View from Singapore: What the West can learn from this confident trading nation

In April, Finsbury Chairman Roland Rudd participated in a dialogue about Brexit’s impact on Asia at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Following the event, Finsbury’s Andrew Yeo spoke to Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Special Advisor of the Institute of Policy Studies, who moderated the dialogue session.

You have represented Singapore for more than five decades at numerous international fora. What is the Singapore brand, and why is this important?

Singapore’s reputation is that of the well-informed, rational, and articulate problem solver. We try to be a bridge builder or consensus-maker.  This is our value proposition.

What foreign policy lessons would a small city-state like Singapore have to offer to the world?

Singapore is a role model for the world. We are small, with no natural resources and very successful. The lesson is that you don’t have to be big or to be well endowed with natural resources in order to succeed. We are also one of the cleanest and least corrupt countries in the world. The lesson is that Asia can defeat the cancer of corruption if it has the political will to do so. Singapore is a poster child for multiculturalism, where people of different races and religions live harmoniously together.

You were Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States of America and founding Executive Director of the Asia-Europe Foundation. What are some misconceptions the West has of Asia and vice versa?

Some in the West still suffer from ignorance and prejudice in their attitude towards Asia.  To be fair, I would say that some Asians are also ignorant about the new Europe and hold many prejudices about the Europeans.  When I was running the Asia-Europe Foundation, I tried to help each side to be better informed about and to be more respectful of the other side.

Asians have been learning from the West for centuries and they are willing to continue to learn from the West.  I think the time has come for the West to reciprocate and be willing to learn from the East.  Some Asian success stories include our work ethic, our high savings rate, our strong families, our reverence for education and our dynamic economies.

In your observation, what international trends give you optimism and what are you less optimistic about?

I am very optimistic about the future. First, we are witnessing the three biggest growth stories of human history, namely, the rise of China, India and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Second, I celebrate ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and am thankful that ASEAN has kept the peace in Southeast Asia for 50 years. ASEAN has also enabled the 10 member countries to prosper, and together we are the 7th largest economy in the world. According to the World Bank, we could be the 4th largest economy in the world by 2030.

What should governments or foreign policy practitioners do in response to such trends?

I am worried by the rise of right-wing populism, protectionism and economic nationalism in the West. This is a road to disaster. Americans seem to have forgotten the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which led to a trade war.  Asia must take the lead to defend free trade, globalisation and open economies.  The good news is that Asia is opening up to the world.  It is liberalising its trade regimes and integrating their economies with one another.

As President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea and chair of the Preparatory Committee as well as the Main Committee at the Earth Summit, you had to reconcile very diverse viewpoints to achieve your goals. What communication strategies should we learn from your experience?

My success in chairing those two UN conferences was based upon good luck, excellent colleagues and my ability to forge consensus. It is both an art and a science to be able to listen to all points of views and to think of solutions which accommodate the different viewpoints and interests.  The other point is that I was trusted by all my colleagues.

Is there any advice you have for the next generation?

My advice for the next generation is to be optimistic about their future, to embrace technology and to be willing to work anywhere in the world. As a Singaporean, multiculturalism is in our DNA.  We are able to work happily in different cultures and civilizations.

At Finsbury we advise companies on safeguarding reputations. If you were advising the next generation of leaders in Singapore on how to best look after Singapore’s reputation, what would your advice be?

A country’s reputation is precious, and multi-faceted. It is formed over decades by decisions from many contributors, ranging from politicians, diplomats and everyday citizens. But it can be swiftly undermined by short-term policy mistakes.

To maintain its favourable reputation across the globe, I believe that Singapore must remain open to investment, remain a confident trading nation and embrace the globalised world. This approach has been at the core of Singapore’s success over our first 52 years.