Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Before Assange there was Jayakumar: Context, realpolitik, and the public interest

Credit: The Australian / AP

I was a little surprised to read the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman’s remarks in the Wall Street Journal Asia piece, “Leaked cable spooks some U.S. sources” dated 3 Dec 2010. The paragraph in question went like this:

“Others laid blame not on working U.S. diplomats, but on Wikileaks. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “deep concerns about the damaging action of Wikileaks.” It added, ‘it is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence.’” (emphasis my own)

My surprise was really a follow-up reaction from an email I received from a friend (lets call him William) in response to an earlier email I sent detailing MM Lee’s views on the leadership in China amongst other issues, as hyperlinked on the Guardian’s website (

This gist of William’s email went like this, “This is indeed a tragic day when national leaders cannot have frank and honest private discussions without the minutes of the meetings leaking to the press. From now on, more leaders will either not comment or speak only off the record.”

Credit: Straits Times

His views came as a bit of a shock to me as on 25 Jan 2003, the then Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Senior Minister without portfolio, Professor S Jayakumar, in an unprecedented move, unilaterally released all diplomatic and official correspondence relating to confidential discussions on water negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia from the year 2000.

In a parliamentary speech that would have had Julian Assange smiling from ear to ear, Jayakumar said, “We therefore have no choice but to set the record straight by releasing these documents for people to judge for themselves the truth of the matter.” The parliamentary reason for the unprecedented release of information was the misrepresentations made by Malaysia over the price of water, amongst others.

The then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir’s response to Singapore’s pre-Wikileak wikileak was equally quote-worthy, “I don’t feel nice. You write a letter to your girlfriend. And your girlfriend circulates it to all her boyfriends. I don’t think I’ll get involved with that girl.”

A master of simple analogies, Mahathir did not leave it at that. He foreshadowed the Wikileak-chastised countries of today saying what William, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US and Iran today, amongst others, must agree with, “It’s very difficult now for us to write letters at all because we might as well negotiate through the media.”

Curious about this apparent double standard, I proceeded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs homepage to search for the full press release. As I anticipated, there was a caveat. This is the press release in full:

In response to media queries on the WikiLeaks release of confidential and secret-graded US diplomatic correspondence, the MFA Spokesman expressed deep concerns about the damaging action of WikiLeaks. It is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence, which is why Singapore has the Officials Secrets Act. In particular, the selective release of documents, especially when taken out of context, will only serve to sow confusion and fail to provide a complete picture of the important issues that were being discussed amongst leaders in the strictest of confidentiality.

The sentence in red seems to posit that the selective release of documents can be legitimised if released documents are not taken out of context. If this interpretation is true, then one can account for the political decision to release confidential correspondence covering the Singapore and Malaysia water talks referred to above. In parallel, one can imagine Assange or his supporters arguing that lies over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the advent of abject two-faced politics today to be sufficient grounds to justify the actions of Wikileaks. As for the arguments about confidentiality and official correspondence, the events in parliament in 2003 tell us no one should underestimate the ability of nation-states to do an Assange if it befits their purpose – be it directly, as Jayakumar did, or indirectly, through the media or some other medium of influence.

Timothy Garton Ash put out the dilemma perfectly when he said, “There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.”

Going forward, the advent of technology will only further blur the lines between these two public interests, if it has not already. Quite apart from technology, the absence of transparent and accountable institutions may also serve to guarantee the prospect of more of such embarrassing leaks in future.

In August 2009, there was considerable interest in Singapore about the circumstances behind the departure of Chip Goodyear, former CEO of the Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, from the national sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings. Before that, all the public knew was – in the name of leadership renewal – Chip Goodyear had been carefully chosen and apparently hand-picked to replace Ho Ching as CEO of Temasek Holdings. In response to Chip’s untimely departure, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was quoted, “People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”

Credit: MAS

Overly secretive and furtive politicians operating in a parliamentary democracy are unlikely to inspire confidence among an educated citizenry either, only serving to paradoxically fuel public cynicism and conspiracy theories. Such stonewalling could potentially inspire and motivate a Singaporean Julian Assange to choose the path of newer forms of vigilante justice. And passing judgment post-facto will become morally problematic in light of ivory-tower governance. Governments that have most to fear will be those that engage in the egregious politics of half-truths.

I believe that government officials and politicians who perform their jobs honourably have nothing to fear from Wikileaks. I would admit that there is an inherent naivety and idealism in this position. But if the lesson from the Wikileaks episode portends a higher standard of ethical conduct, encourages transparency and accountability – all of which promote good governance, realpolitik notwithstanding – then it is perhaps a lesson all politicians and government officials should pay keen attention to.

But I’ll be frank. I would love it if Mr Assange or those of his ilk released information detailing the practices of corporate fat cats on Wall Street in the run-up to the Great Recession, and how they sought to retain their influence and high salaries even after nearly destroying Main Street (ditto self-righteous avaricious fat cats everywhere). I think a lot of you would love it too.


“These disclosures are largely of analysis and high-grade gossip. Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do….If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.” –Simon Jenkins, Guardian

Useful Links:

1. “Leaked cable spooks some US sources”, Wall Street Journal, 2 Dec 2010:

2. Official Singapore Parliamentary Debates: Bilateral Relations with Malaysia: Water and other Issues, 25 Jan 2003:,WATER&hlWords=%20%20&hlTitle=malaysia%20water&queryOption=1&ref=

3. “US embassy cables: The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment”, Guardian, 28 Nov 2010:

4. “US embassy cables: A banquet of secrets”, Guardian, 28 Nov 2010:

5. “US embassy cables: Former Singapore PM on ‘psychopathic’ North Koreans”, Guardian, 29 Nov 2010:

6. “Singapore paper gives prominence to Dr M’s Reply”, Bernama, 31 Jan 2003:

Written by singapore 2025

04/12/2010 at 11:05 am

3 Responses

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  1. Excellent observation!

    Except Jayakumar is no longer Coordinating Minister for National Security. He is Senior Minister without Portfolio.

    What I’m really interested in now is about the 800+ cables sent from the US Embassy in Singapore which were released.

    Gerald Giam

    04/12/2010 at 1:42 pm

  2. Thanks for that Gerald! Amended accordingly. Yes, I bet quite a number of diplomatic historians will be very interested too. I can see a couple of PhD proposals already…..

    singapore 2025

    04/12/2010 at 1:51 pm

  3. Bravo, Pritam, a superb analysis and write up on our government’s double speak.

    The opposition can’t claim anymore that the PAP has a monopoly on talent. You’ve just proven otherwise. 🙂

    Keep it coming.

    Anil Balchandani

    05/12/2010 at 9:43 am

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