The Washington Diplomat / November 2009
By Larry Luxner
When Barack Obama was growing up in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the young boy sometimes accompanied his mother on shopping trips to nearby Singapore.
Some 40 years later, Obama returns to the prosperous Asian city-state for the first time as president. Only this time he won't be buying anything.
Rather, Obama will be representing the United States at the 20th annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, scheduled for Nov. 13-15 and attempting to solidify regional support for U.S. positions on key issues ranging from economic recovery and climate change to nuclear non-proliferation and the war in Afghanistan.
During his two-day visit to Singapore, Obama will also hold the first-ever formal talks between a U.S. president and all 10 heads of state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) an event that could include a rare encounter with Burma's secretive military rulers.
Obama will arrive in Singapore from Japan, and after the summits he'll fly off to China and South Korea before returning to Washington.
It's hard to underestimate the economic muscle of APEC, founded 20 years ago in Australia as a forum to support sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, its 21 members are home to 2.7 billion people and account for roughly 40.5 percent of the world's population, 54.2 percent of world GDP and 43.7 percent of world trade.
As the most globalized economy on Earth, it seems only fitting that Singapore should be home to the APEC Secretariat.
"Every country in APEC will be looking to hear President Obama's trade message, since APEC is largely about trade," said Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's long-serving ambassador to the United States. "We're talking now not just about economic growth but also inclusive growth, balanced growth and sustainable growth."
She added: "The United States is the most important economic player in the world, and what you do in terms of your stimulus package and policies to deal with the recession is very important to us. President Obama came in with a message of change, and certainly for Southeast Asia, the Obama administration has made it very clear that they want to re-engage ASEAN. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did this quite brilliantly by taking her first trip overseas to Indonesia, a Southeast Asian country."
Chan, in a wide-ranging interview at the Embassy of Singapore last month, conceded that her tiny country smaller in size than New York City has been hit severely by the global recession.
"In January, we were projecting a 6 to 9 percent drop in GDP," she said. "That's quite substantial, given the fact we grew by more than 7 percent in each of the last two years. The first quarter of this year [in which the economy shrank by 12.2 percent] was very bad, but we've seen some big improvement since then."
In the third quarter of 2009 ended Sept. 30, Singapore's economy jumped by 14.9 percent after having shot up by 20.7 percent in the previous quarter. Official statistics now project GDP shrinking by only 2 percent in 2009 a huge improvement over the 4 to 6 percent drop forecast earlier this year.
"There's been a lot of pickup in the region lately," Chan said. "The stimulus packages [in China and elsewhere] have had some effect. We are highly dependent on global trade, so we pick up very quickly and we go down very quickly."
Singapore ranks as the busiest container port in the world, with Hong Kong a close second, though Shanghai is growing rapidly and may soon eclipse Singapore in volume. China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) now ranks as Singapore's top trading partner, having surpassed the United States several years ago, while Malaysia is in second place.
"We are highly dependent on global trade," she pointed out. "We have no natural resources no oil, no gas and no minerals so every penny we make depends on human resources and the talent of our people."
Singapore's 4.7 million inhabitants enjoy a per-capita income of $38,000 a year, second only to Japan in the Asia-Pacific region. One-quarter of the country's people are expatriates mostly from China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
"We have a fairly open immigration policy," said Chan. "We welcome immigrants from what we call traditional sources because these people are much easier to absorb culturally. We would like to keep an ethnic balance in the population."
That ethnic variety has contributed much to Singapore's multicultural society and made it a world-class tourist attraction and "food paradise" famous for its Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine.
Yet tourism has been badly hurt by the economic downturn. In years past, Singapore attracted about 10 million tourists annually mainly from Australia, China and elsewhere; last year, only seven million foreigners visited. Those who do visit Singapore are increasingly coming for medical tourism, a market Singapore is aggressively pushing.
"In general, the ASEAN region has done very well," she explained. "It has been visited by many crises. After 9/11, we had a problem with terrorist cells. Now Singapore is managing that problem, together with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. We were one of the first regions in the world to tackle that problem.
"Then, Singapore went through the SARS crisis and we came out of it too. It was a radical suggestion at the time to quarantine people, and it surprised everybody. But there was quiet acknowledgement that my region is generally more ready than others to deal with these pandemics," she said.
More recently, two Asian trouble spots have detracted from the region's overall stability: Burma and North Korea.
On Oct. 10, Burmese state media reported that the country's military leader has scheduled a general election for sometime in 2010. But the leader, Gen. Than Shwe, warned that any political parties which emerge from this process must avoid anything that "harms state interests."
The general's speech came the same day Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet with Western diplomats in Rangoon. Her hour-long discussions with U.S., British and Australian officials focused on the wisdom of keeping sanctions against Burma's military regime.
Those sanctions were imposed by the United States and the European Union after the military ignored the results of a 1990 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and sentenced her to years of house arrest.
In September, Hillary Clinton unveiled the State Department's new Burma policy.
"Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion. Going forward we will be employing both of those tools," Clinton told reporters, noting that unilaterally lifting sanctions would send the wrong signal to the regime in Rangoon.
Ambassador Chan said the ASEAN member states which include Burma "are fully supportive of the review of Burma policy undertaken by the State Department. We feel that the policy the U.S. has adopted since the late '80s of isolation and sanctions against Myanmar has not yielded any changes."
Chan suggested that "by offering carrots in addition to only sticks," Washington might get more results. "This is why we urge engagement with Myanmar. Try something different," she added, using Singapore's preferred name for Burma. "Especially after Cyclone Nargis, this policy of isolation only punishes the people of Myanmar."
The second Asian hotspot is North Korea, which has an embassy in Singapore and which was one of the first countries to recognize Singapore's independence in 1965.
Chan said that convincing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons is "a very difficult thing to do," but that in her view, North Korea is much less of a threat to world peace than Iran.
"Kim Jong-il is playing the same tattered card, because it's the one asset he has left: to get the world's attention," she said. "North Korea is surrounded by fairly stable countries, and the security situation is not as complex as that of the Middle East. Our countries are coming together to try to resolve the problem, and North Korea really wants the attention of the United States. The Obama administration has taken the view that it must show it's serious about wanting North Korea to negotiate."
Politics aside, Chan said she's sure Obama will receive a very warm welcome in Singapore, partly because of his intensely personal ties to Southeast Asia (he speaks some Bahasa Indonesian) but also because of his forward-looking view of the world.
"Younger Singaporeans were very caught up with this Obamamania," she said. "There's great curiosity and admiration for him, because of the way he speaks and what he says. His tone certainly appeals to people in Singaporeans, who are fascinated with him."
Chan dispelled the notion that Singapore is an authoritarian state with draconian rules and little personal freedom a view reinforced by the case of Michael Fay, a troubled American teenager caned four times in 1994 for stealing street signs and vandalizing cars.
The harsh sentence provoked an outcry in the United States and even led the Clinton administration to try to block the World Trade Organization's first ministerial meeting from taking place in Singapore.
But things are different now, said the ambassador.
"That's a very outdated version of Singapore. It's amazing how some of these old images still lurk around," she mused. "Singapore has changed drastically over the last 10 years. It's got zing and buzz now. There is some self-censorship, but increasingly young people are speaking out, thanks to blogging and the Internet."
She added that "we still have rules, but you really have to be obnoxious to be punished for breaking them."
Contrary to what many foreigners may think, public spitting will not result in a caning besides which, under the law neither women nor anyone over 50 may be caned.
"We were teased for years for being a nanny state, but a lot of the measures we've introduced, other countries now want to imitate. For instance, when we banned chewing gum, it was only for selling it. If you came into the city with chewing gum, nobody would confiscate it. You just can't sell it."
The reason for such an arcane law actually has little do with pollution.
"You could buy gum up until 1990, but one day our new Metro system got jammed. It didn't move for an hour or two, and we couldn't figure out why. Later we learned that it had nothing to do with the engines. A passenger had stuck his chewing gum on the electronic eye of a train door, so the door couldn't close. As a result, the whole system went down. Because of that, the authorities decided to ban the sale of gum."
She quickly added: "I know it's a big deal in the United States, but gum is not that important in Singapore. It's like if you ban the sale of fortune cookies here, nobody would get too excited."
Chan has been Singapore's ambassador here since 1996 and is now the second-longest serving ambassador in Washington, after Djibouti's Roble Olhaye. The diplomat, who was educated at the University of Singapore as well as Cornell University and has won several National Book Awards for her books on Singapore's history has traveled to 42 of the 50 U.S. states and personally knows dozens of senators and representatives.
"These 13 years have passed very quickly," she said. "I remain extremely interested in my work. There's not a dull moment in Washington. This is a very good posting, and I've learned a lot about diplomacy, American culture and the American people."
When asked how much longer she intends to remain in Washington, Chan smiled. "We get reviewed every three years," said the ambassador, "and eventually, all good things come to an end."