Monday 10 November 2014

Barry Desker: No single interpretation of the past

Long-serving diplomat Barry Desker, 67, and retiring dean at influential think-tank, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, gives Tham Yuen-C a history lesson, referencing Tan Pin Pin's controversial film. He also questions the value of free trade deals and the rankings chase, discusses terrorism and casts a foreign-policy eye at how Singapore will be affected by its largest neighbour, Indonesia, changing presidents.
The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2014

Over the Tan Pin Pin film To Singapore, With Love, and the launch of the Battle For Merger book, there has been discussion about versions of history. You graduated with a first-class honours in history at the former University of Singapore. Is there a correct version of the past?

There is no one interpretation of the past. There is a dominant interpretation of history, but this will be challenged by revisionist interpretations. So each generation writes and revises its own history. The tendency is that historians reflect the age in which they live, so you're present-minded and looking at the past, consciously or unconsciously, with the spectacles of the present.

The debate that we see (reflects that) we live in an era of greater political contestation. Therefore you will find that there will be challenges to the interpretation of history that most Singaporeans accepted.

So what should people make of these versions?

It is essential to remind a younger generation that life wasn't as simple as it is sometimes made out to be - 50, 60 years ago, we lived in a much more contestable environment where there were serious divergences of views.

The problem with Tan Pin Pin's film is that there is no sense of the debate that took place, that the views put forward by those interviewed were opposed by those who went on to govern Singapore. They presented themselves in the film in the best possible light as victims, with no one questioning their version of the past.

Our failure has been in underestimating the importance of history. Very few students in Singapore today even read history at the upper secondary level. We have grown up as a generation without an understanding of where we come from, what has led to the Singapore that is today. Whereas if we had been open to the varieties of historical interpretations which exist, and we were more aware of where we have come from, we will be much more sympathetic to the situation and challenges today. As well, we would probably in some areas be more questioning.

Indeed, Singaporeans are often reminded by the Government about how vulnerable the country is, race riots and fight against communists, et cetera. Do you see Singapore as still being as vulnerable as before?

We are less vulnerable today because we're more capable, we have greater control of our destiny. From the military perspective, we used to depend on the Malaysian army and the British military forces, but now we have the Singapore Armed Forces.

In 1965 we didn't have the people to take up our cudgels internationally. At the beginning, the foreign service was made up of anyone who had some international exposure and our earliest diplomats like former president S R Nathan learnt on the job. Today we've built up that capacity.

Speaking of history, you were with the foreign ministry for more than 20 years, from 1970. What was it like being a foreign officer of a young nation?

Very challenging. One year after I joined MFA (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), I became the head of the South-east Asia section, taking over from someone 20 years older. It was a tough learning exercise. Quite a number of people fell by the wayside very quickly.

When we accompanied the prime minister or ministers on visits, our delegations were very small. Singapore was a much poorer country and we didn't send as many staff, so you had to figure out the way things should be done very quickly. If you weren't adaptable, you dropped out or were cast aside.

You were sent to Indonesia in 1976 as embassy counsellor. Why did you choose to go there?

The Foreign Ministry decides postings. I chose to be an Indonesian specialist even as a graduate student, specialising in South-east Asian studies, including the study of Bahasa Indonesia. I also studied Dutch in order to be able to read Indonesian documents, as many leading Indonesians of the post-war generation were educated in Dutch.

From a Singapore perspective it was, and is, important. As Indonesia is a neighbour and the largest country in South-east Asia, I felt that it was critical that we developed some in-depth knowledge on the country.

How do you think Indonesia will do under its new management?

The election of Jokowi (Joko Widodo) as president is a significant development. He is the first president of Indonesia who does not come from "the establishment". He is a person who is capable and charming, and relates well with people.

Even though he is not someone with the experience of government, a number of the people in positions of authority are people with experience, and they will be part of the next Cabinet.

And how do you see this affecting Singapore-Indonesia relations?

I'm hopeful of a good relationship with the Jokowi administration. He is familiar with Singapore. Both his children studied in Singapore, one at MDIS (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and the other at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). He's had business links with Singapore with his furniture (exporting) business. He's someone who, when he was governor of Jakarta, decided to learn from Singapore when they wanted to build a subway system.

But with a democratic Indonesia, where a government needs to respond to popular sentiments, the likelihood of differences of views between Singapore and Indonesia will exist. It will not be like during the Suharto era when relations were excellent, because you could manage relations through the relationship of Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew. It will be a much more dynamic relationship we will have now.

What will be the implications for Singapore?

The management of bilateral relations will pose a challenge. There will be ups and downs but I am confident that we are dealing with an Indonesian leadership with whom we can work with.

In a piece for The Straits Times, you said some foreign-policy sacred cows should be done away with. What are they?

We give too much credence to ranking exercises. For example, looking at universities, we pay what seems to be excessive sums of money just for the branding to be associated with foreign universities. It does suggest a lack of confidence. If our universities are top class, why do we insist on sending top scholarship students abroad at the undergraduate level? Why must a liberal arts college be set up with co-branding from an American university?

(And) we may have gone overboard with supporting preferential trading agreements, or free trade agreements (FTAs). A lot of FTAs are only good for winning people kudos. I'm not just talking about Singapore, but a lot of the trade agreements reached in the East Asian region give you a feel-good impression, but the actual trade-enhancing benefits are actually quite minimal. It's the same as signing a joint communique at the end of a presidential visit - it looks good for the government signing the agreement, the bureaucrat doing the work.

It may have the benefit of improving the relationship between the parties, but it doesn't mean you're actually going to bring significant trade benefits.

Instead, there is a case for promoting plurilateral agreements (agreements between more than two countries) at the World Trade Organisation, where the gains are actually greater.

You have been dean of RSIS - and its predecessor, the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) - for 14 years. Why did you decide to step down now?

We have matured and someone else needs to come in. If you're in an organisation for too long, you will not see the issues and problems which exist. It is useful to have a fresh person to come in to take a different look at the organisation and to bring it to the next level. (Replacing Mr Desker are two people - an executive deputy chairman will now take care of the think-tank side, former high commissioner to Malaysia Ong Keng Yong; and the academic side is under new dean Joseph Liow.)

RSIS started out with a focus on security issues, but has become more well-known for its expertise in terrorism-related research. How did this come about?

When I joined IDSS, I noticed there was a need to build up expertise in political Islam. I had some background in it because of my interest in Indonesia, and I saw it as a coming challenge in the region. I felt a think-tank devoted to issues of interest to Singapore should be aware of the regional environment, so we looked at the relationship between Islam and politics in Malaysia and Indonesia.

We had arranged for a programme for the second half of 2001 on it, then the 9/11 attacks on the United States happened, and we seemed to be way ahead of everybody else because we were already bringing scholars in Islam and specialists in Afghanistan and on the Taleban to talk about these issues. Funding then became available for research in this area and it was on this basis on which we later built an expertise in terrorism and counter-terrorism.

But terrorism is only one of the areas in which RSIS has expertise. We are a leading centre for research on Asia-Pacific security, issues related to defence studies and national security, non-traditional security issues such as the environment, food security, energy security and international trade.

What is the role of think-tanks?

(We) play a role in policy evaluation and initiation. We consider possible alternative policies as well as their costs and consequences.

In East Asia, what often happens is think-tanks undertake policy-relevant research and the intention is to influence the debate on what policies regional institutions should take. Think-tanks are likely to be more effective when challenges to policy orthodoxy are more accepted and where it is recognised that innovation and change are essential if the country is to benefit from emerging regional and global developments.

So it is similar to a diplomatic role?

Think-tanks like RSIS that focus on international affairs engage in networking with counterparts.

For example, RSIS is a member of the Council of Councils, a grouping of the top 25 think-tanks globally which work on international issues. In the region, we serve as the secretariat for the Network of Asean Defence institutions, which is a Track Two organisation (non-governmental organisations that engage in unofficial interactions that could have an impact on diplomacy) that provides inputs for the Asean Defence Ministers Meetings.

It is true that think-tanks have greater freedom than a government to comment on issues. What about with RSIS?

As an institution, we do not take a position, but provide an avenue for the exchange of views and the discussion of issues. On the South China Sea, for example, we have become the place where South-east Asians, as well as the Chinese, Japanese and Americans have commented on the issue.

As the protagonists debate the issue on our platforms, they are forced to take into account the positions of other parties while their positions are scrutinised by others. The oceans are our lifeline but everyone recognises that we do not have any claims in the South China Sea.

Various ministers emphasise the importance of foreign policy and looking outwards. Why is this important?

For a small country like Singapore, where trade is three times the gross domestic product, one has to be aware of the world around. It is important to also recognise that we're part of the region even as we become more globalised and have relationships around the world. Singapore is not an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we have to build a relationship with our neighbours at the same time as we have strong relationships with the major powers.

But how would a regular joe relate to that?

This is the difficulty, because the process of foreign policy is essentially elitist, so it's very hard to translate this to a person in the heartland.

When we realise that our jobs depend on international trade or manufactured goods which are exported, (and) the crucial role of the logistics sector, the role of our port and airport, then the man or woman in the street can relate to the importance of foreign policy.

Regional or international crises remind us that we are not isolated and will be affected by the world around us. The average person worries about how it affects him or her.

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