20 July 2023
1 I am honoured by the invitation of RSIS and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong to take part in the launch of Bilahari’s new book, “Singapore Is Still Not An Island”.
2 I am also very glad to see so many familiar faces at today’s event.My congratulations to Lian Choo for successfully bringing about this publication. It is the second volume of personal essays and speeches written or given by Bilahari Kausikan, after he retired from the Singapore Foreign Service.
3 The titles of Bilahari’s two books – “Singapore is Not An Island” and “Singapore is Still Not An Island” – convey the idea that we in Singapore, a small city state, cannot insulate ourselves from regional or international developments. In fact, in this sense, Singapore will never be an island.
4 We are so dependent on the world for a living that we must remain relevant to those who find us useful, and yet must have independence of mind and action to protect our national interests.
5 The United States and China are entering into a period of great geopolitical contest for leadership to reshape the world international order. The coming decades will be very uncertain and difficult.
6 For older folks like me, the Cold War years of rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed simpler and more clearcut. There were two blocks – communists and the developed democracies. The rest were “non-aligned”. But the world was less well-off then.
7 At the risk of oversimplifying my analysis in the next few minutes, I am going to say that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, political systems in some countries underwent changes. There also was a rise of capitalism. China was also opening up and reforming its economy. It did relatively well and joined the WTO in 2001. It did even better economically after that. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens were lifted out of poverty. There is a rising middle class. China grew in influence and reach, and to some, it over-reached.
8 The United States has begun to view China’s rise as a strategic challenge to its position as the world’s number one superpower. When China was poor, it was not a threat. But over the years, China’s economy grew to become the world’s second largest economy, about two-thirds the size of the United States. It was also modernizing its armed forces. Hence, the powers in the United States decided that something must be done to slow China’s rise. Their leaders believed that China was not going to be like them. They decided to impose tariffs and other restrictive measures on China.
9 The strategic rivalry between the United States and its allies and China will define how the world would look like for decades to come. Our region is now at the epicentre of this rivalry between them. The contest has many dimensions: geopolitical, economic, technological and security.
10 Until recently, words like “bifurcation” and “decoupling” were used whenever one talks about the United States-China contest. Then, “decoupling” was soft-peddled to be called “derisking”. It is understandable that one has to be careful to avoid excessive dependencies but not to cut off economic links. It is understandable to plan for backups and build for resilience as the Americans and their allies are doing; it is understandable that China is responding by trying to become more self-reliant, but both sides must be mindful that their actions should not undermine the foundations on which the prosperity of all of us – the US and China included – depended on and have been built.
11 Unlike the former Soviet Union or contemporary Russia, China like the US is now a major global economic player. Last year in 2022, together the US and China accounted for 43% of global GDP. Whatever their concerns about each other, ‘decoupling’ or ‘derisking’ or trying to become more self-reliant, if taken too far could be disastrous for both of them and all the rest of us.
12 Fortunately, there are some signs that both countries are beginning to understand this reality and that the world is large enough for all powers to collaborate and thrive. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said as much recently during her trip to China. The fact that before her visit, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met Wang Yi in Vienna, and the Chinese received Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Chief William Burns and Climate Special Envoy John Kerry in Beijing while Commerce Minister Wang Wentao visited Washington DC for talks with his counterpart, shows that both sides are trying to set limits to their competition and not let it get out of hand. Last year, President Joe Biden met President Xi Jinping in Bali. Hopefully they will meet at this year’s G20 and APEC meetings.
13 But the relationship is still fragile and we should carefully watch what they do. Responsible leadership is needed to provide a stable environment for ordinary people in all countries to make a decent living. All governments aspire to bring a better life for their citizens.
14 I hope that the United States and China will manage their differences rationally and find a modus vivendi to work together for the common good of all countries. There are no winners in confrontation and conflicts. There are broader and equally critical issues that require the cooperation of all major powers to play their responsible part, be they on climate change, pandemic preparations, anti-narcotics trafficking, ethical use of AI/ChatGPT, anti-terrorism and so on.
15 For Singapore to navigate the complexities of great power competition requires a national effort. It is not just a matter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or MFA, or even the Government as a whole.
16 Singapore became independent when the US-Soviet Cold War competition was hot in Southeast Asia and only two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
At that time, we had much less economic, diplomatic and military capabilities at our disposal.
17 Today, Singapore has better resources, with a skilled workforce and has a people who placed their trust in their leaders to plan for their future. The trust built up over the decades between the people and the Government must be sustained, to help Singapore navigate a more treacherous world. We survived and prospered under the most adverse conditions in our early years. There is no reason why we cannot do so again provided we maintain a clear sense of our national interests and hold together as a nation.
18 The historical perspective in many of the essays in Bilahari’s new book will be valuable to many young Singaporeans who have no personal memory of the events we have experienced. They cover a wide range of issues and deal with Singapore’s core interests. Foreign policy must be based on a strong domestic consensus.
19 Bilahari points out that the public and policy makers often pay more attention to events and not enough attention to the processes in which events are embedded. By putting them in proper perspective, we can appreciate the complexities of events and can maintain what he describes as “the psychological poise” that comes with such a perspective.
20 I have known and worked closely with Bilahari during the time I served in Government. I still have quite vivid memories of our time together at MFA. Our discussions were always guided by our collective sense of what was best for Singapore’s national interests, and the policies that were established thereafter certainly stood the test of time. It is for this reason that I am pleased to be here today to the launch of his second book of essays, “Singapore is Still not an Island”.
21 I look forward to hearing more of Bilahari’s views here today, and to the discussion with the book’s commentators, Professor Chan Heng Chee, our former Ambassador to the US, and Mr Peter Ho, formerly Permanent Secretary of MFA and Head of the Singapore Civil Service, both of whom have also distinguished themselves in their contributions to Singapore’s foreign policy achievements.
22 I hardly speak publicly after I stepped down from the Cabinet. I am speaking to you, on my own, in my own capacity, for myself today as I hold no official position.
23 Thank you very much for your patience.
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Last updated on 21/07/2023