By Professor Tommy Koh: Remembering Lee Kuan Yew - Our chief diplomat to the world

March 25, 2015

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the most famous Singaporean in the world. For nearly half a century, he personified Singapore to the world. During his long tenure as Prime Minister (of independent Singapore), from 1965 to 1990, he was the principal architect of Singapore's foreign policy.

Later, as senior minister and minister mentor, he continued to give his successors valuable advice on our external relations. It would not be wrong to say that he served as our chief diplomat to the world.

Singapore is a very small country. However, it enjoys a role and influence in the world not enjoyed by other countries of similar size. A British newspaper once wrote that Singapore punches above its weight. This is due to three factors: our record of domestic achievements, our skilful diplomacy and the Lee Kuan Yew factor.

Why was Mr Lee so greatly admired by foreign leaders? Because of his intellectual brilliance, his power of analysis and judgment, his eloquence and charisma, and his willingness to share his candid and disinterested views. His longevity also gave him an advantage as he evolved from being the brilliant Prime Minister of Singapore to being a wise elder statesman.

Mr Lee travelled extensively on behalf of Singapore. He befriended and earned the respect of many foreign leaders, in government, business and academia. He had an impressive global network. For example, he was respected by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, German leader Helmut Schmidt, French leader Jacques Chirac and Japanese leader Kiichi Miyazawa. He knew and was respected by every American president, from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. Two of America's thought leaders, Dr Henry Kissinger and Dr George Shultz, are among his many admirers.

One of the greatest honours the United States can confer on a foreign leader is an invitation to address a joint session of the US Congress. I will never forget Oct 9, 1985. On that beautiful autumn day, Mr Lee addressed a packed joint session of Congress.

At that time, the protectionist tide was running strong in the US body politic. In his speech, which received several standing ovations, he explained why it was in the strategic interest of the US to continue to support free trade and open economies. The senator sitting next to me, Mr Edward Kennedy, confided in me afterwards that he was not previously aware of the linkage between free trade and US strategic interests in the world. The speech did help to stem the tide of protectionism in the US Congress.

Mr Lee's enduring contribution to Singapore's foreign policy can be summed up in the following seven principles.


First, our foreign policy is based on pragmatism and not on any doctrine or ideology. The scholars who have written that Singapore's foreign policy is based on realism are mistaken. If it were based on realism, we would not have attached so much importance to international law or to the United Nations. Our constant lodestar is to promote the security and prosperity of Singapore.


Second, we rely, first and foremost, on ourselves. Believing that the world does not owe us a living, Singapore did not seek foreign aid from the developed countries. We did not want to develop a dependency mentality. Instead, we concentrated our energies on attracting foreign investment and creating jobs for our people. We started building up our armed forces and introduced national  service in order to develop a capacity to deter aggression.


Third, we accept the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. We have no illusions about the world. We take a clinical attitude towards facts and realities. This does not mean that we are passive and fatalistic. Not at all. We have been extremely proactive in taking the leadership to form such groupings as the Forum of Small States and the Global Governance Group. We know that we live in an unfair and dangerous world. We know that small countries will always be vulnerable to the pressures of bigger countries.


Fourth, Singapore has a fundamental commitment to Asean and to making Southeast Asia a region of peace and prosperity. Singapore is a strong supporter of Asean integration and is working closely with our partners to ensure the success of Asean's transition from an association to a community by this year. We took an active part in drafting the Asean Charter and support Asean's ambition to become a more rules-based institution. Singapore strongly supports the central role which Asean plays in the regional architecture. We will do everything within our power to ensure that Asean remains united, independent and neutral.


Fifth, Singapore is committed to the vision of building an Asia-Pacific community. Singapore wants a balance of power in the region and welcomes the positive roles which the US, China, Japan, India, the European Union and Russia play in the political, economic and cultural lives of the region.

Singapore supports trade liberalisation and regional economic integration through both the Trans-Pacific Partnership, under the aegis of Apec, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Singapore supports dialogue, confidence-building and cooperation via institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.


Sixth, Singapore should not be afraid to defy conventional wisdom. During the 1960s, Singapore welcomed foreign investment by multinational corporations when the rest of the Third World viewed them as the purveyors of evil. Singapore was not afraid to be criticised by its Asean partners when it decided to negotiate a free trade agreement with the US. Singapore was willing to welcome the US military presence in the region when it was forced to leave the Philippines.


Seventh, Singapore should try to be a good global citizen. Within Asean, Singapore has played a leading role in trying to narrow the gap between the old and new members. Singapore maintains training centres in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to train the government officials of those countries. Under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore trains 7,000 government officials from other countries annually. To date, Singapore has trained 80,000 government officials from 170 countries.



Tommy Koh, 77, is an international lawyer, a diplomat and a former law faculty dean

Copyright © 2015 Singapore Press Holdings. 

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