Punching Above Its Weight: Is Singapore More Than A Price Taker in Global Governance?

To understand how Singapore has managed to “punch above its weight” – the notion repeated by Hillary Clinton in 2010 – it is important to analyse Singapore’s proactive initiatives in global governance aimed at promoting its national interests on the worldwide arena.

Singapore had always acted in response to pressure from greater global powers. Professor Heng Yee Kuang, in his paper “Can Small States be More Than Price-Takers?” (published in Global Governance, 21, no. 3 (2015)), quotes the founding prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who once famously said that “Singapore takes the position that we are price-takers”. Applied to international relations, the notion of price-takers refers to small states with limited capacity to shape the rules, processes, norms, and outcomes defined by great powers, known as price-makers.

Price-takers refers to small states with limited capacity to shape the rules, processes, norms, and outcomes defined by great powers. However, the idea that small states are not necessarily hopeless is an emerging theme of current scholarly literature, and this can be seen in the context of Singapore, once referred to by Harvard University professor Stephen Walt as an “over-achiever”.

However, the idea that small states are not necessarily hopeless is an emerging theme of current scholarly literature, and the authors demonstrate its applicability to the context of Singapore. It is remarkable, for instance, that in 2009 Harvard University professor Stephen Walt referred to Singapore as one of “over-achievers” based on its tremendous economic success and profound regional integration activities, as well as its leadership’s bold views on a variety of global issues.

 

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In terms of initiatives adopted over time, Singapore has relied not only on the traditional UN framework, but also has lately pursued a new approach, like informal alternative frameworks. The UN historically has served as the basis for Singapore’s initiatives, offering small states a sense of predictability and respect for law. Singapore’s formation of the Forum of Small States (FOSS) at the UN in 1992 serves as an example of efficiently using strength in the number of member states, e.g. 105 of 193 UN member states have joined the FOSS, to pursue national interests on a global governance platform. As Iftekhar Amad Chowdury points, the FOSS allows small states to “speak to global issues in a ‘trade unionist’ way without actually affronting the larger powers”.

In 2005, Singapore also founded another coalition of small states (Small Five, or S5) aimed at reforming the UN Security Council operation. Instead of representing specific interests, it has reflected on broad general principles that should guide international relations to help small states to survive. Singapore-led informal frameworks such as the 3G and FOSS are vital in protecting the interests of small states in global governance.

Yet, more recently Singapore has increasingly embraced informal frameworks outside the UN. These primarily include Global Governance Group (3-G) established in response to the emergence of the Group of 20 (G-20), and another small state centric coalition known as the Small Five (S-5). The informal Governance Group (3-G) was established in 2009 and includes thirty small- and medium-sized member countries. The G-20, which had been formed earlier, not only lacked the legitimacy and universal membership of the UN, but it also failed to represent the interests of small- and medium-sized states. The 3-G introduced four recommendations: 1) representation of the Secretary-General in the G-20; 2) regular consultation with non G-20 states; 3) regular involvement of regional organisations other than the European Union (EU); and 4) the principle of variable geometry, which would incorporate non-G-20 members in working groups on issues of high importance.

In 2005, Singapore also founded another coalition of small states (Small Five, or S5) aimed at reforming the UN Security Council operation. Instead of representing specific interests, it has reflected on broad general principles that should guide international relations to help small states to survive. Including Singapore, Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland, the S5 introduced a draft resolution in 2011 that urged the Security Council Permanent (P5) members to refrain from vetoing action aimed at preventing genocide, war crime, or crime against humanity. Although these measures did not produce success due to mobilised opposition of the P5 coalition, Singapore’s persistence with promoting specific principles is seen as part of its punching above its weight. To sum, Singapore-led informal frameworks such as the 3G and FOSS are vital in protecting the interests of small states in global governance, as repeatedly raised by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his deputy Teo Chee Hean.

Singapore has also managed to develop its niche expertise in financial, maritime, and aviation sectors. In financial services, with the average daily foreign exchange turnover of US$326 billion as of April 2013, Singapore became the world’s third largest foreign exchange center in September that same year, after London and New York. Over the past five years, Singapore has been invited to four out of seven G-20 summits. Since no more than five non-G20 states can be invited, the inclusion of Singapore is particularly significant.

With regards to developing the maritime sector, Singapore was one of the world’s busiest ports in 2014 measured in terms of vessel arrival tonnage. It was also the world’s top bunkering port in that same year, and as a maritime hub Singapore is connected to 600 ports in 123 countries. As a recent move, Singapore has embraced the Arctic Council as one of its vital interests and has also begun to develop icebreakers, oil rigs, and lifeboats designed for Arctic conditions – which offer yet another example of how this city-state punches above its weight. Finally, as far as aviation is concerned, Singapore currently operates the world’s sixth-busiest airport for international passenger traffic, with around 100 international airlines serving 300 cities across 70 destinations, and 6,500 flights departing and landing each week. Furthermore, Singapore serves on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that acts as a global civil aviation regulator.

To conclude, in July 2013, Singapore’s then Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam reiterated Mr. Lee Kuan Yew by posting on Facebook that “Singapore’s size and geography mean that we are often price takers…” and yet paradoxically Singapore is also oft referred to as punching above its weight. The paradox can be explained by how, driven by a sense of vulnerability, Singaporean leaders have tried to improve global governance frameworks to secure their national interests.

The key initiatives the city-state has pursued, including the FOSS and ICAO within the UN framework and non-UN initiatives such as the G-20, 3-G, and S-5 all strive to achieve a common end — securing Singaporean interests and protecting its key sectors. An ability to punch above its weight has certainly been recognised on the global arena through a number of invitations to participate in G-20 summits.

It is therefore evident that uncritical use of the price-taker analogy yields very little, if any, analytical sense to see ways in which small states build strength in numbers to strengthen their roles in global governance processes. Another strategy that Singapore has pursued is to develop its specialised capacity in key areas across financial, maritime, and aviation industries. The vast evidence presented in this paper suggests the need to critically unpack the price-taker analogy as an excessively broad categorisation that severely restricts a more comprehensive understanding of how small states can be positioned in global governance structures. Singapore has successfully combined capable human resources with the ability to develop niche expertise across the three key industries.

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Mergen Dyussenov is a PhD student at the LKY School. His research interests include the replication of the Anthony Downs’ issue attention cycle model in corruption issues, the role of social media in addressing corruption, as well as higher education policies in international perspectives. His email is mergend7@gmail.com

Read in Issue 22 of Global-is-Asian Magazine.