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PM Lee goes to Washington, DC

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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Of all its foreign relations, Singapore’s relations with the United States has been its most important one. More important, I believe, than that with China, Malaysia, Australia-New Zealand, Britain, Indonesia and Japan, all of whom are vital to our interests.

PM Lee Hsien Loong is in Washington DC to further cement that crucial link. We share many common military, strategic, business, research and cultural goals with the US. Not PM Lee’s first trip to the US, of course. He has been there numerous times on official visits, for medical treatment and to earn his Master in Public Administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

He would have his moment with President Donald Trump and the American political and business elites.  As his father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, always seemed to revel in every time he was in the US – unavoidably explaining his government’s position on click-baiting issues like chewing gum, freedom of the press and the death penalty – and carrying out his role as the pre-eminent China whisperer to the DC crowd as well be our chief salesman to attract American investment.

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Even today, from feedback from my friends in the US, Singapore is still LKY and the legacy of LKY and the late DPM and our first Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam continues to dominate the DC elite’s perception of this city state. It is a fixed deposit form of respect – it has high accruing value and is very bankable. It was built through hard work.

Not every Singaporean is aware that DC is about 25 hours’ flight away.  And in the earlier years, with one or two more stopovers, it was longer. You can’t suddenly fly back and be in Changi in seven hours like if you are from, say, Beijing.  So I take off my hat to the pioneer Ministry of Foreign Affairs people who did their early work in DC and New York (at the UN) – a group which included the late Punch Coomaraswamy,  the late S R Nathan, Tommy Koh, S Jayakumar, Chan Heng Chee, Kishore Mahbubani and Barry Desker. These are names which will still open doors in DC or the UN.

Their good work does not, however, mean that Americans necessarily care much about what’s happening outside their precinct or neighbourhood.

I have a number of stories to tell which will each reflect a different aspect of the Americans’ view of the world (Singapore – LKY apart – seems almost non-existent here).

I was once at the White House press room (yes, the one where Sean Spicer and now Sarah Huckabee Sanders has to field questions from the usually hostile White House press corps, with all the drama played out live to the world)). It so happened that Lee Kuan Yew was also there on a visit, just like Lee Hsien Loong this week. No, I was there on a separate exchange programme and had nothing to do with the late LKY’s party. But the journalists didn’t quite believe me, they kept saying they heard the press in Singapore was state-controlled and I couldn’t be there other than as a government propagandist! Wisely, I smiled and kept quiet.

On a different visit, I was part of a group of foreign journalists sent to a polling station in Boston, Massachusetts, to observe how American voters discharged their constitutional duties. There was this elderly lady volunteer helping out at the booth. She saw me and a female – two fair-skinned Asians  –  and she excitedly welcomed us and asked: “And how’s China, dearie?”.  We had to quickly explain that we were not from China – I from Singapore and the lady, a Filipina, from the Philippines. The American lady probably didn’t know what or where Singapore or the Philippines was.

And, of course, the next question quickly came: “And you do have free elections where you come from, don’t you?”  Patriotically, I replied Yes, we have free elections in Singapore. At the back of my mind, I had this thought that I must not let this well-meaning ma salleh think we are like China (or are we?).

Americans are, by and large, parochial. We are talking about a continental power of diverse locations and communities. It’s like many countries in one. People in Omaha, Nebraska, are as distant and different from Bostonians as Singaporeans are from the villagers of Sulawesi in Indonesia, Asean.

In Los Angeles, I asked a hotel operator (note: pre-smartphone era) what the time was in Washington. She got quite annoyed and asked what I was trying to do. She thought I was referring to Washington state on the US western seaboard which shared the same time zone as California. She had no idea I was referring to Washington DC on the East Coast which was, for her, foreign territory or another world away.

All this is to illustrate my point that Singaporeans have even more reason to get out of their own cultural cocoon and realise there is a huge world out there. We are not living in a Sino or East Asian world of Jay Chou and Faye Wong and ban mian, although culturally they seek comfort in the familiar and even demand Chinese food on European package tours. Visit non-Chinese speaking places in Asean, especially in Indonesia, and venture to India, the US and Europe.

PM Lee’s visit is important and even if Donald Trump has not yet visited this country, he and his superpower country cannot be ignored. Just as we cannot ignore countries where Mandarin is not spoken.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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