Singapore: New Regional Influence, New World Outlook?

By Margolin, Jean-Louis | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Singapore: New Regional Influence, New World Outlook?


Margolin, Jean-Louis, Contemporary Southeast Asia


It has long been said about Germany, and with good reason (that is, until the destruction of the Berlin Wall), that it was "an economic giant, but a political dwarf". Due to its size, Singapore will never be in the same league as Germany. But, with more than 2 per cent of world trade (more than India), Singapore is by no means a negligible economic power, and is recognized as such internationally. At the same time, Singapore is still commonly seen as politically non-existent on the world stage. Two common misconceptions contribute to a quasimonopoly of political power in Asian affairs to "big" countries such as China, India and Japan, and to the notion that Singapore is a kind of large factory, where the government's only interest is to make people work and work.

Even if this last idea, since the end of the colonial period, has never been completely true, Singapore has long maintained a low profile in regional and world affairs, trying first and foremost to appear as a good neighbour and an accommodating partner. Singapore's more recent burst of international activity has therefore been all the more striking. For Europeans, the highlight was obviously the first Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), on 1-2 March 1996. While it occurred in Bangkok, Singapore's contribution to the holding of the meeting was essential. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was the first to propose the idea of ASEM, during his visit to France in October 1994; Singapore joined with Thailand to negotiate the project with the European "troika" (Germany, France and Britain), but was the sole author of the first draft of the Concept Plan submitted by ASEAN to the European Union; and the first concrete result of ASEM, the Asia-Europe Foundation, has its head office in Singapore.

ASEM has only been one among many important international developments illustrating the new importance of Singapore. Some of these underscore the European connection: two Europe-East Asia Economic Summits (otherwise known as the "Davos-Asia" conferences) were held in October 1994 and September 1995. Some other international developments illustrate the importance of regional and Asia-Pacific links. They include the 4th ASEAN Summit (1992), which was particularly momentous as it led to the launching of the post-Cold War ASEAN "programme". The programme included the projected ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) proposal and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Other major international events have been the decision in 1992 to house the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Secretariat in Singapore and the holding in Singapore in 1993 of the first direct talks between Taipei and Beijing. The first general assembly of the World Trade Organization (WTO), in December 1996, was the biggest and most important event of any kind held by Singapore in its history, and illustrates once again an in.easing global inclination by the city-state.

All these developments are exceptional for a small nation. Even a comparison with Switzerland - a country often presented as a model for Singapore by its own leaders - would not be very valid.(1) Switzerland is a respected "neutral ground", but has not taken an active part in European and world affairs, except in a very indirect way, such as through the International Committee of the Red Cross; it has even refused to become a member of the United Nations. Furthermore, Singapore has been shown to be a "the mouse that has roared", not only in practical business, but also in ideological dimensions. Singapore's propagation of "Asian values", although vague (or precisely because of its vagueness) is much talked about in Europe, North America and Australasia. Sometimes taken as a possible solution to the potential threat of social and economic decline, the concept of Asian values is more often considered as the main cultural/political challenge to Western-style democracy, and on par with Islamic fundamentalism. It also represents an unexpected success for what Singaporeans know to be merely the internationalization of a rather old internal debate.

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