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Can small states be more than price takers in global governance?

Existing debates suggest that small states can exert more influence than their size alone implies. This article contributes to such extant literature by addressing more specific questions about the conditions under which such ostensible price takers can play outsized roles. Generic claims of tiny Singapore punching above its weight have not yet been examined in light of its leaders' proactive initiatives in global governance to advance its national interests. Drawing on two strategies identified within theoretical debates on how small states project influence, this article analyzes Singaporean initiatives in coalition building and use of its comparative advantages in specific issue domains and how these strategies have evolved historically. Driven by an innate sense of vulnerability, Singapore's flexibility to embrace emerging modes of governance beyond its traditional UN-centric focus is a relatively overlooked feature in the literature deserving further attention.

Keywords: global governance, small states, price taker, Singapore.


HOW CAN STATES BE ASSESSED ON THEIR LEVELS OF INFLUENCE AND ACTIVITY in shaping global governance norms and processes? One approach has been to address this question in dualistic terms of whether a country has to "take" (meaning it has little influence and commonly refers to small states) or can "make" (it has more influence and usually used to describe large powers) rules and norms of global governance. For instance, analysts suggest that India is becoming more of a norm maker than a norm taker in global energy governance. (1) Another large power, China, is also moving from rule taker to rule maker, and possibly rule shaker, in global trade governance. (2) Japan, according to Miles Kahler, has acted since the 1980s in a way "that might change the existing system by its behavior, as a 'price maker' rather than a 'price taker.'" (3) While leading players in global affairs, such as the great powers, are usually "price-makers of the system," it is conversely assumed that adjusting to accommodate the actions of these price makers is the perennial role of the smaller states, "the price-takers in the system." (4) This notion is often deployed by policy elites, particularly in the tiny Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore, whose population numbers 5 million and, with 714 square kilometers of land area, is less than half the size of London. Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once said, "Quite simply, Singapore takes the position that we are price-takers; we are not price-makers. Our strategy simply is to make ourselves relevant to all the countries that matter to us." (5) Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam reiterated in 2012 that "we are a small state and a price-taker in international relations." (6)

However, the idea that small states are not necessarily helpless is an emerging theme of recent literature, and as this article shows, it rings true for Singapore as well. Several methods are available to such states, from adopting "small but smart strategies" to the use of "resilient diplomacy." (7) Small states can also build networks and linkages with other similarly sized like-minded states such as the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Other methods such as alliances, bandwagoning, and balancing allow small states to pursue stability in the international system. (8) Building on these existing theoretical debates, in this article we examine Singapore's strategies over the years to increase its role in global governance, with an eye toward continuity and change in its policies. From a British colonial outpost to a developed nation with impressive gross domestic product (GDP) per capita rates, Singapore has ambitions to "transcend the limitations of physical size and punch above our weight class among the global competition." (9) The idea that Singapore is "punching above its weight" is a pretty standard element of discussions regarding its foreign relations, a notion repeated, for instance, by Hillary Clinton in 2010. (10) The notion is usually framed in terms of how its armed forces contribute to foreign policy and how the country serves as a key strategic player in Asia." In 2009, Stephen Walt named Singapore as one of his "over-achievers" on the basis of its economic success and role promoting regional integration and its leaders' frank views on major issues. (12) Yet there remains relatively little explanation of how this might apply to the city-state's initiatives in global governance. We build on existing claims about the price-taker analogy in Singaporean discourse, why it has arisen in the context of the elites' pervasive sense of vulnerability, and its linkage with global governance strategies that policymakers have historically utilized to demonstrate their competence in managing a range of constraints. Singapore's initiatives in global governance are thus highly instrumental. They are a means to an end; as we show in this article, Singapore has significant global finance, shipping, and aviation sectors that need protecting, as well as security needs to be met.

We begin by examining the price-taker analogy often used to describe the roles, expectations, and recommended strategies that small states can deploy in international relations and global governance. We highlight two strategies drawn from the extant literature--building coalitions and utilizing niche expertise--to form a basis for systematically analyzing Singapore's initiatives to augment its influence in global governance. The degree of influence is difficult to measure precisely and need not be tied entirely to achieving desired outcomes, although the input-output equation is important. We define influence not only by assessing a small state's ability to obtain formal positions in international institutions allowing it to shape processes and norms (e.g., policymaking councils and chairmanship of rulemaking committees) and its peer recognition and prestige (e.g., invitations to summits for which it is not formally a member), but also by the avenues and mechanisms it has assembled to boost its input into global governance processes. After outlining the historical constraints that Singapore has faced since independence, we analyze its concerted moves to build strength in numbers through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Forum of Small States (FOSS), and Small Five (S5). Putting recent initiatives in historical perspective, we show how Singapore has played this role over the years and how it has evolved for the twenty-first century. While the UN historically was and remains at the core of Singaporean initiatives, the city-state has not shied away from establishing informal alternative approaches outside the UN framework, such as Global Governance Group (3G), to advance its national interests in response to the emergence of the Group of 20 (G-20) outside UN auspices. Finally, we highlight Singapore's comparative advantages and niche expertise derived from its financial center, air hub, and global maritime port hub. Singapore's technical and administrative capabilities in these fields have helped it achieve some measure of peer recognition as well as institutional sway within the international institutions regulating these key sectors, conferring more influence than its price-taker status might otherwise suggest. Above all, these strategies are a means to achieving Singapore's ultimate ends. (13) Its priorities include first and foremost pragmatic safeguarding of national interests in the finance, shipping, and aviation industries, but where possible, it has also tried to advance more normative goals of ensuring predictability in an international order ruled by law where small states have a voice at the table. Singapore's efforts to overcome its price-taker position are thus focused on delivering the means to advance its national interests.

Small States and the Price-taker Analogy

Global governance, as understood in this article, deals with a continuum of activities, rules, processes, and mechanisms. (14) These range from formal to informal and from public to private forms of meeting the needs and wants of a variety of actors (from states to transnational nongovernmental organizations) to manage global issues. Despite their size and capability constraints, small states can also attempt to shape and regulate the international system. Iver B. Nuemann and Sieglinde Gstohl argue that, even though small states are not system-determining forces, they link micro-, middle, and larger states in the international system through their diplomatic activities where they can represent the interests of great powers and middle powers as well as those of their own. (15) Small states' roles in global governance should therefore be as carefully evaluated as those of the great powers. Thus, although small states have to operate in an international system structured in favor of big countries, and although the top-down structure of international hierarchy remains intact and pervasive, the influence of bottom-up agency embodied in small states cannot be ignored. (16) In the absence of an overarching Leviathan-like "World Government" that can dictate rules and regulations, small states create space for themselves by forming fluid coalitions to shape agendas, priorities, and programs of global governance. (17) In his classic essay, David Vital reminds us that small states should be evaluated in terms of how they devise their own policies to withstand their own constraints, rather than simply judging them based on their size. (18)

Small states are often called price takers, a concept derived from economics referring to small firms that cannot influence prices in the market. Adapted to international relations, price takers usually refers to small states with limited capacity to shape the rules, processes, norms, and outcomes that are said to be determined by powerful states such as the great powers (the price makers). However, contemporary debates have now moved well beyond the issue of whether small states can be influential at all to addressing specific conditions that permit small states to exercise influence. Indeed, a related question has been raised of whether and how, small states can overcome their "traditional role of 'rule-taker,' rather than 'rule-maker.'" (19) Anders Wivel suggests that small states must present solutions to problems that are already recognized by most of the relevant actors, rather than hindering attempts to resolve issues. Small states should also choose issues where exerting their influence is a realistic possibility, such as economics or climate change, rather than traditional "high-politics" issues of military security. The small state must aim to be an honest broker and zero in on issues where it has a comparative advantage such as technical or administrative strengths. (20) Small states can turn their relative weakness into an advantage, for they are not viewed as threatening rivals by the great powers, and therefore might have greater freedom of action when launching policy initiatives, building coalitions with like-minded states, and acting as mediators. (21) Therefore, in the analysis that follows, we build on two key points of agreement with the existing literature described above: (1) small states should build coalitions through strength in numbers; and (2) they should leverage comparative advantages in specific issue areas. These two theoretical issues are the most relevant to this article, and we systematically address them one by one, using specific examples drawn from Singaporean attempts to shape global governance processes.

Strength in Numbers and Coalition Building

The notion of being a price taker recurs often when Singaporean leaders discuss the country's limitations. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong reiterated in 2013 that "Singapore is a price-taker in international economics and geopolitics, and always will be." (22) While recognizing its acute limitations, the city-state has not, however, been averse to attempting quite vigorously to shape global governance. There is no contradiction here because the use of the price-taker analogy serves to reemphasize a point that Singaporean leaders have constantly stressed over the years as they seek to develop greater national cohesion, resilience, and solidarity: the country is vulnerable. From this starting point of vulnerability, foreign policy is then dedicated to overcoming these constraints, and the government must be seen as diligently and competently working to enhance the country's survivability. Success in this endeavor in turn also helps to enhance the government's legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the public. This is why, despite public proclamations of being a price taker, Singapore has consistently attempted to play a role in the processes, structures, and norms of global governance, with varying levels of success and evolving strategies over the years.

Accumulating almost five decades of diplomatic experience since independence, Singapore has built its foreign policy on certain principles that are clearly identifiable. One long-standing strategy, as the founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew argued, is that "we must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation." (23) Singapore's diplomacy has capitalized on its strategic location, highly organized human resources, and effective government. Singapore previously relied on capable academics-turned-diplomats, such as Tommy Koh, to play central roles in UN-centered negotiations like the Law of the Sea convention in the 1980s. Over the past fifty years, the skills and knowledge gained are being systematically transmitted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Diplomatic Academy launched in 2008. Gone are the early days when Singapore had to literally build a service from scratch. Veteran diplomat and former president Sellapan Ramanathan (also known as S. R. Nathan) agreed with the late Michael Leifer's descriptions of the MFA then as "a collection of information gatherers and messenger boys." (24) Initially, Singapore had no choice but to utilize distinguished private individuals in addition to career diplomats, but even today it continues to rely on nonresident ambassadors who are not career diplomats to help "augment MFA's talent pool." (25) Singapore's initiative at the Arctic Council is one example discussed below.

Singapore for the most part continues to channel its efforts toward the UN, just as it has from the start. The UN embodies predictability and respect for international law, which small states value for continued survival. Then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong underscored this in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 1995: "Small countries like Singapore need the UN, and must play a constructive role in supporting it." (26) Former foreign minister George Yeo repeated in 2008 that "small countries need the UN and other international institutions to protect our interests and [small countries] therefore have every interest in making sure that these institutions are effective." (27)

One strategy is to build strength in numbers. Tanya Laohathai opines that
   Singapore is well poised for roles such as mediators and it is no
   coincidence that Singapore's skillful diplomats tend to be called
   to play the role of the "impartial" chairman in multilateral
   institutions or negotiations. Serving as chairman of an important
   committee or negotiation usually gives one the power to shape the
   decision making process in one way or another and, hence, the
   outcome. (28)

Foreign Minister Shanmugam explained in July 2013, "Due to our small size, we are ultimately 'price-takers.' ... However, we have found strength in numbers by being united in international fora such as the UN. Working together has given us a bigger and louder voice collectively, and helped us amplify our own perspectives on global issues." (29) This form of multilateralism allows small states like Singapore to enjoy freedom, cooperation, and mutual assistance that bilateral platforms do not necessarily convey. (30)

Shanmugam stressed that small states need "a predictable and stable, rule-based international system in order to survive." (31) Singapore's formation of the Forum of Small States (FOSS) at the UN in 1992 is a good example of using strength in numbers to develop new mechanisms and avenues for its interests to be expressed in global governance. In the late 1980s, then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew considered how best to ensure that small states' interests were represented in a dynamic and changing international system, concluding that Singapore needed to rally others with shared concerns. (32) Then-ambassador to the UN Chew Tai Soo suggested building an informal grouping of small states with populations of less than 10 million to exchange and share views. The FOSS now comprises 105 out of 193 of UN members. According to Iftekhar Amad Chowdhury, the FOSS allows small states that are inherently insecure to secure themselves through mutual assistance. (33) As an informal grouping chaired by Singapore's Permanent Mission to the UN, the FOSS does not hold formalized or regular meetings, but members can propose specific themes and issues to be raised as necessary. It has even become an arena to lobby support, as Ban Ki-Moon did when he was running for UN Secretary-General. The FOSS has allowed other small states such as Switzerland to launch several initiatives such as the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT Group) to improve the methods of the Security Council. The Arms Trade Treaty adopted by the General Assembly in 2013 was driven by Costa Rica over many years. The FOSS thus illustrates two key aspects of Singapore's strategy: to build coalitions and to act in a nonobstructionist or threatening way. As Chowdhury notes, the FOSS was an example of how small states recognize that "safety lies in greater numbers and ... it allows them to speak to global issues in a 'trade unionist' way without actually affronting the larger powers." (34) To mark its twentieth anniversary, the FOSS Conference on Small States was held on 1 October 2012 at the UN in New York. With over 230 participants from more than 120 countries, international organizations, and nongovernmental bodies, it attracted many high-level speakers, including UN Secretary-General Ban and then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who gave strong endorsements of the role of Singapore and the FOSS in fostering greater responsibilities and roles of small states.

While the FOSS has remained firmly within the UN framework, Singapore has not been averse to developing new modes outside the UN as circumstances dictate. For example, it launched the informal Global Governance Group (3G) in 2009, comprising thirty small- and medium-sized states. The 3G was formed in the aftermath of the emergence of the G-20, which not only lacked the legitimacy and universal membership of the UN, but also potentially excluded the interests of small- and medium-sized states. Steven Slaughter argues that, although the G-20 has some legitimacy, it does not capture the wide diversity of the UN and lacks the historical and institutional forms of expectations on how cooperation is mutually organized. (35) While the 3G was initially interpreted by some as a sign of Singapore's displeasure at being left out of the G-20, on greater examination, Karoline Postel-Vinay concludes that "this club appears less as an opposition force than a source of proposals to make up for what are seen as the G20's shortcomings ... 3G is presented as a bridge between the G20 and the UN." (36) Once again, we see here how important it is for small-state initiatives to be seen as constructive, rather than obstructionist.

The 3G suggested four recommendations, none of which were particularly designed to obstruct the G-20 process: (1) the representation of the Secretary-General in the G-20; (2) regular consultation with non-G-20 states; (3) regular participation of regional organizations other than the European Union (EU); and (4) the principle of variable geometry, which would include non-G-20 members in working groups on issues that affect them the most. These actions launched by the 3G have been "fairly successful," (37) according to Postel-Vinay, because Secretary-General Ban is now a regular fixture at G-20 summits and the notion of inviting regional organizations seems to have been accepted, as has the principle that the G20 must brief non-G-20 members regularly. Pradumna Rana argues that Singapore's invitation to the G-20 summit in Seoul in 2010 was in recognition that Singapore's leadership in the 3G can contribute to the G-20 process. (38) Through the 3G, Singapore has represented the concerns of thirty small- and medium-sized countries in the G-20 summits. (39) We further discuss the variable geometry principle below in the section on Singapore's expertise in the financial sector.

In 2005, Singapore was a founding member of another small-state-centric coalition, known as the Small Five (S5) and dedicated to reforming UN Security Council methods. For Singapore, this issue was different from the 3G, the Arctic Council, and the FOSS. It was less about protecting specific interests in maritime or financial industries and more about broad general principles that should guide international relations for the sake of the survival of small states. Here, one might discern a certain list of priorities in place: while Singapore would first of all devote resources to protecting its immediate national interests, such as maritime or financial industries, it also perhaps has in mind more normative goals of how the international system should be structured to enhance the survival of small states. Consisting of Singapore, Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland, the S5 prepared in 2011 a draft resolution that, among other proposals, the Security Council Permanent Five (P5) members refrain from vetoing action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. Although the S5 failed in the face of opposition from the P5 powers, Singapore's willingness to make a point of principle is often seen as part of its punching above its weight. As Wivel might suggest, there was insufficient agreement by the great powers on solutions to a problem, whch in turn meant that small-state initiatives would face an uphill task from the start. The P5 made clear that reforming its methods remained "the sole and exclusive domain of the Security Council," lamented the Swiss ambassador. (40) Instrumentally, the S5 might have failed but, from Singapore's point of view, it is an ongoing process of constantly making the normative point of principle to ensure that the voices of small states are heard.

Singapore's various initiatives on global governance--the FOSS, 3G, and S5--reflect its recognition, as Amitav Acharya observes, that the end of the Cold War does not mean that the international environment has become friendlier to small states. It means only that small states like Singapore have to become more adept at operating at the international level to ensure that their interests are met. (41) Chowdhury notes that, by engineering the process of tying small states together in multilateral groupings such as the 3G, Singapore managed to compensate for its smallness by building like-minded coalitions to speak out on issues that affect its interests. (42) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean continually highlight the importance of Singapore-led groupings, such as the 3G and FOSS, in protecting the interests of small states in global governance. (43)

Leveraging Comparative Advantages in Global Governance

Besides adopting a strategy of strength in numbers to build coalitions on issues that affect its interests, Singapore also exemplifies, as Anders Wivel postulates, (44) how small states with comparative advantages in certain technical fields or administrative capabilities can play more active roles in global governance. These can be seen in its niche expertise in the financial, maritime, and aviation sectors.

In financial services, with an average daily "traditional" foreign exchange turnover of US$326 billion in April 2013, Singapore became the world's third-largest foreign exchange center in September 2013, after London and New York. By May 2015, Singapore was home to 127 commercial banks (including 122 foreign banks), 38 merchant banks, and 338 fund management firms. It was ranked the world's fourth-leading financial center in March 2015 by the Global Financial Centres Index. Reflecting its comparative advantage in global financial services, Singapore was invited to the G-20 summits because, as Postel-Vinay argues, peers recognized its "systemic importance." (45) Since 2010, Singapore has been invited to four out of seven G-20 summits. Its invitation was renewed for the summit in Brisbane in November 2014 because, as Australian prime minister Tony Abbott explains, Singapore is "a key member of the global economic system." (46) The city-state has been invited once again to the G-20 summit, to be held in Turkey in 2015. Since no more than five countries can be invited from outside the G-20, the choice of Singapore is particularly significant. Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the Brisbane invitation, singling out its niche financial expertise: "As a major financial centre and investment hub, Singapore looks forward to contributing to discussions in the G-20 on global financial reforms, infrastructure investment financing and the multilateral trading system." Although the variable geometry mentioned earlier has been criticized for being a "recipe for dissonance and non-cooperation," (47) this principle promoted by Singapore through the 3G appears to have worked to its benefit. It has participated in G-20 summits because of its financial expertise and as a leading member of the 3G. Singapore's Prime Minister Loong, attending the 2013 G-20 meeting at Saint Petersburg, explained what is at stake for its financial sector interests:
   I think being present at the G20 enables us to participate in the
   discussion, to contribute our views and hopefully, a perspective
   which the other members will find useful and which will influence
   their deliberations. If you are talking about tax rules, we are
   very concerned because we want to make sure that rules will be
   fair, we will not be unduly, negatively affected because it's
   important that we are able to maintain a tax system which brings in
   the investments that we need and the economic activities which we
   need because then we create jobs. Withdrawing the QE (Quantitative
   Easing) is another very
   sensitive exercise, and it has to be done very carefully because
   just as when there was the QE, money flowed into some of the
   countries. So when the QE is withdrawn or even a hint that it will
   be withdrawn, money is already flowing out of these countries and
   it's destabilizing to have these very big capital flows. So how to
   manage them is an issue. (48)

Singaporean financial policymakers have also played outsized roles in initiatives to reform the global financial system. This again reflects Singapore's historical strengths in capable human resources, despite its size. Chairing the International Monetary Fund's key policy advisory body, the International Monetary and Financial Committee, is Singaporean deputy prime minister and finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who has held that post since 2011. Shanmugaratnam is one of four central bankers who chaired a working group of the elite Group of 30, which produced a report called "Long-term Finance and Economic Growth." This report "paints a portrait of a global economy increasingly constrained by a financial system that encourages short-term investment rather than long, making the system vulnerable to crisis in the process." (49) Through Shanmugaratnam's inclusion in the Group of 30 bankers, Singapore is at the least in a position to shape recommendations in order to "promote long-term horizons in the governance and portfolio management of public pension funds and sovereign wealth funds." (50) The Washington Post concluded that the recommendations made can be seen as reflecting the new norms and standards that leading central bankers are contemplating to regulate global finance in the future. Singapore has also actively worked on Exchange of Information Standards, money-laundering issues, and tax evasion problems. In January 2014, Singapore raised its contributions to the World Bank's capital fund substantially, from 38.6 million Singapore dollars (SGD) to SGD 672 million. This translated into an increase in its voting power from 0.05 percent to 0.25 percent, but still below its percentage of world GDP, which stands at 0.4 percent. Shanmugaratnam explained this hike in terms of Singapore's size and its niche role in global financial governance: "Given our role as a major financial centre and the importance of a healthy global economy to our economic prospects, we should participate in this global effort. Having a strong and effective multilateral institution is in Singapore's interest. We're small and dependent on the rest of the world." (51)

The Maritime Sector

Besides niche expertise in global finance, Singapore also has clear national interests and technical capabilities in regulating the global maritime sector. It was one of the world's busiest ports in 2014 in terms of vessel arrival tonnage, with 2.37 billion gross tons (an increase of 1.9 percent from 2013). (52) It was the world's top bunkering port in 2014 and is also a transshipment maritime hub, connected to 600 ports in 123 countries. In 2014, Singapore's port handled 33.9 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) in containers. Located astride the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca as a key node for international maritime flows, Singapore has held various leadership posts at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) over the years and currently serves as the vice-chair of the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee, which develops global standards for seafarers and codes for rescue and collision avoidance, as well as facilitation of maritime traffic. In November 2013, it was re-elected to the IMO Council, having served on the council since being first elected in 1993. Because of its central position as a littoral state in the Straits of Malacca, Singapore, together with Malaysia and Indonesia, proposed traffic separation and routing measures and mandatory ship-reporting measures for the straits, which have now been adopted by the IMO. (53)

Singapore Customs was also praised for its efficiency in terms of facilitating maritime trade by the World Customs Organization (WCO) secretary-general, Kunio Mikuriya, who believes that other global customs operators can learn from Singapore's best practices. (54) After Singapore chaired the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Trade Recovery Programme in 2009 on how to recover from a maritime terrorist strike, it was asked by the WCO to chair its Trade Recovery Subgroup to develop guidelines to secure global trade. This resulted in key principles such as "Respond" (actions to be taken in immediate aftermath of an incident), "Repair" (actions to identify and rectify capability and security gaps), and "Reconstitute" (actions to bring trade back to a normal state). (55) The WCO then adjusted these guidelines and formally incorporated them into WCO's SAFE Framework of Standards, which seeks to establish global standards for supply chain security to promote predictability. According to WCO secretary-general Mikuriya, "We made the Singaporean product into a global one." (56) In this way, Singapore's contributions to global norms governing the maritime trade sector are very visible. Of course, Singapore's actions are driven by its national interests as a leading maritime trading nation heavily dependent on shipping lines. In the 1970s when discussions on the law of the sea first emerged, Singapore quickly realized its interests were at stake, particularly on preserving passage rights through international waterways such as the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore. Again, its capable diplomats Shunmugam Jayakumar and Tommy Koh played key roles in lobbying the UN General Assembly. As Nathan recalls, these efforts were crucial in pushing through a General Assembly resolution
   to undertake a study that would shatter the myth that extensive
   national maritime jurisdictions benefited all developing nations.
   Our successful effort in championing this resolution led to the
   emergence of a new interest-based caucus of 'landlocked and
   geographically disadvantaged' states, which went on to become a key
   player in the negotiations on the UN Convention on the Law of the
   Sea (UNCLOS). (57)

However, as forums outside the UN have developed to deal with emerging maritime issues, Singapore's global governance initiatives have also become diversified. For instance, despite being a tropical island just 1 [degrees] north of the equator, Singapore managed to obtain permanent observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013. Again, this reflected its need to secure its national interests, leveraging off its strengths and capabilities in the maritime sector. As Foreign Minister Shanmugam explained in 2014, "We take part in international fora, where we see it's in our vital interests, for example the Arctic Council. We make a very serious effort, spend resources as necessary, and become observers. A lot of people scratch their heads and say, 'Why does Singapore want to be an observer in the Arctic Council?'" (58) Here, we see a concrete example of how standard claims of Singapore punching above its own weight need to take into account the city-state's flexibility and forward thinking toward the Arctic that ostensibly has little to do with its interests. First, it realized that climate change might open up Arctic shipping lines that could impinge on its status as a maritime port hub. It is driven here by the ends: protecting key national maritime interests. Second, when selecting the means to achieve what might appear to be new sets of goals in a non-UN framework, it has relied on tried and trusted approaches using its high-caliber diplomats. Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs Kemal Siddique, who was also previously nonresident ambassador to four Arctic Council member countries--Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland--cultivated networks and contacts over several years. Ng Ser Miang, a well-known Singaporean sportsman and entrepreneur who is also vice president of the International Olympic Coucil, has been nonresident ambassador to Norway since 2001. Singapore's maritime expertise also bolsters its credentials on Arctic-related issues. Oceanic research--on topics like oil exploration in the harsh Arctic climate--has been conducted at the Centre for Offshore Research and Engineering at the National University of Singapore. Singapore's maritime industry is also developing icebreakers, oil rigs, and lifeboats customized for use in the Arctic. As Norway's senior Arctic official Else Berit Eikeland puts it, Singapore is invited to Arctic meetings on account of its "knowledge and expertise in offshore and maritime work, maritime transportation and shipping." (59)

The Aviation Sector

The aviation sector is another area where Singapore deploys a comparative advantage in shaping global governance to protect its national interests. Singapore operated the world's sixth-busiest airport for international passenger traffic in 2014, with nearly 100 international airlines serving some 300 cities in 70 destinations worldwide. About 6,500 flights depart and land every week. In 2014, a record 54.1 million passengers passed through the airport. On the basis of its niche expertise as an air hub, the aviation sector contributed nearly SGD 8 billion to the Singaporean economy in 2011. As it did with the IMO for maritime issues, Singapore currently serves on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the policymaking governing body of the UN agency charged with regulating global civil aviation. This is a post that Singapore has held since 2003 and was reelected to in 2013. Members are elected under different categories. Reflecting its niche aviation expertise and capabilities, Singapore was re-elected under a specific category, which ascribes positions for "states which make the largest contribution to the provision of facilities for international civil air navigation." (60) Indeed, the Singapore government precisely presented its case for re-election by emphasizing the country's close linkages with global aviation:
   Singapore is dependent on international aviation as a key mode of
   transport and for connectivity. International aviation is also
   woven into the economic fabric of our country. Accordingly,
   Singapore is very attuned to the importance of the ICAO global
   framework for the safe and orderly operation of international air
   transport services, based on equity and sound economic principles.

As an indicator of how it is vigorously trying to shape global aviation norms, Singapore currently contributes in over ninety ICAO expert groups to help develop international standards in areas ranging from aviation safety, aviation security, airport operations, and air traffic management to aviation environmental protection, air law, and aviation medicine. It chairs sixteen of these expert groups. (62) Singapore also led the initiative to develop the ICAO Comprehensive Aviation Security Strategy (ICASS), which was endorsed by the thirty-seventh ICAO Assembly; the strategy defines the ICAO's key focus areas for aviation security for the period 2011 to 2016. Serving as chairman of the ICAO Aviation Security Panel for 2011-2013, Singapore played a central role in the ICAO's efforts to establish new standards for air cargo and mail security and the security screening of persons other than passengers entering the restricted areas of airports; it also helped compile the eighth edition of the Aviation Security Manual. (63) In 2013, Singapore made several proposals on generating ICAO standards, such as sharing of training opportunities among member states to enhance air accident investigation capabilities and protecting the confidentiality of safety information shared by member states. (64) In 2010, Singapore proposed that new rules be developed and standardized to reduce the regulatory burdens of aircraft maintenance organizations that operate across different jurisdictions around the world. (65) The cumulative effect of such efforts in shaping global aviation norms and rules suggests that, in operating a significant air hub with niche technical expertise and aviation interests, Singapore is not demonstrating the passivity one typically associates with being a price taker.


In July 2013, Foreign Minister Shanmugam posted on Facebook that "in every field, Singapore's size and geography mean that we are often price takers, not price makers in the areas of economics, geopolitics, or the environment." (66) Somewhat paradoxically, Singapore is also often described as punching above its weight. Yet this paradox can be explained by how, driven by an innate sense of vulnerability as a price taker, Singaporean leaders have historically attempted to enhance different global governance mechanisms to secure the city-state's national interests, despite severe human resource constraints at the beginning. Relying on capable career diplomats as well as distinguished individuals from the private sector, Singaporean initiatives have ranged from the FOSS, IMO, and ICAO within the UN to engaging newer non-UN frameworks such as the G-20 and Arctic Council. The means might have become more varied, but the ends remain the same: securing Singaporean interests and protecting its key financial, aviation, and maritime sectors. Key economic and security interests are usually prioritized, but this has not deterred Singapore from seeking more normative goals, as seen in the failed S5 initiatives to reform the Security Council. Singapore will continue to patiently and frankly make its arguments to persuade.

As the existing literature suggests, Singapore's first strategy relies on assembling like-minded coalitions that do not threaten the major powers. Rana opined that, at international conferences, Singapore usually performs a larger role than its size or raw power capabilities mandate, mediating between contending parties and creating the international space it constantly seeks. (67) Singapore's activist diplomacy through the FOSS, 3G, and S5 illustrates its desire to construct new collective platforms and avenues to amplify its interests on the global stage. A certain amount of peer recognition and prestige has been evident through repeated invitations to G-20 summits, partly because of its leadership of the 3G and expertise as a key financial hub. Several 3G proposals to the G-20, such as the involvement of the UN Secretary-General and variable geometry, have also been implemented in practice. While the overall results are rather mixed--from being rebuffed as part of the S5 attempts to reform the Security Council working processes, to being invited to G-20 summits as leader of the 3G--uncritical usage of the price-taker analogy does not lend much analytical traction to understanding how small states build strength in numbers to enhance their roles in global governance processes. Indeed, a further interesting conclusion emerging from this article that the existing literature has overlooked is how Singapore's approaches to global governance have evolved over the years. While in the early years it focused predominantly on working within the UN framework, it has more recently been alert to new forums and issues arising outside of UN auspices. This can be seen clearly in its efforts through the 3G as well as the Arctic Council.

A second Singaporean strategy, as the extant literature predicts, is to capitalize on its specialized knowledge and experience in the global maritime, aviation, and financial sectors. In 2003, then-foreign minister Jayakumar outlined the framework of international norms, rules, and standards that enable the day-to-day activities in a globalized world that people take for granted: "Every time we board an aircraft for a trip abroad, we entrust our safety to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ... [and] the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ensures that the world's merchant fleet, which carries the bulk of world trade, sails smoothly." (68) Jayakumar lamented that the ICAO and IMO get hardly any recognition. We would add that small states such as Singapore that hold important positions in the ICAO or IMO also deserve more attention, having leveraged their comparative advantages in the aviation and maritime sectors to serve on the policymaking councils of both the ICAO and IMO. Singapore is working to mold global governance processes and the development of norms in these fields. The evidence we presented in this article suggests that one needs to critically unpack the price-taker analogy as an overly broad and crude heuristic device impeding a more rigorous understanding of small states in global governance. The stark dichotomy between taker and maker also fails to account for how small states are striving to wield some measure of influence on global governance, without necessarily becoming a full-fledged price maker able to determine outcomes on its own. Several conditions can be identified for states to do so. First, an acute sense of vulnerability and its price-taker status in turn underpinned Singapore's proactive self-conscious attempts to overcome these constraints. As former president Nathan recounts, "While others expected us, as a small state, to recognise our vulnerability and adopt a passive approach in our foreign relations so as to avoid retaliation, we chose to make a stand when our interests were at stake." (69) Second, Singaporean initiatives in global governance are driven by a clearly identifiable means-end logic: to utilize the most efficient means to deliver the outcomes to protect its national interests, whether these are in specific sectors, such as finance or aviation, or more normative milieu goals to create a more predictable rule-based order favorable to small state survival. Third, Singapore has combined highly capable human resources with the ability to capitalize adroitly on comparative advantages and niche expertise that it has accumulated in the aviation, maritime, and financial sectors. Finally, being alert to new issues and emerging governance frameworks such as the G-20 that could affect these interests is of utmost importance, both to ensure that small states are not adversely affected and also to sniff out potential opportunities.


Yee-Kuang Heng is associate professor of international relations and assistant dean (research) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. An alumnus of the London School of Economics and Political Science, he has held faculty positions at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and the University of St Andrews, United Kingdom. He has authored several books and published in journals such as the Pacific Review, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, and Review of International Studies. Syed Mohammed Ad'ha Aljunied is research associate in international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He has published academic articles in journals such as the Journal of Asian and African Studies, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, Asian Journal of Political Science, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and Yonsei University Journal of International Affairs. Research for this article was supported by NUS Start-Up Grant WBS R-603-000-041-133.

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(13.) We thank an anonymous reviewer for making this point.

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(65.) International Civil Aviation Organization, "High-Level Safety Conference," Montreal, 29 March to 1 April 2010, %202010%20Report/HLSC.2010.DOC.9335.EN.pdf, accessed 9 May 2013.

(66.) Cited at K Shanmugam Sc, /551235868256281, 18 June 2013, accessed 9 August 2014.

(67.) Kishan S. Rana, "Singapore: Vulnerability into Strength," in Kishan S. Rana, ed., Asian Diplomacy: The Foreign Ministries of China, India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand (Msida, Malta: DiploFoundation, 2007), p. 127.

(68.) United Nations, "Statement by Professor S. Jayakumar, 58th Session of the UN General Assembly, New York," 29 September 2003, /statements/singeng030929.htm, accessed 9 August 2014.

(69.) Speech by S. R. Nathan, MFA's Diplomatic Academy Inaugural S. Rajaratnam Lecture.
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Author:Heng, Yee-Kuang; Aljunied, Syed Mohammed Ad'ha
Publication:Global Governance
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Date:Jul 1, 2015
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