flow of funds by Indonesian Chinese conglomerates during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, claims that corrupt Indonesian businessmen sought refuge in the Republic and that Singapore grew wealthy at the expense of Malaysia and Indonesia are recurrent themes in the political rhetoric of the neighbouring countries at the height of such episodes of domestic political and economic stress.

In a more fluid external political environment, aspirants for political office in Singapore need to develop an awareness of the country's external challenges and vulnerabilities, even as they concentrate on meeting the demands of a more sophisticated domestic electorate.

Some of these foreign policy issues are national imperatives going beyond partisan politicking. The ability to respond calmly but firmly while demonstrating vigilance and preparedness as Singaporeans are necessary qualities to be nurtured among decision-makers in the little red dot.

Barry Desker is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of Southeast Asia Policy, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was first published on September 15, 2015.
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