SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Rarely does Singapore use strident language or take on a visibly active role in foreign policy as it has over the increasing bloodshed in Myanmar.
Worries over regional instability and the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc in the face of China’s increasing power are at the forefront of the unusually strong stance taken by the country, several analysts say.
Another factor is that Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, partly through investments by multinationals based in the island republic.
“Singapore is cognizant that if it doesn’t step up now, having an ASEAN that is relegated to irrelevance is not to its own interest,” said Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.
The government did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on its role in Myanmar.
Surrounded by much bigger neighbours, Singapore has traditionally kept quiet in public and epitomised ASEAN policy of non-interference in neighbours’ affairs. Myanmar is also a member of the bloc.
It had appeared to follow the same track after Myanmar’s army took power on Feb. 1 and detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the cordial relationship built with her by democratic Singapore.
The framing of Singapore’s initial response to the coup was word for word the same as for Thailand’s in 2014: “Singapore expresses grave concern… we hope that the situation will return to normal as soon as possible.”
The language has shifted after the bloody suppression of anti-junta protests – with more than 500 civilians now killed.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the use of lethal force was “just not acceptable” and “disastrous”. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the situation “an unfolding tragedy” and the military crackdowns a “national shame”.
Singapore previously used such language after another deadly crackdown on protesters in Myanmar in 2007.
Its response to the exodus of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar during an army offensive, which the United Nations called a genocidal attack, was lower profile, analysts say, although it called it a man-made humanitarian disaster in 2018.
Amid the current crisis, a diplomatic shuttle has taken Balakrishnan to Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, Malaysia and to Southeast Asian giant Indonesia, to discuss Myanmar.
On Tuesday, he arrived in China for the first time since 2019 to meet the government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. Although Myanmar was not on the publicised agenda, Balakrishnan is considered highly likely to raise the topic.
“ASEAN really does need to step up in this current crisis and it needs to step up quite quickly,” said Choi Shing Kwok, director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
For wealthy Singapore, which has fewer than one percent of ASEAN’s 650 million people, being part of the bloc gives it a counterweight to world powers as it tries to balance between being a security partner of the United States while not wanting to offend China. ASEAN also amplifies Singapore’s voice.
“It is essential for ASEAN’s credibility, centrality and relevance to have a view, have a position and to be able to offer some constructive assistance to Myanmar,” Balakrishnan said last week. He said the crisis would take time to resolve but ASEAN had to decide its role.
With the United States and Western countries condemning the junta strongly and imposing some sanctions on the generals and the companies they run, analysts say Southeast Asian countries believe Myanmar could end up pushed closer to China – potentially shifting the regional balance.
“In a situation where one side is more dominant than the other, that reduces the space for autonomy that Singapore can enjoy,” said NUS’s Chong.
The financial relationship matters too.
Singapore had a cumulative $24.1 billion of investments approved as of 2020, according to official Myanmar data since 1988. That made it the biggest source of foreign capital there over the period – ahead of China.
Although the total includes multinationals, Singaporean firms are also investors in their own right in businesses from real estate to coffee shops.
Some of those businesses became boycott targets for protesters after Singapore made clear its opposition to sanctions on Myanmar. Its leaders maintain that wide-spread measures would only hurt ordinary citizens, not the military.
Instead, Singapore is trying to work with like-minded countries to pressure the junta. Although Singapore could not act alone against Myanmar, it could be a force for tougher measures within ASEAN.
“There are other countries within ASEAN which are willing to come on board with what Singapore is doing,” said Nehginpao Kipgen from India’s Jindal School of International Affairs. “They would be in a better position to be on the right side of history.”
(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Raju Gopalakrishnan)