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Duality means both can be right

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Kishore Mahbubani & Bilahari Kausikan's foreign policy debate

Professor Kishore Mahbubani wrote a piece on lessons from Qatar for Singapore.

Veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote a rebuttal on Facebook, while noting his personal ties with Kishore. They were from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is deeply disturbing that two major debates, this and the Lee family dispute, are somewhat dividing our nation. I seek to highlight some points of convergence regarding the debate between Kishore and Bilahari.

One key thing I learnt from researching pragmatism in the foreign policies of the US, China and Singapore is the concept of duality.

We often like to think in dichotomies because that is what we have been taught. In debates, there must be proposition and opposition. In academia, science versus the arts. In ethics, wrong versus right, in universalistic terms.

Kishore wrote: "My simple rule in analysing geopolitical developments is that it is never a black-and-white case. No one side is completely right and no other side is completely wrong. The reality is often messy. So I will not try to analyse the rights and wrongs of this Qatar development."

Deng Xiaoping's one-country-two-systems is an example of duality in Chinese foreign policy - two seemingly different concepts put together with some ambiguity and manoeuvre space to make it work (gradually).

The author of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald, surmised US pragmatism aptly: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

For Singapore, pragmatism in foreign policy means being able to embrace realism and liberalism, and apply them in varying degrees according to context.

It entails being realistic to know that Singapore is so small, we have to shout louder to be heard.

Hence, punching above our weight is an accolade given to us for 'standing our ground firm' (Bilahari's point) with quality contributions and relevance in international fora.

We clearly see Singapore using both realism and liberalism to fulfil our national interests (which may change if context changes). The key words are 'depending on context'.

Changes in geopolitical and domestic context matter. The US, China and US-China relations in the Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong eras are different and hence exact configuration of strategy may have to adapt accordingly.

Many Chinese and US thinkers agree that after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 there was a transition point where China became increasingly more confident internationally.

For the South China Sea, Singapore has traditionally not chosen sides, remaining ambiguous and citing the need to uphold international law and reach a peaceful settlement.

This is the mark of our pragmatism in foreign policy (we do not take sides in the balance of power).

Even if we lean more to the US on security partnerships, we make sure we lean more to China on economic partnerships such as Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing.

Our participation in both the then-US-led Trans Pacific Partnership and China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is another example of not taking sides and being pragmatic.

Perhaps the crux of this debate is pragmatism and its limits of generalisation. Both Kishore and Bilahari were well trained by Singapore elder statesmen in our brand of pragmatism.

However, pragmatism is a problem-solving approach which defies universal generalisation as the exact context and factors of consideration behind each decision can be vastly different even if our 'principles' and national interest remain somewhat evergreen.

What duality meant is that Kishore and Bilahari could be right in their 'reference' context.

While they are right in their 'reference context', there are limits to generalising to Singapore as if Singapore's challenges, US perception and desires of Singapore as strategic partner, ditto for China, do not change.

We yearn for universal and unchanging truths to make understanding reality easier. Perhaps that's the nature of argument. But must there be a winner? Like national elections, such debates can be deeply divisive.

Like it or not, Singapore is a tad too small to be constantly divided over issues. Our founding fathers laid a solid foundation internationally for us, and it is in our national interest to protect and expand it.

The writer is a visiting fellow at 
Brookings Institution, researching pragmatism in the foreign policies 
of US, China and Singapore.