Fulfilling the Regionalism Dream: Prospects for the Republic of Singapore’s Bilateral and Multilateral Relations with the ASEAN Member-States




“Cooperation with ASEAN…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…
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.”
Barbara Leitch Lepoer (1989) 


Singapore and Its Relations with ASEAN: In a Nutshell

With a total land area of 710 square kilometers, the Republic of Singapore has been described as a small country in terms of territorial expanse. But in terms of its economy, one cannot discredit the fact that Singapore is a giant. The country has been mostly associated with the Merlion, dirt-free streets, fast-paced development, skyscrapers, costly lifestyle and high per capita income.  With its small population and dependence on external markets and suppliers, Singapore has pulled off development with much ease and success. Singapore has been globally recognized as one with the highest per capita gross domestic products in the world (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2012).  It has a highly developed market-based economy. With such dynamism and ingenuity, Singapore has risen above the heights and earned the title of a fully-pledged industrialized country.

Among the countries in Southeast Asia (SEA), Singapore has been deemed the richest. However, this clout of economic power has somehow made Singapore rogue in the eyes of its nearby neighbors. As the wealthiest country in Asia, Singapore has been gravely criticized because of its failure to offer assistance to fellow SEA countries. Despite the country’s commitment to maintain a politically and economically stable environment in Southeast Asia, Singapore has taken strides to forge cooperation with the United States and other countries which she considers fruitful for her interest. As an economic powerhouse, Singapore has been entitled to such privileges as she is not barred to establishing ties with other countries. But as what an article reports, the center of Singapore’s foreign policy now has focused much on cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines (Lepoer, 1989). These being said, one can deduce that Singapore’s interests are global rather than regional. Moreover, its relations with ASEAN are characterized by restraint and detachment rather than regional cooperation.

Things have already changed since Singapore became independent on 1965. Her separation, if not expulsion, from the Malaysian Peninsula have brought drastic changes to a then-struggling state. The separation has brought to fore two major repercussions: (1) Singapore has learned to stand on its feet; and (2) Singapore has learned to buckle up for more challenges ahead. The Malaysia-Singapore relations have been formerly enveloped in the cloud of rancor and animosity. Now, their relations with one another are characterized by a high degree of socio-economic independence. In fact, Singapore has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner in 2008 (www.globalsecurity.org., 2008).

The same is true to her relations with Indonesia. From 1963 to 1966, the Indonesian Government headed by former President Sukarno has launched Confrontation campaigns against Singapore. For a relatively long time, their relationship has been marred by this past discord. But now, things have gone anew. Singapore has been Indonesia’s second largest foreign investor with investments amounting to approximately 10% of Indonesia’s foreign direct investment in 2008. Both countries, unlike before, have been enjoying close ties in the present (Lepoer, 1989; www.globalsecurity.org., 2008).

Singaporean-Philippine Relations: An Overview

The relations between the Philippines and Singapore have been formally established on 1969 but as early as 1898, both countries have already shared common historical ties. Former Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo has sought refuge to Singapore to escape a law suit filed in Hong Kong.  Our very own Jose Rizal has visited Singapore a couple of times and even dreamed of living there for good. It is noteworthy that during these times, Singapore was a country yet to be born. Both countries were still under the banner of foreign leadership (Ocampo, 2011).

On 10 March 2011, incumbent Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has paid a three-day visit to Singapore President S.R. Nathan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. During this visit, Aquino and Nathan “reaffirmed the warm and long-standing bilateral ties between Singapore and the Philippines” (Xiangzhang, 2011). They have also pledged to deepen the countries’ ties with one another with the expression of satisfaction as regards the state of their present bilateral relations.

However, these warms ties had been marred many years ago by the execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore. For 25 years, the economic relations of both countries have been strained. This fateful event has also caused the postponement of a planned state visit by the Singaporean Prime Minister (Shenon, 1995). The death of Flor has ushered negative sentiments among Filipinos as this epitomized the dismal state of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) abroad. Diplomatic relations have been restored a year but the great divide between the two countries has remained.


The cases with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines exemplify how Singapore conducts its foreign relations with her ASEAN neighbors. Bilateral and multilateral arrangements are concluded by Singapore with these states. In the present, the ASEAN is the cornerstone of Singapore’s foreign policy. It is a staunch supporter of regionalism and economic competitiveness among the ASEAN members. Singapore recognizes the idea that its future progress depends largely on ASEAN’s prosperity (Athukorala, 2008; New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008)

In the succeeding chapter of this paper, the prognosis of Singapore’s foreign relations with the ASEAN will be discussed. Some of Singapore’s bilateral relations with the Philippines will be identified along with some multilateral relations of Singapore with the ASEAN. The common issues and concerns which continue to emerge during the process of maintaining foreign relations will be enumerated. Much later, how Singapore contributed to the relations and what things have she gained from these will be tackled as well.


“ Singapore has responded to these challenges in bilateral trading agreements,
driven by its idiosyncratic features of a small, city–state economy and frustrated by
 laggard ASEAN. Increasingly, there is a divergence in macroeconomic policy
between Singapore and ASEAN in terms of openness and competition.”

-Professor Linda Low (2003), National University of Singapore

The ASEAN is considered as “the premier regional association in East Asia and the most prominent regional grouping in the Third World” (Frost, 2008, p. 1). It was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Later, it accepted Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam.

The ASEAN’s inception was done during a period when politico-economic changes are sweeping throughout the region. Singapore, a founding member of the ASEAN, was then a fledgling state as it has just gained full autonomy two years before the establishment of the organization (Frost, 2008). Nonetheless, Singapore remained strongly committed to achieving a dynamic ASEAN community. Since the ASEAN’s inception, Singapore made it clear that her ASEAN membership will be the cornerstone of her foreign policy. As an article goes, “[a]ctive membership of ASEAN is seen by the Singaporean Government as a means to enhance its own economic competitiveness and provide the region with a strong platform to engage key international players, especially the US and China” (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2012).

When a State conducts foreign relations, there are things that it should bear in mind. First, the State establishing foreign ties will be guided by its own state interests as this will be done to effectuate self-preservation. Second, while preserving state interests is inevitable, a State should always ensure that the interests of the partner-State/s will not be trampled upon. Lastly, States should come up with terms and agreements beneficial to each other.

In the succeeding sections of this chapter, how Singapore conducts its foreign relations with the Philippines and other ASEAN countries will be discussed. We will also identify what Singapore can offer and what she has gotten during the conduct of bilateral and multilateral relations with the ASEAN.

The Bilateral Relations between Singapore and the Philippines

As the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario claims, the Philippines and Singapore enjoy a warm and multi-faceted bilateral relationship (Department of Foreign Affairs, 2012). True enough, both countries maintain relations which are responsive to their present needs. It was on 1969 when both countries established formal relations with each other. During the administration of then President Corazon Aquino, the Philippines and Singapore’s cordial ties remained conspicuous to the eyes of their neighbors. In fact, President Aquino preferred to travel to Indonesia and Singapore during her first overseas visit. This was the first instance when a Philippine President defied from the norm that the first overseas visit of the President should always be Washington, DC (www.countrystudies.com, n.d.).

However, during the Ramos administration, the relations of both countries were tainted by the death of Contemplacion in Singapore. Ironically though, it was during this administration where the relations of both countries flourished as underscored by the formation of some institutions and conclusion of vital agreements. A year before Contemplacion’s execution, the Philippine-Singapore Business Council (PSBC) was established in the Philippines. Launched on 13 October 1994 by President Ramos and Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, the PSBC is an organization which acts as a resource panel and avenue to economic exchanges and cooperation of the business communities of the two countries (Singapore Diplomatic Handbook, 2011).  Three years after the incident, the economic relations were officially restored by the signing of the Philippine-Singapore Action Plan (PSAP) to ameliorate bilateral trade at the ASEAN summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Signed on 14 December 1998, the PSAP also served as a “framework for expanding bilateral co-operation between Singapore and the Philippines. Under the PSAP, both countries actively co-operate in the areas of economics, culture, people-to-people exchanges and defense” (Singapore Diplomatic Handbook, 2011, p. 112). During the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, agreements were concluded as regards the promotion of cooperation in media policy and information as well as the liberalization of air travel between the two countries to bolster tourism. A status of forces agreement was also discussed together with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to combat terrorism and transnational crimes (ASEAN Affairs, 2007). President Arroyo initiated the opening of the Bayanihan Centre which has served as a vital link in the integration of Filipinos with the locals and the productive engagement of Filipino workers in Singapore. The Centre provides vocational training and recreation of the Filipinos working in Singapore (Singapore Institute of International Affairs, 2009; Department of Foreign Affairs, 2012)

Aside from these, Singapore remains to be one of the largest export markets of the Philippines while the Philippines serves as one of Singapore’s largest trading partners. The Singapore Cooperation Program (SCP), where the Philippines was considered a priority country, continues to extend technical cooperation and technical training in a variety of fields (Singapore Diplomatic Handbook, 2011).

The Multilateral Relations of Singapore with the ASEAN

 Singapore, as it was said earlier, puts into emphasis her ASEAN membership in forging foreign relations. As a proponent of regionalism, Singapore strongly supports a number of regional organizations built around ASEAN such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC), and the East Asia Summit (EAS), among others (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2012; New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008). Despite the commitment for promoting regional unity, Singapore faces occasional criticisms in enacting her foreign policies.

Bilateral disagreements continue to plague Singapore in maintaining relations with her immediate neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore views these countries as potential threats to her security (Lepoer, 1989). Though mutually beneficial economic links are strong, the bilateral relations of Singapore with these countries are marred by their divergences to their politico-economic policies. As Low (2003) comments: “The dilemma in Singapore’s strategy of bilateral trading agreements and foreign economic trade policy is precisely this divergence in macroeconomic philosophy and policy” (p. 1). For instance, Singapore claims that Malaysia maintains a political system which upholds racial purism. Their seemingly non-acceptance to racial diversity and multiracialism makes it difficult for Singapore to place herself on the middle ground. In Singapore’s view, this political principle can induce a number of regional implications. Needless to say, Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia in August 1965 adds to the acrimony of their relationship with one another (Lepoer, 1989).

Singapore’s relationship with the Indochina, primarily Vietnam and Cambodia, was heavily shaped once by Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978. Singapore played a crucial role throughout the occurrence of this conflict. In 1989, the Singaporean Government discouraged Singaporean companies to invest to Vietnam until the Vietnamese had withdrawn their troops to Cambodia. During this time, a few commercial transactions were permitted but other essential economic links, such as trade in strategic goods and infrastructural improvisations, were highly discouraged (Lepoer, 1989). In the passage of time, Vietnam eventually became an ASEAN member. Hand in hand, Singapore and Vietnam are now working together for the expansion of trade and business contacts between the countries to institute strong bilateral ties. Proof to this is the signing of Strategic Partnership Agreement this year to mark the 40th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Vietnam.  The Strategic Partnership agreement will “elevate the existing links between Singapore and Vietnam, and open up new directions for cooperation in various areas, including cooperation in education, training, finance, defense, and security”  (Embassy of the Republic of Singapore in Vietnam, n.d.)

Singapore and the ASEAN: Common Issues and Concerns

There are some issues and concerns which continue to plague Singapore and other ASEAN member-States in the present. These include the following: (1) Threats of terrorist attacks; (2) Transnational crimes; (3) Insurgencies spawned by Islamic separatist groups and Communists; (4) Territorial disputes and problems with regard to expansion; (5) Foreign intrusion and control to State’s internal affairs; (6) Social instability; (7) Inequitable income and wealth distribution; (8) Environmental degradation; (9) Extreme reliance to foreign aid; and (10) Deterioration of quality of life, among others (New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008; Lepoer, 2003; Frost, 2008).

What Singapore can Offer and has Offered to the Relations

With strong service and manufacturing sectors, it appears that Singapore has a lot to offer aside from political linkages. The economy of Singapore successfully reduced dependence to export of electronics by developing its services sector. Further, its major industries, such as the electronics, financial services, petroleum refining and pharmaceutical manufacturing, are those industries which Southeast Asian States can adopt and develop to promote development in their respective regions (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2012). Singapore, as what she is doing now, can provide technical know-how in various fields. This technical knowledge can be translated to development if utilized productively and efficiently. The Singapore Cooperation Program has some ASEAN states, including the Philippines, as its beneficiaries. Trainings are provided in the fields of healthcare, environment, finance and trade promotion, productivity, public administration and law, information technology, and management and productivity (Singapore Diplomatic Handbook, 2011).

Singapore is a member of various international fora and organizations. As a staunch supporter of regionalism and inter-state cooperation, Singapore considers membership from these organizations as a lifeblood of its foreign relations. From these networks, Singapore can voice and introduce to international fora some ASEAN issues and concerns. For instance, Singapore instigated the FEALAC in 1999 to establish networks between East Asia and Latin America. Singapore has also been a host of the APEC Secretariat (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2012). More so, it is noteworthy that Singapore leads the Global Governance Group. Otherwise known as 3G, the Global Governance Group is “an informal grouping of small and medium-sized states formed to promoted greater dialogue on coordination and cooperation between G-20 and non-G20 members” (Woo, n.d., p. 11). 3G aims to hold the G20 accountable to the general UN membership. Four of the 3G member-States came from Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei). As its efforts to promote regionalism, Singapore continues to shed efforts for the creation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area (AIA) [New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008].

What Singapore has Gained from the Relations

 The dividends of Singapore from these relations are mostly politico-economic in nature. Singapore uses her ASEAN affiliation strategically to protect and promote her state interests. For instance, Singapore brought about several regional counter-terrorism initiatives together with ASEAN countries, including the Philippines. Singapore’s combat against terrorism is being taken seriously as she fears that terrorist attacks, even threats thereof, might negatively reflect on Singapore’s local economies (New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008). Aside from counter-terrorism efforts, Singapore places emphasis on combating the problem of pandemics and environmental degradation. Singapore and Indonesia are working to stop the spread of Avian influenza and solve the problem of transboundary smoke haze. Singapore donated two monitoring equipments which can help in the prevention of forest fires in Jambi Province, Indonesia (www.globalsecurity.org, n.d.)

As a proponent of open markets and multilateral trade liberalization in SEA, Singapore also benefits from the enhanced liberalization in goods, services and investments. Singapore’s trade policy approach is to further the cause of free trade through regional fora such as the ASEAN. People-to-people exchanges, including tourism, appear to be beneficial for Singapore, considering the country’s small population size (Athukorala, 2008; Low, 2003).

More importantly, Singapore benefits much with ASEAN as these countries are her major trading partners. In 2008, Malaysia was Singapore’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade amounting to $111.5 billion. The Philippines is Singapore’s tenth largest trading partner while she remains to be economically tied with Indonesia (www.globalsecurity.org, n.d.). These being identified, it can be said that Singapore has offered a lot but she has gained a lot more.



“Everybody wants to sit down and talk with the Singaporeans.
 And they realize that everybody wants to be friendly with the Singaporeans.
Given their strategic positioning in this, they have played, I think, a very
adept diplomatic game in trying to be friendly with everyone
because everyone wants to be friendly with them.”

-Justin Logan (2012), Cato Institute Analyst 

During the ASEAN summit held in Singapore in 2007, ASEAN leaders agreed to forge ahead the ASEAN community by 2015. This has been the dream of Singapore ever since she entered the ASEAN membership. As an avid fan of regional integrations and co-operations, Singapore envisions an East Asian counterpart of the European Union (EU). This Singaporean dream could be a response to regionalism happening elsewhere as an upshot of globalization (Low, 2003). But for the time being, this dream is more utopian rather than realistic. One of the challenges which hinder the ASEAN to take such gigantic stride is the appropriate relationship and balance between national sovereignty and the demands of regional cooperation. Unlike the EU, ASEAN was “founded on the basis of the principle of ‘non-interference’ in the affairs of member states.” (Frost, 2008, p. 60).  Regionalism will be paving the way for intervention of other States to a State’s internal affairs. In turn, this can posit a question of how sovereign the state is in the conduct of its own affairs.

Nevertheless, Singapore is committed to take regionalism efforts a notch higher. Unity can be achieved even within the plateau of diversity. This has been the stance of Singapore. As a centerpiece of its foreign policy, ASEAN proves to be an effective avenue where Singapore can promote her interests. This is why the ASEAN must be of more efficient conduit for Singapore’s politico-economic interests as a global, industrialized city-state.

Though armed with a strong economy and broad political linkages, Singapore is still encumbered by threats. These threats are not external but rather internal as these come from the inside. When asked in 1984 who was Singapore’s biggest threat, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew answered that “the biggest threat…is that any threat will come from someone bigger than us” (www.globalsecurity.org., n.d.). With the country’s relative smaller size comes insecurity and diffidence. This is still the sentiment today. Singapore has jumped over many hurdles throughout its existence as an independent State. However, it seems that grappling over the challenges of statehood has made Singapore think the other way around. With more political networks and international affiliations, Singapore now appears to be bigger than any giant landmass. For those states which have smaller territorial expanse, security can be loosely translated to relationships and connections.

For the past years, Singapore proved that she has offered a lot for the betterment of the ASEAN. For the years to come, there is a large possibility that she can prove it again. Occasional disagreements with neighbors are inevitable as policy frameworks are diverse throughout States. But as far as how events unfold, Singapore will continue to pursue unity amidst diversity. A firmer regional cooperation is inevitable and Singapore is willing to push beyond the limits for the fulfillment of this dream.



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