Yawning Bread. August 2007

Why would anyone rescue Singapore?




In an interview with the International Herald Tribune (IHT), published on 29 August 2007, was this exchange between Lee Kuan Yew and the newspaper.

Lee Kuan Yew: So, can we survive? The question is still unanswered. We have survived so far, 42 years. Will we survive for another 42? It depends upon world conditions. It doesn't depend on us alone. If there were no international law and order, and big fish eat small fish and small fish eat shrimps, we wouldn't exist. Our armed forces can withstand an attack and inflict damage for two weeks, three weeks, but a siege? (laughs)

IHT: Not possible.

Lee Kuan Yew: Control of sea lanes? We'll just starve. So, it depends on whether there is an international environment which says that borders are sacrosanct and there is the rule of law. It's not just [a matter for the] United Nations Security Council. There's the U.S. Seventh Fleet, a Japanese interest in the Straits of Malacca, and later Chinese and Indian interests in the region, and therefore a balance.

This is a scenario that has not been much discussed, for obvious reasons, I'm sure. While military strategists have to war game this regularly, it doesn't serve much purpose to dwell on such vulnerability in the public sphere. To do so would only leave everyone, investors included, feeling more insecure than warranted.

Not being a defence expert myself, I can't much comment on whether Lee is being too alarmist, so for now, I can only take him at his word that Singapore's forces can hold out for 2 3 weeks. After that, we'd have to hope for rescue.

The nearest equivalent in recent history was the liberation of Kuwait in the first quarter of 1991 by a coalition of 30 nations led by the United States, after Iraq had seized it in August 1990. Perhaps Lee was thinking along similar lines when he spoke about the US Seventh Fleet, etc.

What I found inadequate about Lee's analysis was his glossing over the "rule of law" and "borders are sacrosanct" conditions. If such conditions exist, he was saying, Singapore will be able to sleep easy.

Frankly, I am doubtful if we can assume that such conditions exist, even today. Israel hasn't really been held to account over its actions vis-a-vis the West Bank. Eritrea won a World Court case against Ethiopia over border demarcation, but Ethiopia, currently useful to the US, has refused to withdraw from the zone that the Court said belonged to its smaller neighbour. Morocco is still encamped in the Western Sahara, its occupation contested. Russia is still occupying parts of Moldavia and Georgia.

One should not think the USA would come to the aid of any small country just for the sake of the rule of law. Like all nations, it acts either in its self-interest, or as an expression of its ideals.

In the case of Kuwait, it was clearly for self-interest.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein sent his forces into tiny Kuwait and annexed it as Iraq's 19th province. Kuwait offered no resistance; 300,000 of its 2 million people fled at once to Saudi Arabia. In a single stroke, not only did Iraq control Kuwait's oil (in addition to its own), its forces were poised within striking distance of Saudi Arabia's rich oilfields.

Iraq in 1990, despite having fought a bitter 8-year war with Iran, still had the strongest forces of all the countries in the Persian Gulf region. Saddam Hussein had a few hundred thousand men in his army, 4,000 tanks and a number of Scud missiles. His air force counted some 700 aircraft, though at various levels of serviceability.

Saudi forces would not be able to stop an Iraqi incursion. Worse, the secular Ba'athist ideology of Saddam, if seen as victorious, would quickly gain appeal among the people of the Arabian peninsula, including Bahrain and beyond, destabilising the ultra-conservative monarchies in the region, the US' allies.

Washington could see that the oil lifeline to itself, Europe and Japan was being threatened, and its credibility as a superpower at stake. It organised a 30-nation coalition which included Muslim countries Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, liberating the tiny emirate ("Operation Desert Storm") in February 1991.

Wrecked vehicles line Highway 80, the route fleeing Iraqis
took as they retreated from Kuwait in the Desert Storm war. 
Picture by Tech Sgt Joe Coleman, from the National Geographic

Would self-interest lead the US to rescue Singapore? It is difficult to speculate -- much must depend on why such a future crisis erupted in the first place -- but most certainly, without oil, self-interest is nowhere as obvious as in the case of Kuwait's fall.

Yet there are other examples of the US standing by its friends. Why does America back Israel so strongly? Or Taiwan, for that matter? My reading is that in the case of Israel, it's mostly a question of popular sentiment. No American government will be allowed by its people to abandon Israel. (Sometimes, this unquestioning support has allowed the Israelis to be too aggressive towards the Palestinians, but that is a separate debate.)

In the case of Taiwan, I think it's more complex. Sticking by the island has more to do with reassuring Japan than any love for the Taiwanese, but it also appeals to the American sense of political morality -- to stand up for a democratic country if it is threatened by a totalitarian one.

I understand from news magazines I have read, albeit many years ago, that this was one of the reasons why President Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan ended martial law and democratised the island in the 1980s. He foresaw a rising China and wanted the make sure that Americans viewed Taiwan in a better light and be more prepared to come to its aid.

This is where another part of Lee's interview with IHT comes in. Speaking about why Singapore chose the open-economy route to success, even when most other countries chose self-sufficiency and nationalism,

Lee Kuan Yew: The answer lies in our genesis. To survive, we have to do these things. And although what you see today - the superstructure of a modern city, the base is a very narrow one and could easily disintegrate. We are not Venice. We are not Athens with wide open spaces and far away neighbors. We are part of a world which is globalized, cheek by jowl with teeming millions in the region, populating at fast speed (laughs), right?

IHT: Control of many things including information and openness is the area in which Singapore is most often criticized.

Lee Kuan Yew: Well, we are pragmatists. If, in order to survive, we have to open up a sector, we open it up. Because the best test - the yardstick is, is this necessary for survival and progress? If it is, let's do it.

Along the same lines, I will proffer this thought: that if we want to maximise our chances of the US and other countries coming to our aid, we must offer them a moral reason to do so. If we are a liberal democratic country, we'd have more appeal, we'd be seen to be more worth saving than if we are seen as a dynastic fief. Why should other countries expend blood and treasure to save an authoritarian regime?

In short, our national security interest requires us to open up politically.

Yawning Bread