Summit shines Singapore’s diplomacy
Seoul needs to take lessons to strengthen global status
SINGAORE — Singapore is a tiny but strong nation.
The strength comes from two elements — a sense of urgency and practical diplomacy.
The city-state always tries to remain vigilant and prepare for the future while building friendly diplomatic ties with all possible countries. It is always heavily neutral in all political issues.
Simply speaking, its number one diplomatic strategy is “being neutral and making no enemies.” That’s why it has maintained diplomatic relations with both Koreas for a long time.
The strategic approach was well exemplified in the June 12 historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa.
It is offering useful wisdom for South Korea, which is always struggling to strike a balance among the four great powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula, namely the U.S, Japan, China and Russia.
“As a small city-state, Singapore is most certainly not a great power,” Liang Tuang Nah, a research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, told The Korea Times.
“Hence, it has to adopt prudent foreign policies and one of these is being friendly to as many nations as possible,” he added.
From his perspective, accepting the duty of being the host of the Trump-Kim summit is a decision which is compatible with such a foreign policy approach.
“Arguably, the intention is to maximize Singapore’s usefulness to the international community,” he said.
South Korea and Singapore both used to be touted as members of the four Asian tiger nations but have been walking on divergent paths since 2000.
Singapore has solidified its position as one of the most attractive international cities in the world as a financial and diplomatic powerhouse.
In contrast, South Korea has failed to achieve its vision to turn Seoul into an international hub city in Northeast Asia due to the government’s domestic-focused mindset and old-fashion diplomatic strategy.
“The decision to hold what could be one of the most significant meetings in Korean history in Singapore is a testament to the remarkable diplomatic significance of the ‘little red dot,’” said Suh Chung-ha, former Korean Ambassador to Singapore.
Suh, currently president of the Jeju Peace Institute, pointed out that the city state now added another service to its distinguished portfolio, “diplomatic host.”
“Singapore’s skillful balancing among the region’s major powers has helped promote its security and prosperity, not to mention its reputation as a leading player in regional diplomacy and made it an acceptable host for both the U.S. and North Korea,” he said.
The island nation’s seamless efforts to host mega-scale international events are another big factor that many leaders chose Singapore as a meeting place.
It hosts lots of international events every year, including the Shangri-La Dialogue and F1 Singapore Grand Prix, and its accumulated experience has made the city-state recognized internationally as a safe, secure place to meet.
“We have had experience hosting major summits before, including between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou. Even so, this (Trump-Kim summit) is certainly the biggest we have ever hosted,” said Joseph Liow Chin Yong, dean of The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
“It is good publicity for Singapore, and recognition of our standing in the world of international affairs and diplomacy, as well as the city-state’s ability to provide safety and security, which is a major priority for this summit.”
What is notable is that Singapore’s strategic mindset is pronounced from the state leader to ordinary citizens.
At a meeting with reporters ahead of the summit, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the city-state is willing to foot some of the bills for the summit, which he estimated cost up to $16 million. “It is a cost we are willing to pay,” he said.
Zach Wen, a local restaurant owner, agreed with PM Lee.
"As a Singaporean, I don’t mind if our government pays some of the costs for the historic summit,” he said.
"This is a good opportunity to show that Singapore is a small nation but with a big heart.”
James Bindenagel, the Henry Kissinger Professor for Governance and International Security at Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Bonn, Germany, believes that state leadership has played a crucial role in Singapore becoming a neutral meeting ground.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before bilateral talks at Istana, the Singaporean President’s official residence, on June 10.