Saturday, 1 November 2014

What diplomats think of S'pore

New book compiles their praises and critiques
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2014

"MANICURED and choreographed."

That was how Pakistan's former high commissioner to Singapore, Dr Sajjad Ashraf, described the country to a compatriot in 2004 when he arrived here to start his four-year posting.

Ten years on, Dr Ashraf - who now calls Singapore home - is sticking to his first impression.

"Real progress can only take place with synchronised action. A good choreographer is able to draw the best out of the performers," he wrote in the book The Little Red Dot Volume III: Reflections By Foreign Diplomats On Singapore, which was launched yesterday.

Citing ballets and military parades, he said: "The choreography and the manicured performers enthral people. With its ambitions and achievements Singapore enthrals the world.''

He added: "A choreographer cannot allow one misstep, otherwise the performance becomes sloppy. This is how I see the leadership here performing and taking the country to its 'manicured' levels.''

Dr Ashraf, now adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, concluded: "The Singapore story can only be felt by living amongst its people, by sensing its effervescence, self-confidence and its evolving identity."

His essay is among 61 contributions penned by former envoys from 43 countries.

Minister for Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam, speaking at the book launch in the National Library yesterday, said Dr Ashraf's story "underscored the complexity of state-society relations".

"Because we have lived in the rhythm of this 'choreography' all our lives, it is not always apparent in our daily hustle and bustle, though we should always remember that the contribution of every citizen keeps that rhythm going," he said.

Spain's ambassador and dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Mr Federico Palomera Guez, said in the book's foreword that the contributions from countries ranging from the US to Asean nations, is "testament to a small city-state that is about to turn 50, and has established formal relations with over 187 countries and now hosts 70 missions".

The series takes the name Little Red Dot - a phrase former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie used in 1998 to remind Singapore how small it was and that it should know its place in life.

But, as Mr Shanmugam noted, the phrase has come to symbolise the very opposite of what Mr Habibie wanted to convey - "small yes, but steely, determined, resolute, successful and influential".

The book is part of a series. The earlier two volumes featured stories penned by Singaporean diplomats. The new book "weaves our story into a larger fabric of interdependencies among nations and societies", noted Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister.

Priced at $39.60 (including GST), the book is available at major bookstores from today.

Excerpts from the book


"For one, a high degree of centralisation in the system can sometimes lead to insularity or rigidity. Singapore is a top-down polity.

Sometimes you cannot be fully sure if you are engaging the system intellectually. Is the official meeting with you simply to relate a decision or is he really interested in your views? Can your interlocutor feed your ideas back into the Singapore system?

Second, in trying to find the balance between control, stability, and an open society, Singapore tends to tilt toward control.

"From the American point of view, openness is the best guarantee of stability, even if it can lead to a noisier system. And there can be significant costs in this information age if controls cut too deep."

- Mr Frank Lavin, US Ambassador to Singapore from 2001 to 2005. He is now chief executive officer and founder of Export Now, which runs e-commerce stores in China for foreign firms.


"Singapore had been trying to strike a balance between higher productivity growth and more equitable distribution of wealth and taking this as a long-term objective. Singapore's goal is to transform the country into an 'olive-shaped' society.

"In this model, the middle class was the majority at the centre, forming a broad base, with the rich and the poor, smaller in number, at either end. Societies with large middle classes were relatively more stable...

"To identify objectives of growth for Singapore, (then senior minister Lee Kuan Yew) had visited many countries, and discovered that countries structured like an inverted 'pyramid', or 'pagoda', were unstable."

- Mr Yang Wenchang, China's Ambassador to Singapore from 1993 to 1997. He is president of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs.


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