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Retrospectives & Future Prospects for Singapore-US Relations

Retrospectives & Future Prospects for Singapore-US Relations
Date/Time: Oct 11, 2005 / 5.00pm

This event is organized by the Eisenhower Fellows of Singapore, with the support of other organizations with affiliations to the USA, such as the Harvard Club, the Distinguished Universities Alumni League (DUAL) and Fulbright Alumni. The SIIA serves as secretariat for this talk. The dinner gathering was a farewell for Ambassador Lavin.

The following is excerpted from the farewell speech:

Let me thank everybody for coming tonight. From the terrific mix we have, it is a bit like a family reunion. I have had the opportunity to work with the Eisenhower Fellows in various capacities over the past four years and to my mind this institution represents some of the core strengths of Singapore: a commitment to excellence and to building international connections. We have other wonderful co-sponsors and guests. SIIA has done a splendid job in organizing this event. I always feel at home with the Fulbright crowd, because among other reasons my mother was twice a Fulbright professor. AmCham and DUAL are top-notch organizations with which I have been privileged to work in a variety of projects. Both my father and my sister studied at Harvard and I am grateful for the Harvard Club co-sponsoring this evening.

Saying farewell is never easy, but it is an important obligation, perhaps all the more so in the diplomatic world. This is my farewell address, in just about as literal a sense as possible, because I leave directly from this event for Changi and my flight to the U.S.Let me take advantage of the hospitality this evening to express thanks, to bid farewell, and to offer a few thoughts on the past four years and what they might portend for the U.S.and Singapore.

I would like to try to cover three topics in my remarks tonight. First, some thoughts on foreign policy in general. What are the rules of the road for the 21st century? Second, I want to try to apply those to the U.S.and Singaporeand see how our two countries line up. Third, let’s see what pointers this might give us about challenges ahead.

To the first topic, what are the rules of the road? How is the international system performing in this post-Cold War era? In many respects, the fundamentals of foreign policy are valid regardless of the particular era. The need for stability based on a balance of power, for example, is a precondition for peace first noted by Thucydides. The logic of deterrence based on a capable defense is a transcendental truth, I would argue. Similarly, the virtues of open economic arrangements as a boon to prosperity are a time-tested cornerstone of international politics. These two fundamentals persist across the ages and the structure.

And in addition to the two fundamentals of power and economics, there are two attributes of the international system that are more distinctive to our era. The first is the “death of distance” to use the phrase of Frances Cairncross. The second is the connection between internal politics and international politics. The Bush Administration differs in this respect from classical realism, which holds that there is no correlation between a country’s political structure and its international conduct.

Let us take a look at how these principles might apply to Singaporeand the United States. The historic roles of these two countries are somewhat reversed from what one might expect. The United Statesthroughout most of its history has behaved as an island power. Protected by two great oceans and absorbed in its own struggles of expansion and prosperity, the United Statestraditionally had little interest in foreign policy and intervened almost entirely at moments of its own choice. This seemed to work up until Pearl Harbor, then from 1941 through 1991 we were obliged by World War II and the Cold War to overcome our isolationist impulses and play a global role. Since 1991, this internationalist consensus has been challenged, but bipartisan leadership has sustained it, though I would argue frequently in the absence of a strategic framework. All of this contrasts with Singapore, which never had the option of withdrawing from foreign policy. Born as it was amidst international turmoil and without the luxury of geographical distance, it had to focus on foreign policy from its inception as a matter of national survival.

By 2005, there seems to be a general convergence between Singaporeand the U.S.on the importance of international engagement. Both our countries face the world with a somewhat similar view. Both Singaporeand United Statesagree in the need for regional stability. This requires that Singaporemaintain a capable military and that the U.S.remain engaged militarily in the region as well. Both countries seek policies that foster economic growth, which means that Singapore and the U.S. both pursue trade liberalization, be it bilateral or through organizations such as ASEAN and the WTO.

The death of distance is a bit more complicated. It means that events anywhere in the world can have an impact in our own countries. This has implications for diplomacy because it raises the costs when our systems are not harmonized. Our two countries have to be able to coordinate and act together on a range of issues that were previously deemed minor or perhaps outside the purview of foreign policy, such as customs inspections, weapons of mass destruction, money laundering, disaster relief, disease prevention, and visas.

Well, in my view Singaporeand the United Stateshave stepped up to the challenge. Singaporehelicopters can communicate with American air traffic controllers in New Orleans. American helicopters can communicate with Singaporeair traffic controllers in Aceh. We have put policies in place that promote regular interaction, such as the Free Trade Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement. We have a range of other programs in technical areas such as the Container Security Initiative, Proliferation Security Initiative, and the REDICenter. All of these show that our leadership understands the imperatives of better coordination. Indeed, one of the striking aspects to me of the bilateral relationship is the sheer breadth and complexity of tasks.

For example, this month alone will see a State Department Undersecretary visit on trafficking in persons and bird flu; a Treasury Department Undersecretary visit on money laundering; a State Department Assistant Secretary visit on counter-terrorism; and two admirals will visit separately on military sealift and on naval research coordination. Every year, my guess is we have upwards of fifty senior-level government delegations going from one country to the other. Some five to tenof them will be cabinet-level. And of course, this culminates in the visits of Prime Ministers Goh and Lee to Washington, and President Bush to Singapore. There is a lot going on. As Foreign Minister George Yeo says, “The world is spinning faster.”

We have more to do in such areas as law enforcement, tax treaties, and non-proliferation, but so far so good. The world has been made a little safer through our cooperation. The more difficult challenge is the one I mentioned a few minutes ago, the connection between internal political structure and international consequences. Americans are increasingly of the view that societies that do not offer their citizens a say, that tolerate economic mismanagement or corruption, or that promote hatreds, risk becoming breeding ground for terrorism. This is a global point but we see this most acutely in the Arab world. The first victims of a dysfunctional society are the citizens of that society, which is bad enough, but all of us are at risk from the potential spill-over.Singaporehas its share of challenges as well. Singaporehas flourished over the past 40 years, but is a 20th century model adequate for the 21st century? Singaporeis grappling with the definitional questions of what kind of society it wants. Remaking its economy is, in a sense, the easy decision. Shaping a political system to reflect the needs and aspirations of its citizens is more difficult and more sensitive. What are the bounds of expression? What say should citizens have in their government? In this era of Weblogs and Webcams, how much sense does it make to limit political expression? Remember, we have the death of distance. There are no islands anymore. As part of Singapore’s success is its strong international links, it is surprising to find constraints on discussions here. In my view, governments will pay an increasing price for not allowing full participation of their citizens. I know Singaporewill sort through these challenges, for Singaporeans are not known for resting on their laurels. The past forty years have been a history of adapting and moving forward. Singaporehas much to be proud of and the United Stateswill stand side-by-side with Singapore. My view of foreign policy is simple: we - Americaand Singapore– we are the "good guys." This doesn't mean that other countries are the "bad guys." And it doesn't mean that we are always right, because we make our share of mistakes. Nor does it mean we don't need to listen to others. We do. What it does mean is that Americahas a great deal in common with Singapore, in approach to problems such as political stability, economic growth, and cross-border threats, be they man-made or natural disasters. There are many social commonalities as well. We both know that a pluralistic, inclusive, meritocratic society is the best way to ensure a better life for our citizens.

Some Personal Notes

Allow me to close on a personal note. When you serve in a position such as this, it is much more than a job. It becomes part of your identity, something you carry with you the rest of your life. Balzac might have been thinking of Ambassadors when he wrote of “Vocations which bleed like colors on the whole of our existence.”

Tonight is a bittersweet moment. Sometimes in life we move on in our jobs, but that does not mean that we move on in our friendships. Ann and I will carry you in our hearts wherever we may be, and we will always remember Singapore’s belief in excellence, emphasis on education, and willingness to face the world. Thank you all for your support and for your friendship. Majulah Singapura.

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