Selling Singapore to the world

PM Goh leads foreign policy offensive.

Singapore spread its wings this year to enlarge its stake in an increasingly competitive world. Leading the foreign policy offensive was Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. BERTHA HENSON of the Political Desk and DERWIN PEREIRA of the Foreign Desk report on the high-profile economic diplomacy.

WHEN MR GOH CHOK TONG said he would concentrate on domestic politics in his first few years in office, not many people anticipated how active his foreign policy agenda would be.

The Prime Minister visited 13 countries this year, with some trips made barely a few days after he had left one country. Last year, he logged seven trips.

He went to sell Singapore – and Asia – to the rest of the world, embarking on “economic diplomacy”.

Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar accompanied Mr Goh on seven trips and did nine separate ones.

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew travelled to 12 countries this year, compared with 10 last year.

Other ministers logged a total of 78 official trips, up from 40 last year.

Selling S’pore to the world

Add on to this the articles by Singapore diplomats in foreign journals and newspapers and the strong articulation of the country’s interests in regional and international forums, 1994 might well be The Year of Foreign Policy.

The Republic also entertained many VIPs this year, including India’s Narasimha Rao, China’s Jiang Zemin, Vietnam’s Vo Van Kiet, South Korea’s Lee Yung Dug and Japan’s Tomiichi Murayama.

The heightened international profile has not gone unnoticed.

Foreign diplomats point to other initiatives by Singapore, such as its bid to host the first meeting of the World Trade Organisation, its call for a Europe-East Asia summit and the role it played in getting the Asean Regional Forum off the ground.

“Singapore has certainly taken on an active foreign policy role this year … It can pursue an active foreign policy because of its growing economic clout and stature in the Asia-Pacific,” said one Asian diplomat.

Why the higher profile?

The architects of Singapore’s foreign policy have always been guided by this philosophy: A wise nation will make sure its survival and well-being are in the interests of others.

This thinking was reiterated recently in an interview with Professor Jayakumar: “Small countries like Singapore must be agile by making ourselves relevant to others and being sufficiently alert to fluid international situations.

“Singapore cannot afford to be a passive player on the international scene.”

The foreign policy momentum was fuelled by major changes in the late ’80s and early ’90s: the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union crumbled and Asia enjoyed an economic boom.

Singapore’s foreign policy orientation, which had hitherto focused on political and security objectives, had to change. Economics became a key driving force.

Keeping the world open

SINGAPORE has a stake in keeping markets open and free. Its total trade is about three times the size of its gross national product which makes it very vulnerable to changes in the international trading climate.

Some developments in the global trading arena had created consternation here:

* The rise of trading blocs with protectionist inclinations.

* Increased trade frictions between major powers, such as the row between the United States and China over the latter’s trading privileges.

* The use of social issues as a condition for trading privileges.

Were these responses by Western countries aimed at holding back Asia’s emergence as an economic superpower? Singapore leaders took to the international stage to make clear that attempts to stymie Asia’s growth would backfire.

At home, there were two major conferences where they voiced their concerns: The Asia Society’s Corporate Conference in May and the World Economic Forum conference in October.

“If they (the West) try to stem the flood tide, the challenge would turn into economic conflict and fragment the world into economic blocs – the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area and, perhaps, a new Asian bloc,” warned PM Goh.

During his trips to the developed world, he also took to spreading the message that Asia was not a threat to the West but an opportunity.

Singapore also took the lead in encouraging Asean countries to reduce tariffs on products traded among the six members.

The Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) was born at the Asean Summit in Singapore in 1992. As chairman of the Asean Standing Committee last year, Singapore was instrumental in cutting the deadline for tariff reduction from 15 to 10 years.

Support for Afta was matched by Singapore’s commitment to the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum to liberalise trade and investment rules in the Asia-Pacific.

Mr Goh worked closely with Indonesia’s President Suharto, as well as the other Apec leaders in Bogor last month to achieve a consensus on free trade in the area by the year 2020.

The Republic set its target at 2010 – the date meant for developed countries. “We believe in free trade,” said Mr Goh. “We believe we can open up more areas of free trade beyond Gatt. We therefore want to set an example.”

Noted an Australian diplomat: “At Bogor, Singapore showed it was one of the strongest supporters for trade liberalisation in the region.”

To signal the Asia-Pacific’s important and growing contribution to global trade, the Republic also offered to host the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation.

Professor Michael Leifer, an Asia expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says economics had always been a prime foreign policy tool for Singapore – in security terms.

“If you can lock regional neighbours in the wider Asia-Pacific into a constructive network of cooperative relationships, then the nexus of economic advantage will hopefully have the effect of making countries good regional citizens and unlikely to engage in adventurist policies.”

Support for go-regional drive

THE trips by ministers abroad had another important economic objective: to gain support for Singapore’s regionalisation drive.

The Prime Minister led the drive, exploring opportunities in developing countries and then moving on to the developed world to spread the message about Singapore’s new economic orientation.

Ministers followed up. Trade and Industry Minister Yeo Cheow Tong embarked on investment promotion tours, including some to the United States and Japan.

To the domestic audience, Mr Goh’s trips, which usually saw teams of Singapore businessmen on board, were to signal how serious the Government was about building an external economy.

Another reason: Political links had to be built to provide the framework for investors. In China and Myanmar, for example, political blessings are beneficial, and even essential, in introducing the private sector to local governments and state-owned enterprises.

Trips to China last year by Singapore’s leaders stoked a “China fever” among entreprenuers here. A key project which took off was Suzhou township.

This year, Mr Goh went farther: to India, Vietnam and Myanmar, economies experimenting with market reforms.

One coup was the agreement by an Indian-Singapore consortium to establish the $250 million Bangalore Information Technology Park.

And reflecting their high regard for Singapore management expertise, Vietnam invited Mr Goh to help set up an industrial park either in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

When Mr Goh went to Europe, it was to look for partners for Singapore’s go-regional drive.

His message: The Asian pie was big enough to be shared.

He pointed to European businessmen the advantages of working with Singaporeans who had cultural links with the region and Western ways of doing business.

One prong of the strategy was the formation of joint business councils to explore third-country ventures. Three were tied up during the PM’s trips-with the Germans, the British and the Australians – with the backing of their political leaders.

And to give a concrete signal that governments backed such co-operation, Mr Goh suggested that governments on both sides help fund training programmes of companies with third-country ventures.

But getting partners with the wherewithal and knowhow to help in regionalisation was one bit of a larger exercise of getting foreigners interested in this part of the world.

Foreign investors should look to Singapore first, Mr Goh stressed. If their factories could not be built here because of structural difficulties, they should consider the country as a springboard to the region.

Economic Development Board chairman Philip Yeo told European investors in London: “We want you to remain in Singapore, and from Singapore, go out. We are not promoting the welfare of our neighbours only.”

Mr Yeo Cheow Tong describes the foreign policy objective of securing economic benefits as a success: “We have been able to achieve much of what we set out to do in terms of attracting foreign investments.

“The pipeline for future investments is the strongest ever in terms of the technology and products involved.”

What of the new year?

BOTH Western and Asian diplomats see Singapore increasingly playing the role of a conduit between developing nations in South-east Asia – not all of which have open markets – and the developed world to promote freer trade.

It has the credentials: It is an Asean member and has one of the most open trading regimes in the world.

They also praise the effectiveness of the 500-member Singapore foreign ministry which they say carry out a “laser-beam foreign policy”.

“In some foreign ministries, you have more than 200 people just to manage one region or area,” notes an Asian diplomat.

“By that yardstick, it is amazing Singapore has gone global and promoted its national interests.”

What is the outlook for the new year? Singapore diplomats will be getting in touch with their Asian and European counterparts for a Europe-East Asia summit.

Also being considered are the Asean summit in Thailand, the Apec summit in Japan, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in New Zealand and the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Colombia.

The Prime Minister looks set to do a fair bit of travelling again to fly the Singapore flag.

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