Thursday 4 August 2016

Official Visit by PM Lee Hsien Loong to The United States of America

The Obamas honor the Prime Minister of Singapore at their 12th White House State Dinner

A toast to 50 years of US-Singapore friendship
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2016

The friendship between Singapore and the United States was celebrated on Tuesday night, as President Barack Obama hosted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the first White House state dinner in Singapore's honour in three decades.

The strong bilateral relationship that has grown since diplomatic ties were formally initiated 50 years ago had already been on display through much of PM Lee's official visit to the US capital, but the glamorous black-tie dinner proved to be the climax.

As they toasted each other, both leaders lauded the enduring ties and looked forward to continued collaboration.

"Let's continue to build something special together," Mr Obama said as he raised a glass, borrowing a call PM Lee made last year to Singaporeans when he was sworn in after the General Election. "Onward, Singapore - Majulah Singapura. Onward, America. Cheers. Yam seng."

While making a toast to Mr Obama, PM Lee hailed the American President's leadership, adding that he was struck early on by Mr Obama's emphasis on Asia.

"I remember my first meeting with you at the Senate. It was May 2007. You were in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign, and not yet the front runner for the Democratic nomination. But I was struck by your focus, your informed interest in Asia and your desire to cement America's role in it," he said.

As he praised America's ideals such as openness and generosity of spirit, Mr Lee said he hoped the US would remain engaged in Asia.

He said: "You seek to build a world where countries can prosper together. You make common cause with others to fight the problems which plague mankind, be it extremist terrorism, poverty, Ebola or climate change. That is why 70 years after the Second World War, America is still a welcomed power in Asia."

Nearly 200 of Washington's leaders - alongside some from Wall Street and Hollywood - attended the state dinner. Singapore is the first South-east Asian country to receive such an honour under the Obama presidency.

Leaders pay tribute to deep bilateral ties
Obama, PM Lee give speeches reflecting strong personal rapport, express confidence US-Singapore ties will endure
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2016

When US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised their glasses at the state dinner on Tuesday night (yesterday morning, Singapore time), it was a toast to not just the depth of current bilateral links, but also the strong personal rapport between the two leaders.

In tributes that each lasted about seven minutes, the two spoke warmly of each other and even threw in a few jokes.

Just as he did during the arrival ceremony earlier on Tuesday, Mr Obama liberally littered his remarks at the dinner with Singaporean references and colloquialisms.

He started his toast by acknowledging the recent inclusion of hawker stalls in the Michelin food guide. "We all know how seriously Singaporeans take their food. In Singapore, even the street vendors - the hawker stalls - earn Michelin stars - which creates some pressure this evening," he said to laughter from the audience of nearly 200.

"We were tempted to offer each of you a Singapore Sling or some chilli crab. However, for those of you who know its unmistakable scent - which never seems to go away - you'll understand why we are not serving a fruit known as durian here in the White House."

When it was his turn to take to the podium in the White House East Room, Mr Lee landed punchlines of his own.

He spoke of how former US ambassador Steve Green was crucial in teeing up the midnight golf game between former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong and former US president Bill Clinton that eventually led to the US-Singapore free-trade agreement.

Noting that Mr Clinton was serving his last term then, he quipped that this "shows what can be done even during lame duck periods".

But the biggest laughs came when Mr Lee took a jab at conspiracy theories about Mr Obama not being born in the United States.

While announcing Singapore's gift of an orchid hybrid named Dendrobium Barack and Michelle Obama, he said: "This is a hybrid of breeds native to Singapore and Hawaii, where the President was born - most of us believe."

Jokes aside, both leaders also expressed confidence that US-Singapore ties would endure.

Mr Lee said America has much to offer Singapore.

"Singapore admires America's dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal. These qualities attract the best and brightest from around the world," said Mr Lee.

"This is something that Singapore hopes to emulate as we seek to tap this spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship."

Mr Obama, in turn, said the bond between the two countries goes beyond geopolitics.

Noting that the first American representative to Singapore - a planter named Joseph Balestier - still has a road named after him, he said: "It's a reminder that as we pursue a more peaceful and prosperous order in the Asia-Pacific, our partnership is rooted in more than strategic interests. We're bound together by history, by family and by friendship."

The ceremony, which ran for nearly four hours with political leaders, corporate chiefs and TV stars in attendance, capped off Mr Obama's 12th state dinner and the first one he has granted in honour of a South-east Asian country.

After their meeting earlier on Tuesday, Mr Lee and Mr Obama faced the press, both advocating strongly for free trade.

And while Mr Lee declined to weigh in on the US election when asked, he said he hoped cooler heads would prevail after the polls in November.

"Our experience of American elections, presidential elections, has been that many pressures build up during the election campaign. And after the elections, in a calmer, cooler atmosphere, positions are re-thought, strategies are nuanced, and a certain balance is kept in the direction of the ship of state. It doesn't turn completely upside down."

VIPs, celebrities attend state dinner
Some 200 guests present; attention paid to detail of room design, with musical entertainment rounding off the night
By Melissa Sim, US Correspondent In Washington, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2016

It was a glitzy affair attended by not just political and corporate bigwigs, but also actress Keri Russell and actor Matthew Rhys, as well as Amy Tan, author of best-selling novel Joy Luck Club.

The state dinner, honouring 50 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Singapore, began with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee arriving in a black limousine at the North Portico of the White House, where they were received by US President Barack Obama and Mrs Michelle Obama.

The men wore black tuxedos while the women were a picture of elegance - Mrs Lee in a gold and red kebaya matched with a red shawl, and Mrs Obama in a strapless ivory-coloured dress by Brandon Maxwell, singer Lady Gaga's fashion director.

As the Marine Corps band struck up a tune, the two couples descended the grand staircase of the White House, pausing briefly at the foot of the stairs for official photographs before heading off to dinner.

Close to 200 guests packed the East Room where dinner was held and which was decorated with yellow orchids and roses, a symbol of the friendship between the US and Singapore.

Flickering candles and a large spray of flowers adorned a feature wall, forming a grand backdrop for the head table, where PM Lee and Mrs Lee were seated.

Much attention was paid to detail as the yellow flower motif was used throughout the room, from the pattern of the table cloth to the projected lighting design on the ceiling.

Midway through dinner, violinists entered the room and played the tune of popular Malay folk song Di Tanjong Katong, prompting many to whip out their cameras to capture the moment. Among them was Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who posted the video on his Instagram account.

Mr Lee's Facebook page also offered a 360-degree look at the state dinner, just as he was raising a toast and the cameras were clicking incessantly.

More musical entertainment rounded up the night as the guests filed into the State Dining Room, where chairs were tightly packed.

Mr and Mrs Lee had front-row seats as American singer-songwriter Chrisette Michele opened her segment with the song Be OK.

As guests bobbed to the music, the 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln, observed the proceedings from his portrait on the wall. Touching his chin in what must have been conceived as a pensive posture, he looked quizzically at the immaculately dressed guests gathered before him, before the evening drew to a close.

By Melissa Sim, US Correspondent In Washington, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2016

Singapore and the United States announced a slew of measures to boost cooperation, including an agreement to work more closely on cyber security and a US-Singapore scholarship programme.

Both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Barack Obama welcomed these new initiatives during a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday, and noted the growing cooperation in areas such as climate change and counter-terrorism.

The new scholarship would fund summer exchange programmes for 50 Singaporean and 50 American students over the course of the next five years.

A new memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries would also bring about regular information exchanges and the sharing of best practices on cyber security.

It commits both parties to "conduct joint cyber-security exercises and collaborate on regional cyber capacity-building and cyber security awareness-building activities", according to a statement.

These announcements came on a day when trade - in particular, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal - dominated a joint press conference at the White House.

Both leaders advocated strongly for the deal, with Mr Obama spending nearly 20 minutes laying out his argument.

First, he said the 12-nation trade pact "knocks out 18,000 tariffs that other countries place on American products and goods".

"If everybody agrees that we're going to have lower tariffs, that's good for American businesses and American workers. And we should want that, we should pursue it," said Mr Obama.

Second, he said the TPP strengthens labour and environmental agreements in partner countries.

"We're raising standards for workers in those countries, which means it's harder for them to undercut labour standards here in the United States. The same is true for environmental standards," he said.

Appealing to liberals opposed to the deal, Mr Obama added: "If you care about preventing abuse of workers, child labour, wildlife trafficking, overfishing and the decimation of forests, all those things are addressed in this agreement."

Both Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent Donald Trump have said they oppose the TPP, but Mr Obama remains resolute.

"Hopefully, after the election is over and the dust settles, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal and it won't just be a political symbol or a political football," he said.

Adding to Mr Obama's argument, Mr Lee highlighted "the other side of the economic benefit" not only for producers but also for consumers in America.

"I am spending, I am consuming, I am importing and, because it's freed up trade, I am getting a wider range of products, of services, of opportunities, which will improve my livelihood," he said.

He also made it clear that America's reputation is at stake if it drops the deal, saying that America's partners had to "overcome some domestic political objection, some sensitivity, some political cost to come to the table and make this deal".

"And if, at the end, waiting at the altar, the bride doesn't arrive, I think there are people who are going to be very hurt, not just emotionally, but really damaged for a long time to come," said Mr Lee.

The TPP would point the world in the right direction.

"If you set the wrong direction, maybe in the next 50 years, some time, you will turn around, but it will cost you many years and the world will have to pay quite a high price," said Mr Lee.

US Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry held a state luncheon for Mr Lee after the press conference.

Singapore a solid-rock partner, says US President Obama
Bilateral ties with the US have remained strong through the years, says PM Lee
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 3 Aug 2016

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hailed the 50 years of diplomatic ties between their two countries at the White House yesterday (Aug 2), highlighting the many ways the two sides contribute to each other and the common values they share.

In brief remarks during a grand welcome ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr Obama called Mr Lee and Singapore "solid-rock partners".

"Today, our friendship and shared interests bring us together in common pursuit of a common vision - a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific and a more secure world," he said. "As the United States has rebalanced our foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific, Singapore - and Prime Minister Lee, in particular - have been solid- rock partners."

He also reiterated remarks he made in an interview with The Straits Times where he referred to Singapore as an "anchor" for US presence in the region.

The President littered his speech with Singaporean-isms, referring to "rojak" when talking about Singapore's multicultural society and "uncles and aunties" when addressing some 2,000 people gathered for the ceremony.

"In the United States, we call ourselves a 'melting pot' of different races, religions and creeds. In Singapore, it is rojak - different parts united in a harmonious whole," said Mr Obama. "We're bound by the belief that no matter who you are, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it."

In his remarks, PM Lee talked about how far ties have come in the decades since founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited the US in 1967, as well as the US' role in Asia's development.

Said PM Lee: "Almost 50 years later, the world has completely changed. The Cold War is long over, and the threat of communism has disappeared. Asia is at peace, though tensions are not entirely absent... America's endurance, policies and actions have contributed greatly to this current peace and prosperity."

He also noted that the strong ties have withstood many political changes. "Singapore's own ties with the United States have remained steadfast through nine US presidents - five Republican and four Democratic - and three Singapore prime ministers," he said. "We will maintain these bipartisan links with whichever party wins the elections in November."

As he has done on previous visits to the US, PM Lee stressed the importance of the US being engaged in Asia. He also reiterated calls he made on Monday to US industry and business leaders for the US to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact.

"I know that America has many preoccupations, both at home and abroad. Some Americans are anxious and frustrated with economic uncertainty and the uneven results of globalisation, trade and foreign engagement. But the US has many interests, investments and friends in the region. These strengthen the United States. Singapore fervently hopes that the US will stay engaged and maintain its indispensable role in the Asia-Pacific," he said.

The TPP dominated the joint press conference following the two leaders' meeting in the Oval Office. Mr Obama reiterated his support for it and Mr Lee thanked the President for continuing to support it.

Asked how he intends to push it through as the presidential nominees oppose it, Mr Obama quipped: "Right now, I'm president and I think I have the better argument."

In a joint statement with Mr Obama, PM Lee said Singapore will step up its contribution to the fight against terror in Iraq by sending a Singapore Armed Forces medical support team to the country.

PM Lee gets warm welcome at White House
2,000 people wait in summer heat to cheer his arrival and attend grand ceremony
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 3 Aug 2016

Some 2,000 people stood on the South Lawn of the White House waving little Singapore and US flags as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was welcomed by President Barack Obama in a ceremony full of pomp and grandeur.

The ceremony started with Mr Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greeting Mr Lee and Mrs Lee as the Singapore leader and his wife emerged from their car that had pulled up to the White House.

Then, as the two leaders stood on a purpose-built stage, the military band played the Singapore national anthem. At the same time, a 19-gun salute was fired.

Mr Lee and Mr Obama then inspected a guard of honour.

Yesterday's ceremony also included a parade by members of the US Army's Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, dressed in 18th-century colonial uniform.

The ceremony was not all solemn, however.

After inspecting the guard of honour, the two leaders drew cheers from the crowd as they mingled and shook hands with those who had waited hours in the summer heat for the ceremony.

The weather in the American capital has been so hot in recent days that the joint press conference of the two leaders - normally held in the Rose Garden - was moved indoors.

Those who attended the ceremony said the wait was well worth it.

Said Mr Ian Chung, 30, a Singaporean living in Washington who waited 11/2 hours: "I'm happy to be here and to be part of such a historic moment in Singapore's history."

PM Lee urges Americans to support TPP
Speech to business leaders part of busy day that includes visits to Pentagon, Arlington cemetery
By Melissa Sim, US Correspondent In Washington, The Straits Times, 3 Aug 2016

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement would help the United States secure its economic interests and its place in the world, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told US officials and business leaders in Washington, DC, urging them to lend their voices to support the deal.

Speaking at a reception hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and US-Asean Business Council on Monday, Mr Lee acknowledged that the politics is difficult in an election year but said that ratification of the 12-nation pact would be a "clear statement" of US "commitment and confidence in our region".

"Asian countries want America to be engaged. We need to know that this engagement will be sustained and we need to know that agreements will be upheld and that Asia can depend on America," he said.

He also dismissed the idea of re-negotiating the deal, saying that "every one of the TPP signatories has had to make sacrifices in order to accept the TPP agreement".

"Nobody wants to re-open the process, with no prospect of doing better and every chance of having it fall apart," he said.

The landmark trade deal, which includes countries such as Singapore, the US, Japan and Malaysia, was agreed to last year after a prolonged negotiation process. The deal now awaits ratification by the domestic legislatures of the participating nations.

Given that this is an election year in the US, ratification by the US Congress has long been considered among the most uncertain. Both Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have said they oppose the deal.

President Barack Obama, however, told The Straits Times in an interview that he "remains committed" to the trade pact.

Reiterating the many strategic and economic advantages that the deal holds for the US, Mr Lee said: "Improved market access will mean cheaper products for consumers and more exports for manufacturers. Incorporated in the TPP are provisions on human rights, intellectual property protection and safeguards for labour and the environment. There will be strong standards that will support innovation and benefit many US technology giants."

Strategically, he said, the deal would add substance to the US rebalance to Asia, which he stressed cannot be just about the military and the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy. "There are no winners, only losers with protectionism. Economic development across the world will be blocked; less interdependence means the clear advantage of cooperation and interdependence over conflict and war will be weakened," he said.

He then added: "As Americans say, you have to be at the table, or be on the menu."

Responding to a question on China's position on its claims in the South China Sea after the international tribunal ruling last month, Mr Lee said he did not think the Chinese had changed their policy as a result of the decision.

Once countries have taken positions, to have them "walk back from those and say 'well, it's not quite so absolute and it wasn't so clearly mine after all', I think we have to wait a long time to see that happening - very few countries do it", he said.

He added, though, that he did not think any of the claimant countries would want to "push it to the brink". "They have interests, they have claims, they would want to maintain them, but nobody wants to go to war," he added.

Earlier, Mr Lee met US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Defence Secretary Ash Carter and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

He also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

A 19-gun salute rang out and Singapore's national anthem was played by a military band as he arrived. To mark his visit, Mr Lee presented a memento - a figurine of a soldier against the Singapore flag - which he said in a Facebook post "symbolises the warm friendship and strong defence ties shared between Singapore and the US".

Following the wreath-laying, Mr Lee was received at the Pentagon with an enhanced honour cordon featuring all five branches of the US military. A US military band played Majulah Singapura before the Prime Minister and Mr Carter.

Both the Arlington cemetery and the Pentagon are in Virginia state and about 10 minutes' drive from the White House in Washington, DC.

The two military ceremonies set the tone for an official visit by Mr Lee that features ceremonies reserved for the US' closest partners.

Around the White House, streets were lined with Singapore and US flags, and two large flags also adorned the ornate Eisenhower building that houses the offices of the US administration staff.

On the sidelines of Mr Lee's visit, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Singapore and the US to establish a platform to help companies from both countries work together to pursue opportunities in third-party markets.

The climax of the visit is the state dinner on Tuesday night (this morning, Singapore time) in Washington.

Singapore sending medical team to Iraq
By Shea Driscoll, The Straits Times, 3 Aug 2016

Singapore will step up its contribution to the fight against terror in Iraq by sending a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) medical support team to the country.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the announcement in a joint statement with United States President Barack Obama yesterday.

The medical support team will take care of both soldiers and civilians injured in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen elaborated in a Facebook post last night. Soldiers from the new Army Deployment Force (ADF) will join the medical support team for force protection, he added.

The ADF is a rapid response anti-terrorist unit the size of a battalion that comprises highly trained soldiers with niche capabilities.

"As long as terrorist groups gain a foothold in any country, they can radicalise others from all around the world, including Singapore. This is why Singapore joined the fight against terror in Afghanistan, and now against ISIS in Iraq and Syria," Dr Ng wrote.

The SAF's Imagery Analysis Team has been deployed to the Combined Joint Task Force Headquarters in Kuwait since last September.

Singapore had also sent 492 SAF servicemen to Afghanistan during a six-year deployment to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force that included medical support.

PM Lee marks National Day early in US
He joins US-based Singaporeans for celebration at the Republic's Embassy in Washington, DC
By Melissa Sim, US Correspondent In Washington, The Straits Times, 2 Aug 2016

National Day came early in Washington DC, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee celebrated Singapore's 51st birthday with more than 500 guests at the Republic's Embassy on Sunday.

Speaking to the guests at the start of the evening, PM Lee said: "We have much to celebrate because we have spent 50 years together and are now embarking on the next 50 years - the second half century of our nation-building journey."

The Prime Minister is in the United States for an official visit and will be hosted by US President Barack Obama and Mrs Michelle Obama at the White House for a state dinner today.

This is the first time a South-east Asian leader will be given this honour by the Obama administration.

"The fact that there are so many Singaporeans here in America... shows how wide and deep our relations are, not just between the governments and companies but also the people," said PM Lee, who spent most of the evening speaking to Singaporeans and taking selfies with them.

When speaking to students, PM Lee would ask about their experience in the US and whether they intended to stay or return to Singapore to work.

Ms Jyostna Subramaniam, 22, a student at Georgetown University, said she wanted to gain some experience overseas but would ultimately return home. When she told Mr Lee that she spoke Arabic, he said: "We need people like that, we don't have enough Arabic speakers."

Members of Parliament and Cabinet ministers at Sunday's celebration included Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran, Minister at the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung. They will also form part of the delegation attending the state dinner today.

PM Lee and some of the delegates are staying at Blair House, the guest house of the US President, which has been a home away from home for visiting foreign dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and Mr Nelson Mandela.

Madam Rahayu Mahzam, an MP for Jurong GRC, said she is proud that the Singapore delegation includes representatives from different communities.

"It shows our leadership is inclusive... we never take diversity for granted and we are able to showcase that as we travel," she said.

As National Day songs played in the background, many tucked into Singapore favourites such as chicken rice, satay and mee siam.

Said Mrs Salwa Salim-Perry, 32, a Singaporean business owner who moved to the US just two months ago: "It feels so good to be here, to hear people speaking Singlish around me, I feel like I'm connected to home again."

PM Lee's US visit: Beneath the pomp lies a firm foundation for ties
There may be uncertainty ahead, but 50-year US-S'pore relationship has weathered storms and grown deeper
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2016

As an advertisement for the strength of US-Singapore ties, the past few days are perhaps without parallel.

The United States rolled out the red carpet - literally and metaphorically - for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Singapore delegation as both countries celebrated 50 years of ties in spectacular fashion.

Streets and buildings around the White House were decked out with Singapore and American flags, military ceremonial guards in bright uniforms welcomed PM Lee everywhere from the White House to the Pentagon and the Singapore national anthem rang out in the US capital on at least three occasions.

All of it culminated in a glitzy black-tie White House dinner that was attended by the political top brass, as well as some familiar faces from other fields such as actors Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russell.

Throughout, the strong personal rapport between Mr Lee and President Barack Obama shone through.

One standout moment came midway through a grand arrival ceremony. After inspecting the guard of honour, both leaders took a little detour to a roped-off area full of people waving little Singapore and American flags. They mingled with the crowd, shaking hands and posing for selfies before seeming to realise belatedly that they had an arrival ceremony to get back to.

For all the happy scenes and declarations of friendship, a dark cloud loomed: What happens when Mr Obama - a self-avowed Pacific President - is no longer in office? With just three months left before Americans pick his successor, was what the world witnessed this week the commemoration of a milestone or some sort of final hurrah?

It is undeniable that US engagement with Asia has grown under the presidency of Mr Obama.

It was during his tenure that the Asia rebalance became US policy and he has made a point of visiting the region nearly every single year since he occupied the Oval Office.

Even Mr Lee said he noted Mr Obama's focus on Asia back in 2007, before the then senator was deemed a likely White House occupant.

"You were in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign, and not yet the front runner for the Democratic nomination," he said during his toast at Tuesday's state dinner. "Your years growing up in Indonesia gave you direct experience of South-east Asia's cultures and challenges. As President, your personal leadership and decision to rebalance to Asia has won America new friends and strengthened old partnerships, including with Singapore."

Mr Obama is the first president to visit Myanmar, the first to visit the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima and the first to host a meeting for Asean leaders on US soil.

Yet, his success does not necessarily ensure his country's future engagement with Singapore and the region. If Asia forms a core part of Mr Obama's legacy, then it is likely that his successor will seek achievements in other realms. While it won't be abandoned outright, it seems unlikely that the next president would match his focus on the region.

As founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew lamented in a 1984 speech in Parliament, new US presidents can reset the good progress made. He said: "America's allies shudder each time a new president takes office and starts off on a new initiative. Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, once told me, what a burden it was that just when they had educated President (Jimmy) Carter, they got to start all over again educating President (Ronald) Reagan on the facts of international politics and international finance."

Especially worrying this year is the current anti-globalisation mood gripping US voters. Both presidential candidates, but more so Mr Donald Trump than Mrs Hillary Clinton, have appeared to recoil from the openness of America. Adding to that is the uncertainty over how much of the US' Asia rebalance policy is institutionalised. There is no known official document that specifically outlines the Asia rebalance. And there is nothing to compel the next president to attend summits or ensure that the first Asean leaders' summit in the US will not be the last.

Then there is the unanswered question of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Should it be ratified by the US Congress, it becomes the lynchpin of the rebalance. But if it fails, it could wreck all the credibility Mr Obama has sought to build in the region.

The source of hope in all of this, as both Mr Lee and Mr Obama have pointed out, is that the relationship has weathered storms before. Taken over the 50-year timeframe, US-Singapore ties have grown deeper and broader through nine different US presidents.

There is now enough substance - be it in terms of the economy, defence or people-to-people ties - to suggest that the ties can survive changes at the top.

Said associate professor of political science Bilveer Singh at the National University of Singapore: "I think Obama helped to cement a relationship that has been built up since 1966. This relationship is not made by one leader but by a series of leaders and administrations brought together by common and convergent political, economic and strategic interests. This is likely to outlast Obama and Lee Hsien Loong."

Similarly, Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay said the relationship goes beyond who is currently occupying the Oval Office:"For the relationship to endure, it is not just the president - though presidents are important - it is the whole establishment of America."

What the two sides have today is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago, when so much of the attention the US granted Singapore was anchored on Mr Lee Kuan Yew's value as a strategic thinker on Asia.

Singapore leaders now have more regular access to their US counterparts, and the US considers Singapore a key part of much of what it wants to do in Asia.

And that, ultimately, seems like the big takeaway from the ceremonies of the past few days. While the pomp and splendour grab all the attention, it is the more mundane details of the visit - the memorandums of understanding, the platforms for collaboration, the discussions about regional issues - that provide the clearest indication of the resilience of ties.

While it is difficult to predict what will happen on Nov 8 or even another 50 years down the road, this week's events are a reminder of how strong a foundation the US and Singapore have to build on.

Additional reporting by Charissa Yong

Official visit a sign of US emphasis on Asia, not just Singapore: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2016

WASHINGTON - The warm welcome and state dinner that Singapore received in Washington is a reflection of the emphasis that the United States puts on Asia, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He told reporters that Singapore sees the visit as more than simply an indication of the strong ties between just Singapore and the US.

"It so happens that we are the ones invited, but it's not just because they are friends with Singapore, but Singapore is in the Asia Pacific and America values the Asia Pacific, and values all its friends in the Asia Pacific. I think that's how it should be seen, and that's how we in Singapore see it," Mr Lee on Wednesday (Aug 3) told the Singapore media in an interview at the end of his visit to the US.

The decision by the White House to grant Singapore the rare honour of a state dinner had been a matter of some interest among the Singapore media, with the likes of CNBC running articles explaining how such a small country was chosen. Singapore is the first South-east Asian country to be given the honour.

In an interview with The Straits Times ahead of PM Lee's visit to the White House, President Barack Obama had also cast the significance of the event in light of his administration larger Asia policy.

He said that the visit reflected the important role Singapore plays in his administration's Asia rebalance, adding that he considered Singapore an anchor for US presence in the region.

On Wednesday, PM Lee also told reporters that he was heartened that Mr Obama continues to stay committed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement despite the political difficulties.

"My one vivid memory of him is that, every time we had an Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting, he would be pursuing the TPP progress and pressing the leaders to move faster in order to conclude the TPP. And each time we would have a gathering of TPP members, we did it in Japan, Hawaii, and every subsequent meeting, and each time he's personally pushing, and fully committed," he said.

"And even here, in the middle of an election campaign, busy with his domestic issues and many other things, and looking towards the end of his term, he's still pushing hard for the TPP, to complete the last few steps and get ratified in the US, and become a reality."

Mr Lee added that Singapore would do what it can to help advocate for the deal.

On the broader Singapore-US ties, Mr Lee said that things are going smoothly but he also wanted to ensure ties could be sustained in the future.

"I think there are many good things going, and we have to take it step by step, but at the same time be able to sustain it into the next generation of leaders, which is one of the reasons why, on this trip, I've brought along some young MPs and young ministers," he said.

Members of the Singapore delegation included Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Industry Minister S. Iswaran, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, and Members of Parliament Christopher De Souza and Rahayu Mahzam.

PM Lee was also asked about the condition of former president S R Nathan.

He said: "I have not got the latest updates, but I think his condition is stable, I had spoken to his daughter and Mrs Nathan when I arrived here in Washington, to express my concern and good wishes, and our thoughts and prayers are still with him and his family."


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