We must always act in S’pore’s own interest, respect international law: K Shanmugam

Minister for Law and Home Affairs Mr K Shanmugam delivered a closing keynote speech at a workshop organised by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute yesterday (8 March). 

In his speech, Minister Shanmugam explained why Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, a sovereign country, is unacceptable.

He also highlighted how Singapore, being a small country, will need to stay true to its principles and continue to promote multilateralism in the face of great-power rivalry. 

For a TL;DR version, here are extracts from his speech on lessons that small countries — like Singapore — can learn from great-power rivalry. 

In the chessboard of Great Power Rivalry, what is the lesson for small countries, like Singapore?

Entangled in these historical events, are two important principles of international law.

First, Indivisible Security: A state should not enhance its security at the expense of another’s. Because one state’s security is inseparably linked to another’s.

The second principle, Self-Determination. In this context, the right of a state to choose its own military and political alliances.

Countries pick what’s best for them, based on geopolitical context

Now, I make three observations on these two principles.

First, the two principles can contradict each other. One country’s self-determined source of security can be another country’s source of insecurity.

Second, you can argue from an international law perspective, on the inviolability of a country’s sovereignty. But, given a contradiction, each Power will pick one of these principles best suited for their interests, in that particular geopolitical context.

In the context of today’s conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has referred frequently to the indivisibility of security. He insists that Ukraine should not strengthen its security (by joining NATO) at the expense of Russia’s security. On the other hand, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly affirmed that the right of Ukraine to choose its own security arrangements and alliances is a core principle that the US is committed to defend. So, the United States asserts Ukraine’s right to self-determination, while Russia asserts the principle of indivisible security. Ukraine’s security should not be at the expense of Russia’s security.

I think it’s fair to say that in the future, these sorts of dynamics will continue.

Big countries frequently cite the relevant principle that best suits them, to the position they wish to take.

Small countries often pay a disproportionate price

A third and final observation – small countries often pay a disproportionate price in geopolitical conflicts among Great Powers.

Depending on how you look at it, smaller countries can be said to have been either wilfully used as pawns, or just inadvertently caught between the powers, as collateral damage.

But there is no mistake that they are often the ones who pay the price.

Looking at the past few decades of conflict and tension between Russia and the West, it is the Ukrainians who are paying the price.

For small countries like Singapore, it is in our interest to have regional structures that promote cooperation rather than rivalry in our region.

And understand that ultimately, we have to have the military means ourselves, and the social resilience, so that we can defend ourselves. Because others may help only if it suits their interests.

It is also critical for us to have a keen eye, keep a sober mind, and maintain a sharp analysis towards competitive geopolitical trends.

We have to look beyond the bluster, the headlines, and the ideologically-driven narratives, to understand the facts.

And finally, we must continue, as we always have, to act only and always in Singapore’s own interests, and stand up for the principles on which our interests are based. But it cannot just be self-interest. There must be basis in international law for these interests.

Picture Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute via Facebook