The summit scheduled for 12 June 2018 in Singapore between the leaders of two nuclear states – U.S and North Korea – that have hostile relations since the Cold War has seized the headlines. The recent Shangri La Dialogue covered North Korea as one of the most pressing issues. International media has described the summit as the greatest show on earth. Singaporean leaders have explained that the summit first attests to Singapore’s diplomatic credentials as an honest moderator of international affairs, and second contributes to world peace. However, do these reasons really resonate well with the average citizen? How would the average Singaporean benefit from diplomatic endeavours that seek to improve international relations and pursue world peace.
Not Bread and Butter Issue
Unlike the National Day (NDP) celebrations or international large-scale business and entertainment events, the summit may seem quite irrelevant to the average Singaporeans and hence they may share several thoughts in their minds. First, why would they need to put up with the inconveniences of security checks, traffic delays and possible disruption to businesses? Second, why the government is expending taxpayer monies for an event, which outwardly is not a socioeconomic concern to them? Third, why the government agreed to host a high security risk event when Singapore already has to deal with terrorism?
To speak in the language of average person, community leaders and educators could be of help to explain the relevance of the summit. This would need more than the usual rhetoric of Singapore being one of the best destinations for international large-scale events and a responsible member of the international community that could punch above its weight.
Beyond the potential gains to the country’s economy and international standing, average Singaporeans should be informed how the summit would benefit them today and their children in the future. Three themes may help to explain the summit’s relevance.
(1) Keeping out External Threats
While Singapore has enjoyed decades of peace, Singaporeans may recall how their forefathers suffered during World War 2 and went through the tumultuous early independence days. The lack of world peace and regional instability brought in threats from overseas that undermine the Singaporeans’ safety, economy and way of life during these periods.
The desire for world peace may seem naïve given that human history has one significant constant – war and conflict. However, as the adage goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. World War 2 had proven how conflicts might not only imperil the immediate region of the warring countries but also spread to or project instability to other regions. The conflict between Japan and China in the late 1930s eventually grew into a large war in the Asia Pacific in early 1940s, dragging Southeast Asia and Singapore into the frontlines.
The world today is even smaller with global connectivity and technology, which make geographical distances and borders less effective in keeping out threats. For example, the Korean peninsula may not be near Singapore but progress in North Korea’s ballistic missile tests can place Southeast Asia within firing range especially when tensions run high.
The key point here is that a strong defence would also require Singapore to do its part to ensure that conflicts elsewhere do not spread and affect its Singaporeans in any way both today and tomorrow.
(2) Today’s Conflicts are Different
While the likelihood of a major war may seem lower today, it is important to understand that differences in the political beliefs and national interests of countries remains although they may change over time. Hence, conflicts would continue to exist and when they escalate, the parties involved may fight battles but using a mix of different means – hybrid warfare. Three examples are worth noting.
First, Malaysia came twice into foreign conflicts when suspected pro-Russian forces shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) near the restive Ukraine-Russia border and when suspected North Korean operatives conducted the assassination of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur airport, which is like a page out of spy novels.
Second, the use of toxins to assassinate a former Russian officer in Salisbury, England also posed danger to British police officers responding to the incident and average citizens living in that neighbourhood.
Third, the ‘WannaCry’ cyberattack in May 2017 that affected computers globally and including in Singapore reportedly had a suspected North Korean link. The cyberattack particularly has serious implications to Singaporeans given that their daily lives is becoming more digitalised as Singapore becomes a Smart Nation.
The key point here is that hybrid warfare tactics such as proxy wars, subterfuge, cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns can threaten lives, livelihoods and destabilise societies including in countries – including Singapore – that may not be party to the conflicts.
(3) Dangers of Online Falsehoods
While there may be no obvious sign of disinformation campaigns threatening to undermine the Trump-Kim summit, there have been chatter on social media that can potentially divide Singaporeans, and drive a wedge between Singaporeans and their leaders. One issue is over the use of taxpayer monies and specifically on how Singapore use them to host foreign dignitaries at the Trump-Kim summit while the Malaysia share them with its average citizens by screening the World Cup for free.
Such chatter may be possible online attempts of falsehoods that either mischievously or unwittingly spin Singapore’s role in the Trump-Kim summit with other domestic issues. These attempts actually matter to Singaporeans although they create tenuous links between unrelated issues.
The key point here is that falsehoods by nature can potentially obfuscate issues with the effect of undermining society by swaying the emotions of Singaporeans towards anger and hate.
What Next After the Summit?
Given the short notice Singapore has to prepare for the Trump-Kim summit, it is realistically a challenge to reach out to all average Singaporeans to sufficiently explain these themes and rally more of their support for the summit. Two initiatives however may be more achievable.
In the weeks of and immediately after the summit, community leaders, educators and the media can highlight the efforts of the average Singaporeans and their colleagues – such as those in the security forces and hospitality sector. These are the professionals working hard to make the summit a success, grow the goodwill that Singapore has with the world, and keep Singaporeans safe.
Over the long term, the Trump-Kim summit can be a useful addition to lessons of history, social studies and national education that every Singaporean goes through in school. Specifically, lessons that examine the summit can help Singaporeans understand how the world and region that they reside in as well as the online space could affect them.
*Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
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