Fostering better ties with our neighbours: A foreign policy must

Muhammad Shamin

Singapore sits at the very heart of Southeast Asia. We are located at the southern tip of the great Asian continent. To our south lies the Indonesian archipelago. We are inextricably linked to Malaysia, both geographically and culturally.

And yet our ties with our neighbours have been contentious, often filled with suspicion. Relations with Thailand have not been good since Temasek Holdings bought over ShinCorp. Indeed the recent unrest that we witnessed in Bangkok can be traced to that notorious deal between Temasek and Thaksin.

Ties with Malaysia is complicated with many issues, one of which is our inexplicable strong relations with Israel which serves us no real benefit.

Relations with Indonesia are over-shadowed by the billions of dollars of corruption money brought in by some of the millionaire Indonesians. Calls for an extradition treaty from Indonesia are un answered by Singapore.

In short, Singapore does not enjoy very good relations with our neighbours.

Defence or offence ideology?

Such a situation seems to stem from our attitiude that the neighbouring states are out to harm us. This seige mentality constantly puts us on the “war” stance. When I was in school, I remember my History teacher wagging his fingers and telling us his experience standing on the East Coast beach with rifle loaded, ready for war. Who our enemy was he didn’t say but it was pretty obvious that it was against one of our immediate neighbours.

He was spouting nationalistic sentiments with constant references to war. So fiery was his speech that I listened with my jaws wide open. More frighteningly he was our History teacher and teaching from books approved by MOE.

Since independence, this talk of war and hostility has been perpetrated by the military telling NS conscripts that Singapore is surrounded by hostile Muslim nations that want to do us harm. In fact we have one of the world’s highest defence spending budget in the world, spending $11.45 billion compared to $1.97 billion for social security.

Who exactly are we fighting against and why?

A single entity

How does such a hawkish military stance help us strengthen our position in ASEAN? ASEAN wants to integrate the region economically by introducing a single market by 2015. Besides the economic integration, however, we would also need political integration. Regional solidarity needs trust. The problem is that our defence ideology and, more importantly, budget does not seem to reflect trust.

On the other hand, the European Union and NATO is built on trust and solidarity. Prior to the 1940s Europe was entangled in war after war. Yet, the leaders were able to envision a better future for the people and they came together to forge a common economic and political entity.

Their defence spending is low and therefore are able to spend on social security and take care of the people’s needs. The European Parliament, in which I was an intern earlier this year, has elected representatives from across Europe to work out polices that are binding on the member states.  

I would like to see the same kind of approach taken in this part of the world. Singapore and Malaysia could kick-start such an undertaking. We should work towards the kind of relationship that fosters trust and ensures mutual benefit with our neighbours, one that forges regional solidarity instead of behaving in a manner that agitates and provokes unfriendly ties.

Only when we work towards such regional integration can we really achieve real progress and stability.

Muhammad Shamin is a member of the Young Democrats.

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