Skip to main content

Work In Progress

Education in Singapore’s Soft Power Strategy. Guest speaker Dr Danita Catherine Burke

26 April 2018

Work In Progress seminar series 18.04.2018

On the 18th of April the ISRU welcomed guest speaker Dr Danita Catherine Burke as part of our bi-weekly Work-In-Progress seminar series. Dr. Burke is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Politics, Philosophy and International Relations at Keele University and is currently a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellow at the Center for War Studies, Department of Political Science and Public Management, University of Southern Denmark. Dr. Burke has a PhD from the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University and her research interests include Arctic politics, non-governmental organisations, international politics and diplomacy. Dr. Burke presented her paper entitled ‘Education in Singapore’s Soft Power Strategy’, which is co-authored by Dr. Andre Saramago. Dr. Saramago is an Auxiliary Professor of International Relations at the Universidade Lusíada Porto and also holds a PhD in International Relations from the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. Dr. Saramago’s research interests are East Asian politics and political philosophy.

‘Education in Singapore’s Soft Power Strategy’ is an article which began as part of larger book project by Dr. Burke in which she explores the diplomatic practices of the Arctic Council and the daily challenges faced by those working on Arctic environmental protection and sustainable development in the forum. In this article Dr. Burke and Dr. Saramago look at the role of education in Singapore’s soft power strategy in international relations, drawing upon Joesph Nye’s conception of soft power: ‘the ability to influence the behaviour of others through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and politics’. 

Dr. Burke and Dr. Saramago apply the concept of soft power to their analysis of Singapore in order to argue that Singapore has been cultivating its soft power in international relations as part of its strategy to further its foreign policy interests. Singapore’s small state status allows it to more easily convey a non-threatening image while also being perceived as a model of successful development in the East Asia region. At the same time, Singapore is a global maritime hub with connections to more than 600 ports and more than 120 countries. It is also seen as a model of international development with a GDP per capita of more than $52,000 (almost double that of the state with the second highest GDP per capita in the region). Singapore’s education system is also considered to be world-class. Increasingly Singapore has been using its moral authority as a world class educator as a tool to cultivate soft power that acts as a means of ‘passive leverage’ to attract foreign actors to its sphere of influence and encourage them to be more open to Singaporean interests. 

Education is not only seen as a universal value but receiving foreign nationals in a state’s education system is an effective strategy of soft power because these individuals usually return home with a positive view of the county and greater appreciation of its values. This strategy functions particularly well should any of these former students end up in roles where they can affect policy decisions important to Singapore. Singapore’s Cooperation Program, established in 1992, has over 115,000 alumni representing 170 countries. This paper, however, looks at this same education soft power strategy in the context of the Arctic.

Since 2013, Singapore has been an observer in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation between the variety of state and non-state actors with regard to Arctic environmental protection and sustainable development issues and opportunities. Singapore’s strategic interest in Arctic politics is inherently linked to the way in which the changing landscape of the Arctic, caused mainly by climate change. Singapore is particularly concerned by the potential emergence of new shipping routes such as Russia’s Northern Sea Route and China’s interests in developing a Polar Silk Route across the North Pole and central Arctic Ocean. Singapore is concerned that the potential new routes could divert traffic from Singapore’s maritime hub and undermine its economy and is looking for means of becoming part of regional economic opportunities and decision-making. However, Singapore is not an Arctic state and has limited direct means of impacting regional development. 

As a means of becoming more involved in Arctic politics Singapore launched the Singapore-Arctic Council Permanent Participants Cooperation Package which is a program designed to offer free education opportunities for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic whom are represented by the six permanent participant organisations at the Arctic Council. Although this programme is in its infancy, one Permanent Participant representative has obtained a Master’s degree in Public Policy and several representatives have taken courses in the impact of climate change. Dr. Burke and Dr. Saramago suggest this education program targets the Permanent Participants because of their elevated status within the Arctic Council and the geopolitics of the Arctic makes them advantageous allies in Arctic politics. The advantage of developing closer relations with the Arctic’s indigenous peoples is couple with their need more for direct and in-kind forms of financial resources to participate in regional politics and their perceived moral legitimacy in Arctic politics. 

The ISRU agreed that this paper was a particularly interesting piece of research bridging the gap between environmental politics and international relations.