My foreign policy ideas started during school, says Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

The minister said he picked up foreign policy principles in his formative years in school

Photo: YouTube screngrab

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung gave a speech on February 11, at the annual conference of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute (MEI) where he drew a parallel between his role as education minister and foreign affairs.

He traced his early interest in foreign affairs back to his school years where he learned critical foreign policies.

The first part of his speech focused on his experience in school where he realised that he first learned about essential foreign policy principles and not in civil service.

The second half of his talk covered three major long-term trends and issues currently being faced by the world which can make foreign relations difficult.

These were US-China relations, the US’ role in oil production, and the shift in politics due to the Internet.

School and foreign policies

  • It’s not about size

The minister spoke about how he was one of the smallest kids in school and on the playground he often had to share with much bigger kids but regardless of size most of the time everyone happily co-existed. One reason for this was the constant supervision of teachers. Similarly he said smaller countries needed a universal set of international rules to flourish.

  • Cliques and comfort zones

Secondary school was when he learned his second lesson in foreign affairs. This was when the students liked to hang out in groups which usually had an alpha male or a leader. There were instances when these groups got on each other’s nerves. Ong however, belonged to “the larger non-aligned movement.”

He mentioned that amidst the cliques, there were times when everyone mingled and got along, and this was always during school events and field trips. The natural groupings were broken up, and the students willingly came out of their comfort zones, thanks to the orderly and non-threatening setting placed by the teachers and organisers.

He connected this to the “rule of ASEAN, which is a neutral, non-threatening organisation, that provides a centre arena for everyone including big powers to engage with each other.” He contrasted this description with the Middle East “which lacks the inclusive regional architecture.”

  • Foreign policies begin at home

Ong emphasised that a student’s well-being depended on himself or herself and was not the responsibility of the state and this was an important lesson in both foreign affairs and in school.

Moreover, these foreign policies start at home. “Foreign policy is about how a country is run, how cohesive society is and what value we can bring to the world,” said the Minister of Education.

He added, “We are determined to make a small island-state in Southeast Asia, straddling across important trading routes and sea lanes, relevant and important to the world.”

Three major long trends that make managing foreign relations more challenging

  1. The trajectory of US-China relations

The US and China relations is the “most important bilateral relations in the world with the rest of the global community having a stake in it,” said Ong, and “too much pessimism is as bad as naïve optimism.” He proceeded to give two reasons why a US-China war is highly unlikely.

One is the unprecedented level of interdependency between the two powers, such as in trade, finance, tourism, investment, currency, and people.

He does not think any other two major powers have this much of interdependency. The second is while global powers are engaged in fierce competition, history has defined the US and China, on the whole, as benign powers, with no conflicts of interest. Unlike US-Soviet relations, these two world powers are reconcilable and reach a new modus vivendi.

  1. Need for economic transformation

His second point focused on the long-term trend of oil production with the world shifting away from oil due to climate change. He also said that the rise of renewable energy is changing the dynamics of the world’s reliance on oil and further cements the role of the US as a “swing producer” that can control prices via output and vice versa.

  1. Evolution of politics brought about by technology

Lastly, the Minister of Education talked about the effects of the internet and social media in changing politics and the way people vote. “More profound changes to politics are happening because social media has fundamentally altered the way people receive information, communicate with one another, socialise and coalesce,” said Ong.

He added that personality has become as important as capability in the age of social media politics that bombard the public with too much information and there are signs that it is already malfunctioning as it creates more diverse and smaller groups with clashing interests and greater divisions.

These conditions introduce new realities and challenges to governance.

Watch the full speech below:

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