Articles - January 2017

Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri
Embassy of Singapore


It is almost a cliche in diplomatic circles to assert that the tiny city-state of Singapore, with five and a half million people, punches way above its weight in world affairs. A dot on the end of the Malay peninsula, about three and a half times the size of Washington, D.C., and with a diverse population 75 percent ethnic Chinese, 13 percent Malay and 9 percent Indian, Singapore has developed into a key diplomatic player among its Southeast Asian neighbors, in the wider Asia-Pacific region with a voice that is listened to in the West. One indicator: President Obama hosted state visits for major Asian leaders of China, Japan, India and South Korea. This past summer, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was added to that list. As one commentator noted, that was the equivalent of a team of point guards making the NBA quarter finals.

Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, considered the father of post-colonial, independent Singapore also received private audiences with an array of world figures from Obama and U.S. Presidents going back to Lyndon Johnson, to Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger, before he died in 2015.

In a parliamentary system, Lee's People's Action Party has won every election since, though it received a bit of a scare in 2011, with only a 60 percent margin. But it bounced back four years later with nearly 70 percent of the vote. The once poor nation that had to import its water, energy and food, Singapore now has a per capital GDP equal to that of the United States and is the world's fourth largest financial center after New York, London and Hong Kong. It is now home to tens of thousands of Americans and Europeans.

Singapore, with a diplomatic service the size of India's, practices a friends-with-everyone diplomacy and faces no immediate threats, but is among the few remaining nations in the world with compulsory male military service. Its diplomats such as Tommy Koh, Kishore Mahbubani and former Washington Ambassador Chan Heng Chee remain international figures well into official retirement.

Diplomatic Connections talked with Singapore's current Ambassador, career diplomat Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, who arrived in Washington in 2012.

Ashok Kumar Mirpuri
Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore
Excellency, welcome to this conversation with Diplomatic Connections....

Diplomatic Connections: No one doubts the world is going through turbulence. Respected analysts such as the former head of British intelligence John Sawers talk of a return to great power politics. There is an old African expression, When elephants make war, the grass gets trampled. What happens to a small country like Singapore in a world of intensified great power politics?

Ambassador Mirpuri: It seems to me it is too premature to say the world has changed. We have always had great power conflicts. I think what has always been important to small countries is setting up international rules. We still have the role of global, multi-lateral organizations. Managing with great power conflicts, it is part of our policy. It has been there through Singapore independence. It was there before we had our independence in 1965. Its dynamics may have changed, but it is still ongoing and interstate rivalry takes place all the time. For small nations, it is important to emphasize friendship across the board, not to take sides. We also have to have the rules, and that's where things like the United Nations (UN), the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) directing air traffic, all these rules become part of the whole complex of global foreign policy. To say that things are shifting dramatically from one to the other is a bit premature. But if these international organizations end up becoming ineffective or start to collapse, obviously we will start reviewing these things together.

Diplomatic Connections: But there has been an equal amount of commentary of the fears that what they call the global rules-based order, in large part put together by the United States after the Second World War that is now under threat.

Ambassador Mirpuri: It has always been under question. The rules-based order always requires a scheme to enforce issues. As people have said, the UN has no army. So what are you left with? You are left with the best intentions of large powers, the United States, other members of the Permanent Five of the Security Council to then say these rules benefit all of us and we need to maintain some of these rules. People respect that we don't want a UN General Assembly resolution critical of you, even if it is completely meaningless. It is the voice of the international community. Small countries have to reinforce these things. In New York, we are very active in something called the Forum of Small States, pulling small states together, reinforcing that it is not just a world of large states, but large states, small states, international organizations and international norms that apply in these things.

Diplomatic Connections: The new incoming President has said one of his first actions will be to take the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Can there be a TPP without the
United States?

Ambassador Mirpuri: I think you need to give the new President time to decide what direction and change he may want to move the United States towards. He has been elected by the people of this nation. The TPP and international trade agreements were generally an issue of big discussion in the course of the campaign on both sides. I think more important than whatever decision the United States takes, it is imperative to recognize the significance of regional and international structures such as the TPP. The value of TPP, a grouping of 12 countries led by the United States has been to move the standards up of various countries that meet U.S. requirements where the role of TPP has become meaningful in linking up regional supply chains. First and foremost, TPP and similar arrangements where the U.S. has a very strong leadership role, has been to put the strong economic anchor of the United States in the region. The United States has a very critical part in the Asia-Pacific and the TPP has been one way to manifest the strong strategic role, not just in the security sense but in the economic sense. If the President-elect decides that this may not be, at this time, something he wants to go forward with, we would still be looking to see what approach the next administration takes towards the Asia-Pacific. There is a deep understanding in the United States that the Asia-Pacific is of great value to this nation, it helps secure U.S. markets and its sense of security. I think this determinative view does not shift administration to administration. It underlines U.S. foreign policy. The TPP is one element of this and we have worked very hard to get it where it is. We will continue to work with the United States to make sure we can get it through.

Diplomatic Connections: Because your Australian colleague Joe Hockey has said if the United States does not lead on trade, who will? I think we are already getting the answer on that. There was a lead story in a recent Wall Street Journal titled, China steps in as U.S. retreats on trade.

Ambassador Mirpuri: It is not binary. China has a very strong economic role in the Asia-Pacific. They are today for most, if not all, Southeast Asia countries, the largest trading partner. Singapore is a very significant trading partner with China. They have a role in the whole economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific as does the United States. From our point of view, there is room for both. It benefits both of these nations; it benefits the countries in the region. I do not see a vacuum yet of U.S. regional leadership in the Asia-Pacific. I think that will continue. I believe any administration will move ahead in that role and I will support them in that.

Diplomatic Connections: A keystone of Singapore diplomacy is ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Yet it is a grouping that exists by consensus. Is ASEAN up to the challenges of this new order?

Ambassador Mirpuri: It is a very unique regional organization and came out of the Cold War conflict. It was established in 1967, first with five members, now ten, including several who quite opposed ASEAN in the early days. Cobbling together in what is, in many ways, an unnatural partnership, I think is very successful. There is economic cooperation despite the diversity of economic levels. There is political cooperation even with the variety of political systems. There is diplomatic cooperation notwithstanding divergences of strategic choices. The fact that we have kept this going for 50 years, the leaders meet regularly, the whole range of activities that take place. I would always see ASEAN as a work in progress, but where we are pulling together the elements of economic integration. It plays a significant role because economically we happen to be a group between the large emerging economics of China and India. And that gives us a unique geographical status. We can benefit from the growth of both. And in many ways compete with them coming together collectively. Obviously, there are challenges because of the diversity. The fact we can meet every year and come up with a common decision is a huge plus.

Diplomatic Connections: Another keystone of Singapore diplomacy is good relations with China. But one of your most respected diplomats Bilahari Kausikan has said that China has taken to bullying Singapore as part of its more assertive actions in Asia. How does Singapore plot its future relationship with a more assertive China?

Ambassador Mirpuri: Again, it is the same way we deal with any large country. Ambassador Kausikan is now retired from the diplomatic service. But in terms of where we position our relationship with China, we have economic and political links that are growing. We have engaged with China at various levels, building up government to government economic agreements. There is a close interaction that takes place. Obviously, there will be differences and that's normal. There are differences we have with the United States and with European countries. These are part and parcel of diplomatic life. If it was all going smooth, perhaps I would think we are not pushing the diplomatic envelope enough. The rise of China has been the biggest geopolitical event of the past half century. We should all see that for what it is, respect and understand it and then find our balances in that.

Diplomatic Connections: And hope they respect you, of course.

Ambassador Mirpuri: Small nations always have this problem anyway. It is not exclusive to Singapore; it is not unique to our relationship to China. There is obviously a hierarchy of diplomatic relationships around the world; there are big countries and small countries. And that is where I come back to my first point on the rules. The rules give us an equal voice in global organizations like the UN.

Diplomatic Connections: Singapore, with its remarkable economic progress, has also become a model of a society in which different ethnic groups and religious traditions--Hakka Chinese, Malay and Tamil --can live and work together in remarkable harmony. Does this model work only in a small compact nation like yours or are there lessons for other nations in Asia and beyond?

Ambassador Mirpuri: We're modest to say that we don't offer lessons to anyone. It is for us a difficult model even to maintain and is a constant work in progress. You can never say you have arrived into a steady position where you can take for granted the inter-ethnic inter-religious differences. It is a fact of life in Singapore. We are proud of what we have achieved and it's done well. People growing up cheek and jowl with other ethnic groups and other religions; they understanding each other. It's been something that emerged because of our various generations of migration, into Singapore. And you had people coming from around the region. In many ways, they've added to the strands of Singapore, the diversity of Singapore. But, it is something that has to be very carefully preserved and managed as well, whether in the schools, the workplace, whether in the eating places to avoid elements of discrimination based on race or religion. It is a question of leadership that sees how important these things are. Obviously, we work very hard to preserve it.

Diplomatic Connections: When and how did your family come to be in Singapore?

Ambassador Mirpuri: My father was a trader who came to Singapore from India in the late 1930s. He came before the Second World War, my mother came after. They have been there a long time.

Diplomatic Connections: There is one cloud on the horizon. Singapore's birthrate of 1.29 per woman is among the lowest in Asia? Does the prospect of fewer young workers supporting vastly more aging and ill pensioners threaten your economic progress?

Ambassador Mirpuri: There is more than one cloud; there is the demographic cloud. In that, I would say that our aging population is a very fit and active population as well. It is not a decrepit population that is unwell. Life expectancy has increased dramatically in Singapore, which is a success story. We have been fortunate with health care, nutrition, with extended life expectancy, people remain active a lot longer. My parents are in their 80s and still living active, healthy lives. That has been part of the Singapore economic story also. We do have a low birth rate, there are a lot of neo-natal policies that encourage young couples to get married and have children. It is an emotional choice for people to decide how they want to do it. Most young people are very focused on their careers; the choice of stepping out and having a family sometimes becomes more challenging for them. There are lots of measures to try and encourage them to do that. The economy has to adjust to the fact, not just Singapore, all developing economies (the U.S. being an exception because of large migration coming in) face this challenge. What to do with falling birth rates. Technology helps in some ways, automation, more robotics. But then you have to supplement the working population with people coming in from outside. Foreigners add again to the diversity. Some stay short term, others longer. We just have to adjust the economy to make it a lot more value-added, a lot less focused on labor intensive work but more capital intensive, value-added sort of activities.

Diplomatic Connections: Speaking of people coming to Singapore, there are approximately 30,000 Americans living happily there. But there are some critical differences between the societies. For instance, your deputy prime minister said one advantage of Singapore politics is you know who is going to win the next election. Do you see your managed democracy, with one party in the driver's seat, becoming a model for other nations, especially given the example that devalued American democracy model of gridlock and anger has become in the last election cycle or two.

Ambassador Mirpuri: I would not categorize it as a managed democracy. First, the 30,000 or so Americans who live, work, study in Singapore, it's been a very close relationship. There is a large American school, there are more than 3,000 U.S. companies which use Singapore as a regional hub. We have Singaporean companies entering the United States, creating jobs for American citizens. So that economic relationship is growing. It has helped Singapore's economic development and by Singapore investors coming here, it contributes to the U.S. as well. In terms of the political processes, I think the political models around the world are being questioned. If you go back to your first question about the great powers, even more important than the adjustment of great power relationships is the adjustment of political models. You just had a fairly bruising election here; it is your system. And, having had an opportunity to have had a front row seat over the past two years, we have seen and learned a quite lot from this.
You have very strong institutions that will continue these processes through. We have built up strong institutions. We have a parliamentary system, a different political model from yours. And you know we will adjust it, as it evolves accordingly, and if people want to see change. In terms of anticipating who is going to be in government, I think no one can anticipate that.

Diplomatic Connections: Because what we've seen in the western world, you talked about opportunity, there is an increasingly angry group of people who feel that they've been left behind by globalization. Is there a concern in Singaporean society or is this a western phenomenon of certain people feeling they are getting left behind by globalization.

Ambassador Mirpuri: Globalization disrupts everyone; it is just a fact. What we have tried to do in Singapore and maybe our size helps, is to keep people constantly updated. Work with various parts of society to say that jobs will change, how can we help you acclimate to these new jobs. There is a constant process of programs available to people, a new one was launched about a year ago called SkillsFuture. It means you have opportunities throughout your life to keep learning new skills. The global economy will keep moving and people will need to adjust. Sometimes the adjustment may have been very difficult and that may have led to some of the angry voices you have heard in many other developed countries. But what we try to do at the grassroots level in Singapore and across various industries is to help people to adapt. There are some who find it difficult to make that adjustment so there are other schemes to help them. Again, size helps us deal with some of these challenges. I would not say that we are unaffected by the waves of globalization, but we try to minimize the disruptions and difficulties that people have at home.

Diplomatic Connections: Finally, your predecessor, Ambassador Chan, was here for 16 years, became dean of the diplomatic corps. Are you looking to match that record?

Ambassador Mirpuri: (Laugh) No one can match Ambassador Chan. She was my professor at university, and I have a deep respect for her. I will stay as long as my government wants me to stay here.

Diplomatic Connections: And finally, when are we going to get a top flight Singapore-Malay restaurant in the city of Washington? You can't use your influence to get a good restaurant?

Ambassador Mirpuri: (Laugh) No, I don't think so. Singapore food is great. The difficulty is that it doesn't travel as well, partly because the ingredients are quite challenging. Getting the proper ingredients. It is a long complicated process to get these flavors right. It is easier in small batches to do at home. It is very hard for a large restaurant and to keep the standards high. New York's got a better range of that. A few more now in New York with Singapore flavor.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you, Ambassador Mirpuri.

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