Commentary: Small state doesn’t mean a weak state

Commentary: Small state doesn’t mean a weak state

Size doesn’t matter; it’s a question of leadership, resources, unity of purpose, knowing what you need to do, and relating to other states, says Wang Gungwu.

"Smallness in itself doesn't mean weak," says historian Wang Gungwu, chairman of the East Asian Institute. Just ask the Swiss, the Mongols or the Manchus. Read the commentary. Watch the full Insight episode on the issue of small states.

In an interview with the Channel NewsAsia Programme Insight (watch the full episode here), Professor Wang Gungwu – eminent historian and chairman of the East Asian Institute – talks about how small states  can navigate today’s world. Here are excerpts of his views.

Smallness in itself doesn’t mean weak. There are some small states that are very strong.

And some very large states are very weak, because they are divided, or their people come from different origins and can’t agree on anything; and their leaders are weak, or simply incompetent or corrupt, or otherwise incapable of providing unified leadership.

A small state that is united, very clear in its purpose, focused in finding good sets of relationships, can be very powerful and exert a lot of influence. So, smallness by itself doesn’t seem, to me, to mean very much.

Today, we have an international world order based on the United Nations (UN), in which smallness is not an important factor because the UN recognises all states as being equal.

‘Rule of law’ is a very modern phrase. It’s a very important ideal, something that a small state would value as helping to protect itself. But, there is no guarantee in the end. If everybody accepts the rules, then there should be no problems for a small state, but that’s too idealistic a picture. It is never quite like that.

And so, the question of how a small state relates to bigger states - and the biggest states - needs a lot of careful, alert leadership, watching out for all opportunities, possibilities, and taking full advantage of any system they face, to maximise their security.

In that context, size doesn’t matter; it’s a question of leadership, resources, unity of purpose, knowing exactly what you want and what you need to do.


I’m very struck by how, in history, many very small groups of people have succeeded in doing fantastic things. Famous stories like the Athenians in the Mediterranean, who built a small city state, built up an empire, and eventually defeated the vast Persian empire.

Rome eventually became a vast empire, but actually it began as a very small state.

And take those that were city states more recently. A small place like Switzerland, located far away up in the mountains. It already has a kind of security on its own, but maximises its position and resources, human resources in particular. It arms itself very carefully, but carefully relating to all its neighbours in such a way that it has now survived for over 700 years. And it is still flourishing.

Does it matter whether it’s small, or what the population is like? What matters is how it was organised, how united they were, how forcefully they projected themselves as a unit that people must respect and admire.

I was always struck by one very small state, Portugal. The Portuguese, probably less than a million people at the time, were able to reach out by being very venturesome, extremely courageous and visionary, and they eventually created a maritime empire that stretched around the globe.

So, smallness was not in itself an issue. Portugal’s location was a great advantage. Their timing was very good because nobody else at the time thought of what they were doing, so they were innovative, they saw an opportunity,  and they created something unique to themselves.

(yv) Insight Wang Gungwu  2

There were the vast land empires that were built up by the Mongols. Genghis Khan’s tribe was a very small tribe. Was there such a thing as a Mongol nation? Very hard to say. But he was able to create a sense of Mongol centrality, sense of unity and purpose, and they set out to conquer the world. And they nearly did.

Manchu is another example. A small nomadic group, about a million of them. But they were so united in purpose, so well-organised and militarily capable of exerting so much force, that they were able in the end to conquer the whole of China - which at that time, probably had up to 300 million people.

And so, a small group of people, with a tremendous sense of unity and purpose, can make a big difference. In today’s world, I think this principle still basically applies.

If a country is united, and the people are all clear about what they believe to be the important things for their country to survive, if they can really work together to do that, I don’t think anybody can touch them.

You arm yourself accordingly, you train yourself, you discipline yourself, you make all sorts of arrangements with your neighbours and with people far away; you relate yourself to all the powers, the international institutions like the UN, to make sure that you have maximum space to move in.

And you’re constantly looking out for opportunities, alert to possibilities, very nimble, quick-footed, quick to respond. If you can do all this, you can get a lot done, and be very powerful and influential.


Singapore is a very exceptional country. As everybody knows, it wasn’t a country until 1965, and nobody expected it to be an independent country. The exceptional achievements of Singapore are why everybody looks at it with great interest and admiration - how did it do that?

But there is a certain fragility underlying Singapore’s history, because of the shortness of its history, and the different kinds of challenges that the people faced.

Therefore it has to be extra sensitive, extra alert, and extra everything. It’s got to be that much smarter, that much quicker, that much more responsive and sensitive.


The world will never, in my mind, to go back to the Cold War era of two major powers like the US and Soviet Union fighting for dominance. I don’t believe that people in China or the US want that to happen again.

So I think for us to project a world in which we have to make a choice between the US and China is a false premise.

I think we should not encourage that Cold War situation. It is possible for all the other states to organise themselves in such a way to prevent that from happening. The more multilateral the arrangement is, the better the chances of ensuring you don’t have a small state forced to make a choice between two big powers.

I think what would happen would be a multilateral set of relations involving more and more people, including other powers which are equally relevant: India and Japan for example, and Europe.

Some people are not happy with the idea of multi-polarity. But I think a kind of multi-polarity is inevitable. It’s already happening, the number of multilateral groups that are being formed, whether it’s G7, G20, or the ones that ASEAN itself has sponsored like ASEAN Plus 3 and the East Asian Summit - they’re all criss-crossed.

And the criss-crossing, to my mind, is a good sign. It never exposes you to having to choose between one or the other.

Catch Prof Wang Gungwu, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, and Professor Kishore Mahbubani on Insight on Channel NewsAsia, July 13, 8pm SG/HK. (Update: watch the full episode here)

Source: CNA/yv