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"Now, more than before, we must grow our sense of togetherness as fellow Singaporeans," Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in his inaugural speech as the President of Singapore.

Picture by: Liu Ying | MCI Photo

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Presidential election showed how hard Singapore’s ‘balancing act’ is in midst of US-China tensions

In the grand tapestry of global affairs, Singapore’s presence is often overshadowed by global superpowers dominating international discourse.

Yet, it is precisely the island nation’s neutral stance – best depicted by its ‘small yet mighty’ description – that allows it to be perceived as a seismograph for the Asia-Pacific region.

In September, the former Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam won the presidential election with a record of 70.4% of the votes. He was widely predicted to win, so both citizens and analysts around the world may have been tempted to dismiss the event as merely ceremonial – even more so because of the limited political powers a president possesses.

Nonetheless, the electoral campaign before the election was an illustration of a new era, where Singapore has to subtly redefine its geopolitical stance amidst the escalating Sino-US tensions.

The nation’s complex geopolitical stance became the focus of the public eye in July 2023, when an influential American daily The Washington Post published an article claiming that Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, ‘now routinely echoes some of Beijing’s most strident falsehoods’, effectively questioning its editorial independence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

What is perhaps more telling, however, was the Singapore government’s rebuttal. “It is misguided for American news outlets to expect Zaobao to resemble The Washington Post or for Singapore to follow either the US or China,” Lui Tuck Yew, the Singaporean ambassador to the United States – and previously to China – wrote in a letter to the editor of the Washington-based newspaper.

He went on to stress that “it bears repeating that Singapore conducts its foreign policy based on our own interests. We do not pick sides but uphold consistent principles.”

His letter highlights Singapore’s political elite commitment to independence when it comes to charting a course on the international stage.

The city-state’s geo-political stance, often described as a delicate ‘balancing act’ between the United States and China, has become increasingly precarious in the face of rising tensions between the two global giants.

As the largest economic hub in the Asian Pacific, Singapore has cultivated strong economic relations with China while simultaneously maintaining defence ties with the US, establishing the nation as a potential ground for mediation in this complex diplomatic landscape.

While the president’s direct influence on political/foreign policy is limited, their symbolic role as a “figure of continuity” or “rallying figure” for Singaporean citizens and certain executive powers, such as the control of national reserves, will undoubtedly shape the future of Singapore’s strategic and diplomatic priorities in the complex web of global affairs.

During the election season, all the presidential contenders opted for a ‘politically neutral’ stance, with some refraining from commenting on the US-China debate altogether.

A Singaporean correspondent, representing an Asia-based publication, who wished to remain anonymous, emphasised in an interview that, “for the sake of optics,” candidates were cautious about taking more extreme positions to avoid opening “a Pandora’s box of troubles” and “having to justify for the rest of the campaign to the electorate why they are pro-China or US.”

In a recent conversation with a Singaporean journalist, a unique perspective was offered on Singapore’s international role. He used an analogy likening the global powers to a fleet of ten Ferraris and Lamborghinis. In stark comparison, Singapore was compared to a small Volkswagen Beetle amidst these powerful vehicles.

“The Beetle will stand out because of its small and unique nature, allowing it to stand out amongst more powerful cars” the journalist commented “Essentially Singapore has developed a personality of its own on the world stage so to speak.”

The newly elected President, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, brings extensive political and economic experience to the office, earning him international recognition incomparable to any other contemporary Singaporean leader.

Prior to his election, the former finance minister made history as the first Asian person to chair the International Monetary and Financial Committee. Moreover, Shanmugaratnum has assumed prominent leadership positions in several other international committees, most notably the G20 Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance, the Group of Thirty and the Global Commission on Economics of Water.

Read more:

Exclusive | US must play ‘long game’ with China, says Singapore’s Tharman Shanmugaratnam, not go for short-term gains, risk worse ties later

By Zuraidah Ibrahim and Kimberly Lim | South China Morning Post

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post in the lead-up to the elections, Shanmugaratnam offered his insights when questioned about the United States’ newfound strategy of “de-risking” investments in China: “I think we’re going down the wrong road of de-risking, or whatever term one wants to use.”

The former Deputy Prime Minister further elaborated on the matter commenting on how “most of Asia isn’t going to decide that they will walk away from China, trade and investment wise, most of Asia is not going to make that decision,” echoing Singapore’s ongoing commitment to nurturing strong economic ties with both global giants.

While in office, Shanmugaratnam has not revealed any inclination towards aligning with either major global power. However, it is important to note that his tenure is expected to mark a departure from previous presidents in terms of proactive engagement on a global stage.

“We must always speak with humility, as a small country, but our ability so far to project a Singapore ‘voice of reason’ does not go unnoticed”, Shanmugaratnam commented.

The former Senior Minister’s aspirations extend beyond the scope of protecting Singapore’s interests. He asserted his ambition to serve as a unifying force as a “bridging player in addressing the challenges that we see in the world.”

Senior Minister noted: “My leadership roles in various global fora involve finding ways in which everyone understands the challenges that different parts of the world are going through, particularly in the developing world, and finding a way in which even the major powers know that small countries and mid-sized powers want to play a role in avoiding a fragmentation of the whole system. Those are active roles, which I will continue to play.”

Written by:

author_bio

Jinn Ong

Deputy editor-in-chief

Politics & Society Section Editor

Singapore | London, United Kingdom

Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine

Born in 2006 in Singapore, Jinn studies in the United Kingdom. She speaks English and Mandarin and is currently learning Spanish and Latin. Some of her interests include history, social justice and culture studies.

Jinn was part of the team that launched the magazine, working primarily on a journalistic project about Singaporean Paralympians, where she analysed why economically robust societies cannot quickly progress in terms of inclusivity.

In the second year, Jinn combined the role of a feature writer with the responsibilities of the Society Section Editor.

In September 2023, she was promoted to the role of deputy editor-in-chief and the editor for the Politics & Society Section.

Edited by:

author_bio

Sofiya Suleimenova

International Affairs Section Editor

Geneva, Switzerland

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