When US noticed the 'little country that could'Outgoing envoy to the US Chan Heng Chee recounts her 16 years in Washington
By Tracy Quek
In a town where politics and policy are the raison d'etre for many of its residents and networking is an art form, Singapore's outgoing Ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee is a diplomat who appears to be very much in her element.
In her 16 years in Washington, Professor Chan, 70, has come to be noted for her 'salon dinners' at the Singapore Embassy, gatherings that bring together Washington's strategic thinkers, media personalities and policymakers to discuss hot- button issues of the day over a good - often Singaporean - meal.
Frequently sought for her views on Asian affairs, she is also known for her rapport with high-level US officials and diplomats, her support of charitable and cultural causes, as well as the elegant qipao she dons to the many formal events she hosts and is invited to.
Her reputation today as a distinguished figure in Washington's diplomatic circles, however, belies a difficult start to her job when she arrived in 1996 against the backdrop of tense Singapore-US ties following the caning of American teenager Michael Fay in 1994 for vandalism.
In a wide-ranging interview just weeks before her last day in Washington on July 14, she looked back on that tough beginning and how Singapore-US ties have developed. She also offered insights into the twists and turns of US domestic politics and the impact of social media, as well as shifts in US foreign policy - all of which she has witnessed from a unique diplomatic vantage point.
Upon her return to Singapore, Prof Chan will be Ambassador-at- Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She will also be executive chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Mr Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, 53, who has ended his term as Ambassador to Indonesia, will be Singapore's next Ambassador to the US.
In an hour-long exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, Prof Chan recalled that the Singapore-US relationship was 'not in a good spot' when she arrived.
'As the norm, Singapore and the US enjoy good relations; it is substantively and atmospherically good. But I had to work from that,' she said.
The first task she set herself was to change the American media's 'hostile' perception of Singapore, she said, noting that 'everybody was writing of Singapore as this authoritarian state and (putting) us in the same sentence as Iraq, China and Myanmar'.
The turning point was the 1997 Asian financial crisis. 'That was when Singapore started being regarded in a different way, not associated with Michael Fay, but as the country and economy that seemed to stand above the rest, because our currency did not swoon, we had good corporate governance,' she recounted.
After the financial crisis, Singapore's achievements in maths and science were evident, and the Republic was also developing technopreneurship and biotechnology. All these made people here sit up and say 'what is this little country that is doing all these avant garde things that bring you into the modern economy', she recalled.
Today, Americans tell her that Singapore is the 'little country that could'. They also see Singapore as a country that gets things right and as a nation that comes up with the right solutions, she said.
'I know in Singapore, we have social media and people have become more critical, and that is our evolution. But we forget that so many other countries have things so much worse and wrong,' she said, adding that 'as you are trying to right things, you can make some mistakes, and to me that is better than to not do anything'.
The US is interested in Singapore's maths and science curriculums, how it retains good teachers, how it manages traffic, and how it attracts talent, she added. 'For the same reasons that Singaporeans are criticising the Government, Americans see it as answers for the future.'
Asked how she sees Singapore- US ties evolving, Prof Chan said the aim of Singapore's diplomacy was to make sure the Republic 'remains relevant in the world... to our partners, and in the region'. Singapore can do that by 'being what we are, by speaking frankly, objectively, honestly, and by thinking through strategic issues'.
In the Asia-Pacific region where 'we have rising powers... and transitions', Singapore's views and advice that are aimed at creating stabilising situations have led her to believe that 'more than ever, we have a job to do'.
On a personal note, she said she would miss the 'tone and quality' of conversations on politics and policy she has had with Americans over the past 16 years.
Asked if she would leave a letter for her successor, in the tradition of outgoing US presidents, Prof Chan quipped: 'I'm going to leave him a tome!'
On US political impasse, social media and parenting
Washington - Once a 'can do' country, the United States has become a 'hard to do' nation where unprecedented political gridlock is hampering the pace of its recovery and raising questions about its ability to tackle long-term challenges.
Singapore should take note of America's experience and guard against a similar impasse in its own political system even as the space for political participation opens up, said Singapore's outgoing Ambassador to the US Chan Heng Chee.
Singapore's present political system, said Professor Chan, is far from dysfunctional - a term analysts use to describe Washington now as many key policy proposals have stalled in the US legislature because Democrats and Republicans have been unable to find common ground.
But even as Singapore opens up, 'I hope Singaporeans are wise enough to understand that government... is not that easy, and it's not just about pleasing people,' Prof Chan told The Sunday Times in an exclusive interview reflecting on her 16-year appointment.
'Good government must be responsive to the people... government must exercise leadership and government is not led by an opinion poll, or a referendum in the social media,' she said.
In the US, the anonymity afforded by the Internet has resulted in extreme statements, including anti-feminist and racist remarks. On Singapore's social media platforms, Prof Chan said she notices 'a lot of xenophobia, racism and extreme comments'.
As in the US, online anonymity has allowed Singaporeans 'to say what is deepest in their thoughts', she said. But the tone and content of online conversations would be different - 'if they put a signature to it, they will speak differently because you speak with some responsibility'.
Social media is a useful platform for expression and for mobilising people, but not so much for 'governance and creating consensus', said Prof Chan, who was a political science professor before becoming a diplomat.
'We should try to restore civility in discussions in the social media space,' she said.
Commenting on the political logjam in Washington, she said it is something she has not witnessed before in her time here.
'Congress finds it difficult to find agreement. I have heard many (top 20 Fortune-ranked companies') chairmen and CEOs who lament this. They are disturbed that this gridlock is preventing the US from recovering faster and more effectively. This is what has changed,' said Prof Chan, who took up her appointment in 1996 when Mr Bill Clinton was the US president.
The political impasse, coupled with the recession brought on by the 2007 banking crisis, has sapped the US of some optimism. The country is now 'more tempered, it's more cautious. The sense of entitlement has grown in the US and that makes it hard for a recovering economy to deal with', she said.
Despite its current struggles, she is confident the US will make a comeback.
'For the number of critical Americans, there are also very many patriotic and philanthropic Americans. There are also creative Americans. This society is also open. Because of that, I think the US will recover from the present economic situation,' she said.
But the question is whether the US will be able to recapture the 'highs' it once enjoyed.
The discovery of new technology might change the equation again, just as the dot.com boom bolstered the US economy in the 1990s, said Prof Chan, adding that because the US is a 'very creative country', another economy-boosting breakthrough is a 'great possibility'.
Asked how a continuation or change in US administration would affect the political dynamics in the country as well as American foreign policy towards Asia, she said that a win for President Barack Obama in November would not necessarily guarantee total continuity as there could be significant personnel changes in his team.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who have been key in the administration's rebalancing policy towards Asia, for example, have said they would be stepping down at the end of the year even if Mr Obama wins a second term.
If a new administration wins, it would probably reinvent foreign policy, as 'different presidents will come up with different nuances and emphasis', said Prof Chan.
Asia will still be a region of great interest to the US as the world's most dynamic economies, including China and South-east Asian nations, are there. But to 'expect undivided attention and the same constant attention is unrealistic and may not be good because if Asia invites that sort of attention, it means it is a white heat issue, which is not good', she said.
On a personal note, Prof Chan said her years of observing American society have convinced her that another thing Singaporeans can learn from the Americans is to 'hang loose', especially when it comes to parenting.
Responding to a question on how Singapore can replicate America's culture of innovation and creativity, she said: 'Singaporeans tend to be very tense. Look at the way we bring up our kids. We are very protective... We have to learn to relax.'