When I first received the email, I was slightly overwhelmed.
Yes I have been writing on this website for a few years. Yes I have a predilection for writing on issues concerning National Service (and even so, the perspectives articulated were on Singapore’s conscription and corresponding concerns). Yes I have engaged in some form of policy discussion on defence-related matters, albeit superficial (against a background of more rigorous academic research and discussion). But this was the Shangri-La Dialogue, an inter-governmental military-security forum where Defence Ministers give speeches, and regular participants are think-tank members, academics, and country representatives. What is guanyinmiao supposed to do, hanging around at these dialogues?
Then again, who was I to turn down such an opportunity? The defence diplomacy employed by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has been perceived to be extremely crucial, and it would be fascinating to learn more from the speeches, as well as the questions-and-answers.
A Shangri-La, of course, is a place – usually of great beauty and peacefulness – regarded as an earthly paradise in literature. Some might then detect irony in this context, that Singapore is playing host to a forum for the discussion of important defence and security concerns. And what goes on within this defence paradise, beyond what is conventionally reported in the media, is often seen to be too esoteric for the general public. How should one understand military doctrines and conflict prevention? What do military modernisation and strategic transparency entail? Even in Singapore, where conscription features heavily, not many will be able to make sense of the regional themes and concerns that will surface?
We didn’t manage to snag seats in the main ballroom, but had full access to the proceedings in the media room. I settled down just after United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was delivering his remarks to the final questions from the house (I was told that I had missed a tense exchange), and listened to two plenary sessions thereafter.
For the layman – such as yours truly, a defence amateur – these conferences look and feel more like talk-shops, with superficial rhetorical exchanges. And we could be forgiven for thinking this way. In the beginning, the speakers articulated harsh criticism of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and regional belligerence, but nothing was mentioned about constructive action that would actually be undertaken.
Sure, uninitiated individuals like us need to comprehend that rapprochement is not a straightforward endeavour (I should credit the Model United Nations experience, for my cognisance of these diplomatic terms), but it is tough to convince yourself of the event’s implications amidst its extravagance, resources and manpower and all. But what do I know?
Moreover, in speeches like these, (the mention of) multilateralism – through dialogues – is the order of the day. Japan’s Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera rejected provocative, history-denying statements made by Opposition politicians, repeated apologies, and referred to his country as a pacifist nation. Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union (EU), brought to attention the long-standing partnerships and engagements between Europe and Asia. The defence ministers of Australia and Indonesia highlighted the significance of defence and strategic transparency (military expenditure and development, for instance), the value of defence White Papers, and the virtues of controlled and responsible military modernisation. Transparency should be a culture, and not a practice, quipped Philip Hammond, the United Kingdom Secretary of Defence.
The session that stood out for me was the speech by Kay Rala Xana Gusmão, the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste’s perilous quest for self-determination has been well-documented (the Prime Minister himself had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the Indonesian government in the 1990s), but it was meaningful to hear from Prime Minister Gusmão about the importance of well-coordinated stabilisation and intervention programmes. Peacekeeping operations should not be present for the sake of being so, he posits, and the peacekeepers must meet and respond to real needs by talking to the country’s leaders and people. He also spoke on how poverty remains a threat to international security.
Singapore the Shangri-La
So yes, maybe these complex issues are so far removed from our day-to-day considerations that they do not warrant much attention. It may be true nothing tangible will be achieved at the end of the day (though the intense behind-the-scenes negotiation might have relegated these mass sessions to the status of mere side-shows). And it will be challenging to use these occasions to convince Singaporeans of MINDEF’s commitment to defence and diplomacy.
I did learn and experience something new, which sounds like a reasonable premise for one’s general participation in activities.
Yet for me, perhaps it is the surfacing of the paradox that has stood out for me (just like the perpetual tension between war and peace, as the Shangri-La takes centre-stage). This IISS platform reflects our prosperity and repute (adequately credible to host it time after time), but also reveals our vulnerability (this aberration known as Singapore needs sustainable partnerships, and can be the victim of uncontrolled circumstances). This is not a clichéd, tedious proposition of “don’t take things for granted” or “be appreciative of the status quo”; it is a simple call, to be in-the-know, to be aware.