Transcript of Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law’s Dialogue With Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman, Middle East Institute (MEI) at the MEI Annual Conference 2023

Published: 01 June 2023

Chairman/MEI: Good morning, everybody, those of you who are here in person, and those who are joining us online. And a very special welcome to our speakers who have come – some, from quite far away – to help us with this Conference.

The theme of the Conference is, as you see: [The New Middle East: Return of the Great Power Competition], although I have a quibble about the word ‘return’. Since when did great power competition ever go away? It is in a new phase, but I don’t think that there has ever been a period of history where there has been no great power competition. Sometimes more intense, sometimes less intense. And obviously, we are in a more intense phase.

But anyway, none of you have come here to listen to me. You have come here to listen to Minister Shanmugam, whom I think needs no introduction, at least to those of us who live in Singapore. He is not only the Minister for Home Affairs in Singapore, he was a very distinguished – the most distinguished – litigator in our legal community. And, he was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, for several years in Singapore.

So, with your permission, Minister, can I go straight into our conversation? 

And while I quibble on the word ‘return’, I think there has been a qualitative change in the nature of great power competition, and the Middle East has responded to it in three ways. Many of these changes pre-date the war in Ukraine, but the war in Ukraine has perhaps, accentuated these three trends. 

The first trend is a move away from almost sole dependence on the US through a more omni-directional approach to great power relations – they maintain their relations with the US, while they understand the implications of the war in Ukraine, and all the Gulf States have voted in favour of the UNGA’s resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, they have maintained their relations with Russia in a very nuanced way. And of course, they have developed new relations, relatively new relations, with China. That’s the first trend – a more omni-directional approach.

The second trend is more internal, but one which has strategic implications. And that is to move their economies away from over dependence on fossil fuel to a more diversified economy. And that too, is not just an economic move, because you can’t change your economy without changing the socio-cultural context of the economy. 

And the third change is a reordering of priorities in the region. The Palestinian issue is still very important in the region, and beyond the region. But it is no longer central to the concerns of the Gulf States in particular. 

Now, Minister, of these three trends that I’ve mentioned, I think arguably, the second is probably the most important – the internal changes that are underway. Obviously, as the birthplace of Islam, what happens in the Gulf, and in particular Saudi Arabia, has a tremendous influence on Muslims everywhere, including in Southeast Asia, and Singapore. But I don’t know whether Southeast Asian Muslims are sufficiently aware of the changes that are being undertaken, particularly in Saudi Arabia. For example, you know, although Muslim women in Southeast Asia have always enjoyed a more open environment – in the sense that they have always been able to work. Well, that is a new thing in Saudi Arabia. Muslim women in Southeast Asia operate in a less patriarchal environment because they have never had to be accompanied by a male relative before they go out. I wonder whether they are sufficiently aware of what is happening in Saudi Arabia. Because, for example, Saudi women are no longer required to wear the hijab, whereas the tudung still seems quite central to female Muslim identity in Southeast Asia. And, I think the Abraham Accords is, truly – it’s not an exaggeration to say – a revolutionary thing in the region, but does not seem to have much impact in Southeast Asia.

So, Minister, do you think we can sort of ‘cross-fertilise’ each other, in this respect? And do you think people in Southeast Asia – Muslims, and non-Muslims alike – are sufficiently aware of these great changes that are happening in the Gulf? 

Minister: Thanks, Bilahari. Whether it can happen, I think the possibility is that it can happen; but whether it is likely to happen, is a separate question. 

If I take the points you made in sequence. First, the relationship between the Gulf and the United States; and how that impacts the relationship with other large powers – China, Russia – and their position on international affairs. Second, I think you talked about economic and cultural change. Third, you talked about the changes within the Gulf itself, the different countries coming together. Fourth, and finally, how would that impact us, or what sort of interchange and knowledge there is, between us?

Let me take the second of those points first, in terms of change within the Middle East. If you talk about it and visit, in some ways, they appear revolutionary, and they are. At the end of last year, I was in Saudi Arabia, and the sheer energy of the young people that has been unleashed is quite extraordinary to see. I was accompanied by one of the persons working for the Singapore Embassy there – a young lady. The year before, she couldn’t work! She has a double Masters, and she is part-Singaporean, part-Saudi. She is a Saudi national now; and she was completely fluent in obviously, Arabic, but also English. She did her master’s from, I think, the London School of Economics or King’s [College London], and she was working for the South Korean Embassy until our Embassy pitched her. And when I meet with the employers they say, the workforce has just been doubled! Because Saudi women are highly educated, but they were not able to work. And you have simply boosted the economy by 50 per cent, because you have added in almost 100 per cent, by adding in a whole new segment of a highly educated workforce. And women are perhaps more diligent and more hardworking than men tend to be, in many countries of the world.

I think Saudi Arabia would, together with other countries, recognise the need for economic change. They need to develop a new basis for the economy. They cannot rely on fossil fuel, not only because it might run out, but also because the world is moving in a different direction. So, they need to reorientate their economy. And in order to do that, they need to change many things. And those things can't be changed without a social and cultural change as well. 

The challenge is – to what extent is the man on the street, the Arab street, accepting these changes? Are the leaders too far ahead? There are some people who would say that the leaders are too far ahead. But some would say that 70% of Saudi Arabia is young, and most of them are wildly supportive of the Crown Prince’s changes. He has personally identified with the changes, and they seem to be wanting more, and they are pushing for it. There is tremendous support for that, as far as one can see.

So, you see that change happening. And I think it has reached a stage where probably the momentum is there to keep pushing it further and further and further. So, you will see that change. The question in many people's minds, particularly the conservatives, is – how do you modernise, how do you embrace modernity, how do you get into science and technology without losing your fundamental values? Your values in religion, your values in faith – how do you marry the two? I think those are challenges that every country around the world faces. Those are challenges that they have to adapt to, but it's not just Saudi Arabia. You see the changes in the United Arab Emirates, of course in Dubai; you see the changes in Oman. Across the Gulf, in many places, you're seeing these changes. And you know, UAE has this Abrahamic Family House, housing the different places of worship, of the Abrahamic faiths – so you have a Mosque, Synagogue, Church, housed together. Today, in some parts of Southeast Asia, I think that’s unthinkable. So, while we are perhaps becoming, in some parts, perhaps more conservative, the Arab world is moving much further ahead.

I was in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan two weeks ago. Their approach is also very interesting. They have a long tradition of Islamic scholarship. So, in some ways, we ask ourselves – are we able to meet the challenges that other countries which are modernising will present to us? That's one part. So, there is change. I think the change is real. The societies are changing, the culture is changing, the economy is changing. The question is – how fast can it be maintained? Will the man on the street accept and adapt? And those are political questions.  

As for your point on the United States, I think fundamentally, it's a fact. I think the Arab leaders understand it, most people understand it. There is no substitute for the United States today, yet, from any other part of the world. In terms of its military and economic power – even though sometimes it is a question of whether it can pass a budget, but there is no substitute.

There is no other country with the kind of Navy that it has, the Air Force that it has, the provision of security. And when push comes to shove, I think every single Gulf country which relies on US security knows where the security comes from. I think the real question is not that they think there are alternatives, but that they are no longer so sure that the US is as reliable as it used to be in the past, because of its own domestic situation. The US domestic situation has changed. You may get a new president who may ask fairly fundamental questions like – why are we sending our 5th Fleet there, why are we having so many soldiers there, what has it got to do with my security? So, you are no longer sure. You know that this is the country that can provide you with security, but you're no longer sure that they will stand by if something happens. Then naturally you start looking at alternatives. And, as economies change and other countries become richer and bigger, and maybe economically more powerful, China included, I think the point will be that your economic relationships will grow, your trade relationships will grow. And with that, you will start looking at additional facets of security. And, Gulf countries are not going to hew to the American or European line, or a Chinese line, or any line, each time any of these powers tell them to. Like every country including Singapore, they would look at what their interest is, and then decide on this matter. Do I stay with the US, or do I take a slightly different nuanced view? But I think there is little doubt in my mind that, if the Americans come with heavy boots and say – on this, can you sign up on the dotted line – I suspect most countries will still do that.

On your third point, I think you mentioned China. I think what China wants is the same as what the US wants. China wants stability in the Middle East. But, of course, China wants more influence. The Americans want more influence, and the Americans don't mind being polygamous, but they don't like anyone else to be polygamous. They want everybody else to be monogamous. So, there will be obviously some tensions there. These things will play themselves out, but I don't see that China has an interest in a Middle East that lacks stability. But don't forget, even within the Middle East, when we look at all these countries, we should not forget the agency of the countries within the Middle East. They are actors, and today increasingly, they are more important actors. If you look at the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran – who worked on it for a long period? It was Oman, working away quietly for two years, very actively. Qatar plays a role, not in this deal, but you know Qatar plays a role. On this deal, Oman played a significant role, but quiet, understated behind the scenes, and then the deal gets signed in Beijing. Beijing obviously played an important role, but don't forget the agency of the countries. There is much they can do. You talked about the Abraham Accords – I think, that, we welcome. But again, the question is, is the Arab Street fully signed up for the Abraham Accords? You need to bring the Arab Street in, and that's something that Israel has to bear in mind. 

Finally, the impact on us. I think the answer is – events there, the interpretations of religion, interpretations of how you interact with the different faiths, should have an impact on us. But I also see difficulties. Because, in some parts of this region, religion – and it's not just Islam, Buddhism, as well as Christianity and Hinduism; and I talk about the region in a broader sense – has been subject to politicisation. Religion that has become a part of the tools that is employed in politics. And therefore, certain ways of practising the faith, certain historical interpretations of the faith, and certain ways of identifying yourself as part of the faith and being exclusive and being different from others – are being pushed by politicians. 

Therefore, the logical answer to your question is – it should have an influence. But the reality is that doesn't suit a variety of political actors. Therefore, I think the jury is out. I don't know that it will have as much of an impact as it should, because in various parts, there is a strong interest in keeping Islam and Buddhism in a different track.

That's my view. But if you look at Indonesia, President Joko Widodo's brand of Islam – which hews to the traditional liberalism view of Islam – is very open and tolerant. It's difficult to say the same of some others.

Chairman/MEI: Thank you, Minister. I want to come back to this point. I think you're right that the religion and all religions have been politicised in different ways. But in a way, it's kind of counterintuitive because the origin of Islam is obviously from the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. Is there anything that can be done to raise awareness of the great changes, social cultural changes, that are happening there, in our region? Because if there is greater awareness, and if Muslims take a lead from that, we're not being such a politically useful tool for the politicians. I mean, I'm not suggesting Singapore do it, you know, but is there anything that can be done?

Minister: You know, I can give you a short answer and a long answer. Let me try a middle ground. 

I think Institutes like the Middle East Institute (MEI) can have a tremendous role to play. I'm not saying that if Saudi Arabia does it, it’s automatically correct; or UAE does it, or Oman does it, it is automatically correct. But I think there's a lot to be said, for understanding what other countries do and what we do, and then we'll get people to think about it, and then see which is a better approach, given our cultural, historical, geographical context. And when I say our, I mean the region.

But then, you look at the people who attend this Conference. None of these people need convincing on the separation of religion with politics. The people who need convincing, generally don't attend MEI conferences. And the question is – how do we get these points across to them? And take countries which you will normally consider rational – Israel, UK, and you can take France or US. Israel – look at what's happening on the street, the demonstrations. Ostensibly, the issue is about the independence of the judiciary. But is that the real issue? It's a clash between the idea of a secular Israel and a religious Israel. 

Israel is a country that faces far more security issues than we do. Israel and Singapore are among the countries in the world that regularly have to think about existential security. And with their experience of the number of wars, and with their understanding of their regional situation, you have such a deep split. And, the cost. The voting patterns are going in a certain way. The religious conservatives are getting more power. I'm not passing any value judgments here. I'm just describing the facts. As a result, those who are more secularly minded are getting concerned, including if you look at the demonstrators, I'm told that they include ex-chiefs of the Mossad and intelligence agencies. Can you think of any country where you know a chief of CIA or chief of SID or ISD going out in front of the prime minister's office and protesting? What does this tell you? These are people who have deeply invested in the success of the country, and the very existence of the country. And they feel strongly enough and worried enough to go out there and protest.

So, religion can be used as a great healer, it can also be used as a great divider. You know, politicians will find any possibility of whipping up fervour, using lines which can divide, and in many countries, religion can be used as a rallying cry, to bring your base together. But the process will be to divide the country. 

So, the real answer to your question is – yes, we will absorb lessons from other parts of the world, when our politicians become sensible. 

Chairman/MEI: Well, since I'm talking to a politician – sometimes, politicians can be sensible, but it is more about the process of politics. Sometimes, there's different imperatives.

Minister: Yeah, not sometimes. Singapore has been the exception. How long, is a separate question.

Chairman/MEI: Minister, I want to come back to the geopolitics. You talked a bit about the US. What is happening is sometimes described as a retreat by the US from the Middle East. I'm not sure that’s an entirely accurate way of describing what's happening. And when I look at what is happening in the last three, four years, I'm quite reminded about what happened in Southeast Asia counter-intuitively, 50 over years ago. 50 over years ago, the US made a dreadful mistake in Vietnam, mistaking a nationalist Civil War for a kind of global communist conspiracy, and it got bogged down in the war. Then it decided to cut its losses. And it moved from a posture of direct interventions to one of the offshore balancers. And actually, while people constantly raise questions about the reliability of the US, it has been remarkably consistent in that role of offshore balancer in East Asia generally, for half a century or more.

I have often been asked in my career at MFA – is the US reliable? And by Americans too, by the way. My answer has always been, of course you are not reliable, but you are indispensable. So, the question of reliability becomes moot. But I think something similar seems to be happening in the Middle East. After 9/11, the US intervened directly in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and endured the longest wars in American history, longer than the Vietnam War and longer than the Second World War as well, until President Joe Biden decided to cut the Gordian knot. There was no elegant way to do this. And this was sometimes described in the media, in fact, not just the media but some policy makers, not in Singapore, but in other places, as “a retreat”. But as you said, the 5th Fleet is still there, the US Airforce is still in the UAE and Qatar. And from time to time, the US has demonstrated that it doesn't have to be there. It can reach out and neutralise – to use a politer term – individuals or threats that it considers worth the mark. However, this is a new role. This is a new US for the Middle East. I think you're right, they still know that – 

Minister: Indispensable to the Middle East. 

Chairman/MEI: But the dynamics of dealing with the offshore balancer are somewhat different from dealing with a power that’s prepared to intervene directly on your side. I think they are learning. It is quite clear that the UAE and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States have begun to adapt. But we in Southeast Asia have been doing this, have been adapting to this, have adapted to this, for about half a century. Do you think there is anything we can cross fertilise in this respect? Because we also have a deep interest in stability in the Gulf.

Minister: I will put it this way. I spoke earlier about the agency that the countries in the Middle East have. And you know, I think they increasingly recognise that they have that agency. And if you look at Southeast Asia and East Asia, they have different sorts of multilateral arrangements that have helped. I think the fundamental point was still that the US and its 7th Fleet provided an anchor of stability in the region, albeit as an offshore balancer, but with the clear presence in South Korea, Japan and other parts of Asia, and then in Southeast Asia as offshore balancer, treaty allies, at least one.

We have ASEAN. Whatever people may say about ASEAN – and a lot of people do – I think it has helped give a platform for the countries in this region to manage themselves, talk about issues, and give a platform for the bigger powers to come and deal with us. And the Gulf countries of the GCC, I think the GCC has the potential to play that role. You know, it's not for us to go and give advice to other regions, different cultures, different histories, but then those sorts of multilateral arrangements are useful. Having said that, we have developed, in the last 50 years – I would say, after the Vietnamese war – relatively away from the international spotlight because the international spotlight was in the Middle East. And this place grew sort of away from the glare, but grew economically very strongly. All the countries of Southeast Asia, together with South Korea and Japan, prospered to become among the better developing countries amongst those which were in the Third World. 

The Middle East has countries which are rich, but the economies haven't yet developed in a sufficiently strong way beyond reliance on fossil fuels, and I spoke about it a bit earlier. So, they need to do that. They need to get their economies right. And, I think their challenges are greater. You’ve got challenges in Egypt – large population, relatively poorer. Even Israel has challenges. And you have challenges which are deepset – starting from Syria, Iraq, Iran. Iran in Saudi Arabia, they've signed a deal, but what does it really mean? There is a continuing question of the leadership of the Islamic world. There is a continuing question on the Iranian Revolution, taking its inspiration from being anti-monarchist. How does that go with the rest of the Gulf states? So, there are some deep-seated issues which haven't been dealt with, and I don't see easy solutions. Iranian support for non-state actors which are intent on overthrowing existing governments. How do you square that off? 

And, you know, we’ve talked about the US. I think the last 20 odd years, when you look back, haven't been the best illustration of what US power can be, in the way Iraq was dealt with. With hindsight, you look at the evidence that there was, you look at the reasons why they had to go in. MM Lee Kuan Yew used to say that the difference between the Brits and the Americans was this – the British look at you, and they say they are superior, and you can never be like them. So, it's okay, you try your best, and you do what you can. Whereas the Americans sincerely believe that you can be like them, and they can make other countries like America. So they go to Iraq, and they think that they topple Saddam Hussein, and within a few years, the country will have democracy and Congress, that it will be like America. If you look at the records that are being released, the memoirs that are being written, you see what really went on, and the serious miscalculations that took place, which perhaps have left the Middle East a more difficult place. And you can understand that leadership in various countries say, using your words: “You are indispensable, but you're not as reliable, and I don't know what will happen. So, I have to start hedging my bets.” I think that process will continue.

If I were to take a view on their success, I would say they are starting from having a fair bit of money. They're starting with that, and there's a possibility that if they can keep social peace, they can develop their economies, and that's the real answer to stability. 

Chairman/MEI: Thank you. I come back to the US and its penchant for intervening. There's a deep contrast between how George H W Bush dealt with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and how his son dealt with Iraq. The Americans expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait almost effortlessly, with very few casualties from their side. But as a deliberate policy choice, they stopped short of trying to get regime change.

Minister: Even though Saddam was killing the Kurds, and the human rights – 

Chairman/MEI: He stopped short, and I think that was a very wise move. Because, by removing Saddam Hussein – I mean, he is not a nice guy, I think we can all agree on that, and he was terrible to his own people, but – he was a certain bulwark of stability of a certain kind. Without him, there was a fundamental instability in the Middle East which continues to this day. Do you think that this fundamental instability that was caused by destroying – admittedly a very bad regime, but a bulwark of stability – can be restored in any way, by the states of the Gulf or by outside powers? Whether the United States has learnt some lessons, or China, or even Russia?

Minister: I think the answer has to be, in the short-term, pessimistic, because the US feels that it has lost a lot of blood and treasure. It has. And I don’t think any US President right now would want to wade back in, in any significant way. China knows that this is not something that China can do by itself, and I don’t think China wants the obligations of being the ‘global policeman’. Russia, right now, I think has got other problems on its hands. Whereas, Europe – I think Europe is very powerful economically – it is trying to develop a coherent and effective foreign policy. If Europe puts its mind to it, it can, but I don’t see Europe immediately as being a very effective actor in sorting out the Middle East. 

And who is left when you leave it to the Middle East itself? You have Syria on one side, deeply riven across sectarian lines. You have Lebanon. You have Iraq – with a Sunni minority and a Shia majority. And, you know the Shias and Saddam Hussein had been in control for so long, and now, the situation has changed, and external actors play actively in there. And you have Iran, which has its own set of priorities. So, you would call that an arc of instability. And then below that, you have somewhat more stable countries, but with a variety of social pressures, and a lot of issues that they need to deal with. I mean, Saudi Arabia is successful. It is stable, it is progressing, but it has a lot of issues internally to deal with it – changing the economy, making sure its young people get employed, and making sure its young people get educated. It is playing an increasingly important role in the region, but they all have issues domestically to deal with too. And today, I don't think any of those countries – and I think they recognise it – have the military power to project, to deal with situations, outside their borders, unless it's right next to them. And these are all factors that lead me to say – I think I don't see any immediate solutions to these issues.

Chairman/MEI: Thank you, Minister. I am slightly more optimistic, which is unusual for me. In the sense that, when I think back to what Southeast Asia was like – in the year Singapore became independent, 1965 – in some ways, it was far worse than the Middle East. There were far more divisions, and deeper divisions, between countries in Southeast Asia. And it was not for nothing that Southeast Asia – those of you who are my age, will remember – was called the Balkans of Asia. But look at us now. We have problems, but are not too badly off. So I think you're right, and this is the tenet that all small countries will think through, that even the smallest country, even in the most dire situations – has agency. 

We are running out of time, Minister, but I can't let you go without asking you to say something about Iran, which has made immense strides towards processing uranium to just below weapons grade. Do you think they can be deterred from taking the final step? And also, of course, while Palestine is no longer central to the concerns of the governments of the Gulf, it is certainly of concern to the people of the Gulf. Could you say something about Palestine before we have to wrap up?

Minister: You know our situation on Palestine – we have always supported firmly, a two-state solution. And we have never supported, at the same time, any resolution that questions Israel's right to exist. But within that framework, we have said there's got to be a two-state solution. The Palestine situation has dropped off the top-line, when you talk about the Abraham Accords, and when you talk about relationships between Israel and the other Arab states. But my own sense is that it's an issue that can certainly explode very quickly among the Arab Street. And I've made a couple of references to the Arab Street earlier, that the Arab leaders will have to make sure the Arab Street is regarded. Palestine is an issue that can be exploited by people to cause explosions and even attack Arab leadership. And I think Arab leadership will be very aware and wary of that issue. So, real security and peace, I think, can only come when a sensible and honourable solution is found for the Palestinian issue. 

And around the world, when you see women and children getting killed – and women and children are getting killed on both sides, both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side – but every time you see women and children getting killed, you are going to have passions inflamed. You are going to see anger. You are going to see attacks. And often Israel bears the brunt of the negative public opinion in such situations. You know, whether it is misimpressions being created, or whether it is disproportionate, or whether it is propaganda. The question is, what is the bottom-line impact? The bottom-line impact is, for many people – for people of your vintage and my vintage, when Israel was a shining star, a beacon of hope, a country that was the underdog – today, many in the middle ground, would be tempted to see Israel as being aggressive or overly aggressive. That's unfortunate for Israel, I think. The Palestinian situation – Israel did try to resolve it. You know, there are many actors who have to take responsibility for the issue not being resolved, including an assassination in Israel, but the situation is as it is. I worry about the Palestine situation. 

As for the broader question of Iran, I think, for Iran, it appears, looking at it, the instability around the region has given Iran a fair degree of agency including in Iraq, Lebanon, and in Syria. It has its fighters and proxy armies, and it's gotten greater agency, ironically, as a result of the American intervention in Iraq. And I don't see that immediately changing. So again, I'm a little bit more pessimistic, but as with all things, I wish them the best and I hope for the best.

Chairman/MEI: Thank you, Minister. You're very generous with your time and I have been given very strict instructions by Michelle to stop at 10.15am. And it is exactly 10.15am. 

So, thank you, and I hope you all join me in thanking the Minister.