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Working for security and prosperity

Feb 24,2014 - Last updated at Feb 24,2014

The visit to Singapore by His Majesty King Abdullah, to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Singapore, is an opportune time to take stock of what makes the relationship significant.

Our ties testify to the ability of small states to survive and even thrive among larger neighbours in an unpredictable world.

Scholar Michael Leifer spoke of Singapore’s exceptionalism to describe this ability. To me, our foreign policy has succeeded because it is based exceptionally on an acute awareness of our vulnerability as a city-state. But that is only half the story. The other, more important, half is how Singapore managed to turn its limitations into strengths.

This we did through our economic openness to the rest of the world, including major industrial powers US and Japan. This reach enabled Singapore to leapfrog the immediate region, which was not friendly to its prospects after independence.

Our diplomacy was based not only on sound economic fundamentals but also on the deterrent credibility of the Singapore Armed Forces. 

This made it possible for us to deal with our neighbours from a position of confidence, which is key to healthy relations.

Jordan has followed a similar policy of strengthening its relations with extra-regional countries, primarily the US, and of stabilising its ties with its neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq.

The first is the economic dynamo of the Arab world and a military powerhouse; Syria and Iraq were substantial military powers in the region before they were brought down by war and civil war. Today, they have become hotbeds of insurgency, with religious extremists and terrorists trying to draw them into their insidious sphere of international influence.

Jordan, like Singapore, is threatened by terrorists and extremists. Its policy has been to strengthen mainstream religious institutions to reduce the fatal attractiveness of extremist ideology.

Jordan protected its interests by globalising them, so that it would not be held hostage by its immediate region. This bears a strong resemblance to Singapore’s refusal to be hedged in by its immediate neighbours.

One development of particular interest to both countries was the signing of the Singapore-Jordan Free Trade Agreement and the Singapore-Jordan Bilateral Investment Treaty in 2004. They came into force the following year.

The agreement is Singapore’s first FTA with a Middle Eastern country and Jordan’s first with an Asian country.

Both countries have followed a pragmatic foreign policy, including in the economic sphere, because they have something in common: the absence of natural resources.

Without oil to fall back on, Jordan embarked on a diplomatic course that would make regional and world powers take it seriously and develop a stake in its survival.

Singapore has an equivalent balance-of-power strategy that has worked well.

On the domestic front, the absence of natural resources made both countries focus on their human resources. Education in Singapore is not merely an exercise in creating elites, it is a core national interest, because only an educated population can benefit from the opportunities of globalisation.

It gives me immense satisfaction that Jordanians have drawn on Singapore’s excellence in learning, particularly technical and vocational education, in charting their own direction.

A final point is the common way in which Jordan and Singapore have come to terms with democratisation. The economic liberalisation under way in Jordan is strengthening the forces of progress and laying a firm foundation for further political liberalisation.

Warm relations between Jordan and Singapore show that countries might be distant geographically and culturally, but the realities of international relations are much the same everywhere.

What matters is whether small states can make these realities work for their security and prosperity.

The writer is Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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