A poisonous shrimp. Lee Kuan Yew: “We are what we are because we can stand for ourselves. If we can’t, we’ve had it.”

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“Big fish eat small fish. Small fish eat shrimps.” From time memorial, this has been the order of nature, said Mr Lee Kuan Yew in a speech on big and small fishes in Asian waters.

But shrimps have developed mechanisms to stay alive. Some shrimps are poisonous. They sting. If you eat them, you will get digestive upsets. They are just not palatable and they are left alone.

Co-existing with big powers

A ‘poisonous shrimp‘ was how Mr Lee Kuan Yew once defined Singapore’s international strategy. A shrimp might be small but its poison could pose a threat to the big fish in international oceans, and so it will not be eaten by the big fish and can co-exist with them. And this is how small Singapore can co-exist with big powers.

From poisonous shrimp to porcupine to dolphin

In the immediate years following independence, Singapore had to quickly build up a credible military force to deal with a hostile regional environment.

The 1st generation SAF provided Singapore’s basic with a deterrence posture analogous to that of a ‘poisonous shrimp’ – small, vulnerable and yet deadly to the aggressor when attacked.

By the early 1980s, with a better-equipped and more capable 2nd Generation SAF, the deterrence posture morphed into that of a ‘porcupine’, shredding the previous image of a ‘poisonous shrimp’ which was “essentially defeatist in nature.”

The current 3rd Generation (3rd Gen) SAF transformation started in 2004 and aims to “upgrade its capabilities into an advanced networked force.” Some military analysts have likened the 3rd Gen SAF’s posture to that of a ‘dolphin’—agile, intelligent, quick and capable of killing more ferocious sharks with its razor-sharp teeth when provoked.

It is a balancing strategy. And Singapore’s geopolitical vulnerability has a lasting effect on its foreign policy.

Pragmatism. Self-reliance. Realism.

Singapore’s foreign policy is driven by PRAGMATISM, not ideology or doctrine. It’s only lodestar for guidance is the security and prosperity of Singapore. 

It begins with SELF-RELIANCE, the belief that the world does not owe us a living and we rely, first and foremost, on ourselves. This is why Singapore has never sought foreign aid from developed countries. This belief in self-reliance is what led to the ‘poisonous shrimp’ strategy – the ability to deter aggression.

Singapore’s foreign policy is rooted in REALISM, the realism that as a small country, we have to take the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. This realism, however, is not a fatalistic attitude. Singapore is constantly seeking to change the status quo for the better.

"We rescue ourselves."

"Now are we not vulnerable? If we are not vulnerable, why do we spend 5 - 6% of GDP year after year on defence? Are we mad?

This is a frugal government, you know that well.

... We are not vulnerable? ... Your sea lanes are cut and your business comes to a halt. ... They stopped sand. Why?

To conscribe us. As Mahathir says, 'Even at their present size they are trouble, you let them grow some more, they will be more trouble.' We've got friendly neighbours? Grow up!"

"Why do you think we spent all this effort to solve our water problem until we become specialists in water? ... We should not gloss over our worries. They are real problems.

We are what we are because we can stand for ourselves. If we can't we've hand it.

The Security Council passes resolutions. So what? Who goes to Kuwait's rescue? The US. Why? Because of oil.

Why? Because next stop would be Saudi Arabia. Who's coming to our rescue because of water? The US? No, we rescue ourselves.

Either the media grows up, especially the young reporters, or we're going to bring up a generation that lives in a dream world of security where none exists."

Lee Kuan Yew in "Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going"

"Today, you stand up free men, equal to me, to anybody. And you take it for granted."


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