Singapore joins the United Nations

Singapore became the 117th member state of the United Nations (UN) on 21 September 1965. This was an important milestone for the country as membership in the UN conferred international recognition of Singapore as a sovereign and independent state. On the occasion, then Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam delivered a speech in which he identified a number of principles that continue to be the foundation of Singapore’s foreign policy today. Since joining the UN, Singapore has contributed to the global organisation by assuming leadership roles and participating in UN peacekeeping missions.

Becoming a UN member
Singapore officially applied to join the United Nations (UN) on 3 September 1965, less than a month after it separated from Malaysia on 9 August. The application was submitted via cable by then Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam to then UN Secretary-General U Thant.1 

Under the UN Charter at that time, a new member application had to be sponsored by at least two Security Council members, and would only be successful upon receiving the endorsement of the Security Council as well as a two-third majority vote in the General Assembly.2 When Singapore applied for UN membership, there were 11 members in the Security Council: five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union) and six non-permanent members (Malaysia, Jordan, Ivory Coast, Bolivia, Uruguay and the Netherlands).3

Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Jordan and Ivory Coast jointly sponsored Singapore’s UN application.4 Malaysia was the first UN member state to declare its sponsorship, fulfilling the pledge made by then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on 9 August 1965 to support Singapore’s admission to the UN. The pledge had been made simultaneously with Kuala Lumpur’s announcement that Singapore had left Malaysia to become an independent state.5 Malaysia’s then permanent UN representative, R. Ramani, visited Singapore on 20 August to hold discussions with Rajaratnam and other senior government officials on procedural matters relating to Singapore’s UN application. During the visit, Ramani assured Singapore that the Malaysian government would see Singapore’s UN application through and take the necessary measures to ensure that the application was processed promptly.6

On 20 September 1965, a resolution recommending that the General Assembly admit Singapore into the UN was put to a vote in the Security Council. A delegation led by Rajaratnam and then Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye attended the session.7 Singapore’s UN membership application met with no objections in the Security Council and received unanimous support in the General Assembly a day later. As a result, Singapore became the 117th UN member state on 21 September 1965.8

Foundation of Singapore’s foreign policy
In his speech thanking the General Assembly, Rajaratnam called Singapore’s admission a “momentous occasion” and its UN membership “an international endorsement of Singapore sovereignty and integrity”.9 He also outlined some guiding principles that were eventually incorporated into Singapore’s foreign policy. He said, “For [Singapore], the essentials of the [UN] Charter are the preservation of peace through collective security, promotion of economic development through mutual aid and the safeguarding of the inalienable right of every country to establish forms of government in accordance with the wishes of its own people.”10 

Rajaratnam stressed that Singapore valued peace and denounced war. The country viewed “world peace as a necessary condition for the political and economic survival of small countries like Singapore”. Therefore, it was “natural” for Singapore to adhere to the policy of “resolving differences between nations through peaceful negotiations, not by violent means”.11

Following Singapore’s admission into the UN, Rajaratnam and Toh embarked on a two-month diplomatic mission of goodwill. They visited four Asian countries, eight African nations, as well as Britain, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, to establish Singapore’s status as a fully independent, sovereign state and to forge ties for trade and cultural exchange.12

Singapore in the United Nations
Soft loans and technical assistance
During its initial decades in the UN, Singapore tapped on the many development programmes offered by various specialised agencies within the UN system to build up its economy and infrastructure. For instance, between 1963 and 1975, Singapore received nine soft loans from the World Bank. The loans were used for 14 projects.13 They included the financing of a deep sea terminal at the Port of Singapore, the construction of the Pasir Panjang “B” Power Station, the capitalisation of the Development Bank of Singapore, and the consolidation of college campuses into the National University of Singapore.14

Besides the World Bank, Singapore received technical assistance and expert advice from United Nations agencies under the United Nations Development Group, such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).15 Albert Winsemius (Dr), a Dutch economist, was one of the UN experts who helped Singapore.

In 1961, Winsemius led a UNDP mission to Singapore to assess Singapore’s potential for industrialisation. His advice led to the emergence of the industrial sector and the construction of the industrial estate of Jurong.16 Winsemius would later join the Singapore Government, serving as its chief economic adviser from 1961 to 1984.17 Another UN expert who was as instrumental as Winsemius was Tang I-Fang (Dr). A member of Winsemius’s mission, Tang played a major role in Singapore’s economic development programme, serving as chairman of the Economic Development Board of Singapore (EDB) from 1968 to 1972, and chairman of the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) from 1979 to 1986.

The Singapore Government also embarked on a project with urban planners and consultants from the UNDP to develop a new land use plan during the late 1960s. Known as the 1971 Concept Plan, it guided the physical development of Singapore and ensured the optimal use of limited land resources to meet the residential, economic and recreational needs of a growing population. The far-reaching impact of the Concept Plan can be seen in much of Singapore’s physical landscape today. These include the location of Changi Airport, the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system and the island’s extensive network of expressways.

Leadership roles
As a UN member, Singapore also took on leadership roles by presiding over many UN conferences. These included the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED or the Earth Summit) in 1992, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in 1996, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Diplomatic Conference in 2006.18 

One of the key conferences that Singapore presided over was the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1981 and 1982.19 In its capacity, Singapore played a pivotal role in negotiations, helping countries to reach a consensus on many contentious issues related to the governance of the sea, such as the breadths of the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the limits of the continental shelf, the exclusive economic zone, and transit passage.20 Prior to this, there was a state of legal chaos at sea, with countries often entering disputes over these issues.21

From 2001 to 2002, Singapore also served as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, a role that it served seriously and diligently.22 Despite being a small nation-state on the council, Singapore was an active partner. It intervened and contributed on issues concerning Singapore and the ASEAN region. For instance, Singapore successfully lobbied for the extension of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor despite strong resistance from one of the five Permanent Member states of the Council. In doing so, East Timor was given more time for its political situation to stabilise.23 

Peacekeeping missions
Besides taking on leadership roles in the UN, Singapore was involved in numerous UN peacekeeping missions. Since 1989, more than 1,500 personnel from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Singapore Police Force (SPF) have participated in at least 15 missions in countries such as Namibia, Cambodia, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Nepal, Ethiopia, East Timor and South Africa.24 

The SPF personnel who were deployed undertook duties that ranged from frontline policing, investigations, operations, training and staff work.25 SAF personnel, on the other hand, assumed a variety of roles including military observers, medical officers and election supervisors.26 Some SAF personnel also took on management positions in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Field Support (DFS) to assist the UN’s peacekeeping efforts.27

In 2015, Singapore and the UN signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to jointly develop an information management software that would enable the electronic submission of casualty data for UN personnel serving in all Peacekeeping and Special Political Missions to the UN Headquarters in New York.28 Known as the Notification of Casualties (NOTICAS), it would replace the previous manual submission process. With NOTICAS, the UN Headquarters could be notified with real-time information from the various peacekeeping missions worldwide.29

Lim Tin Seng

1. “Singapore Applies to Join UN,” Straits Times, 4 September 1965, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Singapore is Among UN ‘Gains’,” Straits Times, 13 September 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Members of the Security Council,” United Nations Security Council, last retrieved 10 May 2018.
4. “Unanimous UN ‘Yes’ for Singapore,” Straits Times, 22 September 1965, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Felix Abisheganadan, “Singapore is Out,” Straits Times, 10 August 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Singapore to Apply Direct to the UN,” Straits Times, 25 August 1965, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Dr. Toh in New York for U.N. Session,” Straits Times, 18 September 1965, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Singapore Becomes Member of UN,” Straits Times, 23 September 1965, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
9. United Nations. General Assembly, United Nations General Assembly Twentieth Session: 1332nd Plenary Meeting (Opening Meeting)Tuesday, 21 September 1965, at 3 p.m. New York (New York: United Nations, 1965), 12. (Call no. RCLOS 341.2322 UNI)
10. United Nations. General Assembly, United Nations General Assembly Twentieth Session, p. 12.
11. United Nations. General Assembly, United Nations General Assembly Twentieth Session, p. 12.
12. Soh Tiang Keng, “Raja Off to Project the World Image of Singapore,” Straits Times, 17 September 1965, 8; “Raja: Our Mission a Complete Success,” Straits Times, 18 November 1965, 22; “Dr. Toh’s Mission Is Back to a ‘Hero’s Welcome’,” Straits Times, 24 November 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Janamitra Devan, “Singapore’s Rise to Prosperity, and Its Evolving Relationship with the World Bank,” in Tommy Thong Bee, Chang Li Lin and Joanna Koh, eds., 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), 182. (Call no. RSING 341.2356957 FIF)
14. Devan, Singapore’s Rise to Prosperity,” 182.
15. Janamitra Devan, “Preface,” in Tommy Thong Bee, Chang Li Lin and Joanna Koh, eds., 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), x. (Call no. RSING 341.2356957 FIF)
16. Kees Tamboer, “Dr Albert Winsemius – Singapore’s Economic Engineer,” Straits Times, 23 September 1996, 34. (From NewspaperSG); T. J. S. George, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1984), 96–99. (Call no. RSING 959.57 GEO-[HIS])
17. Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2008), 269. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-HIS])
18. Devan, “Preface,” xi.
19. “Singapore Welcomes Enactment,” Business Times, 18 November 1994, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Tommy Koh, “Peace at Sea,” Straits Times, 3 June 2016, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Koh, “Peace at Sea.” 
22. “Establishing Our Place in the World,” Public Service Division, 2015. 
23. Public Service Division, “Establishing Our Place in the World.”
24. Singapore Armed Forces, “The SAF and UN Peace Operations,” in Tommy Thong Bee, Chang Li Lin and Joanna Koh, eds., 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), 244. (Call no. RSING 341.2356957 FIF); Singapore Police Force, (2015). “Policing in a Foreign Land,” in Tommy Thong Bee, Chang Li Lin and Joanna Koh, eds., 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), 251. (Call no. RSING 341.2356957 FIF)
25. Singapore Armed Forces, SAF and UN Peace Operations, 244; Singapore Police Force, “Policing in a Foreign Land,” 251
26. Singapore Police Force, “Policing in a Foreign Land,” 251.
27. Singapore Armed Forces, SAF and UN Peace Operations, 243.
28. “Singapore Collaborates with United Nations to Develop Notification of Casualties Software Application,” Mindef Singapore, last updated 24 May 2017
29. Mindef Singapore, Singapore Collaborated with United Nations.”

Further resources
Amitav Acharya, Singapore’s Foreign Policy: The Search for Regional Order (Singapore: World Scientific, 2008). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 ACH)

Gretchen Liu, The Singapore Foreign Service: The First 40 Years (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2005). (Call no. RSING q327.5957 LIU)

Irene Ng, The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S. Rajaratnam (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010). (Call no. RSING 327.59570092 NG)

Kwa Chong Guan, ed., S Rajaratnam on Singapore: From Ideas to Reality (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing and Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, 2006). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 S)

Lee Kuan Yew, The Fundamentals of Singapore's Foreign Policy: Then & Now (Singapore: MFA Diplomatic Academy, 2009). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LEE)

Michael Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability (London: Routledge, 2000). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LEI)

N. C. Saxena, Virtuous Cycles: The Singapore Public Service and National Development (Singapore: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). (Call no. RSING 351.5957 SAX)

Narayanan Ganesan, Realism and Interdependence in Singapore’s Foreign Policy (London: Routledge, 2005). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 GAN)

S. Jayakumar, Reflections on Diplomacy of a Small State (Singapore: MFA Diplomatic Academy, 2010). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 JAY)

S. Jayakumar, Diplomacy: A Singapore Experience (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2011). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 JAY)

S. R. Nathan, Singapore's Foreign Policy: Beginnings and Future (Singapore: MFA Diplomatic Academy). (Call no. RSING 327.5957 NAT)

The information in this article is valid as at June 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Economic development
United Nations
International relations
Singapore--Politics and government--1965-1990
Singapore--Foreign relations
Politics and Government