International strategic environment: Historical development of regional autonomy

Singapore has faced a unique regional strategic environment. In the Malay Peninsula, the end of World War II created a political momentum for independence, resulting in the establishment of the Federation of Malaya in 1948. After the federation became formally independent of Great Britain in 1957, Malaysia was created in 1963. While Singapore was a part of Malaysia, domestic political tensions arose between Singapore and the federal government because of their different perspectives on economic and financial arrangements, as well as lingering racial tensions between ethnic Chinese and Malays, which was illustrated by the 1964 race riots (HistorySG, 2014; Han, 2014). Eventually, the Malaysian Parliament made the decision to expel Singapore, which thus unwillingly gained independence. At this point, Singapore did not have its own military force to ensure its sovereignty and security, and it was psychologically and politically vulnerable to potential and existing external threats.

It is within this context that Singapore began to regard its closest neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia as strategically the most important states and decided that it needed a stable relationship with both. The ties that bound Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia together were arguably their shared colonial experience and history, during which they were not able to exercise political autonomy. Indeed, this psychological and political experience led them to participate in the global movement in the 1950s and the 1960s for political independence from former colonies (Koga and Nordin, 2019). For example, in 1955, the Bandung Conference, organized by former colonies in Southeast Asian and South Asian states, including Indonesia and India, laid the foundations for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), whose member states aimed to avoid being entrapped in great power politics between the United States and the Soviet Union (Shimazu, 2014). The movement for decolonization was accelerated in 1960, when the United Nations General Assembly issued the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” (The United Nations, 1960). As former European colonies, there was a political will among Southeast Asian states, including Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, to collectively unite to prevent external intervention in the region.

Despite these unifying forces, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia faced intensive inter-state tensions. As described above, Singapore and Malaysia experienced political and ethnic tensions, resulting in the separation of the two states in 1965 against Singapore’s will. More acutely, Indonesia under the Sukarno administration inclined toward the communist camp and conducted the Konfrontasi policy against the Federation of Malaysia from 1963 because member states of the federation were seen as puppet regimes of Great Britain {HistorySG, 2014b). The Konfrontasi policy continued even after the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, and Singapore was prepared to establish its own military in order to defend its sovereignty and people.

However, given its limited capabilities Singapore understood that it could not defend itself without external support. Thus, Singapore kept the British military bases even after independence, including the Sembawang naval base (Omar and Chan, 2007). At that point, Defense Minister Goh Keng Swee argued that

[ I ]t is no use pretending that without the British military forces in Singapore today, the island cannot be easily overrun within a matter of hours by any neighboring country within a radius of 1,000 miles, if any of these countries care to do so.

{Singapore Parliament Reports, 1965a)

However, this did not mean that Singapore would also allow Great Britain to use its bases in Singapore for future aggression. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam stated that their purpose was defensive—to protect Singaporeans (National Archives of Singapore, 1965; Singapore Parliament Reports, 1965b). In other words, the existing foreign bases were meant to ensure Singapore’s own security, and had no other strategic purposes such as extending the sending country’s power projection capabilities.

In the late 1960s, when the United Kingdom decided to withdraw its military—“east of Suez”—Singapore began to seek alternative solutions, visiting regional powers, such as Australia and New Zealand, to ensure regional security (National Archives of Singapore, 1965). Since it was unable to find a complete replacement, Singapore undertook a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it agreed to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with regional states, including Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore did not envision that ASEAN would become a military organization, but that such a regional organization would provide an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties and mitigate tensions among the members (Leifer, 1987; Koga, 2017, pp. 34-35). Such a cooperative framework was also meant to prevent the member states from conducting hostile policies, such as Konfrontasi. On the other hand, Singapore still needed to gain military support from external powers. This is because the power vacuum created by the disengagement from the region of the great powers, namely the United Kingdom and the United States, needed to be filled in order to maintain regional stability. With no alternatives remaining, Singapore agreed to establish the FPDA, whose member states include Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It never provided a concrete military commitment but, rather, it ensured a commitment to consult in times of crisis, which functioned as a “political and psychological deterrence” (Emmers, 2015, p. 175). Thus, instead of relying entirely on one great power for its military protection, Singapore attempted to diversify ways and means to ensure its national security.

In this context, ASEAN created an interesting political agreement regarding foreign military bases in 1967. According to the 1967 ASEAN Declaration, the ASEAN member states affirmed that:

... all foreign bases are temporary and remain only with the expressed concurrence of the countries concerned and are not intended to be used directly or indirectly to subvert the national independence and freedom of States in the area or prejudice the orderly processes of their national development.

(ASEAN Secretariat, 1967)

As this policy was vigorously pursued by Indonesia, regional autonomy and independence became one of the most important ASEAN principles in nurturing regional unity in Southeast Asia (Ba, 2009, pp. 60-61). Although ASEAN was never a military alliance, its political force functioned as a constraint on member states’ behavior, holding them back from engaging in intra-regional military conflicts. The declaration of the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1971 is a case in point. ZOPFAN issued member states’ political aspirations for regional neutrality, and despite the non-binding nature of the declaration, it set certain behavioral guidelines for the unity of its member states to defend from excessive external intervention (Koga, 2017, pp. 28-50).

Southeast Asian states certainly understood that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove all foreign bases, considering the legal security commitment by the United States to its regional military allies, namely the Philippines and Thailand, which were unwilling to follow regional interests at the expense of their own security. Nevertheless, given Lee Kuan Yew’s strategic calculation on the basis of the balance of power politics and changes in the regional strategic environment in Southeast Asia, structurally and ideationally, this principle was gradually embedded in Singapore’s foreign policy. The U.S. and U.K. retrenchment, the establishment of the FPDA, and regional pressures from Indonesia and Malaysia, all helped facilitate this trend.

Indeed, Indonesia and Malaysia were concerned about Singapore’s unilateral decision to invite U.S. forces by concluding the 1990 MOU near the end of the Cold War, when the Philippines began to renegotiate its U.S. military bases there, namely Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base (Ciorciari, 2010, p. 98). Singapore established Changi Naval Base, so that it could accommodate large naval ships, including U.S. aircraft carriers, and it agreed to relocate Commander Task Force 73 (CTF73), a task force of the U.S. 7th Fleet that was in charge of logistics (Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific, 2015). This is because Singapore believed that the power vacuum in Southeast Asia created by the end of the Cold War might expedite regional power competition, particularly between Japan and China, potentially destabilizing the region. However, such military arrangements have never evolved into a fiill-fledged military alliance oiled Singapore and the United States to issue a SOFA for U.S. military officers in Singapore, although subsequent agreements between Singapore and the United States have allowed the latter greater access to Singapore’s facilities.

In this sense, Singapore’s foreign policy principles and its regional strategic environment have been the main factors for understanding its preferences and motivation to create and maintain quasi-bases. In addition, Singapore’s quasi-bases are relatively open to any actors, indicating that Singapore wants to avoid being seen as a staunch Western ally in Southeast Asia.

Still, Singapore’s domestic factors are also of significance because its politics have been based on an election system. In such circumstances, although the political system is strongly dominated by one party, the public has the means to express dissatisfaction and the government needs to accommodate or suppress it. The next section discusses domestic factors that legitimize Singapore’s quasi-bases to the public.

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