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A year in the world

28 Dec A year in the world

I probably travelled too much this year. I went to New York, Europe, and as far away as South America, and to most of the capitals of Asia.

There are limits to what telephone and video calls can do. Information is plentiful today but insight requires touch and smell, a sense of the situation up close. Sometimes, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.

Those who stay behind always suspect work travel is fun. I did spend time at Bali beach resorts, in New York at the Plaza and for a gala dinner, and took a three-day drive across the Alps.

But really, I was working. There were many more nondescript days, but I admit that I try to enjoy, rather than merely endure, travel.

Probably the craziest trip I made was to Colombia to negotiate a report on the future of the Forum for East Asian and Latin American Cooperation. It took two days and I spent more time in the air and the Frankfurt transit lounge.

If I accepted every invitation, I could just go from place to place like some wandering minstrel. So I budget travel days and try to focus.

There were three main preoccupations this year.

One was Asean. Many more people are looking at a South-east Asian strategy, especially as the Asean Economic Community 2015 deadline approaches. This was not only the trend among Western and Japanese multinationals, but also among the Asean corporations themselves.

The second was American ties with Asia and especially China and Japan. Whether it was the South China Sea, or the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, this was a year when Asians struggled to get on, or even speak to one another. I lost count of the times when friends in Tokyo spoke angrily about the Chinese, and vice versa, and each tried to get me to take sides.

A third reason was the record 400 PSI haze, caused by fires in Indonesia. I’ve been working on this problem since 1997, and haven’t given up.

Some trips were to reach out to non-government organisations (NGOs) to work together. One of these is the often controversial Greenpeace, which is now barricaded behind an immense green gate after protesters hired by an angry Indonesian conglomerate once stormed into its offices in reprisal.

I addressed businesses and investors at bank conferences in New York and Bali and at Japan’s Keidanren or Japanese Business Federation, and spoke at fellow think-tanks, like the Council of Foreign Relations in the US and the venerable Chatham House in London. I also met American, Chinese and Japanese policymakers as well as political leaders across Asean. One key meeting was with Bruneian officials in January, soon after their assumption of the group’s chairmanship.

More than giving speeches, I value what others say. I am curious about local politics, especially in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bangkok. Politics in Asia is often about people. I try to engage the broadest range – whether in government, opposition, businesses or NGOs – each with a different perspective.

It’s vital to understand how they perceive situations and hear from them first-hand. Combining that with objective analysis provides the basis for insight – whether for my commentaries or when I give advice, away from the public eye.

My best 2013 trips were a tie between Myanmar and Washington, DC.

August is not the best time to visit Naypyidaw. But I enjoyed the company of our hosts and also my colleagues – I usually travel alone. Positive outcome too: The Myanmar government asked the Singapore Institute of International Affairs to advise on its Asean chairmanship next year and I will be going up again.

For Washington, DC, I visited just after US President Barack Obama cancelled his trip to Asia. I felt that this brought the administration’s pivot to the region into question and my comments were carried in Asian media and, via news agencies, quoted in newspapers from Alaska to Ohio. There was a good discussion with State Department officials, and I look forward to the President’s April visit to Asia.

In between the meetings or after work, you can always find time. Like most Singaporeans, I enjoy food and some shopping. I also like to visit art galleries, especially old favourites like the Frick in Manhattan that are small enough to see in a few hours.

One travel must-have is massage, which is excellent after flights. The best is in Thailand – whatever is nearest is generally good and affordable. This year’s treat was at the spa at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai; not cheap but excellent.

Sometimes, I add a day or two afterwards. For instance, after briefing a European corporation outside Salzburg on a Friday, I didn’t fly back immediately, but stayed to drive through the Alps to Trieste and then back to Munich.

My hosts usually organise and pay for my travel. One trip, I might have a chauffeur-driven Lexus and a suite at St Regis. For the next, a serviceable but not spectacular chain. While I have favourites, I don’t usually have a choice.

The best meal abroad this year was at the Les Saisons in Tokyo, with a degustation menu selected by my host, a former vice-minister. Winter truffles were in season and Abenomics was beginning to bring optimism to Japan. Oddly appropriate to chat about global finance over such a repast.

On my own, I walk around and choose a place with my nose. During that same Tokyo stay, there was Sushizanmai, a great joint under the train line, cheap and packed, and running 24-hours.

When abroad, there is stuff I get because it’s much cheaper. (From Japan, Royce chocolates and ikura, which my son devours.) I also got year-end presents for my staff who do so much to arrange the logistics. When you travel, a good personal assistant is like Houston to the astronauts in the movie Gravity.

But otherwise, I buy things that remind me of the place. From my European excursion, autumnal mushrooms from an Italian street market and rock salt from Salzburg (which is the root of the city’s name).

Instagram pictures give me an excuse to look more closely at things along the way. I post on Facebook a bit too much when travelling, but perhaps that’s the best way to keep in touch.

I do have travel essentials.

First, get an Apec business travel card that cuts time off immigration queues at most airports. Second, light and tough carry-on luggage. Third, a scarf to keep the cold away, especially on board (my mother and sister gave me one in cashmere that I have so far avoided losing). Last is Singapore Airlines. Not faultless but some crew make the extra effort to spoil you. Back home, I sometimes sit on the couch and wonder why no one is offering me a drink.

I inevitably miss out on things back home. I make time for my son, Luke, but there are times I was away and this was his O-level year. Sometimes he joins me. In between two meetings in Bali, we spent time in the Seminyak surf and on the challenging tree-top walk in the hills.

I am fortunate to have good colleagues. They do what they think best when I am away, or there is the boon and curse of the BlackBerry. They understand that travel is part of my work – and perhaps essential to my outlook.

I am Singaporean and live here, but I think we gain perspective from being both inside and out, from seeing our society in the context of Asia and the wider world.


Simon Tay is associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law, and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent think-tank. He is concurrently senior consultant with WongPartnership, a leading law firm with regional practices and offices in Singapore, China and the Middle East. This article appeared in The Straits Times on 28 December 2013.