Singapore has felt the wrath of two neighbours already this year. Indonesia banned exports of construction sand claiming it was concerned about environmental damage (perhaps coincidentally, the two countries are also in dispute over an extradition treaty). Thailand’s junta, losing support at home, accused Singapore of spying and saw red after Singapore’s deputy prime minister met deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Singapore is also cautious of China’s role in the region.
Before entering politics in 1988, George Yeo worked for the Singapore Armed Forces. Now, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he finds himself fighting fires whenever trouble flares with prickly neighbours. He also has to work closely with his peers in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as they draft a charter for an economic community, ahead of a free-trade area launching with China in 2010. However, Singapore is careful to maintain intimate ties with America, Europe and Japan. Yeo, a graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, sat down with Monocle in his office at the foreign ministry with its sweeping views of Singapore’s skyline.
Monocle: Is Southeast Asia going to be an EU-style union?
George Yeo: No, we won’t become like the EU; we have a different history and reality. But, yes, the EU is an inspiration for ASEAN: how tribal nations after centuries of conflict can come together to live in peace. We are learning from the EU experience – successes and failures. There is tremendous political will to move closer together, which is why we’re now drafting the charter.
M: Is it going smoothly?
GY: The speed of progress can be frustrating but if you take a long-term perspective, I think we’ve made substantial progress on cooperation.
M: Is China’s growing power the reason for this move?
GY: Well, countries don’t come together out of affection, they come together when they’re afraid. When ASEAN was formed 40 years ago, the fear was communism. What’s propelling us forward now is China and India; the sense that these two will leave us behind. If we’re weak and disunited, there’s the temptation for big powers to meddle. Some of the most important sea lanes in the world pass through our waters. Fifty per cent of the world’s oil passes through our waters. So if we are not wise about this, if we all pull in different directions, we will become Balkanised.
M: Next year China could top the US as Southeast Asia’s largest trade partner. Is that a good thing?
GY: Actually, if you include Hong Kong and Taiwan, China is probably already the largest trade partner. I just read a recent report that China’s exports are now exceeding America’s to Europe. China is going to become the world’s largest economy – I think that’s probably a good thing. You know, each time there’s been a strong dynasty in China it’s brought prosperity to Southeast Asia. But do we want to be a colony of China? I don’t think so.
M: Was China a factor in Singapore’s building a port for US aircraft carriers?
GY: Look, we’re able to enjoy the present peace in the region because of the American presence in the western Pacific. When the Philippines evicted US forces, we offered facilities; it’s proved quite useful to the Americans. But it’s a US facility. Our other facilities are open to other powers: to the Indians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans.
M: Is there a sense of insecurity?
GY: Yes, and it’s a dual insecurity: being a city-state in a world of nation-states, then being a country with a Chinese majority in a region where minority Chinese communities play an important economic role, but are sometimes viewed with suspicion. The rise of China may change the dynamics but only so much. There’s always a sense we are near the edge but it keeps us alert.
M: Are recent spats with Indonesia and Thailand another cause for concern?
GY: As long as these issues are kept within bounds and we’re still talking about them, they’re manageable. It’s important we should keep it peaceful, stay united, then we will be part of the Asian re-emergence.
M: What can Southeast Asia do to tackle terrorism and piracy in the region?
GY: The piracy problem has improved in the past year; there’s better cooperation now among the littoral states, principally Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Piracy and terrorism require longer-term measures – you need to address some of the root problems; the aspirations of local communities, reduce the sense of alienation, give them a sense of participation… But there are deeper problems of Islamic extremism that have complex historical and societal causes.
M: Do you think Singapore will remain attractive for investors?
GY: If you look at the essence of Singapore, it has not changed much since Raffles established it as a trading post for the East India Company. What made it succeed was the system the British established; protecting property, contract law, and enforcing contract. And the freedom for people and their money to move in and out, and also ensuring security. We’ve stuck with that, making sure judicial and accounting systems adhere to modern standards. As long as we do that we’ll always be able to attract people, money and ideas.
M: What’s the biggest issue facing your government?
GY: There are not that many ways to go forward for us, so often our policy is the obvious one, it’s really the speed that’s an issue. The challenge for us is that with globalisation, people’s income levels are stretching out. A large part of the recent budget was about that, so we are providing welfare, but we can’t call it that because it’s got negative connotations, so we call it “workfare”.
M: Next year will be your 20th in politics. What keeps you in the game?
GY: It’s an interesting job in an exciting period. When I went to England to study in 1977, our region was quite tatty. China was very backward, India was hopeless. Now it’s a completely transformed region and we’re smack in the middle. I’ve also been fortunate in being given responsibility in interesting ministries, such as the arts, when the artistic scene was ripening in Singapore. After the Asian financial crisis, I was in trade and industry when we were restructuring our economy. We started negotiating free trade agreements. Then three years ago I was posted across to the foreign ministry – so there’s never been a dull moment.
M: What’s changed about Singapore during this time?
GY: Our educational and cultural level has become much higher. When I was in Primary Six, only half the students in my cohort went on to secondary school. Today, over a quarter will go to university, another 40 per cent to a polytechnic. Year-by-year we are climbing. I feel it’s becoming a better society. It gives me a certain satisfaction to be part of that.
M: Some tip you to take over when PM Lee Hsien Loong retires. Are you ready?
GY: “Well, we’re of the same generation, – so that’s not going to happen!”