TOM PLATE WRITES – Ever since my initial meeting with Lee Kuan Yew a quarter century ago, Singapore remained in my mind as special. By the time of the brilliant founding prime minister’s passing at 91 in 2015, that assessment was not so novel and was going global; even in Hong Kong circles, where desultory governance and economic factors, especially housing, seemed to inspire spasms of exodus, Singapore seemed a very honorable relocation option.
It was not always thus globally. There was a time when the western media barely noticed the island city-state, and when it did the story line was the usual rehash of the 1994 canning of a visiting American teenager, or of odd restrictions on chewing gum sales. No longer. Today’s Singapore story line might be imagined as a combination of Hollywood movies – maybe Rich Crazy Asians meets Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Perhaps even that encomium shorts Singapore. For government and political science nerds (like myself), the Southeast Asian polity offers textbook lessons of how to pull off professional modern governance. Employing the utilitarian rule that only better economic and social outcomes justifies strong government, Singapore has set emulatory standards. And those outcomes – high per capita income, state-of-engineering public infrastructure, exemplary educational systems – remain on display as the city-state by the equator moves to select its fourth prime minister since its 1965 founding. At this point, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong has successfully emerged as the compromise leader of the dominant People’s Action Party, tabbing him as presumed successor to Lee Hsien Loong, now 70, eldest son of LKY, since 2004 the PM.
Not everyone is stuck on Singapore, of course. Some people persist in viewing it as a one-off oddball of a city-state. Then there is some scoffing at its diminutive population size (5.8 million). So what? Prominent countries with even lesser populations include Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Slovakia. Size is important but it’s not everything. Some American colleagues trash-talk it as little more than a claustrophobic one-party state. Really? Consider Japan, arguably a one-party state embraced by the octopus well-known as the Liberal Democratic Party: it’s nonetheless a key ally of U.S. (struggling, by contrast, with its non-exemplary two-party system).
History may be nudging Singapore, with a per-capita income twice Japan’s, closer to Tokyo as a Washington comfort pillow given the latter’s fraught fixation on China. At their joint media appearance at the White House last month, Biden and his official visitor PM Lee emphasized bilateral connections. Midway through his carefully prepared statement Lee noted: “Singapore is the second-largest Asian investor in the U.S., and the U.S. is the largest investor in Singapore.”
He then pointedly underlined his government’s concurrence with the U.S.’ condemnation of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty: “We cannot condone any country arguing that another country’s independence is the result of historical errors and crazy decisions.” Niftily put; easily the best quip of the press appearance, and it brought a dart of a smile to the beleaguered Biden’s face.
Singapore’s value to the U.S. is enhanced by its littoral location in Southeast near Indonesia and Australia, by its role in the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), and by its reputation, justified or not, as an East-West go-between with Beijing. An American reporter even dangled the phrase “China Whisperer’ to the PM in one press meeting, but Lee was having none of that, even after the reporter persisted with, “Well, could you be?” The PM was not for turning: “No we cannot, we are not part of the family. We are an ethnic Chinese majority country in Southeast Asia. Multiracial, multi-religious with independent, national interests and priorities and they (PRC) treat us as such. And we remind them that that is so.”
Singapore’s shyness on this point will not convince everyone. It is well known that it cooperates with the Pentagon in Washington and the U.S. Pacific Command in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It even houses what might be described as a military hostel for the U.S Navy on its turf. At the same time, it does enjoy a certain kind of special connection with China. This goes back to the young Lee Kuan Yew’s famous effort a half century ago to sherpa, cordially but carefully, the economic reformer Deng Xiaoping into the brave new world (for China) of 20th century capitalism and non-state entrepreneurship. Today, though, Chinese leaders hold LKY in considerably less awe as they remind themselves of his insistence that Asia needs, for geopolitical balance, the steady presence of the U.S., given China’s dramatic rise.
Singapore may not want to be seen as working both sides of the China-US street but, surely, it’s an asset to have such a strategically located go-between on hand, whispering or not. As George Yeo, a particularly astute former foreign minister, once put it: “Singapore’s relationship is that of a relative. We are not family, but we get pulled into the family’s conversations from time to time. We cannot avoid being affected by the grand drama of the Chinese mainland. Singapore’s involvement in the affairs of China goes back to the last days of the Qing Dynasty.”
What’s Singapore’s secret? Any number of factors, surely, but one, in particular, resurfaces in volume 2 of well-known journalist Peh Shing Huei’s recent biography of the second prime minister, Goh Chok Tong (1990-2004). The book is lengthy, but superb in detail and quality of storytelling. Chapter Six of ‘Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years’ is titled: “To Not Be Mediocre.” That might well qualify as the Singapore moniker. This exceptional nation uses its brains and fields its best brainiacs as well as anyone. May its valuable Asian contribution proceed apace, if not grow, as both China Whisper and as Washington Comfort Pillow. Peace needs all the help it can get, however it can get it.
LMU’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies is 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 ‘home’ newspaper.