Relevant, Active and Constructive: Singapore’s Small State Diplomacy

Singapore is quickly becoming one of the top nation-states for ‘smart city’ initiatives and sustainable development practices. It is also a champion for small states in the international arena. However, Singapore faces many of the same challenges as its Asia-Pacific neighbors, including threats from climate change, lack of natural resources, and reliance upon larger states to act on support for transnational issues. To examine Singapore’s perspective on diplomacy in the Pacific, Genevieve Neilson, Pacific Island Security Scholar, interviews Singapore’s non-resident Ambassador to Fiji and the Pacific Islands Forum, Verghese Mathews.

What are your responsibilities as non-resident Ambassador to the Pacific Islands Forum?

As Non-Resident Ambassador to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), my role is to represent Singapore’s interests vis-à-vis the Pacific and, just as importantly, also to enhance existing ties between Singapore and the Pacific Island States. Essentially, I am like a contractor building more bridges between governments, institutions, businesses and peoples. I hope to create a network of friends in Singapore for the Pacific and in the Pacific for Singapore and in the process raise awareness of each others’ strengths and vulnerabilities and the opportunities available in each others’ territories.

My other diplomatic colleagues and I represent Singapore’s broader engagement of plurilateral and multilateral processes, which are imperative for small states like Singapore. Like the Pacific Island States, Singapore has many inherent vulnerabilities due to its size, its serious lack of natural resources, and its limited land mass. As a low-lying island state we, too, are vulnerable to rising sea-levels. Likewise, it is undoubtedly a struggle for small states like Singapore and the Pacific to make themselves heard on the international stage, but working together allows us to amplify our voices. In addition, small island states generally understand the challenges that each faces at a fundamental level, which enables them to better explore solutions that are mutually beneficial. This is a key reason why Singapore established the Forum of Small States (FOSS) at the United Nations.

What are some of the differences between Singapore’s approach to engagement with a multilateral forum like the Pacific Islands Forum compared to bilateral engagement with Pacific island states?

Bilateral and multilateral engagement ultimately serve a similar purpose, which is to promote a country’s interests internationally. As a small country, Singapore’s foreign policy is centred on cultivating as many friends as possible while preserving its sovereignty and independence.

Bilateral engagement focuses on promoting good relations between two countries, through dialogue, cooperation, mutual respect etc. It tends to cover issues that are particular to that relationship. For example, if both countries share a resource such as water from a common source, they need to cooperate to ensure that both are able to access that resource in a mutually beneficial manner. In the case of Singapore’s bilateral relationships with the Pacific Island States, one of the ways that Singapore works with these countries is through the provision of technical assistance. Singapore shares similar challenges to those faced by the Pacific Island States, and has had first-hand experience in addressing such issues. Singapore can therefore work with a Pacific Island State such as Fiji, Kiribati, or Tonga, to identify areas of interest, such as transport planning or economic development, and provide technical assistance in such areas. To date, we have trained close to 5,000 officials from the Pacific Islands under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, a platform through which we share Singapore’s developmental experience.

However, there are issues that cannot be dealt with only bilaterally and have to be addressed at the broader level given their transnational nature; climate change, transnational crime, and infectious diseases are all examples of challenges that have far reaching effects and require a coordinated response across the globe. This is where multilateralism becomes essential. There is certainly an element of promoting good relations with other countries at multilateral fora. However the framework for multilateral engagement is somewhat different and there are generally many more stakeholders involved on any particular issue.

On a broader scale, Singapore uses international platforms such as the UN to voice its views and concerns on global affairs which impact its people or even promote issues that we feel will benefit the global community. One example of this is the “Sanitation for All” resolution, which Singapore tabled at the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly to draw greater attention from the international community to sanitation, public health and hygiene. Singapore is only a development partner of the Pacific Islands Forum, our role in the Forum is much smaller compared to that of its members. Nevertheless, it affords a space for Singapore to identify commonalities, exchange ideas and explore partnerships with our fellow small island states.

At the latest Pacific Islands Forum Minister’s Meeting in Suva, Fiji in August, attendees agreed that there needs to be a unified Pacific voice at international gatherings. As a small state in ASEAN and APEC, how does Singapore attract international attention and build coalitions around common foreign policy interests in the Asia-Pacific?

Fundamentally, Singapore can only attract international attention as long as we remain relevant, active and constructive. If we are not able to adapt, survive and prosper as an independent and sovereign nation, other countries would quickly lose interest in us. When it comes to building coalitions around common foreign policy interests, it is essential to be constructive, seek common cause, and provide solutions, even where it concerns an issue in which Singapore has no personal interest. One way in which Singapore seeks to make common cause is through our establishment of the Global Governance Group (3G), an informal coalition of 30 small and medium sized states that exchanges views on global governance and financial rules and IMF/World Bank economic policies. The 3G provides input to the G20 to helps make the G20 a more inclusive and representative grouping. It is also important for Singapore to remain engaged in the international system to uphold international norms and practices, including on matters such as the rule of law and freedom of navigation.

Getting a group of countries to come to a consensus is difficult where they have different national interests and priorities. The challenge is in identifying common purposes and benefits, which are often determined by circumstances and factors beyond our control. To do this, we must be able to understand other countries’ concerns and persuade them to appreciate our ideas from their point of view. If we are able to convince others that they will benefit from a certain course of action, this will effectively align our interests and contribute towards building consensus. Take ASEAN, which is comprised of 10 member states of different sizes, demographics, levels of development, geostrategic circumstances and histories. Despite our differences, in 2015 the ASEAN Member States came together to form the ASEAN Community, to catalyse deeper integration within the region in the economic, social and cultural spheres. Of course, there are issues on which the ASEAN Member States have different positions, however there is ultimately a broad consensus among the ASEAN Member States that we have a common interest in closer integration and cooperation. By doing so, we are able to collectively face global uncertainties and complexities, and maintain stability for growth.

As a small island state in the Asia-Pacific, Singapore faces common geographical challenges to its Pacific island neighbors in the region. Yet, study done by Carbon Brief showed that between 2000 and 2014, Singapore achieved the largest emissions reduction in percentage terms and carbon intensity (the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP). How has Singapore sought to counter its natural resource constraints and the impacts of climate change while still growing its economy?

Enhancing energy efficiency has been and will continue to be a core strategy for Singapore’s mitigation efforts, given our limited access to alternative energy options. Our small size presents real difficulties in pursuing alternative energy options such as nuclear, hydro-electric, wind or geothermal power. Harnessing solar energy in a significant way is also a challenge due to competing uses for limited land and rooftop space, and intermittency issues. We made early policy choices to switch from fuel oil to natural gas, the cleanest form of fossil fuel, for electricity generation. Today, around 95% of electricity is generated from natural gas. Singapore also prices energy at market cost, without any subsidy, to reflect resource scarcity and promote judicious usage.

We will continue to encourage the adoption of more efficient power generation technologies, and encourage the use of more energy efficient industrial equipment, buildings, transportation, and household appliances. We are also working to enhance energy efficiency in the industry sector, which contributes to the bulk of our emissions.

We will also continue to invest in R&D to develop low-carbon technologies which can address our climate and sustainability challenges, and create solutions that can also be applied abroad. S$900 million will be invested from 2016 to 2020 to tackle Singapore’s energy, water, land, and liveability challenges. We have embarked on an energy storage programme, and are also test-bedding floating solar PV panels on our reservoirs, which will help to overcome some of the challenges of solar deployment in Singapore.

Singapore will harness green growth opportunities to develop and test-bed various innovative solutions in the areas of clean energy, energy efficiency, green buildings, and clean transportation. For example, our nationwide electric vehicle car-sharing programme, which will see the deployment of 1,000 electric vehicles and installation of 2,000 charging points, serves as a “living lab” platform to attract new players to develop, test and commercialise innovative urban solutions in Singapore before scaling up for the region.

With the National Climate Change Secretariat established under the Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore is taking a whole-of-nation approach to developing and implementing domestic and international policies and strategies to tackle climate change. Where do you see the international aspects of Singapore’s climate change efforts focused in the near future?

Singapore supports the multilateral rules-based process under the UNFCCC. We will continue to contribute proactively to international efforts to address climate change. Singapore ratified the Paris Agreement at the High-level Event on Entry into Force of the Agreement, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 21 September 2016. This is further affirmation of our support and commitment for climate action. We also acknowledge the contributions from other sectors towards the global action to address climate change, for example from the international aviation sector. Singapore has volunteered to participate in the pilot phase of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) under ICAO.

Singapore works closely with other countries and institutions to tackle climate change. We regularly share our experiences, best practices and technical knowledge on climate change and green growth issues with other countries at international conferences and technical cooperation programmes. For example, Singapore hosts the biennial World Cities Summit, Clean Enviro Summit, Singapore Green Building Week, the Singapore International Water Week and the Singapore International Energy Week. These platforms gather policy makers, practitioners and stakeholders in city planning, water and energy management to examine urban challenges, identify shared solutions and share best practices. Under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, we have trained almost 11,000 developing country officials on clean energy, emissions reductions and broader sustainability and environmental issues. We will deepen such contributions to help fellow developing countries implement the Paris Agreement.

We will continue to collaborate with international research hubs to push the envelope in several low-carbon scientific and engineering disciplines, and leverage Singapore as a test-bedding hub for innovative solutions. Some international research and innovation hubs in Singapore include the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), and the Cambridge Centre for Carbon Reduction in Chemical Technology (C4T).


Varghese Mathews

Verghese Mathews is Singapore’s High Commissioner to the Republic of Fiji and concurrently Ambassador to the Pacific Islands Forum, resident in Singapore. He is a Senior Fellow at the MFA Diplomatic Academy, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Member of the Advisory Board of the International Business Chamber of Cambodia, and a Member of the Malawi Advisory Committee on Economics. Mr. Mathews joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May 1969.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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Improving K-5 Education on the Big Island – Kimberly Castro

Kimberly Castro is the President of the Parent, Teacher, and Student Association (PTSA) of Waikoloa in Waikoloa, Hawaii.

Could you provide a snapshot of K-5 education in Hawaii, in general, and on the Big Island specifically?

Like many schools on the mainland, Hawaii has implemented Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics using a state adopted curriculum called Wonders and Stepping Stones Math. Students are monitored regularly for progress using STAR Universal screener, as well as annual Smarter Balance Assessments beginning in 3rd grade. Teachers are rated annually using the Effective Educator System which encourages highly qualified teachers in all classrooms.

On the Big Island, we have an ethnically and culturally diverse population. So, our teachers are trained to utilize a variety of strategies to best meet all students’ needs. Almost 15% of our students at the Waikoloa Elementary & Middle School are classified as English-Language Learners. These are students who are unable to communicate and fluently learn in English. 10% of our students are currently classified as Special Education. And another 9% were formerly classified as Special Education and are monitored. To help teachers reach ALL students, our administration therefore requires all teachers to take Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) training, which gives them techniques to use in the classroom to communicate effectively to students with English language barriers. Elementary grade level teacher data teams also meet weekly to assess data and implement intervention strategies to close the achievement gap.

There is a reported shortage of teachers statewide. Why? How does this shortage affect the Big Island verses Oahu?

There are many significant obstacles that affect teacher shortages in Hawaii. The school districts in our state serve 180,000 students at 290 schools. And, Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) will need to fill 1000 teacher vacancies for the 2016-17 school year across the state. Our Hawaii Island will have 82 of those vacancies of which 39 are specialized education. There are a limited number of Special Education (SPED) teachers nationwide. How do we recruit those specialized teachers to our island? Where do we even begin?

First, let’s get right to a major issue and discuss the average teacher’s salary. A first year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree and a Hawaii teaching license will have a beginning salary of $46,601. Let’s combine that knowledge with the fact that Hawaii is the priciest state in the nation to buy a home. Throw in salary, cost of living, home prices, electricity, food, gas, and the mix of culture shock plus thousands of miles of ocean between our teachers and their families, and this sets our teachers up for short longevity in their Hawaii teaching careers.

Unfortunately, our local college teacher education programs aren’t able to produce enough graduates for our needs in Hawaii. The remote islands, specifically our Big Island, feels the strain of this shortage more than Oahu. A few years ago our HIDOE was offering $6000 sign-on bonuses for teachers to work on the Big Island, specifically Kau, Keaau, Pahoa areas. These were considered low-performing / high poverty schools.

At Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School our Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA) has chosen to focus on the positive. We know that retention is the key. There is hope. Every teacher matters. We celebrate the amazing and dedicated teachers every day and just had a special week-long celebration May 2-6 for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Overall, what is the state of the facilities? What are there major challenges across the state? And, are there any unique challenges that you face on the Big Island?

While the average age of most school buildings on Hawaii are 65 years old, Waikoloa boasts fairly new facilities, recently celebrating our 20 year anniversary. There have been several expansions over the past 20 years to include adding a Middle School so that we could service K-8 students. Our challenge is adding classroom space quickly enough to meet the growing community needs.

Since we are a single-district jurisdiction, with offices headquartered on Oahu, it can be difficult to get our needs in front of the HIDOE where monthly meetings are held. We are still bursting at the seams. But, a recent letter writing campaign to our Senators and Congressional Representatives, spearheaded by the Waikoloa SCC (School Community Council) and supported by the PTSA, have culminated in an $11M award to expand our Middle School buildings to include two state of the art science classrooms, an art classroom, and other rooms and offices, to be completed during 2017-18 school year. So, even though we are challenged by being “remote,” we know that we can have a voice when we work together toward a common goal.

Air conditioning seems to be a major problem in elementary schools across the state. Is it a problem at your school? How does the lack of air conditioning affect students, and most importantly, does it undermine their test scores?

The heat abatement issue is certainly a ‘hot’ topic across the state. So much so that Gov. David Ige signed a bill last week that would allocate 100 million to cool Hawaii’s public schools. Unfortunately that money can only go so far. The estimated cost for all Hawaii public schools to have complete AC systems is 1.7 billion. 33 schools have been targeted as high priority to decrease classroom temps to 76 degrees. Of the 11,806 public school classrooms, only 38% currently have AC in place.

In the summer months classroom temperatures can reach highs of 84 to 100 degrees. These conditions can cause nausea, vomiting, heat exhaustion, muscle aches and dehydration for students and teachers. Higher temperatures can also influence neurotransmitters in the brain affecting serotonin levels which can lead to aggressive behavior. Heat definitely undermines test scores with solid proof that the brain does not function well in hot weather. Heat significantly impacts cognition and causes lower intellectual skills. Studies show that optimal learning temperatures are 68-74 degrees, with performance in Math and Reading compromised when the learning environment rose above 74 degrees.

At Waikoloa School, only 14 of our 41 classrooms have AC and currently we are not on the priority list set by the HIDOE. The Waikoloa School PTSA has started a ‘Cool Our Keiki’ program to address the heat abatement challenges at our school. The biggest expense we face is upgrading the electrical infrastructure that is needed to avoid blown circuits or potential fire hazards. It is our hope that with fundraising, grants and donations we can get AC into several more classrooms by the end of this calendar year.

Structured and unstructured play is an important part of K-5 education. How are the physical education and recess resources at your school? What improvements are needed?

Hawaii mandates 30 minutes of Physical Education (PE) per week in grades K-6, and requires recess daily. All required PE classes follow the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards. Our students have one PE class per week. As with most schools the PE equipment has been well-loved and the supplies dwindle as the school year comes to a close. There’s no gymnasium location for PE and all the classes are held outside. Fortunately, it rarely rains in Waikoloa.

Right now, our biggest problem is that our playgrounds desperately need updating. Wood chips, steel rebar, and children at play do not make a safe combination. I’ve been told that removing splinters is a daily routine for our health aid. Our PTSA has been working closely with our principal and Monica Kaui Baron from the HIDOE to come to an agreement to update our Kindergarten playground. Cost is an issue and we’re actively fundraising (have been for years) to make this dream a reality. The HIDOE has now informed us that we need to trim another $10,000 off the quote that we obtained if we want the playground updated.


Kimberly Castro is the President of the Parent, Teacher, and Student Association (PTSA) of Waikoloa.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: rosasay via Flickr CC