the Minds of The Leaders of our Time,
after Last Days Of Empire & The Emperor's Compassion]
The Prime Minister of a sunny island-state set in the sea sat down. It did nothing for the tension in his shoulders.
Life had been so idyllic, just a few years back. Sure, there had been hiccups such as the 2008 financial crisis and the minor 2011 election setbacks, but nothing of any real significance. Any opposition was mostly a harmless nuisance, and if warnings or payoffs weren't enough, as with at least one troublesome political cartoonist, suing their pants off was easy as pie. Election rules could be changed at the drop of a hat, taxes could be raised at a whim, wifey's investment company would remain flush with cash even if they had to redirect attention from mounting foreign losses by directing the state propaganda to play up their local wins... yes, life had been good overall.
And then TRUMP blew Hillary away, screwing our TPP commitments, which led to certain party members muttering about registering our discontent with our U.S. friends.
Well, let's take a look at the canonical case studies of us "standing up to the superpowers", shall we? There's the 1994 Michael Fay caning case, but that was merely a no-name juvenile vandal who could have been shot out of hand, had he pulled his stunts on the wrong side of town in America. Additionally, we reduced the sentence under pressure anyway, so it's not so much "standing up" as "going down on only one knee". And then there's the resisting China in Papa's era, but let's get serious, China was barely recovering from massacring tens of millions of their own people, were irrelevant in terms of world trade, and had no real force projection capabilities back then; they were barely even a regional power at the time!
And of course, there's the celebrated story of the CIA trying to bribe Papa in 1960 to hush up an espionage attempt, only for Papa to reject the bribe and insist on a formal apology and economic aid. Extremely noble, definitely, but again, does this qualify as "standing up"? I mean, the CIA probably appreciated a guy with balls, but the key factor was that Papa was fighting the Commies then. In other words, he was basically on the same page as the CIA. Seen in this light, the CIA's response was analogous to a 350-pound football linebacker teasing a kid by pretending to steal his ball, being impressed by the kid's gumption in daring to reproach, and handing out candy as a reward. If the Barisan Sosialis had won and introduced Communism, there would have been no such light touch, and I don't want to know what would have happened, balls or no.
Fast forward to today, it's America versus the Commies again, and Uncle Sam's calling his banners. What do you think we can do? Fact is, the previous episodes of so-called "standing up against superpowers" were either in matters that they barely cared about, or where we were being backed by a bigger fish. But today, today it is different. It's not a game any longer. This is for all the marbles, it's Cold War II: Unelect Winnie The Pooh.
New Poohbear, same as the old Poobah
Yea, there was that spat between Bilahari Kausikan and his former boss Kishore Mahbubani, from a couple of years back. Kishore, recently dean of the LKY School of Public Policy, opined that "small states must always act like small states", to which Bilahari indignantly reacted that we should not act subservient. With due respect to both - not many scholars have enjoyed the honour of being name-dropped in texts such as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order - the key word here is "act". It's one thing to thumb noses at third or fourth-rate powers such as Indonesia or Malaysia, but quite another thing to openly defy the thousand-pound gorilla having your back - i.e. the United States of America - when you're doing the nose-thumbing.
He for one wasn't about the forget the Prime Directive of Geopolitical Hard Truths that Papa had privately passed on to him: the Americans were the boss. Sure, the scholars in the Public Service Division could invent crap arguments such as our "strong contesting of Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia in 1979" was to demonstrate our "self-commitment to sovereignty" because it opposed Vietnam's - actually quite convincing - justification of invasion due to Cambodia's internal affairs [?!]. No, we took this stand purely because Vietnam were Commies - Saigon had just fallen in 1975, remember? The indisputable counterpoint was that if defending other small states' sovereignty had truly been our guiding principle, we would have rightly also called out Uncle Sam's many various regime change adventures from the 1970s on, for the sake of consistency. Obviously, we were never that dumb.
Oh yes, but we did protest Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, while happily getting in on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite that not being in conformity with the U.N. charter. Recognize the pattern here?
Honestly, any competent polisci student with half a brain would, after analyzing all our major foreign policy directions and stands since our separation from Malaya, admit that they make sense only within the context of being a de-facto American puppet state; or, in more polite terms, loyally aligning with the U.S. whenever they insist, and usually even if they don't. Which brings us back to the core of the Kishore-Bilahari spat: some of our very well-educated blue-blooded politicos appear to have forgotten the Prime Directive; as Ngiam Tong Dow had also tried to point out, they were believing their own propaganda. Or, in drug-dealer lingo, never consume your own crack.
It's kinda telling that the proudest example we could come up with to showcase our "independence", is genocide support...
Of course, many of our own citizens might not be able to accept this truth, but fortunately there were many ways by which to save face. Basically, we were always being led by the U.S., but maintained a sufficient distance from them to maintain plausible deniability. They turned left, we would look at our watch a bit, then shuffle left; they turned right, we would stop to chat with the janitor, before hurrying to catch up before being left behind. They scratched their butt... well, we didn't have to scratch ours! That's sovereignty for you!
This was what the wise Kishore was getting at, he supposed. The first and second generations of our diplomats had few illusions of who was calling the shots (hint: the U.S.), and they moderated their behaviour accordingly. Some of the young punks, however, appear to actually believe that we have an independent foreign policy worth the name, after enjoying mild prosperity and climbing near the top of some worthless ranking lists! Sure, we did create some informal groups such as the Forum of Small States, but seriously, they're mostly honeypots used by agents from big powers to gauge dissent and select their next victims. These small fries are here for the kopi and pastries, my friends. The most that could be expected from them, were we to be embroiled in any real conflict, would be a strongly-worded letter to the U.N. - if at that.
He had unavoidably noticed it himself, of course: the odd snigger or smirk from fresh interns, when he spoke of the island-state's "sovereignty" at global meets. The senior diplomats would applaud the statement with their standard-issue smile, but that was their job description, wasn't it? To listen to and say the most ridiculous bullshit, while maintaining a cordial expression throughout. It was a big problem, you understand. As PM, he could hardly step in personally to rein in all those idiots with a laughably badly-developed sense of proportion/self-preservation. Kishore having to appeal directly to the public probably meant that the rot had set in too deep.
Oh, Bilahari was not completely wrong about us not appearing subservient and punching above our own weight. Borrowing his boxing parlance, we've had sporadic bouts with Malaysia for instance, all the more with Bapa Mahathir back in charge. We're a pretty good flyweight, if he did say so himself - we've bloodied our fair share of bantamweights and featherweights, one or two weight classes up. But when f**king superheavyweights such as America or China step into the ring, it's not a question of courage or principle or respect or what have you, any longer. It's a question of survival, as Papa so decisively invoked when he switched allegiance to the invading Japanese, once the British were losing. Personal honour is nothing in the bigger picture. Adapting another famous quote by Papa, "Equality (between nations) is an aspiration, it is not reality, it is not practical".
In real life, Goliaths wear full head protection
The brave Bilahari talks about not being meekly compliant; but does Bilahari understand the reality of that? Our not grovelling, it seems, is best exemplified by Uncle Goh - as Prime Minister, mind - having to go through a private golf buddy just to get face time with Bill Clinton, all of this because of one lousy teenaged hoodlum... and being proud of sneaking in by the back door. This, dear Bilahari, is the practical sum of our national dignity. Sure, there's the famous Holdridge denial in 1981 over a minor ASEAN resolution on Cambodia, but is the good ambassador aware of the calculated risk taken over the former CIA spook likely going out of favour in his own administration, back then? And of the dozens, nay, hundreds of incidents when we "just happened" to abide by the U.S., for every such pushback?
You see, for all the public hand-wringing over not being drawn into the orbit of either the U.S. or China, seasoned by wumao influencers supporting the latter, the sad and brutal truth is that there was ultimately no decision to be made; the decision would be, and had been, made for us. By default, we were firmly, deeply, within the American sphere of influence. Some wumao are for example trying to sell the story that "China [impounding our] armored vehicles in Hong Kong in November 2016... convinced [us] to no longer echo U.S. views over the South China Sea", but let's get real, those Terrexes are like, tens of millions cost price? Compared to having half of our air force, our main technological advantage worth untold billions, effectively held hostage - willingly, mind - in the States? And we're possibly jumping ship to China and giving all of that up? Is that a joke?
There simply wasn't much, if any, space for maneuver or petty tricks at this level, honestly. Fact is, we have always had next to no leverage. Oh, nobody expects us to admit it, obviously, but they know it nonetheless. The Chinese had their own agenda, it went without saying, but a particular remark by one of their generals struck him hard: we were no longer seeking balance between big countries, but all too openly playing big countries off against each other. This was, indeed, playing with fire.
He had dragged it as long as he conceivably could, but the endgame had come, and nobody could mistake our extension of the American pact for another fifteen years as anything other than a taking of sides for the U.S.; the barefaced lies about not being an American ally could only go on for so long, especially after TRUMP opened the post-signing remarks with "We signed a very important agreement having to do with defense and mutual defense, and I guess you could say mutual offense, also". It took all his willpower not to faint there and then, as he had done during the 2016 National Day Rally! He shot an urgent missive to the state newspapers not to include that detail in their reports, but there was no doubt over America's intent.
WHY? WHY ME?
(Original source: straitstimes.com)
But really, what could he do? Disagree with the President of the United States? He was fortunate that the camera happened to have panned away when the "mutual offense" bombshell dropped, and he was crying inside as he deliberately avoided repeating the o-word, while turning the topic to trade. Ah, Bilahari, it's one thing to tell a CNN lackey that we're "not an American ally", and it's quite another to suggest that to the POTUS's face! And you know what? He had nightmares each and every time he or MINDEF or some other ministry had to gently affirm that they were "not a treaty ally", because there was always the chance - however small he hoped it to be - that TRUMP would get wind of it, and tweet the equivalent of "we respect your decision to be a strong independent city-state that don't need no U.S., kthxbye" and then we are finished! And, unlike Bush or Obama before him, the sonofabitch will do it! Heck, Japan and Pakistan aren't safe, and they are so much more strategically important!
Oh, some of his braindead advisors would say, there's always China, let's make some inquiries. It has become popular to claim that China respected Papa - that was part of the image-building propaganda, after all - but do you treat someone you respect by swindling him of US$90 million in your first joint venture? And that was when China was relatively weak, and when they should have been trying to make a good impression, and they just didn't give a shit! What sort of deal do you think we can get, then, if we had to go cap in hand to China with no viable great power alternative, after our long history of siding with the U.S. against them? He might as well simply hand over the keys to the republic, were that to come to pass.
There was nothing for it, but to squeeze as much juice out of the impending American alliance as he dared. CNN referring to us as the "fourth American ally in Asia" when proclaiming our acquisition of the F-35 was no coincidence, of course; it was a pointed reminder of the expected price to be paid, and a veiled warning not to try anything too funny. The chaos in Hong Kong was further proof of what they could foment, without even trying, and the casus belli was merrily being constructed in the American media, with the sudden concern over the Uyghurs; since when did they care so much about Muslims? Well, as our foreign minister said, we did not believe in becoming a client state, but Papa believed that we had to be part of Malaysia too, and where did that get him?
There was nothing to do, but to make the best of the new reality. MNNA status would allow increased participation in Department of Defense projects, for one, and he would lobby hard for a slice of that pie. He'd also have to expend his remaining credit with China, if they would accept it - they were surely aware; there had been so much undercover moving of pawns, with Cambodia and Laos probably solidly under their influence already, so much for ASEAN unity. Bapa Mahathir was thankfully likely too sly to be fooled, the old fox, which would give us some much-needed breathing space. Still, the pain would come, and he was dreading it. Sigh, if only he could be at Cambridge, solving open math problems! Guess there's always suing a random blogger to release some stress, before sabotaging the opposition in preparation for the next elections. He could still do that much, at least.
The Lion King, and the Lion City;
their fates entwined evermore
Next: Elementary My Dear
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