The Tyranny of Geography – Part 2

Nuclear Neighbourliness, the ASEAN way.

Veteran Singaporean diplomat and Executive Deputy Chairman of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and former Secretary-General of ASEAN, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong provides his thoughts on ASEAN and Singaporean nuclear and energy concerns in Part Two of’s exclusive interview from Singapore International Energy Week, 2017

Nuclear and the ASEAN psyche

The ASEAN Charter enshrines non-interference in members’ domestic affairs, this is highlighted by the membership’s deafening silence regarding the ethnic cleansing occurring in Myanmar currently. However, in a region of high population density, ambitious economic and societal development and one which has traditionally proven highly politically volatile, ASEAN members minding their own business has a great degree of merit. Consideration of the upstream effects of one nation’s domestic policy on another nation’s well-being is something that all members remain mindful of, and with all such bilateral understanding, makes for a more stable and co-operative grouping of nations. There are limited exceptions to this policy of neighbourly respect - most recently Indonesia’s poor control over plantation fires and its “upstream” effects on neighbours Malaysia and Singapore – but the exceptions are few and far between.

In the case of nuclear, such bilateral consideration and respect takes on a very serious tone. For instance, consider a nuclear reactor being installed on Pulau Batam, a sovereign part of the Republic of Indonesia, would quite fairly raise serious debate in Singapore and therefore

Initiate a cross-ASEAN discussion, involving a number of sovereign interests.

“Your neighbour might take the plunge into nuclear power development and there is very little you can do to stop that sovereign political decision,” says Singapore’s former Secretary-General of ASEAN, and international relations specialist, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong. “This is the reason why we (Singaporean have regular meetings with regulators and why it is important that we have developed the ASEAN approach which is culturally concentrate on safety, security and safeguards in the case of nuclear.” The Ambassador’s point is that historically unstable region, neighbours, who have not always seen eye-to-eye, make upstream decisions that grossly affect the wellbeing of neighbours. The ASEAN community was after all built to mitigate through co-operation, communication and diplomacy, the negative impacts of neighbours’ upstream activities.

“Singapore can be a fantastic society and a country with great governance but when there is a huge fire in Sumatra, it makes no difference there is nothing we can do,” states Ong. “We can only manage, mitigate and work on technology to provide safety and security in [our own backyard].”

Ong argues that while making sure that as we secure the use of nuclear energy, we need to look at and develop other options – perhaps work to discovering new renewable forms of energy.

Tackle the immediate challenges in energy supply

“Human capability cannot be underestimated but right now we need to see what we can do to secure the current situation,” says Ong. As mentioned in Part One of this interview two weeks ago, Singapore shares a number of commonalities with the Korean experience, chiefly, it’s ‘isolated mentality’. Singapore is and island micronation, South Korean is for all intents and purposes also an island. “The Korean President was elected on ‘no nuclear power’/no reliance platform but at the moment can’t he afford [that platform]. [Korean geography] influenced voters on the issue of continuing with nuclear power.”

According to Ambassador Ong, the real nub of the nuclear debate transcends politics. It is simply a matter of pragmatics - whether viable and affordable alternatives exist. What he terms the “Tyranny of Geography” coupled with good (or bad) luck is the major factor in determining where nations may look for their energy futures. “Singapore is an island,” he says. “[We] have very little space for solar panel, no wind, no hydro. So, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the ideal for energy development?’”

“How do we tackle the immediate problems?” Ong asks rhetorically. His answer lies in ensuring that as we secure the use of nuclear energy. Policy-makers need to, at the same time, look at other options with a view to finding new renewable forms of energy. “Right now, we don’t have a grip on this issue.”

Is there a window for Singapore nuclear?

The Singapore leadership has stated very clearly the geography of the nation works against the development of a nuclear industry, even if politically there is an argument in favour of developing nuclear. At 720 square kilometres, the island is small and densely populated, Singapore ‘going nuclear’ looks unlikely. “Much as we hear talk in Indonesia and Malaysia regarding their nuclear development programmes, in the back of the minds of most policy-makers in both those countries is also the issue of safety and security and whether the public will accept this energy option.”

How Singapore react in this situation. Should Singapore lobby its neighbours and reinforce an argument for or against nuclear, or should Singapore continue to be practical about nuclear on its doorstep but not on its sovereignty and focus on the safety and security culture in the eventuality that there is acceptance by the people of Indonesia and Malaysia to move behind development of their own indigenous industries?

However, in the Asian way, nuclear is about mutual acceptance and discretion. “We are listening to neighbours and they are listening to us. Just as we follow the public opinion on the nuclear energy options in neighbouring countries, similarly we must pay heed to opinions regarding Singapore establishing a nuclear energy option.” It is vital says Ong for Singapore to observe what is happening regarding the public opinion in neighbouring countries because at the same time the expectation is that the nation’s neighbours will observe Singapore public opinion, and discuss at the leadership and regulator levels issues which have a downstream impact, whether that be nuclear power development or maritime security. Whether or not this occurs in reality is another thing, case in point being the recent multilateral spats regarding Sumatran haze that blanketed the Littoral States. “This is exactly what I am referring to when I speak of the tyranny of geography,” says Ong.

Ten years ago, the Ambassador reminds us, the option of an offshore “floating” nuclear power plant was not realistic because the technology was not available. Today, policy-makers, energy experts and commentators are reconsidering the idea of an offshore platform. Let’s not forget the capability of human ingenuity and the genius of technology. At the moment, however, Singapore together with its ASEAN must try to make the best of the energy situation.” In fact, the technology exist: a floating nuclear power plant is already under construction in Russia. On the one hand the region must continue to look to nuclear energy solution and continue the dialogue, but at the same time, in an emerging region with very little operational nuclear experience, “we don’t want to have a Fukushima undermining public confidence in this source of energy.”

Singapore’s energy self-reliance

While self-reliance is Singapore’s fundamental policy goal, the nation must always at least consider other options. “Can we work with our neighbours,” asks Ong. “Can we at the ASEAN-level develop an energy source using hydro or using other renewables and this is managed in a manner that is not influenced by politics while at the same time managing and discussing nuclear? The job of governing is to provide hope [that the nation] has options and I believe that is what the Singapore government is trying to do.”

Ong concludes that on the nuclear front, nations and neighbours have a sovereign right to develop their industries but at the same time much continue the dialogue. He says that we are witnessing in some intellectual circles a debate regarding nuclear power development in certain countries, and other countries that already possess nuclear power have to respond in a way that delivers mutual reassurance and respect. Given the tyranny of geography, this ‘mutual dance’ is critical to nation’s short- and medium-term energy security, and also its long-term energy self-reliance.