TOM PLATE WRITES – Ever since I first met Lee Kuan Yew a quarter of a century ago, Singapore has stuck in my mind as special. At the time of the brilliant founding Prime Minister’s death at 91 in 2015, this assessment was not so new and was going global; even in Hong Kong circles, where disjointed governance and economic factors, particularly housing, seemed to inspire spasms of exodus, Singapore seemed a very honorable relocation option.
It has not always been so globally. There was a time when the Western media barely noticed the island city-state, and when it did, the story was the usual repeat of the canning of a visiting American teenager in 1994, or restrictions strange about chewing gum sales. Not anymore. The Singapore story of today could be imagined as a combination of Hollywood movies – maybe Rich Crazy Asians meets Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Perhaps even this praise bypasses Singapore. For government and political science nerds (like me), Southeast Asian politics offers textbook lessons on how to achieve professional modern governance. Using the utilitarian rule that only better economic and social outcomes justify a strong government, Singapore has established standards of emulation. And those results – high per capita income, state-of-the-art public infrastructure, exemplary education systems – remain visible as the city-state near the equator prepares to choose its fourth prime minister since its founding in 1965. At this point, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong has successfully established himself as the compromise leader of the mainstream People’s Action Party, naming him as the presumptive successor to Lee Hsien Loong, now 70, the eldest son of LKY , since 2004 Prime Minister.
Not everyone is stuck in Singapore, of course. Some people persist in viewing it as a unique eccentric of a city-state. Then, it is mocked for its small population size (5.8 million). So what? Important countries with even smaller populations are Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Slovakia. Size is important but that’s not all. Some American colleagues refer to it as little more than a claustrophobic one-party state. Really? Consider Japan, arguably a one-party state adopted by the well-known octopus as the Liberal Democratic Party: it is nevertheless a key ally of the United States (struggling, however, with its unexemplary two-party system).
History could nudge Singapore, with a per capita income twice that of Japan, closer to Tokyo as a comfort pillow in Washington given the latter’s strong fixation on China. During their joint media appearance at the White House last month, Biden and his official visitor, Prime Minister Lee, highlighted the bilateral relationship. Midway through his carefully prepared statement, Lee noted, “Singapore is the second largest Asian investor in the United States, and the United States is the largest investor in Singapore.”
He then pointedly underlined his government’s agreement with the United States’ condemnation of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty: “We cannot tolerate any country claiming that Ukraine’s independence another country is the result of historical mistakes and foolish decisions. Cleverly put; easily the best joke of the press appearance, and it brought a smile to the beleaguered Biden’s face.
Singapore’s value to the United States is enhanced by its southeastern coastal location near Indonesia and Australia, its role in the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN ) and by its reputation, justified or not, as an intermediary between East and West with Beijing. An American reporter even dangled the phrase “China Whisperer” at the Prime Minister during a press conference, but Lee had none of that, even after the reporter persisted with, “Well, could you being?” The PM was not at the turn: “No we can’t, we are not part of the family. We are a predominantly ethnic Chinese country in Southeast Asia. Multiracial, multireligious with independent national interests and priorities and they (PRC) treat us as such. And we remind them that this is so.
Singapore’s timidity on this point will not convince everyone. It is well known that it cooperates with the Pentagon in Washington and the US Pacific Command in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It even houses what could be described as a military hostel for the US Navy on its territory. At the same time, he enjoys a certain type of special connection with China. It goes back to the famous effort of the young Lee Kuan Yew half a century ago to cordially but carefully lead the economic reformer Deng Xiaoping into the brave new world (for China) of 20th century capitalism and non-state entrepreneurship. century. Today, however, Chinese leaders have far less admiration for LKY as they recall his insistence that Asia needs the constant presence of the United States for geopolitical balance. given the spectacular rise of China.
Singapore may not want to be seen as working on both sides of the China-US street, but it’s certainly a plus to have such a strategically located middleman on hand, whisper or not. As George Yeo, a particularly astute former foreign minister, once said: “Singapore’s relationship is that of a parent. We are not family, but we do get drawn into family conversations from time to time. We cannot avoid being affected by the great drama in mainland China. Singapore’s involvement in China’s affairs dates back to the last days of the Qing Dynasty.
What is Singapore’s secret? A number of factors, surely, but one, in particular, resurfaces in volume 2 of the recent biography of the famous journalist Peh Shing Huei on the second Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong (1990-2004). The book is long, but superb in detail and quality of storytelling. Chapter Six of “Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years” is titled “Not Being Mediocre”. It could well be called Singapore’s nickname. This exceptional nation uses its brains and deploys its best brains as well as anyone. May her precious Asian contribution rapidly progress, if not grow, both as China Whisper and as Washington Comfort Pillow. Peace needs all the help it can get, however it can get it.
LMU’s leading scholar in Asian and Pacific Studies is the author of “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: How to Build a Nation” (Giants of Asia series). He is also Vice President of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles. The original version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, Professor Plate’s “original” newspaper.