Wikileaking the mandarins

Donaldson Tan

Top Singapore Mandarins exposed by WikiLeaks: (Clockwise from Top Left) MM Lee Kuan Yew, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho and Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan

Top Singapore Mandarins exposed by WikiLeaks: (Clockwise from Top Left) MM Lee Kuan Yew, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho and Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan

While Foreign Minister George Yeo was out partying at the annual Zoukout last Saturday night, WikiLeaks hit Singapore yet again through exclusive coverage by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age. The latest targets are Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho and Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan.

The trio gave officials from the US State Department a very damning assessment of regional affairs. Former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho called Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib an “Opportunist”. Meanwhile, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh savaged Japan as ”the big fat loser” and India as ‘stupid Indian friends’ who are ‘half in, half out’ of ASEAN.” On the other hand, Ambassador-at-Large Bilihari Kausikan described Thailand as being dogged by corruption and a “very erratic” crown prince.

Responses so far from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been lukewarm. Far from reassuring the public that Singapore’s international relations remain unaffected, Foreign Minister George Yeo implored that “the confidentiality of diplomatic communication must be respected, and that any communication must not be taken out of context.” He further downplayed the Cablegate documents as gossip and cocktail talk. Amusingly, the context for these specific communications remains confidential. How can one interpret these WikiLeaks documents on Singapore officials when information regarding the context itself is not in the public domain? Let alone the victims of the unflattering language.

Interpretation aside, the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé has certainly triggered reaction against Singapore. Tian Chua, the Vice-President of Malaysia’s leading Opposition party Pakatan Rakyat (PKR), told the Malaysian Insider that PKR will be sending an official letter to the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, demanding an explanation on Singapore’s involvement in entrapping Anwar (over Sodomy charges) and the subsequent smear campaign, as well as Singapore leaders’ remarks on Malaysia. At the same time, PKR will also be raising this issue under emergency motion at the Malaysian Federal Parliament this week.

Discreet diplomacy

The question remains whether the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé would remain benign on Singapore’s conduct of foreign affairs. The first criteria is whether diplomatic communication channels remain open. The main principle of modern diplomacy is that communication, even among adversaries, must be maintained. There is no diplomacy without communication. However, frank and engaging communications are rarely conducted in public. In some cases, the frankness is manifested in the form of unflattering language. This is not just true for diplomats but also true for personal communication with friends and relatives.

This discreetness not only benefits Singapore but also other countries which Singapore engages in multilateral negotiation. It is mutually beneficial for state parties to continue reciprocating discreetness despite the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé. Diplomacy seeks to achieve compromise, which is unpopular in many societies especially when it is contrasted against national pride and glory. Reaching a compromise and maintaining discreetness in negotiations are very often closely linked.

While openness is the guiding principle of good governance, the reality shows that most of the successful diplomatic deals have been done discreetly, far removed from the public eye. Singapore’s foreign policy is shaped by its interlocutor role in multilateral negotiations. Being discreet is needed to protect the interlocutor on the other side of the negotiating table. In many cases, negotiators spend a lot of time finding face-saving formulas for the audience in the coalition countries they represent. Discreetness prevents effective negotiations from turning into a show for the general public.

In an interdependent world, we can no longer depend on military force alone to resolve conflicts. Diplomacy is necessary. If diplomatic services and governments react to the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé by increasing security, it will not only make diplomacy more exclusive and secretive, it will also discourage stakeholder participation in complex global issues such as Climate Change, the UN Millennium Development Goals and the global economic crisis.

Conforming to Status Quo

The second criteria for the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé to be benign on Singapore’s conduct of foreign affairs is whether the information arising from the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé conforms to status quo. Making negative comments on foreign leaders is perhaps not as controversial as a minister disparaging on another fellow minister of the same cabinet. Among the leaked cables, there is one cable dated 30 Dec 2004 whereby the Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gönül referred to the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as “exceptionally dangerous.”

Yet the knowledge of such comments are not exactly outside the public domain. They confirm what is already known in the public domain instead of providing new information. In short, the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé reinforces status quo. On the disparaging comments made by above-mentioned Singapore trio, Alex Au of Yawning Bread wrote:

Hello? Except for pro-Anwar diehards, most people in Malaysia already believe that sex happened between Anwar and his accuser Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Most people have long ago also conlcuded that it was a set-up by people linked to the ruling party, or even the current prime minister Najib himself.”

The bit about Thaksin paying off the crown prince’s gambling debts has been rumoured for a long time. However, perhaps due to censorship in Thailand, no one has offered any proof. And neither does Kausikan. He was just repeating what lots of people have been saying, including the pervasiveness of corruption and the personality of the prince.”

Look beyond the bad language and once again, we see someone reporting a commonly-held view about Japan in the last 20 years. Nothing new again.”

There is nothing new here. There is no new information that can disrupt status quo. On PKR’s reaction? There will always be people who are unhappy over status quo. What WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé has succeeded so far is highlighting the central role of the USA in global affairs. This again, is not surprising, because of the USA’s international standing as a global superpower.

Update: 04/09/2011 – Bilahari Kausikan has been promoted from Ambassador-at-Large to Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.