"No Island is An Island": Singapore, Youth and the World
- Speech by Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA
Thank you for inviting me to give some brief remarks at the launch of the Hwa Chong Institution International Affairs Club.
Allow me to congratulate you on this initiative in setting up one of the first of such clubs in the schools of Singapore. It is an important and very timely enterprise that can serve all club members well, not only while you are in school, but as part of your education and preparation for life and career after school. For at no time have international and regional affairs mattered more to Singaporeans. We are a small island-city-state and inherently we must be open to the world.
John Donne, the English poet wrote, "No man is an island". Today, we have to understand that even, "No Island is an Island".
Singaporeans may live on this island and regard it as our home, but we cannot be insular. Nor can we be insulated from what happens around us.
This lesson has been learnt and underlined in these recent years. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 showed us how we economically linked to the region. The Indonesian fires and haze were terrible that year (and still recur) and show us our physical and environmental interdependence. The dangers of terrorism, with bombs going off in nearby countries and plots in Singapore itself, demonstrate that our security, our sense of safety, is also linked.
In these last weeks, the tragedy of the Tsunami has shown a new type of interdependence. Singapore was not directly affected. But Singaporeans from all walks of life made a record contribution in cash and assistance. This shows our moral interdependence with others around us.
There are also less dramatic, everyday facts of our interdependence in work, play and what we read and talk about.
In work, an increasing number of Singaporean managers and professionals undertake regional work. Singaporean companies are reporting an increasing share of their profits (or losses) from overseas markets and investments. At play, Singaporeans travel more in the region than ever, with budget travel airlines are making it more and more affordable.
In the media, our Channel News Asia and the main newspaper, the Straits Times, have increased their news coverage of Asia in these past years. This has changed what we read about and see on television. The horizons of our knowledge and interest have expanded and deepened.
When we recognize our interdependence with the world and the region, how do we respond?
I suggest that there are three basic challenges that we face.
Threat or Opportunity?
The first challenge is to consider if we view the world outside primarily as a source of problems, harms and threats, or as a source of opportunities. Three examples I gave – economic crisis, haze pollution, terrorism – were all problems, harms and threats. Yet the everyday example of interdependence I mentioned – work, travel and knowledge – are opportunities. I cannot pretend that there are no risks in engaging the outside world. But I do want to share with you my conviction that there are also many opportunities. The old saying is that ships are safest in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for. They must venture out.
In his address to Parliament, President SR Nathan has emphasized the need to make Singapore a land of opportunity. I agree, and indeed have voiced a similar theme and phrase in these past few years. For Singapore to be a land of opportunity, I believe that the connections we have with the region and the wider world must be strengthened. Together with China, India and our own region of Southeast Asia, we must be a full part of the rise of Asia.
When we want to be part of our region and the wider world, a second challenge lies in our attitudes. Even if we recognize the necessity of engaging the world, it makes a real difference what our attitude is. Some may engage the world as a matter of dreaded necessity, a nuisance at best or worse a danger to be minimized. We may be condescending, ungracious and complaining. We may export the worse of ourselves; like those stories of how Singaporeans, once released from the rules of Singapore, litter freely abroad or get up to other illegal acts. As a country, some complain that Singapore is too legalistic, not caring enough and even "hard hearted". We may become the Ugly Singaporean, tolerated by our neighbors only because we have money. We must avoid this.
However, I do not think we should jump to the opposite side and become gullible, all heart and no head. Let me put it this way. Some Singaporeans travel with a bottle of sambal belachan to Paris, as if even the best French food cannot satisfy their taste buds. Inherent in this is a sense that nothing can match what Singapore can offer. Others, after 1 day in Paris, want to wear a beret, eat cheese all the time and learn French. Inherent in this attitude is that foreign things are better than Singaporean. We have to find a balancing point between these two extremes.
Who Are We?
This brings me to the third challenge I want to mention as we engage the world and region. We will learn about the worlds and societies outside Singapore. But in so doing, I hope we also learn about Singapore itself and what it means to be Singaporeans, to be ourselves. When I go to China, I frankly know that I am not like most mainlanders. When I went to the USA, first to study and then to teach, I learnt that while America is quite an open society, I could never fully fit in. When I travel within ASEAN, especially to Indonesia and Malaysia, there are many things that I like and find familiar. But there are also differences – big and small – that I notice.
Being Singaporean, being the best of ourselves, is a matter often of defining ourselves as compared to others. This should not be an exercise in claiming superiority or admitting inferiority. Rather, it should be more simply and truly an effort in understanding; understanding the world, region and many societies around us, and also by reflection, ourselves, and the ways in which we are connected to the outside world. Allow me therefore to wish you every success with your International Affairs Club.