A reflection on the S Rajaratnam Lecture 2016

I had the privilege of attending the S Rajaratnam lecture on 11 November last year. Organised by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, the lecture bolsters the equipping of public servants with critical insights and knowledge to react wisely to dynamic landscapes beyond Singaporean waters.

The event was graced by speaker, Mr George Yeo. As Chairman of Kerry Logistics Network and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, he had a wealth of experience and wisdom to impart in his speech on the theme, “A Sense of Self in an Age of Globalisation”. Curious to understand how the esteemed man viewed international relations and Singapore’s stance on it, I listened intently in eager anticipation.

Mr Yeo spoke about the uniqueness of the Singaporean identity (and identities) across the globe buttressed by deep-seated traditions and culture. He moved on to address the fragmentation that technological advances have inevitably caused and new challenges facing the world today. Closer to home, he asserted the importance of valuing unity in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and handling international tensions with delicate care, whilst being ever-true to our identities.

With much discussed in the hour-long lecture, allow me to address some noteworthy points:

  1. The irrevocable impacts caused by technological advances

Mr Yeo mentioned that technology has changed societal roles where “good teachers learn from their students; good parents learn from their children.  Political or corporate leaders can no longer act as if they have a monopoly of knowledge, wisdom and moral authority”. Either way, it has become easier for us to undermine both personal autonomy and political authority. I have never viewed technology from this perspective.

With tremendous increase in accessibility and convenience that technology has bought us in recent decades, people are quick to wax lyrical about its indispensability and strengths. However, we tend to overlook that it is changing our social landscape, subtly yet surely, for better or worse. Knowledge is power, and what differentiates present societies is the distribution of this power among the common people. In other words, what gave past authorities the autonomy to lord over commoners is now readily available to all of us, at a simple swipe of gizmos we keep on our back pockets. We must hence exercise this power wisely, not only to keep rulers in check, but to preserve our individual and national identities in this ever-changing and impressionable age.

2. The importance of Singapore taking a neutral stance with regard to international conflicts

Mr Yeo adamantly pointed out that “ASEAN should take no position on territorial disputes between the four claimant states and China” on the issue of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. He then reasoned that “all of us in ASEAN are small powers in comparison to these two [USA and China].  We end up being minor pieces on their global chessboard to be sacrificed when expedient.”

While we have confidence in Singapore’s sovereignty, we must not overestimate ourselves, thinking that we have a strong global presence in the political arena, even with the collective strength of ASEAN. Like it or not, we are not a dominant force in the world, and hence, it is in our best interest to mediate and promote peace between the two super powers without taking sides. Yet, it is a challenging task to be unrelenting and not buckle under pressure to side a particular country. To many countries, being neutral can be interpreted as running counter to their national interest, which can potentially strain relationships. The delicateness of international relations, perhaps, is the very factor that makes Singapore’s diplomatic and foreign affair efforts an invaluable part in maintaining our sovereignty, as we grow in wisdom and acceptance that we can only thrive with the ‘blessing’ of our ‘bigger brothers’.

3. Singapore’s identity

So where is the “Sense of Self in an Age of Globalisation”? It all boils down to our identity as Singaporeans, “complex and dynamic” in nature, with our iridescent roots of differing cultures, tradition, languages and race. I strongly believe that with our conscious efforts in embracing the diversity among us, we will continue to develop sensitivity in our relations with the rest of the world that will see us through the waves of aggression for many years to come.

If you are interested to find out more about the issues discussed by Mr George Yeo in the lecture, you may access this link to his transcript below:

https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2016/201611/mfa-press-release–speech-by-mr-george-yeo–former-minister-for-.html

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