Singapore needs the world. The world doesn’t need Singapore.
This is the heart of Singapore’s foreign policy. A tiny island surrounded by much larger neighbours, whose only resources are people and proximity to the Straits of Malacca, Singapore cannot afford to isolate or be isolated by anyone, least of all the great powers of the world.
The US-North Korea summit has once again thrust Singapore into the international limelight. The price tag will run to S$20 million, and Singapore will foot the bill. While an exorbitant sum, it is a drop in the ocean in comparison to expected government revenues of S$69.5 billion in FY2018.
Singapore can certainly foot the bill for the summit. But what will it buy, and what else will it cost?
The Honest Broker
Singapore is one of the few neutral nations with friendly relationships with the United States and North Korea–and other regional powers, including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. If peace can be achieved in the Korean peninsula, neutral countries like Singapore will play a critical role in facilitating negotiations and talks.
Singapore doesn’t have any obligation to help end the Korean war, but by doing so, Singapore stands to reap enormous benefits.
The most important benefit is reputation. Singapore has nothing but people and a deep-water port. Historically, Singapore has relied on entrepot trade, maritime trade, tourism and knowledge intensive services to thrive. With Singapore heavily reliant on the global economy, Singapore must constantly attract foreign investments and business. Thus, Singapore promotes itself as a safe, stable, prosperous city-state with extensive experience in hosting high-profile commercial and diplomatic events. Now the eyes of the world are on Singapore, and now countless numbers of politicians and businessmen are studying Singapore and contemplating the benefits of trade. No matter how the summit turns out, Singapore can only stand to benefit.
With reputation comes improved ties with the powers involved. Singapore does not have any long-standing grudges against the USA, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea (nor can Singapore afford to). On the contrary, Singapore had enjoyed business ties with these countries for decades (with the exception of North Korea). This makes present future trade negotiations much less complicated. A successful conclusion of the Trump-Kim summit will demonstrate Singapore’s commitment to peace and prosperity, smoothing the way for future deals. In particular, this summit is likely to open doors in North Korea for Singapore, enabling local businesses to tap into a market that was previously closed off to most of the world and seize significant economic advantages.
The Trump-Kim summit is an important exercise in branding Singapore, Inc. Hosting the summit shows that Singapore is a responsible member of the global community, helping to facilitate peace and security in our corner of the world. To foreigners, it shows that Singapore is a safe and prosperous place to visit and do business.
The price tag of $20 million may sound astronomical to the layman. But footing the bill would avoid awkwardness between the US and North Korea, and give Singapore leverage in future negotiations. It also helps to reinforce our image as a key free trade partner with the US, at a moment when Donald Trump has imposed tariffs on long-time trading partners Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Singapore can’t afford to wait for Trump to exercise the art of the deal by making an outrageous claim to seize concessions; Singapore has to pre-emptively defuse such a tactic by getting on America’s (and the world’s) good side — but in such a way that would not also anger Singapore’s neighbours and other regional powers. Hosting this summit is a golden opportunity to do this and promote Singapore’s brand as an honest broker.
What Does It Cost?
Beyond the price tag, the hidden costs surprisingly little.
The most obvious cost comes in convenience. The police have stepped up additional security measures around the Shangri-La Hotel, St Regis Hotel and Capella Hotel. Road closures, security checks and skipped bus routes are in force. Sentosa, both the site of the summit and a prime resort island, has been designated a ‘special event area’, with a ‘special zone’ of heightened police presence and powers.
Despite the enhanced security, however, life carries on. For everyone who doesn’t have business in the area, life continues as normal.
However, Singapore takes security extremely seriously, and the world’s press must be on its best behaviour. Two South Koreans have been arrested for trespassing at the North Korean embassy. Enhanced security measures are in force to keep journalists away from sensitive zones. While the world press will naturally do everything in their power to dig up details on the summit and one-up each other, it must be remembered that the Singaporean police do not joke around, cannot be bribed, and takes a dim view of any attempt to bypass security.
The greatest cost, however, is what can’t be seen.
Trump and Kim are the most controversial leaders in modern history. But there are no protests on the streets, no demonstrations outside Sentosa, not even angry letters in the mainstream press. For a First World nation, this is extremely unusual.
But it is not surprising: the government spent decades depoliticising Singaporeans.
In the decades since independence, the government has systematically targeted dissidents and troublemakers. To hold a protest, you must apply to the police for a license, and outside Speakers’ Corner, no protests will be allowed. Only Singaporeans and permanent residents may hold and participate in protests at Speakers’ Corner; non-Singaporeans must stay away, and it is incumbent on the event organizers to implement security measures to verify the identity of participants. Anyone who criticises the government talks a tightrope, for the state is always ready to pounce on anyone who crosses the unwritten Out of Bounds markers of racism, bigotry and defamation.
Singapore’s safety and stability no doubt appeals to world leaders who wish to do business without the annoyances of inconvenient protests. But it must always be remembered that this stability was purchased at the price of citizen compliance. Life continues as normal, because has enforced and continues to enforce its vision of ‘normal’.
Gracious Host or Brown Noser
Speaking solely from the perspective of a regular citizen, the greatest diplomatic challenge Singapore faces is how to handle Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Trump is the most controversial American President in living memory, and the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. Kim is the dictator of a hermit kingdom guilty of crimes against humanity, including torture, mass murder and forced labour. The slightest mis-step may lead to unimaginable consequences.
Go too soft on them, and they may think we are easy marks in future negotiations. Go too firm, and it could ruin Singapore’s reputation and the summit, and with it any chance of seeing peace in Korea for the forseeable future. Singapore must be remembered as a gracious host, not a brown noser.
The key to understanding international diplomacy from Singapore’s perspective is to recognise that we don’t have to like Trump or Kim, but we must work with them. As a small nation, it’s not in Singapore’s interest to fire the first shots in a war of words or trade, nor to publicly express disapproval of any regime with interests in Singapore.
For this summit, the best we can do is to facilitate the talks, create a secure environment for Trump and Kim to hold negotiations, and ensure no one from anywhere violates Singapore’s laws or disturbs the peace.
I have no doubt surreal optics will emerge soon. Kim was already been photographed taking selfies in Singapore. Trump will likely say something that will be splashed across the world media, and North Korean officials may be shown enjoying themselves while newshounds remind the world of North Korea’s history of blood. Trump’s and Kim’s personality quirks may soon be on display. Yet while the cost of such optics to Singapore is both temporary and insignificant, the rewards from a successful summit will be immense.
Singapore needs the world, but the world doesn’t need Singapore. Consequently, by hosting the US-DPRK summit, Singapore has little to lose but everything to gain.
If you’re tired of politics being shoved down your throat, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.