An Interview with Ambassador Chan Heng Chee
By Alan L. Dessoff
As Ambassador Chan Heng Chee puts it, Singapore is “a city with a buzz.” The buzz applies as well to Ambassador Chan, a diminutive dynamo of a diplomat who has represented her city-state in Washington for 11 years and speaks with authority and passion about the prominent role it plays in Southeast Asia and the global community.
Small in size geographically, but significant in its political, economic and cultural stature and influence, the city-state of Singapore operates with authority and crisp efficiency, just like Ambassador Chan, goal-directed and business-savvy, who acts and speaks with conviction in the best interests of her country.
Singapore’s regional prominence was demonstrated most recently by the way it jumped in to provide aid after a massive earthquake struck Sichuan province and by the assistance it offered to Myanmar in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Nargis.
“Singaporeans rise to the occasion,” says Ambassador Chan. With the permission of Chinese authorities, Singapore sent a disaster assistance relief team, members of its armed forces, and $25 million in financial aid that included private donations.
Similarly, in Myanmar, “we certainly wanted to help immediately; we offered equipment and men. But the Myanmar government does not seem very open to support,” says Ambassador Chan.
She notes that Singapore has held the chair this year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which established a coordinating mechanism for aiding Myanmar. “The point is that Singapore is always ready to help countries in the region if they are willing to accept our help,” she adds.
Ambassador Chan is well grounded in the issues of Southeast Asia and beyond. Formerly Executive Director of the Singapore International Foundation, which created a Singapore version of the U.S. Peace Corps, she also was Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and founding Director of the Institute of Policy Studies. She has served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and was concurrently High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to Mexico.
Educated at the University of Singapore and Cornell University, Ambassador Chan has served as a member of the International Advisory Board of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the International Council of the Asia Society.
Now as Singapore’s chief government representative in the U.S., she keeps a close eye on a wide range of issues and opportunities that impact her country. “We enjoy a good relationship” with the U.S., Ambassador Chan says. “There is a good atmosphere, we are good friends, and we have worked with Democratic and Republican administrations very well.”
She cites a strong defense relationship that allows U.S. military forces to use facilities in Singapore. There also is “good economic cooperation” between the two countries, with about $60 billion in U.S.-Singapore trade, in favor of the U.S. Trade has increased by 40 percent since the U.S. and Singapore signed a free trade agreement in 2003, effective the next year. Now, Ambassador Chan reports, Singapore is the 15th largest trading partner of the U.S., the 9th largest export market for the U.S., and the 8th largest services trading partner.
“I find the issues in Washington very exciting,” she says. “The U.S. is straightforward and open and I enjoy working with American officials enormously. There are good outcomes as we work together.” She cites the “inspiring creative spirit” of the U.S. and its philanthropic spirit as well.
She also finds the language of politics in the U.S. to be “very stimulating, sometimes entertaining, but always interesting. This is the home of the most powerful country in the world so everything seems relevant.”
Although Singapore’s history dates from the 11th century, the island was little known to the West until the 19th century. It became an independent republic with a parliamentary system of government in 1965 and has maintained formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. since then.
One of the most densely populated countries in the world, Singapore and all of its 4.2 million people could fit inside Washington’s Capital Beltway, but it still has a need to grow and the space for it and aims to do it, Ambassador Chan says. “There is a school of thought in Singapore that believes we must have a critical mass and that we can accommodate up to 6 million people. We have not put a date on when we want to achieve that, but we see room for some population growth,” she says.
Meanwhile, Singapore has “good standing” in Southeast Asia not just because of its willingness to help other countries in the region but because of its own successes in economic development, social policies and other areas. “Many countries, especially smaller ones, come to Singapore and ask us how we did it. We try to be helpful. We offer technical assistance to other countries and show them what we have done in different policy areas — what we do with education and health, how we operate our airport, and run our tourism program,” Ambassador Chan explains.
Its strategic location on major sea lanes and its industrious population have given Singapore an economic importance in Southeast Asia disproportionate to its small size, and its economic development, principally in manufacturing, communications and services, underscores much of Singapore’s success in other areas.
“Singapore has always been known as an economic miracle,” Ambassador Chan says. These days, Singapore is focusing on growth in the “knowledge” industries, including environmental technology, biotech — “We do a lot of stem cell research under ethical rules,” she says — and digital media.
Developing water technology is critical for Singapore, which does not have water sources of its own and must buy water from other countries. Using American technology, Singapore now is trying to “create new water out of used water,” Ambassador Chan explains.
Economic growth takes place in other areas, too, including financial services. There also is “a fledging fashion industry that we are trying to build.” In recent years, Singapore has promoted its creative services. “Hollywood does some of its work in Singapore,” Ambassador Chan says.
She cites investment and trade opportunities that Singapore offers, noting that the free trade agreement that Singapore and the U.S. signed in 2003 was the first of its kind that the U.S. signed with an Asian country. That has made Singapore “an even better place for Americans to invest,” she says. She points to surveys that show Singapore has a business-friendly environment. “We are one of the top one or two places in the world to do business in,” she says. “Singapore is welcoming, pleasant to live in, and safe.”
But she acknowledges that the recent economic slowdown in the U.S. and Europe has impacted Singapore, where this year’s growth rate probably will be between 4-6 percent compared to 7.2 percent last year.
With no oil resources of its own, Singapore buys oil from nearby producing countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East and is impacted by high oil prices. Paradoxically, Ambassador Chan says, Singapore is home to the third largest oil refining center in the world.
As it seeks to expand economically, Singapore also wants to broaden its educational focus. “We are very good at producing scientists and engineers, but we feel we have to produce well-rounded graduates,” says Ambassador Chan, who points out that she received a liberal arts education. Now, a film school has opened in Singapore and a music conservatory is being developed. Culturally, Singapore has a symphony orchestra and ballet company as well as creative artists and art schools.
Meanwhile, Singapore has increasingly become a tourism destination, drawing about 7 million visitors a year. “It used to be that we were known as clean and green and staid,” Ambassador Chan says. “Singapore was green before it became fashionable to be green. We have been quite good about regulating industry to meet environmental standards. We are very conscious of that.” Recycling has been practiced “for decades,” she says.
Now Singapore has gained that “city with a buzz” reputation. “We see ourselves as a garden city that is clean and green and where things work, the food is great, and the people are pleasant and speak English,” Ambassador Chan says. Visitors often comment, she says, on how “different races lives in harmony — Malays, Chinese, Indian, expatriates.”
In some ways it’s like Washington, she says. “I enjoy Washington very much because I like the green, the beautiful flowers in spring, the good cultural life. Also, people are very friendly here. It’s a good place to be.”
Singapore’s greatest challenge currently, Ambassador Chan says, is “how to maintain and manage success.” As a small country, “we are a little red dot on the world map, and with no natural resources, we always worry about how to keep up with the competition, not just in our region, but globally. We have to always anticipate what is around the corner.”
“If you have a small space, you have to plan carefully, and Singapore is quite rational and very planning-conscious,” she continues. “We have a politics of anticipation. We have to always anticipate what is around the corner and it has to do with the size of the country.”
That’s a key reason for Singapore’s interest in growing its population. “Our only resource is our human capital,” Ambassador Chan says. “You enlarge your space in different ways and that’s what we are trying to do.”