His Ideals and Visions
Remembering Mr S Rajaratnam:
The Man and His Ideas His Ideals and Visions Biographical Outline Biographical Outline Key Speeches Key Speeches Special Video Features Special Video Features Tributes Tributes


Mr S Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Foreign Minister, was one of the founding fathers of our country, a nationalist who fought against colonialists, communists and communalists, and a born diplomat who widened the international space for Singapore, contributed to its diplomacy and security, and developed a highly competent and professional foreign service that was well regarded by the international community.


Ahead of His Time

He was also a prophet who, in thinking about the future, cited that we should approach the future like a chess player who planned his every move by thinking many steps ahead.

The tagline “Global City, World of Opportunities” was used in 2006 when Singapore hosted the Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. However, long before that, in 1972, Mr Rajaratnam had first used the term “Global City” to describe the role and aspiration of Singapore and to explain the reasons for its economic success.

He said: “Once you see Singapore as a Global City, the problem of hinterland becomes unimportant because for a Global City, the world is its hinterland.”

He also spoke about creating a technological society for Singapore as a strategy of survival. That was in 1968, when people were barely talking about technology and its transformative impact.

He said: “Our survival and prosperity in the seventies and eighties will depend largely on how quickly and efficiently Singapore modernises itself – which, in more concrete terms, means how rapidly Singapore becomes a technological society.”

Back in 1966, he also spoke on the importance of innovations: “It is no use trying to run a modern democratic state if no serious effort is made at the same time to introduce appropriate innovations in the social, economic and cultural fields.” At the same time, he also raised the issue of conservation, and said that innovation without conservation could result in a society so disoriented as to lead to a complete breakdown. Today, we are trying to grapple with the impact of technology, to master technology to embrace innovation and R&D, and to manage its impact on the environment.


Small States

Representing a young nation, Mr Rajaratnam stood up at the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in 1965 and declared that Singapore stood loyally and unflinchingly by the three essential principles of: (i) preservation of peace through collective security; (ii) promotion of economic development through mutual aid; and (iii) the inalienable right of every country to establish forms of government in accordance with the wishes of its own people.

He recognised that small states like Singapore could not do much to shape the course of history. If big countries in the region and outside the region were determined to fight among themselves, there was nothing small states like Singapore could do to stop them. There would also not be much left of a small country foolish enough to enter the fray even if it had the foresight to be on the winning side. He held the strong belief that our foreign policy must ensure that we do not become, or even appear to become, the pawn of any outside power.

However, this did not mean that Singapore or small states should shut themselves in and not do anything. Being the optimist, he saw that in any situation, there were simultaneously elements of conflict and cooperation, and that great powers were not necessarily all bad and smaller powers were not all shining examples of moral rectitude. Mr Rajaratnam accepted the existence of great powers and their rivalries as an immutable fact of international politics. As long as nation states exist, there will be hierarchy of powers, some stronger than others and all competing to maximise their power and influence. He thought the best thing for small nations was to encourage the presence of all great powers. He spoke about the multiplicity of powers and likened it to having many suns where the gravitational pull of each was not only weakened, but also the minor planets could acquire a greater freedom of navigation.

Since no small states could build prosperous modern societies on the basis of self-sufficiency, and even large, wealthy and highly industralised superpowers might find it impossible to live as self-sufficient states, Mr Rajaratnam advocated for small states to play a positive political role in strengthening cooperation among nations and contribute to peace and stability. Even after Mr Rajaratnam retired from politics, the ideals he shared and the policies he developed remain the premise of how Singapore conducts its foreign relations, even till today. This idea of small states manifested at the UN in 1992 when Singapore established an informal grouping known as the Forum of Small States (FOSS). With a membership of over 100 countries now, the FOSS meets a few times a year to discuss issues of mutual concern to small states and foster common positions, thereby giving them a bigger voice in the UN.

More recently in 2010, Singapore also helped establish an informal Global Governance Group (3G), with other like-minded small and medium-sized states. The 3G now stands at 30 members and seeks to engender a constructive dialogue between the G20 and the wider UN membership, so that smaller countries have a greater role in shaping the global agenda.


Regional Cooperation

Nearer home, Mr Rajaratnam recognised the need for a framework to manage differences in our diverse neighbourhood and to promote regional friendship and cooperation. He worked together with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. He inculcated a regional attitude in the people and spoke on the collective strength that ASEAN could provide. His vision was for Singapore to be a responsible member of the community of South East Asia, of Asia as a whole and, ultimately, of the global community.

Mr Rajaratnam played an active role in ASEAN to entrench it at the core of the broader regional architecture. ASEAN is important because it acts as an influence multiplier for the individual countries within South East Asia on the global stage. Today, ASEAN has established itself as a neutral platform for the major players in Asia to come together and achieve common understandings on key issues. ASEAN is in the driver’s seat for forums like the ASEAN+3, the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asian Summit. An economically-integrated ASEAN is far more attractive than any one member state on its own.


Next Phase of Development

Mr Rajaratnam once said: “The rise and fall of great civilisations can eventually be traced to a single human factor – failure of nerve.” He said that even if we had the correct solutions, the decision factor was not knowledge but the determination and courage to act upon it. “It is a tragedy of greater proportions when a people perish not out of ignorance but because they lacked the will to respond to the dictates of their wisdom.”

Throughout his career, Mr Rajaratnam came up with many big-picture ideals that embraced the future, and led by example in establishing the fundamentals of good leadership for a vulnerable country in a region of diverse nations. There are many lessons we can learn from him. What he envisioned for Singapore and our region has today become reality, even though not in entirety. Regional unity cannot be taken for granted. It has to be forged and then maintained continually. Political will is important. Moving forward, it is important for us to build on the foundations Mr Rajaratnam had laid, position Singapore both with our regional partners and within our wider region, and contribute to development, peace and stability in the region and globally.