Singapore Table of Contents

Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Cooperation with ASEAN, which included Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei, was the center of Singapore's foreign policy after 1975. Before 1975, Singapore's interests were global rather than regional, and its policy toward ASEAN was characterized by detachment. As the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, it was criticized for failing to help its neighbors. After 1975, however, Singapore was criticized for being too ASEAN oriented, too active, and too vocal in the organization for its size, particularly where matters of regional security were concerned. The shift in Singapore's stance toward ASEAN followed the communist victory in Vietnam in 1975, the waning of a United States military presence in Asia, and new signs of Soviet interest in the region. Furthermore, the other ASEAN states permitted Singapore to assume a leading role in regard to the issue of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978. The situation in Cambodia in fact, became the unifying force for the diverse countries belonging to ASEAN. Singapore's Minister of Foreign Affairs Wong Kan Seng commented in March 1989 that, if the situation were resolved, some other force would be required to unite the member nations. The resolution of the Cambodian conflict would also raise the possibility of Vietnam being considered for membership, although in 1989 Singapore was not prepared to support Vietnam's immediate entry.

ASEAN provided Singapore with a means of improving its bilateral relations with Indonesia and Malaysia, two neighbors who were potential threats to Singapore's security. Singapore's leaders never identified the external enemy Singapore's armed forces were trained to deter. When asked in 1984 who was Singapore's biggest threat, Prime Minister Lee responded only that "the biggest that any threat will come from someone bigger than us."


The acrimony that once characterized Singapore's relationship with Malaysia began to change in the 1980s when the two countries adopted a course of reconciliation. The improvement in relations began when Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister of Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir achieved a personal rapport that established the tone for a rapprochement, but Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia in August 1965 continued to color the relationship. Singapore's primary concern was that Malaysia maintain a political system that tolerated multiracialism. In Singapore's view, the undermining of this political principle in Malaysia would have regional ramifications. Regional tolerance of multiracialism, for example, might be reduced if an Islamic revival in Malaysia led to the establishment of an Islamic state and the status of Malaysia's Chinese population were subsequently endangered.

Singapore was linked with Malaysia militarily through the 1971 Five-Powers Defence Arrangement, an arrangement under which the security of Singapore and Malaysia was guaranteed by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Singapore cooperated with both Malaysia and Indonesia in maintaining the security of the Malacca and Singapore straits. Another link with Malaysia was the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC), a forum established in 1980 for the informal discussion of bilateral issues by delegations headed by each country's minister for foreign affairs.


Singapore's relationship with Indonesia, like its relationship with Malaysia, was built on a foundation of past discord, specifically Indonesia's Confrontation campaign against Malaysia from 1963 to 1966. After President Sukarno (1945-67) was deposed, relations were based to a large degree on Lee Kuan Yew's personal relationship with President Soeharto (1967---). Because bilateral relations lacked an institutional foundation, they were vulnerable to the departure of either leader.


Singapore's relationship with Indochina in mid-1989 permitted the conduct of normal commercial transactions, but discouraged aid, training, infrastructural development, and trade in strategic goods. In April 1989, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed Singaporean companies that they could not invest in Vietnam until the Vietnamese had withdrawn their troops from Cambodia. The companies were allowed to conduct negotiations with Vietnam, but could not commit any investments until the Vietnamese withdrawal was complete. A few Singaporean companies had invested in Vietnam while normal commercial transactions were still going on, before the government had a clear policy concerning investments. Minister for Foreign Affairs Wong Kan Seng indicated in 1989, however, that Singapore was looking beyond the Cambodian problem to its future relations with Indochina.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress