Professor Tommy Koh: China On My Mind

November 14, 2015

I join Singaporeans of all races in warmly welcoming President Xi Jinping and Madam Peng Liyuan to Singapore. Their State Visit reciprocates the successful visit by President and Mrs Tony Tan to China in July this year. The exchange of visits by the two Presidents is part of our celebration of 25 years of diplomatic relations between China and Singapore.

Honouring Deng Xiaoping

I last met President Xi Jinping in November 2010 in Singapore. He was then Vice-President of China. The National Heritage Board, of which I was the then Chairman, had put up a marker to and a bust of Deng Xiaoping, in front of the Asian Civilizations Museum. We invited our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a friend and admirer of Mr Deng and Mr Xi, to unveil the marker and the bust at a simple ceremony. We were overjoyed that both Mr Lee and Mr Xi had accepted our invitations. I will always treasure the memory of that happy occasion.

Contact with China

China’s seat at the United Nations had been occupied by the Republic of China from 1945 to 1971. In 1971, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) defeated the Republic of China in a vote at the UN General Assembly. Following that vote, the PRC took over China’s seat at the UN. The first PRC’s Ambassador to the UN was an outstanding diplomat called Huang Hua.

In 1974, I was appointed, for the second time, as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the UN. I was instructed to begin a dialogue with Ambassador Huang Hua on our bilateral relations. On the 7th of October 1974, I organised a dinner, hosted by our Foreign Minister, Mr S Rajaratnam, in honour of the leader of the Chinese delegation to the UN General Assembly, Mr Qiao Guanhua, the Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs. The dinner was very successful and Minister Qiao invited Mr Rajaratnam to lead a goodwill delegation to China.

Visits by Raja and Lee

With the help of Amb Huang Hua, I was able to organize the visit of Mr S Rajaratnam to China, from the 13th to the 22nd of March 1975. The high point of the visit was a call on the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai.

In the following year, Ambassador Huang Hua and I organised the first visit by our founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, to China. The visit took place from the 10th to the 24th of May 1976. The highlight of the visit was a call by Mr Lee on an ailing Chairman Mao.

Lee Kuan Yew and China

Between 1976 and 2015, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had visited China over 30 times. He spent time in cultivating five generations of China’s leaders. He helped Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary policy of economic reform and opening the Chinese economy to the world, by encouraging Singapore’s public and private sectors to invest in China. He personally took charge of the Suzhou Industrial Park project. He was willing to act as an interlocutor between China and the United States and between Mainland and Taiwan. As a result, China regarded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as an old friend and held him in high esteem. My message to China is that, although Mr Lee Kuan Yew is no longer with us, his friendship and goodwill for China are shared by his successors, Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

1990 Negotiations with China

Although our relations with China grew steadily after 1976, we did not want to establish formal diplomatic relations until after Indonesia had normalised its relations with China. In August 1990, I was appointed the leader of the Singapore delegation to negotiate an agreement with China for the establishment of diplomatic relations between us.

After three rounds of negotiations, the two sides agreed on the text of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to establish formal diplomatic relations on the evening of 18th September, in the premises of a State Guest House called Diaoyutai. The MOU was signed by Minister Qian Qichen and Minister Wong Kan Seng, at the UN, on 3rdOctober 1990. The Chinese Chief Negotiator, Minister Xu Dunxin and I had a happy reunion at dinner in Beijing last month.

25 Years of Friendship and Progress

The past 25 years have been a remarkable period for China, for Singapore and for our bilateral relations. No one could have foreseen 25 years ago, that China would become Singapore’s largest trading partner or that Singapore would become China’s largest foreign investor. No one could have foreseen that the two Governments would have implemented two iconic projects in Suzhou and Tianjin and are about to embark on a third project in Western China. No one could have foreseen that the two countries would have concluded a free trade agreement, which would soon be upgraded to a higher level of ambition. The current relationship between China and Singapore is warm, comprehensive and substantive and rests on a firm foundation of mutual trust. I am confident that President Xi Jinping and his Singapore counterparts will agree to raise our relationship to an even higher peak.

ASEAN-China Relations

In 2005, I was appointed to represent Singapore in the ASEAN-China Eminent Persons Group. The group was co-chaired by Musa Hitam (Malaysia) and Qian Qichen (China). I believe in the importance of ASEAN-China relationship, both economically and politically. I am happy that Singapore is the Country Coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations for the next three years. China can have confidence that Singapore will do its utmost to unite the ASEAN side and will keep the relationship on a positive trajectory. However, in order to achieve this objective, China will have to play its part, in growing our positive agenda and in managing our differences, with wisdom and self-restraint.

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The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.