Highlights from ESM Goh Chok Tong's Speech on Foreign Policy

goh chok tong
 
ESM Goh Chok Tong gave an illuminating speech last Friday on the importance of good foreign policy and shared some anecdotes from his own experience about how good foreign policy has benefitted the nation. Here are an excerpt from his speech and some important takeaways from said excerpt.
 
Expanding Singapore’s Economic Space – the USSFTA
 
Beyond widening Singapore’s geopolitical space, we also focused on expanding Singapore’s economic space and building an external wing for our economy.  This was vital to sustain Singapore’s economic growth.
 
In the late 1990s, Singapore’s economy was affected by the Asian Financial Crisis.  The global economy then looked like it was in danger of coalescing into regional trading blocs; and the WTO Doha Round of negotiations was floundering.
 
We decided to pursue bilateral and plurilateral FTAs even as global trade negotiations were taking place in parallel.  Some fifteen FTAs were eventually signed or conceptualised during my tenure.  The US-Singapore FTA was one of the most important but concluding it was a drama.
 
We had our eyes on an FTA with the US for some time, but some quarters in President Clinton’s Administration were less enthusiastic.
 
You may recall that in 1994, Singapore sentenced Michael Fay, an American teenager, to jail and caning, for vandalism and theft.  President Clinton requested that we grant Fay clemency from caning.  We were put in a dilemma. On the one hand, we need to stand firm on the rule of law.  Otherwise, we lose credibility in the eyes of Singaporeans and in particular President Soeharto, amongst other foreign leaders. Again you might recall that we had proceeded with the hanging of the two commandos from Indonesia who bombed MacDonald House and killed some innocent Singaporeans, despite Soeharto’s appeal. On the other hand, had we granted clemency, we would not have done our relationship with the US a favour, because we would be seen to be a client state of the US.  So, we deliberated with this issue carefully and we decided that we should show that we had given President Clinton’s appeal serious consideration and yet, stood by our principle of the rule of law.  We decided to cane Michael Fay but reduced the number of strokes from six to four.
 
Clinton’s White House staff kept Singapore at arm’s length after this to show the US’ displeasure.  My request to visit the White House was turned down – we could not get through the White House gatekeepers.  But as luck would have it, I had become friends with an American whom I played golf with in the Augusta National Golf Club.  When this friend visited Singapore a little later and learnt that I had not been able to get access into the White House, he said that he would try and do something about it.  He was a friend of Bill.  He was from Little Rock, Arkansas, same place as Bill Clinton, so I left it at that.
 
And it was only two years ago when I met this friend again at Augusta for a golf game, that he told me he had actually spoken to President Clinton about my inability to visit him because of the block by his gatekeepers. So that explained a mystery which I suspected but which I could not quite confirm, as to why at the APEC Leaders meeting in Vancouver in 1997, out of the blue, Clinton invited me to play golf. So that’s Clinton’s clever way of by passing the gatekeepers. So I had my first golf game with him in Vancouver because of this mutual friend that we had.
 
The following year, I was welcomed at the White House.
 
As a postscript, Michael Fay had several brushes with the law after his return to the US.  When I hosted Clinton to dinner in Singapore in 2002, he mentioned Michael Fay in a light-hearted moment.  He quipped, “You should have caned him more” and added that Fay’s father should also have caned him earlier.
 
Well, I recount this story to show how we stood by our principles to the world’s most powerful country, to the world’s most powerful man, when knowing that there would be a cost to pay. So standing by principles is very important, even though there will be costs to pay. But it is also to provide the background to the conception of this idea of USSFTA, US-Singapore Free Trade arrangement – conception on a golf course again.
 
The APEC Leaders meeting in Brunei in November 2000 was the backdrop.  I knew Clinton was a night owl.  I’ve done my homework. So before the state banquet started, I approached him. I said, “what would you be doing after the banquet?” I told him I’m looking for a partner to play golf. He said yes, he’s also looking for a partner. So I said, “okay, let’s go and play golf.” I anticipated that. I had my golf bag and my golfing attire all packed in my car, ready to go!
 
Then, horrors, before we departed, while we were still waiting for the car, a sudden rain storm erupted. It was one of the heaviest thunderstorms I had come across. And a Clinton aide told me, “Looks like the game is off.” So I put on a bold front and told him no, I know my weather, this is a tropical thunderstorm, it will blow over in half-an-hour’s time.  And I added, the golf course is 30 minutes away. So knowing a little bit about psychology, I told him I am going anyway. I leave it to the President but I’m going.
 
So I went, and when President Clinton arrived at the course after me, the rain had become a light drizzle. Then he changed into his attire, his golfing attire. By the time he finished that, the rain had stopped completely. You might not know this but this is about midnight. You know, night golf, where they have these lights on the golf course which you could play in Brunei.
 
We played 18 holes.  After we had finished at about 2.00 am, I made a pitch for a USSFTA.  My argument was a simple one.  The FTA would signal strongly the US’ strategic interest in Asia and anchor the US in Asia.  He said that it was worth doing so we agreed to launch the FTA, all in under 20 minutes.
 
Our agreement, and the occasion, place, time, manner and speed in which it was reached amazed the American and Singapore officials! The next day of course, the officials started to work to draft the press statement on this agreement to have the FTA.
 
My good personal relations with Clinton also helped to restore normalcy to our bilateral relationship following the Michael Fay episode.  But the crucial factor was having a strategic and decisive counterpart.  Bill Clinton was such a leader.  Our two countries’ strategic interests in having a bilateral FTA were aligned.  Ultimately, trade is strategy.  The FTA was for geopolitical reasons, not just about lowering tariffs and more trade.
 
Takeaways
 
1. Like it or not Singapore depends on the world for it's economy survival. That is why it is important for us diversify our economic policy so we are not dependent on a single trade partner to keep our economy going. That is why we have Free trade agreements with multiple countries around the world. The business we do with partners such America and China helps to buffer us from any major economic shocks to a certain degree.
 
2. Indonesia is always watching in it's neighbor's internal affairs with interest. It seems that the memory of Macdonald house is not so distant after all. 
 
3. Always stick to your guns. People might not like you for it but they will respect the fact that you have the integrity to stick with the position you stand for. No one in a million years would have thought that the Michael Fay matter would have earned us a modicum of respect within the eyes of the President of the United States. And yet, it did as related by ESM Goh.
 
4. Make friends with anyone and everyone no matter their station in life. You'll never know how some people will be able to help you out down the line. Singapore today has a free trade agreement with America thanks to the ESM's golfing buddy who opened doors that were shut to us initially. If you want to be successful in life, build bridges instead of burning them.
 

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