Performing Diplomacy: How a Newly Independent ‘Little Red Dot’ Managed Power, Impressions and Feelings on World Stage

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In 1965, when newly independent Singapore was attempting to assert its non-communist and multi-ethnic identity, Singapore faced two problems. First, the threat of revolutionary politics from the People’s Republic of China, a missionary communist state, as well as invocations of ethnic kinship and cultural affinity with the Chinese. Second, the ruling elites in Indonesia and Malaysia (Malay/Muslim-majority countries surrounding Singapore) viewed Singapore in the same manner as they viewed the colonial powers — that was with aversion to revolutionary politics (for an ethnic Chinese majority population may be interpreted as alignment with the People’s Republic of China or communism), and prejudice and discrimination towards ethnic-Chinese at home. Furthermore, the West muddled Singapore as a “Third China”. Given this, Singapore’s formative foreign policy practice towards the People’s Republic of China demanded adroit diplomatic impression management to project a Southeast Asian identity in spite of an ethnic Chinese majority population. This was a task crucial to newly independent Singapore’s survival as a sovereign state. Surrounded by larger Malay/Muslim-majority countries, Singapore was seen as a little red dot in a sea of green, as a Chinese nut in a Malay nutcracker. Singapore was perceived by its leaders as vulnerable and portraying a Southeast Asian identity was existential. 

The theory of “impression management” is drawn from the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who opined that social interaction makes self and makes society.[1] The image of self is known as “face”, which requires management via performance. Just like in Goffman’s metaphor where the world is a stage and one are performing actors before different audiences, diplomats as representatives of states have to perform their identities – through their appearance (clothes), props (symbols of state), and manner (embodied). This requires impression management. Impressions are developed to serve the ‘national interest’ through the various practices of speech (language, accent), manner (body language), appearance (clothes), and gestures of the state representatives. 

In Singapore’s case, the formative foreign policy challenge was to cultivate a distinct Southeast Asian persona. That was why Singapore established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China only after Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s most populous country and Singapore’s neighbour — established diplomatic ties with Beijing. This was despite Singapore already having supported the People’s Republic of China’s bid in the United Nations based on the one-China policy and having existing informal diplomatic and commercial relations with China. Practices of impression management were evident during Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1976, during which he took great effort to project an independent persona from China. In the ‘frontstage’, PM Lee spoke English in all official occasions and declined a gift – which was claimed to be a book on the Chinese version of the account of the 1962 Sino-Indian war – from Chinese Premier Hua Guofeng as Singapore has ethnic Indians as its citizens, and he stated that China’s support for communist insurgencies would hinder relations with Southeast Asian states. Lee was recounted as telling Hua, “This is your version of the war. There is another version, the Indian version. And in any case, I am from Southeast Asia — it’s nothing to do with us.”[2] Conventional wisdom would find it strange that a small country like Singapore would have dared to incur the wrath of the way bigger China by such a response — but that was how existential it was for Singapore to project a Southeast Asian identity, via adroit diplomatic impression management, in spite of an ethnic Chinese majority population. Behind the scenes, Singapore informed Jakarta about this planned visit to China — this ‘backstage’ action was also an ‘inspired revelation’ to Jakarta about military training in Taiwan code named ‘Project Starlight’. This impression management performance of a multicultural or Southeast Asian identity was designed to assert and affirm newly independent Singapore’s sovereign persona and to increase its prospects of survival.

Singapore diplomats also had to manage feelings to perform their role. A prominent case was during the Konfrontasi bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore, which led to the arrest, charging and execution of two Indonesian marines in Singapore.[3] That sparked protests in Jakarta and the executed marines were given a funeral at Heroes Cemetery in Indonesia. This incident led to a period of tense relations between Singapore and Indonesia. The executions were seen as a ‘personal slight’ to Indonesian President Suharto and a ‘humiliation’ to Indonesia, and they reinforced Singapore’s ‘anomalous’ persona in the region. Singapore had to manage the feelings of the Indonesians in order to resolve this animosity. The Singaporean Ambassador to Jakarta devised a ‘face-saving’ plan in the form of a first bilateral visit. Singaporean Minister Goh Keng Swee would visit Jakarta with an invitation from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yee. Indonesian President Suharto would then subvert the invitation with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee visiting Jakarta instead. Upon arrival in Jakarta, PM Lee would sprinkle flowers on the two marines’ grave. The gesture of sprinkling flowers carried cultural meanings and helped assuaged the resentment Indonesians felt towards Singapore.

While states do not have emotions, the human actors representing the states do. State actors orchestrate and translate official emotion through expressive and substantive gestures. States engage in emotional behavior to frame issues, transform their image and alter relationships.[4] A structure of expectations of appropriate behavior among states in Southeast Asia brought about a “moral grammar” of conflict and regional relations.[5] This ‘structure’ could be seen usually in the animosity arising from its violation— that is when states complain about perceived disrespect and violation to identity claims, for example when they invoke kin metaphors. Issues of ‘face’ and identity were intensified by the strongmen leadership dominant in Southeast Asia. Instances of violation to identity claims — such as hurt ‘feelings’ and ‘sensitivities’ — inform policy making ‘feeling’. Practices to manage feelings include (1) symbolic acts, (2) consulting and giving advance notice, (3) saving face or avoiding embarrassment. As illustrated above, Singaporean diplomats employed these practices to effectively manage impressions and feelings in the realm of international relations. 

International relations theories such as realism and constructivism do not account for such ‘stranger things’ in Singapore’s foreign policy practice such as managing impressions and feelings — which are motifs in Singapore’s formative foreign policy experience. In this article, I have demonstrated that adopting a (micro)sociological lens contributes to our understanding of Singapore’s foreign policy practice by providing a theoretical home for practices of diplomacy through demystifying abstract qualities of international relations. Applying Goffman’s theory of impression management to Singapore’s foreign policy practice allows us to engage with the actual practice, and not merely theorize in abstraction.


[1] Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. 

[2] Simon Tay, and Denyse Yeo. 23 March 2015. “All the world was his stage.” Today.

[3] Mohamed Effendy Abdul Hamid. “MacDonald House bomb explosion”. Singapore Infopedia.

[4] Todd Hall. 2015. Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[5] Jürgen Haacke. 2005. Michael Leifer and the Balance of Power. The Pacific Review 18 (1): 58-63.

Works Cited

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. 

Haacke, Jürgen. 2005. Michael Leifer and the Balance of Power. The Pacific Review 18 (1): 58-63.

Hall, Todd. 2015. Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Mohamed Effendy Abdul Hamid. “MacDonald House bomb explosion”. Singapore Infopedia.

Tay, Simon, and Denyse Yeo. 23 March 2015. “All the world was his stage.” Today.