PLUS LEE KUAN YEW AND HIS ROLE IN SINO-SINGAPORE RELATIONS
The last week has seen top leaders zipping between China and Singapore to cement ties and sign new deals. Let’s take you through the high-profile visits one by one before diving deeper into more detail (Warning: Long article!):
Goh Chok Tong visits new Shanghai party chief and the Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park
Last week, Singapore’s Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong swung by Shanghai to visit her two-week old Party chief Yu Zhengsheng. This was not the first time they had met though. The two first met seven years ago when Yu was visiting Singapore as part of former premier Zhu Rongji’s delegation. At that time, Yu was Minister of Construction and Goh was the prime minister of Singapore. This time, Goh was on his way to the Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park — a development that has often been held out as the centrepiece of Sino-Singapore relations (but also one that caused a minor scandal to erupt in Singapore, more details later).
Wen Jiabao on his first trip to Singapore
On Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao began a 5-day visit to Singapore at the invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. This is Wen’s first visit to Singapore as premier, and the last time a Chinese premier had visited the city-state was in 2000. Wen’s whirlwind of activities included a speech at the National University of Singapore, a call on President S.R. Nathan, the formal launch of the Singapore-China Foundation and the signing of a new agreement on the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city project.
Lee Kuan Yew in Beijing
Prior to Wen’s visit though, Ministor Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore’s first premier and father of the current Prime Minister) managed to squeeze in a trip to Beijing to do his share of the networking. He met up with President Hu Jintao, the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and Xi Jinping, the former Shanghai Party chief who has just been elevated to the elite nine-member Politburo Standing Committee and is now China’s sixth most powerful politician. Lee Senior noted that the Chinese are studying Singapore very seriously – including “how its civil servants are trained and how the members of Parliament conduct Meet The People sessions”. He also had unusually high praise for Xi:
“I would put him in the Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgement. In other words, he is impressive.”
Lee is, as TIME’s Simon Elegant notes, a “shrewd judge of character”, and while his judgement of Xi appears to be a little far-fetched, Lee may have had Xi’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution in mind. Xi had spent some seven years working on a farm in the countryside. His own father was imprisoned by Mao in the early 1940s and purged again during the Cultural Revolution.
Lee Kuan Yew, his China insight and Sino-Singapore relations
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore and the man widely credited for bringing the city-state from third-world to first-world in the space of three decades, is revered by many as some sort of a modern day Confucius of pan-Asian politics. Although he has often been criticised for many of his hardline approaches, there is probably no one as eloquent or able as he is in interpreting Asia to the western world, and as such, many western leaders have often sought to tap into his brains in formulating their China and India policies, for instance.
This interview conducted by TIME Magazine in 2005 offers a glimpse into Lee’s China insight and the early foundations of Sino-Singapore relations that resulted from his initial dealings with Deng Xiaoping:
TIME: Who’s the most impressive person you’ve met in your public life?
LEE: Deng Xiaoping.
TIME: We knew you’d say that. But tell us why.
LEE: I met this small man when he came to Singapore in November 1978. This small four-foot-eleven man, but a giant of a leader. He gave me a long spiel�the Russian bear, Vietnam was his Cuba in the Far East, danger for you. I had provided him with a Ming vase spittoon, and I put an ashtray in front of him. He neither smoked nor used the spittoon. The same arrangements at dinner. He did not use either. At dinner he said, “I must congratulate you, you’ve done a good job in Singapore.” I said, “Oh, how’s that?” He says, “I came to Singapore on my way to Marseilles in 1920. It was a lousy place. You have made it a different place.” I said, “Thank you. Whatever we can do, you can do better. We are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the mandarins, the writers, the thinkers and all the bright people. You can do better.” He looked at me, but said nothing. In November 1992, during his famous tour of the southern provinces, he said, “Learn from Singapore,” and “Do better than them.” I thought, oh, he never forgot what I said to him.
But what impressed me was, the next day in our talks in Singapore, I said, “You spent all this time to convince me why we should fight the Russian bear. Let me tell you that my neighbors want me to join them to fight you, you’re the man who’s giving us trouble. All this communist insurgency and your broadcasts urging them on and so on.” He screwed up his eyes, peered at me, and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Stop it.” One young man telling one old grizzly, guerrilla fighter: “Stop it.” He said, “Give me time.” Eighteen months later he stopped it. That man faced reality. I’m convinced that his visit to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, that journey, in November ’78, was a shock to him. He expected three third-world cities; he saw three second-world cities, better than Shanghai or Beijing. As his aircraft door closed, I turned around to my colleagues, I said, [his aides] are getting a shellacking. They gave him the wrong brief. Within weeks, the People’s Daily switched lines, that Singapore is no longer a running dog of the Americans, it’s a very nice city, a garden city, good public housing, very clean place. They changed their line. And he changed to the “open door” policy. After a lifetime as a communist, at the age of 74, he persuaded his Long March contemporaries to return to a market economy.
Singapore’s unique position
It has been said that Singapore, as the only predominantly ethnic-Chinese country which China cannot claim as its own, has often played the role of a middle-man between Beijing and Taipei, though that role has been widely denied on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. In 1993, for instance, Singapore’s deft diplomatic juggling led Chinese and Taiwanese negotiators to meet in the city-state, cleverly positioned as neutral ground for both parties. Nevertheless, the official line toed by both PRC and ROC officials has been somewhere along the lines of “This is a family matter. We don’t need the intervention of any foreigners, thank you”.
For a long time, land-scarce Singapore has also been sending its army to train in Taiwan, developing deep ties with the Taiwanese military — with nary an objection raised by the Chinese. Singapore ministers had also often made “private” visits to Taipei — moves that were undoubtedly noticed by the Chinese. The challenge came in 2004, when Lee Hsien Loong, prior to his appointment as the new premier, made a private visit to Taiwan, as he had done before. President Hu Jintao had just come to power in China and the new leadership lodged a severe protest, perhaps with a view to reining in Singapore. Overnight, Singaporean businesses reported of lost business deals all across China. Subsequent efforts by Lee (and his father) to salvage the situation ended up provoking the Taiwanese side, with Taipei’s then foreign minister Mark Chen hitting the headlines with very colourful language, accusing Singapore of “fondling China’s balls” and criticising it for being “a country smaller than a piece of snot”.
The earlier-mentioned Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park also represented a small blip in Sino-Singapore relations and major embarrassment on the part of Singapore officials. As the Suzhou municipal government only held a minority stake (35%) in the park, they focused their efforts on the promotion of another competing industrial park. After five years of subsequent losses, the Singaporeans eventually lowered their own stake to 35% and raised the Chinese stake to 65%, and within a year the park made its first profit of US$3.8 million.
Fresh from its Suzhou experience, Singapore is helping China to build an eco-city in Tianjin that will be ready in 10 to 15 years. Though Sino-Singapore ties will no doubt be deepened over the next few years, that has come at a cost to the Singapore side, which has been made painfully cognisant by recent events of the fact that it stands to lose out much more than China does if it fails to engage China on its terms.
Straits Times: Shanghai leader hopes for better links with S’pore [Subscription required]
Channel News Asia: SM Goh visits SIP, opens science hub
Straits Times: PM Wen to begin visit to Singapore on Sunday [Subscription required]
Straits Times: Whirlwind of activities on Day 1 of China PM’s visit [Subscription required]
Channel News Asia: China sees itself moving in Singapore’s direction: MM Lee
TIME China Blog: China’s Nelson Mandela?
Spiegel: “It’s Stupid to be Afraid”
Asia Times: Behind the Taiwan-Singapore spat
Photo of Premier Wen Jiabao and Ministor Mentor Lee Kuan Yew from Channel News Asia