Why we should be proud of the stance our leaders are taking on the South China Sea issue

TL;DR – We may be small, but we cannot be bullied. And we should be proud of that. 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping (right) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov 9, 2014. (AFP via Straits Times)

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping (right) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov 9, 2014. (AFP via Straits Times)

Recently, it would seem that China isn’t too happy with Singapore. A Chinese diplomat has urged Singapore not to interfere in the territorial spat. A Chinese defence advisor has even gone so far as to call for sanctions to make Singapore pay for damaging China’s interests, on top of making remarks like Lee Kuan Yew has lost Beijing’s respect and how we’re playing a dangerous game of playing the big countries against each other.

Some trashy tabloid in China, the Global Times, has been criticising Singapore too. They wrongly claimed that Singapore had tried to push for a stronger statement on the international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit last week in Venezuela. China users of various social media platforms have been lashing out against Singapore. They say that Singapore is backstabbing China. It would appear that many people in China are asking for their government to “punish” us. The latest is that Singapore businesses are being questioned by their Chinese counterparts about our stand on the matter.

Oh, it’s interesting how Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) has described the tabloid,

Hu Xijin, chief editor of Global Times. (Photo by Simon Song via SCMP)

Hu Xijin, chief editor of Global Times. (Photo by Simon Song via SCMP)

“The Chinese tabloid publishes content that is rude, crass and often skinny on facts.

But in the crowded and cutthroat scene of China’s media, it stands out for its success and popularity, built on the back of nationalistic coverage that at times borders on warmongering.

Sometimes, it reads like a daily newspaper edited by a bunch of Chinese Donald Trumps.”

Ahhh… that explains everything, sort of.

So, what happened?

All of these happened because of what Singaporean leaders have said about the South China Sea issues. There are a number of different countries that claim certain small islands in the South China Sea – Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam. And of course China. Philippines launched a case against China at the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China refused to participate. But the Tribunal heard the case anyway and issued an award that was unfavourable to China.

Map showing disputed claims in South China Sea (AFP via Channelnewsasia)

Map showing disputed claims in South China Sea (AFP via Channelnewsasia)

Singapore isn’t a claimant state. We are far away from the disputed area. So why are we so “kaypoh”? Why say anything about it? In fact, there are some Singaporeans who think that our leaders are stupid for saying anything about the South China Sea and are clamouring on social media that Singaporean leaders (e.g. PM Lee) should shut up and stop pissing China off.

I think those people are greatly mistaken. We would be in a far worse position if our leaders stopped advancing the principled positions that we have taken on the South China Sea issues. Why? To understand that, we need first to understand exactly what those positions are.

What exactly did our leaders say to “piss” China off?

PM Lee highlighted the three key positions that Singapore has on the South China Sea during this year’s National Day Rally.

Firstly, as a small country, it is vital that all nations, big or small, rich or poor, powerful or not, abide by international law and settle disputes peacefully. PM Lee said:

“Big powers can insist on their own interests and often do. They do not submit to adjudication by international tribunals, they may not comply with their rulings and China is not the only country to do this and nor is this the first time something like this has happened. Nevertheless, Singapore must support and strive for a rules-based international order. We have to depend on words and treaties. They mean everything to us. We cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. If rules do not matter, then small countries like Singapore have no chance of survival.”

In other words, if the system is one where might makes right, where a big, powerful country, can do whatever they want, then small states like Singapore, will always be bullied. Is that what we want?

Secondly, our survival depends on the freedom of navigation. PM Lee explained:

“We have two vital sea lanes of communication, two arteries. One through the South China Sea, the other, through the Straits of Malacca. Ships come from Europe, the Suez Canal, they come to through the south, Straits of Malacca, pass Singapore, up the South China Sea to Japan, the Far East and vice versa. Both of these are arteries. You block one, you die; likewise with air routes. It is important to us that disputes in the South China Sea do not affect freedom of navigation or overflight by ships or aircraft.”

PM Lee showing the sea lanes that are Singapore's 'arteries'. Image from TodayOnline

PM Lee showing the sea lanes that are Singapore’s ‘arteries’. Image from TodayOnline

Is it wrong that we are asking that the routes of navigation on which our survival depends on remain free?

Lastly, we are asking that ASEAN remain united and effective. PM Lee elaborated:

“With five million people, Singapore’s voice internationally, counts for not much. But collectively, ASEAN with more than 600 million people, it can make itself heard better. This is provided ASEAN is united… But the trouble is if ASEAN cannot deal with a major issue at its doorstep affecting its members, in the long run, nobody will take ASEAN seriously and that will be very bad for all of the members of ASEAN, and for Singapore, too.”

Why should we not do our best to unite ASEAN so that, collectively, we can get better deals for everyone in this region?

Why we should be proud

Ask yourself, are the things that our leaders said fair? Would we rather that big powers not play by international rules? What do you think would happen if that were the case? Would you rather that our leaders allowed problems elsewhere to choke the vital routes of navigation that form our “arteries”? Would you rather that we live in a region that is bickering against one another?

If you said yes to any of those, you really ought to get your head checked.

That our leaders are speaking up about these things show that they are working hard to protect and advance Singapore’s interests. More than that, they are sending a strong signal to the rest of the world. They are telling the world that Singapore, small as we are, can and will be principled. We cannot and will not be bought. We cannot and will not be bullied into silence.

This shows that, small as we may be, Singapore has built up a credible ability to defend ourselves, a strong economy and a cohesive society. And that, is something that all Singaporeans should be proud of.

[Featured image from TodayOnline]



Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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