From Blood-Soaked Streets to Shining Red Dot: How Singapore Earned Its Seat at the Table

04/12/2023

“(I had] blood splattering on my shirt,” recounted former MP and Singapore’s current non-resident High Commissioner to Kenya Yatiman Yusof (Kampong Kembangan Constituency 1984-1988, Tampines GRC 1988-2006). He shared his harrowing experience as a Secondary School 4 student caught in the thick of the 1964 racial riots in Singapore. Mr Yatiman’s personal story served as a potent reminder of the volence and division that threatened Singapore’s nascent unity. His story was also one of many never-before-heard anecdotes of Singapore’s early challenges to establish itself, shared at the PAP Policy Forum (PPF)’s dialogue on December 2nd, titled “Shining Red Dot: Singapore on the World Stage.”  

Headlined by PAP Chairman Heng Swee Keat, the dialogue was also the third and final instalment in the PPF|Insights dialogue series to commemorate the birth centenary of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. With over 300 attendees, the dialogue delved into the multifaceted factors that have contributed to Singapore’s remarkable transformation and are needful for continued global relevance as a small nation. As PPF advisor Mrs Josephine Teo remarked in her welcome speech, why should the international community “pay any attention to a tiny island nation which neither produces the resources that the world needs, nor the conflicts that the world fears?” 

As with the dialogues in the PPF|Insights series, ‘Shining Red Dot’ featured a dynamic panel session by a sterling line-up of speakers. They were Mr Yatiman; Mr Lee Yi Shyan, Chairman of Business China and fellow former MP (East Coast GRC); and Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design — all veterans in the field and representatives of Singapore to the world. Together with our Party Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, and MP Mariam Jaafar (Sembawang GRC) who was moderating the discussion, the speakers delved into the soul of Singapore’s foreign policy. Having all worked closely with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the panel speakers also had participants in laughter several times as they recounted fondly the many times they were caught off guard, as greenhorns, by Mr Lee’s astute observations and unparalleled work ethos.   

Taking global appointments to benefit Singapore / “Selling the Singapore Brand”:A seat at the table matters 

A recurring theme throughout the panel was the sheer grit needed and struggles faced to sell the Singapore brand overseas. Imagine a time when no one knew where Singapore was on the map. Yet, Mr Lee and his early team of leaders always envisioned a Singapore that is bigger than its geographical size. In order to achieve that vision, they had to carve out space and earn mindshare on the global stage.  

Professor Chan vividly recalled joining Mr Lee as ambassador in Washington to JP Morgan meetings which he made a point to participate in. “I asked him why was he doing this? And he said, ‘I want to get the thinking of captains of industry. How does the banking world, the financial world, think?’,” recounted Professor Chan. 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

“Strategically, he chose the US [United States] and one European. You see, it’s not both American. One American, one European. So everything is done with a strategic purpose for the greater good of Singapore and the promotion of Singapore. I think that’s what our leaders at the table would be doing,” Professor Chan added. 

In fact, generations of Singapore’s leaders have sought seats at the international table so that Singapore can make outsized contributions to the world. It also gives Singapore a voice which help shape the big international events around us, as Professor Chan pointed out. 

As Professor Chan remarked soberingly, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” 

Her reminder mirrored what MP Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC)said during the recent debate in Parliament, where our Parliamentarians voted successfully on November 22 to let the President take on global roles, despite the Opposition trying to roadblock this vote.   

Having a seat at the table is something that generations of Singaporean leaders have continued to do to firmly stake this little red dot on the world map. Reiterating the sentiment of his predecessors, Chairman Heng said, “By creating space and contributing constructively to international relations, we demonstrate our relevance and usefulness to the world. And subsequent generations of civil servants and political leaders have followed suit.” 

Keeping Singapore’s Interests in Mind: Standing Firm Against Much Bigger Players 

Why is it so important for Singapore to avoid being perceived as a pushover? In his opening speech, Chairman Heng said, “Mr Lee [Kuan Yew] was clear-eyed about the state of international relations and geopolitics…. He famously said that small island states are a political joke. The natural state is be ignored or trampled over, especially if one were located in a difficult neighbourhood. But Mr Lee persisted. He was a realist in assessing the world and its leaders; an idealist who believed that Singapore could defy the odds; and a pragmatist who chose the best path to secure Singapore’s survival.”  

Singapore, despite its size, has always been a force to be reckoned with. This was most evident in in Mr Lee’s handling of the Suzhou Industrial Park project. Business China Chairman Lee Yi Shyan recalled a time when the project faced serious hurdles due to attempts by the Chinese partners to undermine Singapore, 

What impressed Mr Lee (Yi Shyan) the most was also Mr Lee’s unwavering commitment to hear the truth from the front lines and to stand our ground even against much bigger players. He recounted how the Singapore team working on the SIP was called back to Singapore by Mr Lee [Kuan Yew], who pressed them “What is going on? Tell me the truth. So I reported mine, my colleagues did and then decided that we have the book [of facts]. We had to make public the case to tell them what it is. What is not working — and go straight to the leadership.”  This bold move to go public with the issues, despite ongoing frank discussions between Mr Lee [Kuan Yew] and President Jiang Zemin to address the issues, demonstrated Mr Lee’s determination to succeed and his vision for Singapore to be respected and engaged with as equals. Today, the Park is now a model for China’s economic co-operation with other countries

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

Party Chairman Heng, who was at that time Principal Private Secretary to Mr Lee, layered this episode with his own anecdote of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s conviction, and willingness to put nation before self. “To add one footnote to what Yi Shyan just said, when discussing the Suzhou Industrial Park project, the officials were very, very worried that Mr. Lee wanted to make the dispute public …I remember one of them telling him Mr. Lee ‘You are the SM [Senior Minister], you have been very successful in your whole life building Singapore and you’re now retired as Prime Minister. You’ve such an excellent track record. But by saying that the project has got into trouble, you’re affecting your own reputation” 

“Guess what Mr. Lee said? Mr. Lee said, ‘I care whether the project succeeds or not. I don’t care whether my reputation will be damaged!’. That was that determination — if this is the right thing to do, do it! Don’t just think of yourself. That’s something which was my biggest takeaway from working with Mr Lee,” Chairman Heng added.  

Mr Lee’s personal ethos to put nation before self, and vision for the country to stand firm and remain principled, remains the PAP’s North Star. Especially in a time where societies have internal conflicts over race, language and religion, and where international politics and economics are hotly contested, the PAP government will work harder to keep our voice heard and ensure that Singapore continues to be a Shining Red Dot.  

Chairman Heng wrapped up the vigorous discussion with a challenge to our youth and future leaders  to “constantly adapt and innovate, to make ourselves useful and relevant to the world so that we will continue to defy the odds.” As a small country, Singapore will always be pitted against those with more. But thanks to the work of the PAP government today and PAP governments before that, Singaporeans today have an advantage in this shared endeavour. We are now a harmonious nation far from the challenging, blood-soaked times of strife. The way ahead then, is one where Singaporeans and our Party can build on our strengths and have Singapore not just survive, but shine brighter.