Is soft power enough for Singapore?

By Bilahari Kausikan

Bilahari Kausikan provides a ‘realist's perspective’ on foreign policy.

Image: Su-May, published under a Creative Commons license

As a “Little Red Dot” in Southeast Asia, Singapore has known since independence the precarious position of small states in a large and dangerous world. As such, we have always had to take a hard-edged, realist view of the world.

Machiavelli notoriously said that it was safer for a prince to be feared than loved. Machiavelli explains his statement by the fact that people may, for one reason or another, change their minds about what they love, but "fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails."

You may or may not agree with his reasoning. But elsewhere, Machiavelli also said that a prince must be capable of acting as a fox, as well as a lion. Getting what you want without overtly brandishing a big stick is surely a form of soft power. Being cunning and strong are complementary.

It is easier to be admired or persuade others to follow you and get your way if you can deter others from acting on whatever contrary thoughts they may harbour. Can there be soft power without hard power? I do not think so. The history of Singapore’s foreign policy speaks to the need for a dual approach – one that can deploy soft power (love) in the right context – but also back it up with hard (fear), should love not be enough to win the day.

When one thinks of Singapore, they probably do not think of a major regional military power, but according to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, Singapore – home to less than six million people – is Southeast Asia’s standout military power. We maintain a two-year national service commitment from all Singaporean men and a reservist system that means Singapore could mobilise over one million military personnel if required. We also ensure Singapore’s armed forces are well resourced, with almost 20 per cent of the government’s total expenditure going toward defence.

Hard power should not, however, be understood in only military terms. Equally important is the unique organising principle on which independent Singapore is based. We organise ourselves horizontally on the basis of multiracial meritocracy. Singapore is not perfect, but we take the concept seriously. This makes us unique in Southeast Asia where every other country, without exception, is organised vertically on the basis of a formal or informal ethnic and religious hierarchy.

The social cohesion that results from multiracial meritocracy is also hard power. It is the foundation on which all else we have achieved has been built, not the least of which is economic success. The range of options for small countries is never going to be overly broad. But the hard fact is that rich small countries are going to have more options than poor small countries, including the wherewithal to acquire, maintain, and use the advanced defence technology to establish the deterrence that keeps our neighbours honest.

Singapore has worked over decades to build up its hard power capabilities, precisely because we recognise the limits of soft power. It is hardly a perfect concept, both in its clarity and utility. Yet, when analysing or describing international relations we often use some terms only because we have no others. But their meaning is situational and conditional. “Friend” is one of the most common words used to describe international relationships.

In personal relations, “friend” connotes an emotional connection. It is this emotional connection that lends soft power to a friend in personal life. But in international relations, a “friendly” country is only one whose interests coincide with one's own. Interests change, sometimes very rapidly, and vary from issue to issue and not always in a consistent way.

Would anyone really ascribe soft power to a country whose interests clash with one's own? Strong deterrence makes it easier for other countries to regard their interests as being aligned with ours, or at least to regard differences of interests as tolerable.

Introducing the concept of values does not really get us around the difficulty. Of course, countries whose values are aligned attract each other. That is trite but true because values are just another kind of interest, or another way of describing (or concealing) interests.

In his first parliamentary speech on foreign policy, delivered only months after Singapore became unexpectedly independent, Mr. S. Rajaratnam, Singapore's first foreign minister, made clear that the ultimate goal of our foreign policy was the preservation of the "essential values" on which Singapore was based. This is so for all countries.

It is pretentious nonsense to think – as western-style liberal democracies are accustomed to do – that only some countries practise values-based diplomacy or that only western values exert soft power. Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and even North Korea, no less than the US or Japan or Europe, have their own values. We may not like some values espoused by other countries or find them contrary to our interests, but that is a different matter.

It is entirely possible to accept or admire or seek to emulate some subset of another country's values without having to or wanting to emulate all of them. One may, however grudgingly, acknowledge North Korea's single-minded and successful efforts to preserve autonomy under very difficult circumstances, and even share that value, without wanting to become like North Korea. A country can simultaneously attract and repel; admiration can simultaneously exist with serious reservations.

We may appreciate China's economic success without wanting to emulate other aspects of its Leninist value system or follow Beijing's lead on everything. It is becoming clear that many countries want to benefit from China's Belt and Road Initiative but do not trust China. How are these conflicting impulses to be balanced? And the "Shining City on a Hill" has also always cast a dark shadow. We may admire some aspects of America without wanting to become like America. One of the most persistent delusions of American, and more generally, western foreign policy is the idea that admiring or emulating some western economic values will necessarily lead to admiring or emulating western political values.

Where Singapore has found success in using soft power is in areas where not just values are aligned, but interests. Both at home and abroad, rule of law has been critical to Singapore’s development, security, and prosperity. As an open, outward-looking trading nation, Singapore depends on clear, enforced rules when it comes to trade, navigation, finance, and dispute resolution. Singapore played an outsized role in delivering the United Nation’s Convention on the Laws of the Sea – a foundational agreement on which global trade and logistics rely. We are a country that works. Singapore’s strong rule of law, predictable and stable system of government, and business-friendly regulation have all helped it attract international companies, foreign investment, and global talent.

There is nothing particularly new about the concept of soft power. Power has throughout history enticed. Throughout history, power on its own has also never been enough.

Machiavelli qualified his comments about it being safer to be feared than loved, by observing that it was difficult for a prince to unite both love and fear in his person. It was only when a choice could not be avoided, that preference be given to the latter and even then, the prince "ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred".

Surely that is good advice for all countries, both large and small.

Bilahari Kausikan is the Chairman of the Middle East Institute, an autonomous institute of the National University of Singapore. He was previously Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2010 to 2013, having served as Second Permanent Secretary since 2001. He was subsequently Ambassador-at-Large until May 2018.

This essay was first published in the 2019 Soft Power 30 report. You can read the full 2019 Soft Power 30 Report, see full analysis of the data set, and a list of most up-to-date country rankings assessed by their soft power assets here: