17 September 2021
Madam President, Ladies & Gentlemen,
My sincere thanks to the Board of Trustees of Nanyang Technological University and the President and Council of NTU for this honour, which I truly appreciate.
2. My first involvement with NTU was in 1996, when I was in the Ministry of Defence and former President Dr Tony Tan was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. Dr Tan instructed me to approach the Totalisator Board of Singapore for the initial financial support to start an endowment fund for a think tank which he wanted to establish in the NTU. The late President, Mr S R Nathan, had just finished his term as Singapore Ambassador in Washington, and Dr Tan believed (correctly) that Mr Nathan would make an ideal Director for this think tank, given his background in security and foreign affairs.
3. This think tank – the Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies – was established because Singapore was not persuaded by the optimistic view of Western countries that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the West had won and the defence and security threats to the world were no longer of great concern. To Singapore, lower engagement by the Western powers in Asia meant more uncertainties and greater instability. Dr Tan felt that the Ministry of Defence would benefit from a think tank that could conduct in-depth research in geopolitics and defence/security issues. MINDEF officers were too busy coping with daily problems to devote their time to such research and “ponder the improbable”.
4. My second involvement in NTU was when I assumed the Chairmanship of the Board of Governors of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in 2009. (By then, IDSS had been inaugurated as RSIS). I was Chairman for ten years.
5. RSIS is both a graduate school and a think tank. While those in academia will know what a graduate school is, the role of a think tank may not be as well understood. Apart from producing in-depth research, a think tank like RSIS also plays a significant supporting, non-academic role for government.
6. The main government stakeholders who support RSIS – viz Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs – benefit from having a non-governmental entity like RSIS to organise events and courses for foreign officials, academics and politicians to come to Singapore. There is nothing sinister in the government having an interest in certain foreign individuals, or wanting to get to know them better and to develop a relationship between them and their Singapore counterparts. By supporting this effort, RSIS is complementing MFA and MINDEF in their foreign and defence diplomacy. RSIS lectures have helped the government to meet and listen to aspiring Presidential candidates from Indonesia while RSIS courses have provided our younger SAF officers with an opportunity to develop a relationship with up and coming military leaders from abroad. Better still if these foreigners are keen to develop intellectually by taking up a post-graduate course in RSIS. Hopefully, after their extended stay here, they will leave with fond memories of Singapore and close Singaporean friends.
7. Hence, the current Indonesian Minister of Home Affairs, Police Gen. (Retired) Muhammad Tito Karnavian received his Ph.D from RSIS in 2013. Two sons of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono obtained their Master’s degrees in RSIS. Sadly, we lost an up and coming alumnus of RSIS in the Indonesian Navy. He was the commanding officer of the ill-fated submarine which sank off Bali a few months ago.
8. Among foreign leaders who have delivered RSIS lectures was General Prabowo Subianto, the current Indonesian Defence Minister and a candidate in the last Presidential Elections.
9. As for the Ministry of Home Affairs, RSIS has a key role in the national effort to rehabilitate terrorist detainees and provide guidance to the general Muslim community. It is sometimes forgotten that counter-terrorism cannot depend on simply arresting and locking up terrorists. Equally important is the parallel effort to win over the hearts and minds of the terrorists and their families. The community must also be convinced that when the government acts against terrorists who are Muslims, it is not being anti-Islam. Rehabilitation of terrorists requires a group of dedicated and knowledgeable Muslims to convince the terrorists that their view of Islam is wrong. RSIS is proud that it has a couple of Muslim cleric-academics who support the government in this important role. This role may well gain in prominence in future now that the Taliban has regained power in Afghanistan. Most political commentators now believe that despite better PR this time round, the Taliban has not fundamentally changed, and will again provide sanctuary to jihadist groups which will pose a serious threat elsewhere, including Southeast Asia.
10. I would like to conclude by congratulating the graduands here today. You have had a very tough past 18 months. That you have succeeded in getting a degree today is testament to your resilience, perseverance and mental strength.
11. Congratulations and thank you!
Last updated on 17/09/2021