Walking a tightrope to survive: Singapore's position in the Russia-Ukraine war and beyond

While the Russia-Ukraine war is geographically far from this region, the proxy US-China tussle and information war are having their impact on Singapore and the region all the same. In a recent discussion with Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, Lee Huay Leng, editor-In-chief of the Chinese Media Group of SPH Media, is reminded that the greatest test of a country’s principles comes when it is most inconvenient to exercise them. And most importantly, it is precisely because countries such as Singapore are small that they must ensure that their interests are protected in the international realm.
Emergency workers remove debris of a building destroyed in the course of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, 10 April 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
Emergency workers remove debris of a building destroyed in the course of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, 10 April 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

In a virtual address to the US Congress on 16 March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy played a video of Ukraine in peacetime, showing people going about their daily lives in various cities, with laughing youths and children, only to be interrupted in an instant by blood and tears amid bombardment. The contrast drove some senators to tears.

It is true that Ukraine has bled because of Russia’s invasion, and it is also true that Zelenksyy is good at using such images for the information war. Seeing images of innocent people going through the suffering of war is emotive and infuriating, but besides guns and bombs, the information war is another important battlefront. The Ukraine war is geographically far from us, but the information battle for people’s hearts and minds can be sparked anywhere.

... while Russia and Ukraine are at war, the two main players that are not actually on the battlefield are the US and China...

The Russian invasion of Ukraine violates Article 2 of the UN Charter: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” However, some views have it that Russia was prompted into action by the US and the eastward expansion of NATO, and so there are many voices on social media denouncing the US and NATO.

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Street art depicts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gripping submachine guns as a person walks past on Melrose Avenue on 30 March 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)

China's position and Taiwan issue

Currently, the more complicated issue is that while Russia and Ukraine are at war, the two main players that are not actually on the battlefield are the US and China, whose relations reached a low point much earlier. Perhaps China was unprepared to be a major player, but after the leaders of China and Russia met in early February, China described its relationship with Russia as having “no limits”, giving the US and its mainstream media a reason to foist a role on China.

Without sending troops, the US is supporting Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian army, naturally out of its own interests. However, it is pressuring China while waving the flag of “justice”, and its stand that “Russia is the enemy of the US, and if China does not denounce Russia, the friend of an enemy is also an enemy” is turning off many people who sympathise with China. Over the past few years, a significant number of Singaporeans have spoken out against the US’s moves to suppress China. Thus, those who stand with China have also chosen to take Russia’s side when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine situation.

For China, another thing it has to watch for is its handling of the Taiwan issue in the days ahead. On the Ukraine issue, China advocates respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity and abiding by the aims and principles of the UN Charter. But Taiwan and Ukraine are fundamentally different issues, because the Taiwan issue is fully a matter of China’s domestic politics.

Interestingly, based on the readouts of the meeting between Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as the video call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, on both occasions, the conversation started with Taiwan and how “some people in the US are giving the wrong signals to ‘pro-Taiwan independence’ forces, before moving on to the issue of the day — Ukraine — and China’s position.

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Taiwanese soldiers train at a target shooting practice in Hsinchu, Taiwan, 25 March 2022. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The US wants China to cooperate, but on the other hand, it keeps sending people to Taipei. No wonder China does not trust the US much. We can infer that in its talks with the US, China is more interested in what cards the US will play when it comes to Taiwan.

Chinese-language information is mainly pro-Russia and anti-US, or anti-US and pro-China.

Perils of the information war

The US’s image as the international police does not endear itself to the Chinese. Coupled with its high pressure on China and the ensuing Taiwan issue, the faraway Russia-Ukraine conflict is also happening where we are, albeit in a different way. Chinese-language information is mainly pro-Russia and anti-US, or anti-US and pro-China. A relative of mine who used to be a cab driver is not particularly interested in Ukraine, but he recently sent many videos to me, and I get the feeling that the “war” is getting more intense.

In early March, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and called for the immediate pullout of Russian troops. Among ASEAN countries, eight voted yes and two (Vietnam and Laos) abstained, as did democratic India, out of national interests. I recall taking a class many years ago at the SOAS University of London — I thought it was on Vietnamese history, but the professor’s class outline was “International history in the Vietnam War”. The class discussed how the various participants all had their own considerations, with Vietnam as the battlefield.

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A resident looks on near a building destroyed in the course of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, 10 April 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Now, due to emotional factors, some Singaporeans have been swayed by the Ukraine situation and influenced by information on social media, which is understandable. But when we also consider Singapore’s national interests, what would the factors be?

My counterpart from the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, Warren Fernandez, and I recently met with Singapore’s Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean for an in-depth discussion on the Ukraine issue. (A summary of his views, “Singapore’s Principled Position and Sanctions Against Russia”  (《新加坡对俄罗斯的原则立场和制裁》), was published in Zaobao.) One of the points he made was that Singapore cannot accept one country arguing that another country’s independence is the result of “historical errors and crazy decisions”.

It is easy to understand the context of Singapore’s position. In relation to comments that Singapore took a “pro-US” stance, SM Teo mentioned that many people seem to have forgotten the US’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 and Singapore’s vote against it at the UNGA. He reminded them: “Our 1983 vote against the US did not mean that we were an adversary of the US. The US was a close friend and continues to be so; but we still had to express our disagreement.”

The test of one’s principles comes when it is inconvenient to abide by them

While Singapore rarely imposes sanctions on other countries in the absence of binding Security Council decisions or directions, it sanctioned Russia this time because of the “unprecedented gravity” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in addition to Russia’s veto of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution denouncing its invasion of Ukraine. However, Singapore’s sanctions were “specific and targeted” and aimed at restricting “Russia’s capacity to conduct war against Ukraine and undermine its sovereignty”, which is different from the measures and intentions of the sanctions that other countries have imposed on Russia.

"The test of a country’s adherence to principle is when it is inconvenient to do so." - Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore's former permanent representative to the UN

People walk among debris of destroyed cars and damaged buildings on a street in the town of Borodianka, northwest of Kyiv, on 6 April 2022, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
People walk among debris of destroyed cars and damaged buildings on a street in the town of Borodianka, northwest of Kyiv, on 6 April 2022, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP)

I later found on the National Archives of Singapore’s website the speech that Professor Tommy Koh, then Singapore’s permanent representative to the UN, had made before the UNSC in response to the situation in Grenada in 1983. A passage from his speech on Singapore’s relations with major powers remains relevant today: “Mr President, it is easy enough for us to demonstrate our adherence to principle when to do so is convenient and advantageous and costs us nothing. The test of a country’s adherence to principle is when it is inconvenient to do so. I find myself in such a situation today. Barbados, Jamaica, the United States and the Member States of the Organisation of East Caribbean States are friends of my country. It is extremely convenient for me to acquiesce in what they have done or to remain silent. To do so will, in the long run, undermine the moral and legal significance of the principles which my country regard[s] as a shield. This is why we must put our adherence to principle above friendship. This is why we cannot condone the action of our friends in Grenada. The stand my country has taken in this case is consistent with the stand we have taken in other cases.”

As the world becomes more complex, this region will also be affected. If the US succeeds in destroying Russian President Vladimir Putin this time, this means that China will become the only opponent of a US that has long been used to dominating the world. By then, will the friends of the US’s enemy also become the US’s enemy?

China has many interests to consider, including its domestic development needs. In a recent interview with Phoenix Television, Chinese ambassador to the US Qin Gang said that while there are “no forbidden areas of cooperation” between China and Russia, “it does have a bottom line, that is the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the international law and basic norms governing international relations”. He asserted, “These are the guideline[s] for China to deal with relations with any country.” While China continues to maintain an “objective and impartial” stance on Ukraine and its fundamental position has not changed, is it making some adjustments to its posture?

How will massive changes to the global order and structure affect Singapore, a small state in Southeast Asia? This is a question that Singapore must think about. While maintaining diversity and openness, how should we protect our national interests? This is a question of survival.

Singapore is committed to finding its place on a world stage that maintains a balance of power not because it is arrogant or that it has overestimated its capabilities or is choosing sides. It is doing so to survive.

People walk across Cavenagh bridge in Singapore on April 3, 2022. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
People walk across Cavenagh Bridge in Singapore on April 3, 2022. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

Recently, friends from neighbouring countries have been reminding me that Singapore should stay cautious and careful. I agree. But at the same time, it is precisely because we are a small country that we must find the best way to protect ourselves amid the workings of international society.

Thus, beyond international law and principles, since the era of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, while Singapore has been a friend to all nations, it has also been striving to participate in and promote the construction of global dialogue and economic cooperation mechanisms. Singapore is committed to finding its place on a world stage that maintains a balance of power not because it is arrogant or that it has overestimated its capabilities or is choosing sides. It is doing so to survive.

The concept that small states do not have to give up their objective and impartial positions may be lost on citizens of big countries. But Singaporeans at least have to understand the country’s difficulties and how tough it is to weigh its words and actions carefully, to be polite and respectful, and yet not come across as arrogant or servile. But a small country like ours has always needed to walk a tightrope to survive. 

Related: Xi Jinping's answer to Washington's expansionist moves in Asia and the world | Why do Chinese people sympathise with Russia? | Russia-China alliance: 'No limits' does not mean 'no bottom line' | When a country needs to choose between realism and idealism | From real war to online war: Small states need smarter skills to survive a multipolar internet age