Leaders’ Retreat in Singapore: Yingluck Returning to the City State
Yingluck’s visit to Singapore, December 2011.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will pay a two-day visit to Singapore from 26-27 November, the first overseas trip following the Constitutional Court’s ruling which could have led to the dissolution of her party, the Pheu Thai. The Court accused her government of acting against the constitution when it tried to make the upper house of the Parliament directly elected rather than partly appointed. But Yingluck’s government somehow survives.
Yingluck has been invited by the Singaporean government to attend the Leaders’ Retreat; the last one was held in 2005, one year before the Thai military coup. She already paid a trip to Singapore in December 2011, soon after becoming prime minister. But this trip will surely further strengthen Thai-Singaporean relationship.
Before the arrival of Yingluck, bilateral ties were held hostage by Thailand’s protracted crisis which saw the traditional elite employing different tactics to eliminate former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, including condemning his relationship with the city state. Thaksin is brother of Yingluck.
Yingluck will hold talk with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and perhaps paying a courtesy call on Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Talking points may include ways to strengthen existing bilateral mechanisms—the Civil Service Exchange Programme (CSEP) and Singapore-Thailand Enhanced Economic Relationship (STEER)—and how the two countries can work together to enhance ASEAN and to fulfil their commitments toward the ASEAN Community in 2015.
These talking points might be predictable. But it would be wrong to assume that Yingluck’s Singapore tour could end up without any real substance. Although bilateral relations have improved greater under her leadership, Yingluck has an important mission to consolidate the connection with the Singapore leadership, and more than anything, to erase any remaining misunderstanding as a result of the Shin Corp-Temasek deal in January 2006.
In retrospect, bilateral relations were strong even prior to the Thaksin era which began in 2001 due to the two countries’ active historical interactions. King Chulalongkorn travelled to Singapore, Britain’s colony, for the first time in 1871. He was the first Thai monarch ever to travel overseas, and Singapore was his first stop. Thailand and Singapore have cooperated closely in various fields, especially militarily, such as in the joint air training (an air training base has been provided for Singapore in Thailand) and the annual Cobra Gold military exercise.
On the economic front, Singapore ranks among Thailand’s top five trading partners, and its top ten foreign investors. There are over 50,000 Thai workers who are now employed in
Singapore. The two countries also worked closely in ASEAN. Thaksin and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in 2003, came up with the “2+X principle” whereby two ASEAN members could embark on cooperative initiatives at a pace faster than the rest without having to wait for the group’s consensus. Thailand under Thaksin enjoyed amicable relations with Singapore in all areas of cooperation.
But this close friendship was thrown into jeopardy following the sale of Thaksin’s Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings. Thaksin scooped Bt73.3 billion without paying capital gains tax. He thus became a political target of the anti-government protesters led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). They accused him of selling national assets to foreigners since Shin Corp dealt with telecommunications, deemed as a sensitive industry to national security.
Since the Shin-Temasek sale, Thai-Singaporean relations quickly drifted toward frigidity. PAD nationalists launched the image of the “ugly Singaporean” primarily to further delegitimise Thaksin and to tarnish the reputation of Singapore in the eyes of the Thai public. In March 2006, the anti-Thaksin movement staged a rally in front of Singapore’s embassy in Bangkok where demonstrators burnt posters of Prime Minister Lee, torched models of Singapore Airlines planes and its “Merlion” national mascot, as well as raised the banner “Thailand Not For Sale”.
Such frigidity finally led to the official suspension of core bilateral activities, including the CSEP and the STEER, following the deposed Thaksin’s visit to Singapore on January 12-16 2007, four months after he was overthrown in a coup. Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar hosted Thaksin to a private dinner since they both were long-time friends. The military-installed Surayud Chulanont government protested to Singapore’s government for ignoring Thailand’s earlier request of embargoing Thaksin’s call on Jayakumar.
While in Singapore, Thaksin gave a series of interviews to foreign media, criticising the Surayud government. Then Foreign Minister George Yeo subsequently replied to questions in Parliament, stating that there was no reason for Singapore to deny Thaksin’s entry into the country since he had a valid passport and (at the time) not a fugitive from Thai law.
Thailand’s military government decided to cancel the 8th CSEP Meeting, due on January 29-31, 2007, suspend all CSEP activities and relinquish Yeo’s invitation for the planned meeting. Despite the earlier strong bilateral foundation, Thai-Singaporean relations became a casualty in the game of internal politics in Thailand. Anti-Thaksin forces were willing to get rid of their enemy even at the expense of Thailand’s relations with neighbouring countries.
Yingluck’s visit to Singapore will therefore be politically meaningful. So far, Yingluck has made it clear that she will not allow her opponents to politicise Thailand’s foreign policy issue again. Her rapprochement with Cambodia was commendable as it would help bring peace to the region. Now, better ties between Thailand and Singapore are also needed as a significant part in the rebuilding of ASEAN solidarity.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.