Singapore is very interested in what goes on in the outside world in part because it is so reliant on international trade. Citizens of many Asian countries—as well countries from all over the world—live in the city-state. Singapore is surrounded by two large Muslim neighbors: Malaysia and Indonesia. As a former British colony, Singapore is one of the 54 self-governing member states of the Commonwealth (formally the British Commonwealth of Nations).

Singapore maintains diplomatic relations with 165 nations. Overseas, it has seven high commissions, 17 embassies, two permanent representations to the United Nations (UN), and 14 consulates general and consulates. Singapore hosts embassies or high commissions of 55 nations, 37 foreign consular posts, and offices of eight international organizations. In addition, more than 60 nonresident foreign ambassadors are accredited to Singapore. Singapore seeks to maintain a credible defensive military to undergird its foreign policy. It promotes good relations with its neighbors and any nation wishing to establish friendly relations. As a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore is committed to maintaining a secure peaceful environment in and around Southeast Asia and in the Asia-Pacific region. After breaking off a long-term diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China on Taiwan in 1990, Singapore established relations with the People’s Republic of China. Since this change, numerous high-level delegations have traded visits and have developed a wide range of political, economic, cultural, and scientific and technical exchanges. Tensions over Singapore’s relations with Taiwan—emanating from both Beijing and Taipei—continue. Continued good relations with the United States are based on bilateral free trade and close military ties. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

Disputes persist with Malaysia over deliveries of fresh water to Singapore, Singapore's extensive land reclamation works, bridge construction, and maritime boundaries in the Johor and Singapore Straits; in 2008, ICJ awarded sovereignty of Pedra Branca (Pulau Batu Puteh/Horsburgh Island) to Singapore, and Middle Rocks to Malaysia, but did not rule on maritime regimes, boundaries, or disposition of South Ledge; Indonesia and Singapore continue to work on finalization of their 1973 maritime boundary agreement by defining unresolved areas north of Indonesia's Batam Island; piracy remains a problem in the Malacca Strait. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

See Separate Articles on Relations with Malaysia and China

Governing Precepts and Goals of Singapore’s Foreign Policy

Minister for Foreign Affairs Suppiah Dhanabalan described the governing precepts of the country's foreign policy in 1981 as a willingness to be friends with all who sought friendship, to trade with any state regardless of ideology, to remain nonaligned, and to continue to cooperate closely with Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN) members. These precepts, while consistent with the thrust of foreign policy from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, failed to account for the basic role that the survival of the nation played in determining foreign policy goals. A primary foreign policy consideration until the mid1980s , survival became an issue because of Singapore's size and location and Indonesia's Confrontation ( Konfrontasi) campaign against Malaysia in the 1960s. It was further linked to the concept of the "global city" first proposed in 1972 by then Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Sinnathamby Rajaratnam. This concept suggested that Singapore's survival depended on its ability to create a continuing demand for its services in the world market. By implementing a policy of international self-assertion, Singapore would shift from a reliance on entrepôt trade and shipping to export-oriented industries. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The focus on survival was evidenced in Singapore's reaction to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978. Of the many issues surrounding the event, one of particular interest to Singapore was Vietnam's blatant disregard for the sovereignty of a small nation. Singapore's decision to draw international attention to the situation was based, in part, on the need for international recognition of its own sovereignty. Following the invasion, Singapore heightened its international profile by expanding diplomatic representation abroad and attending international forums. Singapore was a member of ASEAN, the Nonaligned Movement ( NAM), the Asian Development Bank ( ADB), the Group of 77, the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization ( INTELSAT), and the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. *

With the passing of the first generation of leaders in the late 1980s, foreign policy was shaped less by the old fears produced by the events of the 1960s and 1970s and more by the experience of regional stability that prevailed during the formative years of the new guard or second generation of leaders. The self-assertion of a decade earlier was no longer required, and Singapore could afford to be less abrasive in its foreign policy style. Foreign policy objectives in the late 1980s were far more subtle than simple survival. *

In March 1989, Singapore announced that it was charting a new course of "economic diplomacy" to meet future international challenges. It sought expanded economic ties with China, the Soviet Union, several Eastern European nations, and the three nations of Indochina: Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In a speech to Parliament on March 17, 1989, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wong Kan Seng announced that Singapore was hoping to reverse its previous staunchly anticommunist posture and normalize relations with several communist countries to promote more compatible relationships based on mutual economic interests. *

Foreign policy also had to accommodate the views of predominantly Islamic neighbors who were viewed by Singapore's leaders as possible threats to its existence. As a gesture toward its neighbors and in recognition of its own regional roots, Singapore maintained its membership in the Nonaligned Movement, although it consistently rejected neutrality as a foreign policy option. Singapore's leaders had reasoned that avoiding entanglements with the great powers would leave Singapore far too vulnerable to threats from regional neighbors, as Indonesia's Confrontation campaign had demonstrated. Neutrality also was perceived to be inconsistent with the Total Defence style of defensive vigilance that the PAP attempted to instill in the citizenry following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The guiding concept of Total Defence was known as national integration and was meant to unify a population made up of immigrants and a mix of racial groups into a people with the "human will" to be "unconquerable." *

Foreign policy, therefore, stressed maintaining a balance of power in the region. Singapore promoted the regional involvement of all great powers because it feared aggravating a neighbor by relying on any one power. Although it would have preferred relying upon the United States to guarantee its security, such dependence would not have been tolerated by the other ASEAN states. Singapore also remained suspicious of the ability of the United States to pursue a consistent foreign policy following its withdrawal from Vietnam. Retaining its developing nation status was another foreign policy goal of the 1980s. The 1989, however, Singapore lost the concession enjoyed under the United States government's Generalized System of Preferences ( GSP) on imports from developing countries and the ability to borrow from the World Bank and the ADB at concessional rates. *

Singapore and International Organizations and Treaties

International organization participation: ADB, AOSIS, APEC, ARF, ASEAN, BIS, C, CP, EAS, FATF, G-77, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC (national committees), ICRM, IDA, IFC, IFRCS, IHO, ILO, IMF, IMO, IMSO, Interpol, IOC, IPU, ISO, ITSO, ITU, ITUC (NGOs), MIGA, NAM, OPCW, PCA, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNMIT, UPU, WCO, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTO. International law organization participation: Singapore has not submitted an ICJ jurisdiction declaration; non-party state to the ICC. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2013]

Singapore is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Nonaligned Movement, the United Nations (UN), and numerous other international organizations, including the Asian Development Bank, Asia Pacific Economic Forum, Bank for International Settlements, Colombo Plan, Commonwealth, Forum on Small States, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Aviation Organization, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Chamber of Commerce, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Police Organization, International Development Association, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Hydrographic Organization, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, International Telecommunication Union, Multilateral Investment Geographic Agency, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Permanent Court of Arbitration, UN Conference on Trade and Development, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and World Trade Organization. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006 **]

Singapore is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty; Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons; and Convention on Biological and Toxin Weapons. Singapore also is party to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, Montreal Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, United Nations (UN) Convention to Combat Desertification, UN Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. It also is a party to the Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, and Ship Pollution agreements. **

Singapore Hosts the World Bank and IMF in 2006 and APEC in 2009

In 2006, Singapore hosted the World Bank-IMF conference, with some 24,000 foreign delegates. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star: “The city-state spent S$130 million on it, pulling out all the stops. The government called on its people to greet the world with “four million smiles”. Surrounding roads have been repaved and lined on both sides with flowers. Private social escort firms are openly advertising the services of “young, energetic and intelligent girls” in the 20s for S$150-$200 an hour or S$1000 a night. To address terrorism concerns, thick wire fencing, concrete blocks and high-tech scanners were set up around surround Suntec City, where the event was held, and some of the nearby hotels. The international community objected to Singaporean government banning of public protests and blacklisting—for “safety” reasons—28 activists who had been accredited by the IMF and World Bank. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, September 17, 2006]

Singapore hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings from February to November 2009. Venues for the APEC 2009 meetings were in different location around town, The main event, the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting (AELM)—where Leaders of APEC’s 21 member economies— met in mid at the Istana. The Istana has hosted many state guests but this was the first time it host the Heads of the 21 APEC Economies. The Leaders Week was expected to draw some 7,000 delegates to Singapore. Ministerial meetings took place around the same time at the Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre (SSICEC). Other meetings held throughout the year took at different venues, including the APEC Secretariat Office at Heng Mui Keng Terrace, Grand Copthorne Waterfront and the Shangri-la Hotel. Security and traffic measures were put in place to ensure the safe and smooth organisation of the APEC 2009 meetings. [Source: Reuters, February 12, 2009]

Singapore and ASEAN

According to to Human Rights Watch Singapore has “continued to play a leading role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but did little to ensure the regional body engaged meaningfully with civil society organizations, particularly during development of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, adopted in November.

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

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." *

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. *

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia Create Economic Triangle

In 2007, Mia Shanley of Reuters wrote: “ Neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have a history of squabbling. Land, boundaries, workers and water have been among the points of contention. But singed by the competitive heat of fast-growing China and India and frustrated by the glacial pace of Southeast Asia's economic integration, the three are trying to put old grudges aside for the sake of their own prosperity. [Source: Mia Shanley, Reuters, January 23, 2007 /=/]

Indonesia has created a special economic zone on its Riau islands between Singapore and Indonesia, while Malaysia has a multi-billion-dollar plan to develop industry in its southern Johor state bordering Singapore. One aim is to attract foreign investment and stop it heading off to China or India. Another is to encourage firms already in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to expand in the neighborhood rather than elsewhere. For tiny Singapore, strapped for land and labor after years of rapid economic expansion, the plans would mean access to cheap workers and land right on its doorstep.

“The Malaysian and Indonesian developments are in areas seven times bigger than Singapore with a combined population of more than 2 million. "It's about how to be competitive with China and India," said K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "You need to have a cheaper alternative. Why not take advantage of this when it's just next door?" Indonesia and Malaysia — neglected until recently by investors because of a history of policy flipflops and corruption — hope the plans will bring major investment, partly lured by the proximity of Singapore's efficient infrastructure and financial services. /=/

“Similar projects on Indonesia's Riau islands faltered previously because foreign investors complained about legal uncertainties, red tape and corruption. The Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998 also put a brake on the developments. But with new leaders appointed in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in the past three years, relations between the trio have improved and added to hopes the plans can be successful this time. /=/

“Singapore and Indonesia plan to jointly develop manufacturing zones on the Riau islands. Singapore will bring some of the economic efficiency on which its economy is built to help attract foreign investors. Tiong Woon, a transport engineering company that has outgrown its home base of Singapore, has already bought a 64-hectare plot on one of the islands, Bintan, a short ferry hop from Singapore. "Proximity to Singapore was a major factor," said Daniel Ong, Tiong Woon's corporate development manager. "We could stay near to the major oil rig builders, nearer to our clientele." After previous false starts, hopes are high that the countries may get it right this time. "We may see a renewed burst of growth," said Manu Bhaskaran, an economist at Centennial Group in Singapore. /=/

“Malaysia is seeking $105 billion in investment over 20 years in manufacturing and services, such as health care and education, for Johor Bahru, a city on the Malaysian side of a narrow sea divide with Singapore. Thousands of Malaysians already trek across a causeway between the two countries every day to work in Singapore, where foreign workers make up 27 percent of the workforce. Malaysia hopes its plan will generate more of a two-way flow of workers. Singapore has welcomed the move, although Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it had received "mixed signals" from Malaysia on investment opportunities.

Sceptics warn progress could be slow given the prickly relations of the past. To many Singaporeans, Johor Bahru has a reputation for corrupt police and violent crime. Recent heavy rains and flooding have highlighted weak infrastructure. "You've got to have the infrastructure," said Joseph Tan, an economist at Standard Chartered, adding that Singapore is already a transport and finance center. "I can't see a compelling enough reason for multinational companies to make the cross to Johor." Political bickering in Malaysia could also derail the plans. Former long-term Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad blasted the government for trying to turn the southern tip of Malaysia into "foreign land." But some other politicians see it differently. "It will give more breathing space to the foreign investors and businesses located in Singapore," Shahrir Samad, a leader of the ruling United Malays National Organization and a Johor Bahru Member of Parliament, told Reuters.

Singapore’s Relations with Indonesia

The late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid once said, Singaporeans “just look after themselves. All they look for are profits...Singaporeans despise Malays—we’re considered nonexistent.”

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.

See Indonesia

Singapore’s Relations with Thailand

The Thai government that replaced the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was angered by Thaksin’s business deals with the Singaporean government’s financial arm and by visits by Thaksin to Singapore, and media appearances there, after he was ousted. [Source: Ambika Ahuja, Associated Press, January 16, 2007]

In 2007, Ambika Ahuja of Associated Press wrote: “Thailand summoned Singapore's ambassador express concern about former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's recent meeting with a top official and to urge caution in the future, the military-installed prime minister said. Thaksin met recently with Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar during one of many trips he has taken in Asia since being ousted from power in a September 2006 coup. Coup leaders say the trips are politically motivated and revoked Thaksin's diplomatic passport.

"We informed the Singaporean (ambassador) that we are concerned by the political movements made by Thaksin," Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters. "Singapore should be more cautious about allowing such movements since we have already revoked Thaksin's diplomatic passport," he added. Singapore's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment, but in a statement issued Sunday described Jayakumar as an "old friend" of Thaksin's and said their meeting was "purely social and private." [Ibid]

Queen Elizabeth in Singapore in 2006

Singapore was touted as an impregnable fortress of the British Empire before it fell swiftly to Japanese forces on Feb. 15, 1942 — one in a succession of territories taken by the Japanese as they swept across Asia.

In March 2006, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II made a three-day state visit to Singapore, ending the trip with an afternoon at the city-state’s horse racing track and presenting the winner's cup at a race named after her. Associated Press reported: “The monarch, who became queen half a century ago when Singapore was a malaria-infested backwater, said during her first visit since 1989 that she admired the Southeast Asian city-state's transformation into a "center for excellence in Asia." Singapore and Britain "are natural partners in so many ways, and I firmly believe this will continue and strengthen in the years ahead," the queen said at a state banquet at the country's colonial-era presidential palace. [Source: AP, March 16, 2006]

The queen, who had earlier met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said that the two countries' strong political ties were underscored by a shared belief in fighting terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and that both economies were increasingly linked through trade and investment. On Friday afternoon, about 400 cheering schoolchildren waving Singaporean and British flags greeted her at Singapore's national library, where she viewed an exhibit of photos by young people and stopped to chat with student Cliff Tan, 18, whose photo showed a dragon boat race — an old tradition among Singapore's majority ethnic Chinese.

The queen was ceremonially welcomed earlier on Friday at the presidential palace, where she inspected a Singapore military guard of honor. Police quickly removed an animal rights protester — dressed as a bear and holding a sign saying "God Save the Bears" — who appeared outside the palace gates. The protester said the queen's Buckingham Palace guards should use fake fur instead of bearskin for their famous hats. Queen Elizabeth, arrived in Singapore from Australia, accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Prince William and Kate visit Singapore in 2012

In September 2012, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—better known as Prince William and Kate—visited Singapore on the first day of their tour of South East Asia and the South Pacific. They Duchess viewed an orchid named after William's mother, Diana and inspected a guard of honour at the presidential palace. At a state dinner, the prince praised the commitment and fortitude of the Queen. "Her service has not just been to the peoples of her realms, but to the whole Commonwealth family, of which Singapore is such an important member, he said. The royal couple also visited Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu during the trip to mark the Diamond Jubilee. The duchess made her first speech in a foreign country when she addresses staff and patients at a Malaysian hospice. [Source: BBC, September 11, 2012 /+]

The BBC reported: “In their second year of marriage, William and Kate are undertaking their second major overseas tour. The duke thanked Singapore for being "very much part of our Olympic story", the Games having been awarded to London in 2005 at a press conference in Singapore. Earlier, William and Catherine visited Singapore's Botanic Gardens' to view an orchid named after the duke's mother Diana, Princess of Wales. Alan Tan Chye Soon, manager at the garden, said it was "so sad" the princess did not get chance to see the bloom, but added: "It was like William and Kate are fulfilling her promise today." William and Catherine also saw a pink orchid - Vanda William Catherine - named after themselves. /+\

“The royals were greeted at Singapore Changi airport by senior parliamentary secretary for the ministry of defence, Maliki Osman, who said it was a "great honour" to have the couple in Singapore. Antony Phillipson, British high commissioner to Singapore, who also greeted the couple, said there had been "mounting excitement" about the visit. "This is a couple who are global superstars and make the British feel very, very good about themselves - that's as true in Singapore as anywhere else." /+\

Singapore’s Relations with the United States

The US and Singapore maintain strong military ties, including bilateral access agreements that allow the US to use a Singapore naval base, and to operate re-supply vessels, dock its aircraft carriers, and maintain a regional logistical command unit. Singapore is not a treaty ally of the United States but it has been generally supportive of U.S. policies. According to Human Rights Watch, discussion of Singapore’s human rights record are not part of the bilateral agenda.

Singapore’s founder Singaporean once he said Singapore was not a "client state of America." After Singapore got the United States Herald Tribune to apologize for statements made about Singapore, Lee said, "What they're saying is 'I am an American. I have defended the world. I am gendarme.' It’s an unbelievable assumption of cultural supremacy, and one I personally find discomforting."

Relations between Singapore and the United States became strained in 1988 after the United States was accused of meddling in Singapore's internal affairs and a United States diplomat was expelled as a result of the charge. The United States had objected to the government's policy of restricting the circulation of several Hong Kong-based newspapers, including the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, and to the use of the Internal Security Act to detain indefinitely dissidents or those deemed a threat to the existing order. The expelled diplomat was accused of instigating members of the opposition to contest the 1988 elections. The essence of a speech on United States-Singapore relations, given by Lee Hsien Loong before the Asia Society in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 1989, was that the relationship was strong but that the United States should refrain from interfering in Singapore's internal affairs. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The United States was Singapore's largest trading partner in the 1980s. It also was viewed as a benevolent power whose military presence in the region kept Soviet influence in check, balanced China's increasing military strength, and obviated Japan's rearming. Singapore was concerned, however, that the United States eventually would tire of its role in the Asia-Pacific region. This concern was somewhat allayed in 1989 when President George Bush, demonstrating his commitment to maintain American interests in the area, both dispatched Vice President Dan Quayle on an Asian tour and visited the region himself in the first few months of his administration. *

See Military, Trade, Caning of Michael Fay.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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