Friday, 19 April 2013

To S'pore - for bright ideas and a good curry

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr enjoys rapport with Shanmugam
By David McMahon, The Straits Times, 17 Apr 2013

NEXT time you see a tall, professorial Australian mopping perspiration from his brow as he eats a Singaporean curry, look closer.

If he is seated at the same table as Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law, chances are that the bespectacled visitor is Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

It is not just the local cuisine that holds an attraction for him. He says he is always energised by the intellectual quality of Singapore's think-tanks.

During a brief stopover last Friday, on his way back from China, he spoke to The Straits Times about a variety of subjects.

Asked about the threat of North Korea and China's role in easing the crisis, his reply was far from one-dimensional.

"We feel solidarity with our partners, South Korea and Japan. We understand their deep anxieties. We believe China's role has been constructive and we urge all nations, especially those in Asia, to support the sanctions against North Korea. It is a gravely disturbing situation. Like Singapore, we all have a stake in it.

"Singapore has set out quite self-consciously to make itself an intellectual centre. It aspires to be a brainy nation.

"This is the country that set out to give itself centres of expertise in strategic thinking.

"I had a breakfast with some of your think-tankers this morning at the High Commission and they were just full of ideas."

So what sort of reading material does Mr Carr, a man in pursuit of ideas and deeper understanding, carry on his long flights? Among his selection, he says, is a book brought out by United States scholars with the observations of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew "on China and other matters".

In his frank opinion: "Every paragraph is arresting and underlined."

So I interrupt him. He actually underlines as he reads? Yes, he admits, as he checks to see whether he has the book in his briefcase to show me. He then confesses that he even folds down the top edge of some pages so he can return to certain passages of importance.

"There is a lot of value in there," he says of the book.

He points out that in 1988, the island republic's first prime minister told him that the perceptions of Australia being known for its "vast spaces" and "sheep running over the landscape" do not apply here. "He said you can't make that assumption about the city-state. It explains, I think, the concentrated strategic focus you get here."

Singapore holds many layers of attraction for Mr Carr. "The reason I stop over in Singapore as I criss-cross the region is to bring myself up to date and see what the think-tanks are saying, and what my colleague, Foreign Minister Shanmugam, is saying."

The two men met on Mr Carr's first overseas visit as Foreign Minister in March last year and obviously struck up such a rapport that the veteran Australian politician said: "I made the point of stopping over, even for four hours, in early December."

The two men met at the Orchid Country Club, where he says that the curry he ate was "so delicious".

Curries hold a special attraction. He confesses that he had a curry the night before our interview and ate a green chilli that he mistook for a green bean. He says with a chuckle: "My mouth was anaesthetised", and that the only relief he found was in a glass of hastily proffered full-cream milk.

I ask if he had any regrets about his revelation last week, shortly after the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, that she had warned him about curbing Asian immigration in an "unabashedly racist" manner after she left office.

Given a second chance to express his opinion, would he describe her in the same words? He does not flinch at the question. "Of course I would. If you're a public figure and a world historical figure, you will have people examine your strengths and weaknesses. She had attitudes on race that came out of the pre-World War II empire. She almost jumped on me, saying that we couldn't allow Asian migrants to take over Australia (during a conversation) in the great hall of Westminster.

"I'm not going to airbrush out the views she expressed and that I politely term as quaint. Asian immigration to Australia has been an astonishing success story and has energised Australia."

Our allotted time has long since ticked over but I am given the chance to ask one more question. So I choose to ask where he thinks the beleaguered Australian Labor Party will be, 12 months from now. "We will be in government," he declares, "having astonished all the naysayers and pessimists who are predicting demise."

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