Column: Instructions in Singaporean pragmatism

Published on September 24, 2013.

I had a chance to join 14 other Asean journalists in a wide-ranging interview with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week. ANC’s Coco Alcuaz, formerly of Bloomberg, has already written of Lee’s pragmatic approach to the territorial disputes between China and some Asean member-states.

It is worth repeating the most important quote from Lee. Asked by Siti Hajar of the Borneo Bulletin whether the territorial disputes between certain Asean states and China can be resolved sooner rather than later, he replied:

“It cannot be resolved. These are territorial disputes. I say it is mine, you say it is yours. Whose is it? So either I say sorry, I made a mistake, it is yours; or you must say sorry, you made a mistake, it is mine. And no government can say that. So therefore, I do not think that the overlapping claims can be cleared up. They will remain overlapping. But what you can do is manage the situation, avoid some escalation at sea, on the land or sea itself, and where possible, do joint development of the resources which are there, which I think is Brunei’s approach from what I can see.”

It is certainly very much Singapore’s approach. From what I can see, the Singaporean success story is predicated on a clear-eyed understanding of its limits: It is a very small country, with hardly any natural resources; it cannot afford the luxury of indulgent denial. Lee’s stance on the South China Sea disputes seems to me to reflect this almost fatalistic acceptance of limits. The most that can be done, he says, is to “manage the situation.”

* * *

I thought it might be useful to run an extended excerpt from the group interview with Prime Minister Lee, the better to track his thinking. (Among other characteristics I’ve observed, he tends to tailor his answer to the questioner, in terms of specifics offered or milieu addressed.) The passage below is from the transcript his office produced; I have done some minor editing.

Nery: “Prime Minister, I would like to ask about China. How do you engage the region’s largest economy, with the largest military? Has the relationship evolved or changed since the days of Deng Xiaoping?”

PM Lee: “Yes, the relationship has evolved. China is much more developed, much more open, much more exposed to the world and familiar with the world and at the same time, our relationship with China has grown. Our trade with China has increased enormously. Our cooperation projects with China have evolved. If you look at it in terms of official government cooperation, we used to have, we started off with one major project in the Suzhou Industrial Park. We now are doing a Tianjin Eco-City. We have a knowledge city in Guangdong province, near Guangzhou. We have other science and tech IT parks in other cities in China and we have a lot of commercial projects, private sector investing in China, some properties, some infrastructure, some manufacturing, some hotel, hospitality services. In fact, we have 20, 30 billion dollars worth of investments in China. More than that, I think US$60 billion worth of investments. I just looked up the number recently. And I think the opportunities are there. So China is developing. I think that is good. China will be a strong country. We believe that China intends and sees it in its interest to be a peaceful member of the international community and we think that is good for China and good for the region and we have said so. I know that they have problems in the South China Sea, particularly the Philippines has problems in the South China Sea with China. You call it the West Philippine Sea, they call it the South Sea.”

Nery: “And Vietnam calls it the East Sea.”

PM Lee: “And Vietnam calls it the East Sea, so it is very complicated but it…”

Nguyen Thi Truc [of Viet Nam News]: “A big neighbor.”

PM Lee: “Yes, it is a big neighbor but you can live with a big neighbor and I think it is better for us that the big neighbor is prospering than if the big neighbor is having problems.”

Nery: “At the same time, Mr. Prime Minister, you are one of the United States’ principal allies in the region.”

PM Lee: “No, no, we are not a treaty ally, you are an ally. So is Thailand. We are a friend of the United States. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement but we are not a treaty ally.”

Nery: “I was going to ask, how do you define this balancing act between China and the US.”

PM Lee: “As long as China and America are friends, it is easier. If not, it is more difficult. But we want to be friends with both. And on security matters, I think America plays an indispensable role in this region. It is not just the forces which visit Singapore, the LCS (littoral combat ships), or the aircraft but their overall security presence in the region which makes a big difference to the whole of the Asia-Pacific. And I think we will continue and that is not a role which China can take over from the United States, nor can Japan.”

Even here, in his discussion of the American security umbrella, he speaks of limits (neither China nor Japan “can take over from the United States”) as much as of possibilities.

* * *

Just before the 25th anniversary of the first People Power revolt, newly elected senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made a bold assertion: If his father had not been ousted but instead continued in power, “siguro Singapore na tayo ngayon.

Many have since taken the son to task, for taking liberties with history’s truths. I will not question his sincerity; perhaps he does think of his father as another Lee Kuan Yew, only betrayed by trusted associates.

But in Singapore, eliminating corruption is a simple matter of pragmatism. In that sense, Marcos’ so-called New Society was exceedingly impractical.


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