Old Boys’ Diplomacy

I’ve recently read S. Jayakumar’s Diplomacy (and put up a short review here; frankly, it’s not very impressive). I’ve come away from it with the impression that Singapore’s foreign affairs and relations with other countries are managed by a select cadre of senior diplomats. Names that regularly show up include Tommy Koh, Bilahari Kausikan, Kishore Mahbubani, and Jayakumar himself. Diplomacy draws on the author’s personal experiences from his time in MFA, so it is at least partly excusable that the book features Jayakumar’s close, long-time colleagues in his mostly anecdotal accounts of work in the diplomatic corps. But it does not discount the fact that this group of elite diplomats have been playing musical chairs with the positions of permanent representative to the UN, ambassador at large, and permanent secretary for foreign affairs for a considerable time.

Jayakumar also makes constant references to his close personal friendship with (long-time Indonesian foreign minister) Ali Alatas, and how it has greased problematic diplomatic relations. There are also numerous references to how his other personal relationships has helped in resolving issues with other countries. I cannot pretend to be closely acquainted with the machinations of government or the conduct of foreign affairs, but I cannot help but wonder about a couple of things. Firstly, how much of international relations, especially in regional ties between geographically close neighbours, is influenced by and dependent on an old boy’s’ network, both locally and cross-border, and is it plagued by insular, one-track navel gazing and barriers of entry for new diplomats in the marketplace of ideas? Secondly, to what extent is supposedly democratic statecraft shaped and dominated by a select cabal of ministers and civil servants, and how health would that situation be?

The answer to both questions is, in my opinion, a worrying, intractable conundrum. Unless an entire population can become knowledgeable, interested, and active in public life, and enabled (possibly technologically) to influence that public life through direct democracy on all issues of importance, we will be stuck with a small elite of power-brokers and technocrats running the show. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but we ought not to have pretensions to anything else, especially in a single-party democracy with the civil service and the party existing symbiotically. And although issues will remain decided by those select power-brokers, we can avoid the worst outcomes by ensuring organic (i.e., not party-directed) renewal of that group and truly meritocratic entry to that group, in order to avoid the pitfall of navel-gazing, slap-on-the-back old boy’s politics and policymaking.

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