Singapore’s national interests vis-a-vis China

Our national interest is to see a growing and prosperous China that is at peace with its neighbours and the rest of Asia. But China may not be the benevolent power that it has been claiming to be for the past 10 years.

As expected, Lee Kuan Yew’s recent speech to the US-ASEAN Business Council, where he encouraged the US to engage more with Asia to counter China’s growing might, evoked fierce criticisms by netizens in China of not just the Minister Mentor, but of Singapore as well.

Some belittled our geographical size, while others said that MM Lee had treated the Chinese as outsiders although they had treated Singaporeans as “among their own”.

I previously wrote about MM Lee’s speech and supported his views. Those less in tune with Singapore’s foreign policy may have been under the misimpression that Singapore welcomes China taking the lead in Asia, politically and economically. We don’t.

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Balancing an emerging dragon

I think Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington on October 27th is an important read for any Singaporean who is going to live to see the next 30 to 40 years in this country.

He was basically appealing to American leaders to get more involved in East Asia than they have been in the recent past. He warned them against ignoring this region, because doing so would risk allowing China to replace them as the pre-eminent power in the region.

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Victory for SBY, Indonesia…and ASEAN too?

Photo from Reuters

I am cheered that Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, better known as SBY, has won his second term in as president of Indonesia, with a very comfortable margin which pollsters estimate at over 60%. Although the official results are not due till later this month, SBY has already declared victory and world leaders like Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have already called him offering their congratulations.

This is a victory not only for him and his running mate, Boediono, the former central bank governor, but the great nation of Indonesia as well. The peaceful and fair election — contestations by SBY’s challenger Megawati notwithstanding — seals Indonesia’s transition from a military dictatorship under Suharto just over 10 years ago, to a thriving democracy with a free press and a steadily growing economy.

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Singapore, ASEAN must strongly condemn Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an apparently uninvited visit by an American man.

This is clearly a flimsy excuse to extend her detention, which expires at the end of this month. These latest charges carry a penalty of 5 years imprisonment, which would stretch her detention beyond even the 2010 elections, effectively disqualifying her from contesting it.

She has been under house arrest under the country’s military regime for 11 of the past 19 years in since her party, the National League for Democracy, was elected to power in the last democratic elections in the former Burma.

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Protestors storm ASEAN Summit hotel

Red shirted protestors loyal to deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra stormed the hotel where ASEAN leaders, including PM Lee, FM George Yeo and Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang, were holding the annual ASEAN summit, prompting the Summit to be postponed indefinitely. The Thai government has declared a state of emergency.

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Obama’s engagement with Indonesia will reap great dividends

The administration of President Barack Obama demonstrated a stroke of genius when they chose Indonesia as one of their key pillars in their strategy of “smart power”.

Indonesia was only the second country, after Japan, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited since taking up office as her nation’s top diplomat. She told reporters in Jakarta that “building a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia is a critical step on behalf of the United States’ commitment to smart power”.

Her visit paves the way for President Obama’s expected state visit to Indonesia either before or after the APEC conference in Singapore later this year. In Indonesia, he is likely to deliver his much anticipated landmark speech addressing US-Muslim relations.

I must admit that when I first heard that Mr Obama was to deliver such a speech on the US’ relations with the Muslim world, I assumed that it would be in Cairo (Egypt) or Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Egypt has long been one of the most influential Arab countries, and is the largest in terms of population. It is also the recipient of more US aid – including military aid – than any country in the world, save Israel. Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth and being home to Mecca, stands out as one of the most obvious countries to engage Muslims from.

Yet, the Obama administration appears to have chosen Indonesia. On further analysis, Indonesia could turn out to be an ideal choice.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country by far. It is the fourth most populous nation, after China, India and the US. When people think of the “Muslim world”, many immediately conjure up images of bearded Arabs in turbans and long flowing robes. But the reality is that most of the Muslim world resides outside of the Middle East, in places like Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa.

Indonesia is also the world’s third largest democracy. By engaging Indonesia, the US is not-so-subtly giving notice to autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that the US is not turning a blind eye to their dictatorial ways for the sake of pragmatic expedience. This gels in well with Mr Obama’s repeated campaign promises to wean America off its addiction to oil which makes it beholden to their “enemies”.

Indonesia is not only aligned with the US’ renewed focus on Asia, but also lies in the heart of a dynamic region that the Bush administration sorely neglected – Southeast Asia. It doesn’t hurt that Mr Obama spent five of his formative years living and schooling in Indonesia, making him a ready celebrity in the vast country.

So by engaging Indonesia, the US is killing multiple birds with one stone.

But how does this affect Singapore? By engaging Indonesia, the US shifts the sights of the world on Southeast Asia and the ASEAN countries, which includes Singapore.

One area of engagement with Indonesia will surely be improved military-to-military relations. Indonesia is Singapore’s largest neighbour and a potential military threat, particularly if their armed forces are not sufficiently professionalized and under the full control of a democratically-elected civilian government. With improved military relations, the US will be able to influence the development of the TNI (the Indonesian army) and possibly base more of its forces in the region. This will be a much needed force for stability in the region, possibly averting a disastrous situation like in 1999 when the TNI went on a rampage in East Timor after the latter voted to separate from Indonesia.

Greater US engagement will bring with it greater economic opportunities for Indonesia and the region. The economic development of Indonesia is in Singapore’s best interests, since a thriving Indonesia will provide a nearby market for Singapore’s exports, and help us diversify from our dependence on the US and Europe to sell our goods and services to.

Obviously it is still early days into the new US administration. Whether he makes good on his promise to build a bridge to the Muslim world remains yet to be seen. It is also unclear whether the focus on the non-Arab Islamic world will win over the Muslim ground, which still looks with much reverence to the Arab world as the heart of the Muslim ummah. Nevertheless, I am optimistic after seeing these first steps, and I look forward eagerly to President Obama’s visit to the region in November.

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