The summit will bring together the leaders of the 10 Asean countries and guests including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and US Vice-President Mike Pence, yet even so, it will not be the most high-profile event the city state has hosted this year.
This week, the republic played host to another gathering of the world elite – the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, fashioned by the American media company as an Asian rival of sorts to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.
Outside the world of politics and diplomacy, Singapore hogged the limelight in the showbiz world after the release of the Hollywood hit film Crazy Rich Asians , which was set in the city.
Such soft power coups have not gone unnoticed.
Asked about the subject at the Bloomberg forum, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong quipped that the events had not given his country “delusions of grandeur”. Crazy Rich Asians, the prime minister said to roars of laughter, “has nothing to do with us”. Said Lee: “We don’t live like that and I think it would be disastrous if Singaporeans were to get the idea that is the way we ought to live.”
Crazy Rich Asians aside, Singapore watchers say the big ticket events the city has hosted this year bolster the tiny country’s international relevance, but warn there may be pitfalls to its outsize global role too.
“We continue to show that small states have a key role to play in the global community at a time of political and economic uncertainty and disruption,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University and a long-time political observer.
The rich vein of PR opportunities for the city state in 2018 stands in contrast to the relatively poor diplomatic year it withstood in 2017.
It kicked off 2017 on the diplomatic back foot after Hong Kong seized nine of its armoured vehicles at the tail end of 2016. The vehicles were in transit from Taiwan following exercises on the self-ruled island.
The vehicles were subsequently returned, but relations with Beijing were frayed for months.
With the West, Singapore was dealt a blow after Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the behemoth trade pact of which Lee was a top proponent.
On top of that, another of Lee’s priorities – a trade deal with the European Union – hit a snag after an unfavourable court ruling.
This year, its fortunes seem to have turned.
Lee has recalibrated ties with Beijing, and on the trade front, a modified version of the TPP excluding the US is to enter into force in December.
The prime minister signed the Singapore-EU trade deal in October. Within Asean, Singapore used its role as the bloc’s chair this year to push for collaboration on cybersecurity and also helped forge a key agreement between China and member countries on a single text for future negotiations on the disputed South China Sea.
Ian Bremmer, the founder and president of the US political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told This Week in Asia that Singapore’s soft power achievements meant it was “comparatively better positioned” to face the fallout from the rising US-China rivalry.
The year ahead may not be plain sailing, however.
“With Singapore, you are talking about six million people, incredibly wealthy, enormous resilience, great infrastructure and technology … but it really needs globalisation to benefit in the best possible way,” Bremmer said.
With the world heading in “all likelihood towards a break between the US and China” on technology cooperation, Singaporeans were likely to suffer because the city’s “systems economically and technologically are going to be aligned with the West,” Bremmer said.
“It’s going to be very hard for [Singapore] in that environment to play that balancing role that it has historically,” he added.
Still, “the good news is that [Singapore] is not a threat to China … and has a large Chinese population, quite sophisticated, that understands China,” the celebrity political scientist said.
He added: “As a consequence [the] relationship with the Chinese is nuanced, [Singaporeans] are thoughtful and [they] have been useful to them.”
Tan, the Singaporean law professor, said Singapore should be aware of the downsides to the limelight.
“Soft power is best projected without having to draw attention to it,” Tan said.
“A downside of outsize soft power being projected is that it draws too much attention to Singapore and it may be perceived to be arrogant as well.
“Such over-exuberant projection may result in our intentions being misunderstood, especially when others seek to leverage on Singapore’s position and standing in the pursuit of their own foreign policy objectives.” ■