The Supper Club

Wong Kan Seng: Neutral Singapore can facilitate frank speaking

Hosting global and regional meetings is critical to putting Singapore on the world map, says former deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng. - ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN
Hosting global and regional meetings is critical to putting Singapore on the world map, says former deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng. - ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN

Hosting global and regional meetings is critical to putting Singapore on the world map, says former deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng, 68, who helped organise the inaugural Singapore Forum earlier this month that attracted Asian policymakers and corporate leaders. In his first one-on-one interview since 2007, Mr Wong also tells Rachel Au-Yong about life after the 2011 General Election (GE), and how the daily political grind has changed over the 30 years he's been an MP.

Q: Singapore hosts many of these international and regional forums, including the Singapore Summit (which looks at finance and economic issues in Asia) and the Shangri-La Dialogue (on security and defence). Why do we need another one?

The Singapore Forum is a useful platform where we bring together the leaders and policymakers of our region.

It is not just for people in government, or who have left the government. We also brought businessmen from the region, because government policies, particularly economic ones, affect businesses, and investments depend on the conditions in the country. This forum gave business leaders and policymakers the chance to hear each other, get their ideas across and questions answered.

It's also good to hold the forum in Singapore. We are a small country, we have no contentious issues, or stakes in disputes that are of concern to some neighbours. And being a small country, we trade with the rest of the whole world - of course, we would have an interest in what goes on in the rest of the world.

Q: What's so important about a country's neutrality in hosting a forum?

If a forum were to be held in a country that has a dispute with another, and a subject of contention comes up, it can become heated without much enlightenment on the issues being raised. Singapore does not have that kind of contention, say, with regard to territorial disputes.

Even when disputes like these are discussed here, there isn't the angst and emotions involved than, say, if such a forum were to be held in Japan, China, the Philippines or Vietnam.

I'm not the only one who says this. Many participants who attend other forums here, like the Singapore Summit, say Singapore is the right place to facilitate a frank exchange of views.

Q: What's the problem with holding them in a country that might be embroiled in these contentious issues?

In China, for example - and the Chinese hold a lot of forums, like the Boao Forum for Asia and the Chinese Development Forum - the ones who go there would definitely have an interest in things that are going on there, right? They would mainly be businessmen. And they will want to hear directly from the Chinese leaders about the issues and problems, about finding ways of overcoming their own company's issues. That serves a very specific purpose.

It would not be one where they can talk about regional issues as such. Even at Boao, which talks about many things, we can see that the stances taken by some are quite different.

  • On the menu

  • Where: China Manis at URA Centre
    45 Maxwell Road, #01-01

    Milo: $2
    Beef rendang with nasi lemak: $9.80
    Total: $11.80

Q: Speaking of China, you are also chairman of Singbridge, which has significant investments in China. What do you make of the Sino-Singapore relationship?

We've come a very long way, largely because we had Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who established very strong relationships with successive generations of leaders. He met all the Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong to Mr Xi Jinping (the current President), himself.

I don't think any subsequent leader will have that kind of time or length in service to do the same... Even leaders in China now have shorter tenures. They get 10 years and, after that, you have to build a new relationship again.

Q: Singapore has tied up with China to build industrial parks and work on economic policies. With the Chinese economy where it is now, do you think we have reached saturation point?

The Chinese leaders now are different from the past, because they used to be closed to the world. Only with Deng Xiaoping onwards did they want an open economy and to conduct market reform. China wanted to learn from Singapore.

But after 30 years of reform, many countries have invested in China. Many leaders have visited China and many Chinese leaders have gone overseas. So their world view has changed. The horizon has expanded.

Similarly, other countries now have direct access to China. They no longer need to come and talk to us to know more about China.

But we can still remain relevant as long as we are successful. Many of the issues we face, they also face: education, getting people ready for the job market, social issues like building consensus and engaging the public.

Other issues of coping with an ageing society, providing your people with longer-term security - they're common. And our experience in improving access to education, widening market access and dealing with international organisations are matters which are still relevant to them.

No doubt they can learn directly from other countries. But learning from Singapore lets them see how we have done certain things.

In fact, we once said that we can't pull Singapore away to the South Pacific. If we have problems with our neighbours, we cannot drag ourselves away. We are still here. We got to resolve problems with our neighbours.
- Wong Kan Seng

Q: Back to the Singapore Forum, what was the most important takeaway?

(Former Indonesian) president (Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono, in his opening speech, made the point that the last 30 years has seen a rising middle class, whether in China, India, Indonesia, or Singapore.

The rising middle class is a major force in creating a market, as well as wealth, for the country. But that was only possible because of regional stability. There was no war in the region for many years. The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Cambodian-Vietnamese War concluded in a period of 15 years or so.

Of course, all countries have their own problems, right? But we can't get away from the fundamentals, which is how to grow the economy, sustain growth, provide better jobs, get better wages, then save enough and look after yourselves when you retire.

And there's the other problem, which I think countries like Indonesia are paying attention to: the digital divide. It's worse in ageing societies like China or Japan.

The ones in the coastal provinces, with access to phones and wireless (networks), they're adapting very fast. The ones in the villages? Yes, they have a phone but in terms of access, they are probably not as quick to close the gap as the younger ones in urban areas.

And then you have a population like India where many people are young. India is not an ageing society yet, they have different aspirations. They want to leapfrog to become better - get up there quickly, compared to their parents who took a long time to get where they are today.

So whether it's the digital or demographic gap, it needs to be bridged. And for countries in the region, they cannot do everything by themselves. So the question is how we complement one another and help each other develop.

Q: So what is the biggest obstacle Asia should watch out for?

If there are contentious issues that cannot be resolved and, worse still, result in scrapes and hostility, then I think the kind of mood that will set in in the region will be bad for investment.

The latest news with regard to the disputed islands in North-east Asia is that the three countries (China, Japan and South Korea) are talking - whether it's their finance minister or tourism minister - which means there's recognition that they want to bring down the tension.

I think the move by China and Japan last year to set up a hotline, to deal with maritime incidents and eventualities, is a good move. Because you can't get away from one another. You are neighbours. You cannot pull away.

In fact, we once said that we can't pull Singapore away to the South Pacific. If we have problems with our neighbours, we cannot drag ourselves away. We are still here. We got to resolve problems with our neighbours.

Q: Your foreign affairs portfolio must have helped in steering the forum (Mr Wong was Foreign Minister for about six years). How do you think your nearly 31 years of political experience has helped you put this together?

The first person I reached out to was Tun Musa Hitam (Malaysia's former deputy prime minister), to join our nine-member International Advisory Board. I also depended on people I know, to recommend who could be of help to us and invite them.

We just started last year, so we have only a few board members. We will look to expand the group.

I'm also not the only person doing this. I'm only a coordinator, and I worked with the S. Rajaratnam Endowment board (which sponsored the forum) and some government officials, as well as with the advisory board, to guide us and point us to people who can participate in the forum, and have expert views on certain things, and share with us the issues of concern and help us craft the theme.

Q: Do you see an increasing need for government officials and business leaders to meet each other at these forums?

Formal government-to-government meetings - bilateral or multilateral - serve official objectives. Informal settings like the Singapore Forum allow views to be exchanged at a different level.

Q: Is holding forums one way retired Cabinet ministers can still contribute to Singapore? (Mr Wong stepped down from the Cabinet after the 2011 GE).

Retired ministers contribute in different ways. A lot depends on what sort of interests they have and what opportunities are available. So I would not put (my specific example) as an example for others to follow.

Q: How else do you contribute?

Well, I'm still an MP. I attend to constituency events, I do Meet-the-People sessions, I make house visits regularly, just like my other MP colleagues. I have taken over the private estates in Binchang Clover at Pemimpim since the last GE, and my ward, Bishan East, has expanded to cover three to four condos in that area.

Q: You have been in Bishan East for a long time. What's the biggest change you have observed?

It's a closer community in Bishan today, because many have lived there for a long time and they look after one another. You can see that when residents go overseas, they inform their neighbours to help keep an eye on their homes.

Before we had the Lift Upgrading Programme (which puts a lift on every floor), some people never knew who their immediate neighbours were, because the lift would stop only at the first, fifth or eighth floor. But now they gather at the lobby, and they know who's living on their floor.

Q: Eventually you will retire. Do you think the residents who have grown older with you are prepared to say goodbye to you?

Well, I do my duty and I've done my best. It does not matter if residents will say goodbye to me when I retire. There will be people I have known for a long time and if I see them, we can still chat.

Q: In this leg of your life, do you have any advice for younger Singaporeans?

The young generation today knows what it is doing. They know that, firstly, they have to make a living. They know they have to study hard. They have to work hard.

They also know that Singapore is not alone in competing for jobs, and therefore they work hard. That's why some are quite stressed by it. That's completely understandable.

For Singapore to continue to grow at this rate and provide for our people, we must really find jobs for the future, that will continue to be relevant to them.

So young people must have the right skills, the right attitude, and the right approach to life.

Q: How will you celebrate SG50? I don't just mean the National Day Parade.

I won't hold a personal event to celebrate SG50. Every year is a good year.

rachelay@sph.com.sg