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Why Singapore’s appointment of a new ambassador to China is significant for both nations

Analysts say the former cabinet minister's appointment adds significant weight to Singapore's efforts in showing Beijing preserving bilateral relations with China is a major priority

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Lui Tuck Yew, former navy chief turned top bureaucrat, is Singapore’s new ambassador to Beijing. Lui who joined the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in 2000, also served as transport minister from 2011 to 2015.

Singaporean analysts say that the former cabinet minister’s appointment adds significant weight to Singapore’s efforts in showing Beijing that preserving bilateral relations with China is a major priority.

Chong Ja Ian, a National University of Singapore professor who closely tracks Singapore-China ties, said Lui’s stature would be appreciated by a China that was increasingly parsing how its neighbours viewed it.

According to Chong, Lui’s experience would help him navigate a China that was “much readier to take offence at a range of issues” as well as “growing pressure from Chinese nationalism.”
“China now had the economic power to pressure and ‘distract’ the leaders of neighbouring countries, Chong said, making managing ties trickier than before.”
Chong also added that Lui’s experience in government – including as a second minister for foreign affairs and as the second minister for defence – was relevant for several government-to-government projects Singapore had committed to in China.
Another analyst, Benjamin Ho, a research fellow with the China programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Lui’s naval background put him in good stead as China and Singapore explored a deepening of military ties. “Sino-Singapore relations are also premised on very strong economic cooperation and Lui is expected to further contribute to this area,” Ho said.

Political scientist Bilveer Singh, a frequent commentator on local politics, commented that calling Lui a “failed minister” turned diplomat was unfair.

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Lui was just “caught at a time when there were a lot of things going on and he became a convenient punching bag,” Singh said.

“Anything wrong with the MRT, anything wrong with the bus, [people] blamed him. He was a convenient target,” he added.

Bilveer recalled and believed that when Lui’s was Singapore’s ambassador to Japan, he proved his mettle as there had been “no major controversies” between the two countries, adding that the former politician had gained the trust of top leadership in Singapore as well as in Japan and China.

“If he did not do well, he wouldn’t be moved to China. China is our No 1 top diplomatic post,” said Bilveer.

Lui’s exit from politics in 2015 – just before a general election – came on the back of widespread criticism about a decline in the reliability of the country’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) network due to a lack of focus on maintenance.

Many Singaporeans pinned blame on Lui, and in announcing his departure, he told The Straits Times newspaper: “In politics, you need a tender heart and a thick skin, not a hard heart and thin skin. I think my heart, my skin, like all my body parts, are fine.” -/TISG

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