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Singapore’s foresight in forging early friendships

Xi and Li among CCP members Singapore reached out to early in their careers

Published on Nov 10, 2012 2:00 PM
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew presents a Chinese version of his memoirs to Xi Jinping, Chinese vice president, when they met at the Great Hall of the People Olympics in this Aug 7, 2008 file photo. ST PHOTO: CHUA CHIN HON

BEIJING – When a young party secretary of Fuzhou city visited Singapore in the early 1990s, he was invited to a private meal with then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.  It was not, in diplomatic speak, optical parity. There was a chasm in their relative political statures.

The visitor, a little-known man named Xi Jinping, was a city-level official, barely 40 years old. His host was a global statesman who had just stepped down as prime minister but was still influential in Cabinet. Compatibility was not the main item on the menu. It was cultivation.

Mr Lee, it is believed, wanted to meet Mr Xi because, among other reasons, the offspring of a Chinese revolutionary hero was seen as a potential leader of China.

His foresight stands Singapore in good stead, now that Mr Xi is set to take over control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Thursday.

For decades now, Singapore has nurtured ties with young Chinese officials, honing the art of spotting future leaders in a long-term political investment.

China analyst Li Mingjiang says: “Singaporean politicians understand very well that friendship and connections with Chinese leaders are very important for the sustained growth of bilateral relations.”
The purpose, adds the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies observer, is to develop “person-to-person relations” early in their careers.

Besides Mr Xi, Singapore leaders have also been building guanxi (connections) with other contenders for the new Politburo Standing Committee, the apex council of the CCP (see box).

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this week in Vientiane, in response to questions by Singapore reporters: “We are very familiar with many of the people who are likely to be in the next leadership team (in China).

“We have worked well with them and we hope we will continue to work with them in the future.” Incoming premier Li Keqiang, for instance, was courted as early as 1995.  Then, a Young People’s Action Party (Young PAP) delegation led by chairman George Yeo met Mr Li, who was leader of the Communist Youth League (CYL), here in Beijing.

It was the first visit between the two ruling parties. In 2006, Mr Lee Kuan Yew detoured to north-eastern Liaoning to meet Mr Li, who was in charge of the province.  Such trips in China are often telling of who the Singapore Government is eyeing.

Besides Beijing and Shanghai, Singapore leaders usually like to fan out to the provinces, often selecting those governed by rising Chinese stars – no matter how remote.

“It is important to start this ‘familiarisation’ or ‘reaching out’ efforts early so that these up-and-coming leaders have Singapore constantly on their radar screens,” says the East Asian Institute’s assistant director Lye Liang Fook.

Of course, Singapore tries to build relations with future leaders of other countries too. China is by no means unique. But given the growing strength of Beijing and its centrality in this region, it makes the political tilling in China critical.

In fact, in recent years, Singapore has already begun cultivating four Chinese young guns who are likely to rule in 2022. PM Lee made a quick stop in 2010 in central Hunan to meet its provincial chief Zhou Qiang, 52, and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong visited northern Inner Mongolia to see its party boss Hu Chunhua, 49, last year.

Both Mr Zhou and Mr Hu are known proteges of President Hu Jintao, and earmarked for promotion to the Politburo.  Singapore also inked a deal in September for the Jilin Food Zone, a major project in the north-eastern province under Mr Sun Zhengcai, 49, another political star.

Young PAP chief Teo Ser Luck has met another high-flier – Mr Lu Hao, 45, leader of the CYL – three times since 2009.
But the long game of Chinese talent-spotting is a tricky task. Politicians, civil servants and even businessmen all chip in with field reports.

Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Teo Siong Seng told Insight he and fellow members are unofficial scouts. They keep an eye out for promising young officials in China during business trips and invite them to Singapore to meet the politicians.

But given the unpredictability and opacity of politics here, it is not easy to identify the right men.  “If you get it wrong, not only will you lose your investment payback, but you may also even get into trouble,” says China expert Huang Jing from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“For instance, if Singapore had been cultivating Bo Xilai, it would have been counterproductive.” PM Lee had met Mr Bo, purged in recent months amid a murder scandal involving his wife, in south-western Chongqing in 2010.

But in an era when strongman politics in China has faded, Singapore has a relatively broad-based scouting strategy. Instead of just focusing on one or two, it builds ties with a large team of leaders, insuring itself against the vagaries of elite Chinese politics, when a princeling today could quickly turn into a pariah tomorrow.

Professor Lu Yuanli of Shenzhen University’s Centre for Singapore Studies says the trick is to not “overdo it in building ties with a particular leader or a province lest others are offended”.

Professor Huang cites a hypothetical scenario: “If you give Zhou Qiang, who is perceived as a next-generation leader, a project, rising local leaders like him, say Hu Chunhua, may expect that Singapore can do a similar project for him. But given Singapore’s size, it is not feasible for it to do too much...

“You don’t want to build up a reputation that Singapore is very shi li, which means pragmatic in a nice way or self-interested in a not so nice way.”

Thankfully for Singapore, it has had more hits than misses in its decades-long cultivation of Chinese leaders. Mr Xi, for example, is seen by many as friendly to the tiny nation. His endorsement of a major 10-part documentary on Singapore is a clear sign of the bilateral feel-good mood, which he is likely to encourage in his decade-long administration.

It could translate into closer trade ties, more businesses and political exchanges. In tangible terms, Singapore can look forward to being a key offshore yuan clearing centre. It is a status coveted by other cities like Tokyo and London.

“So far, Singapore has done well in building relations. Singapore leaders are welcomed in many parts of China which may not be open to leaders from other countries,” says Prof Lu.

Former foreign minister George Yeo, for example, was allowed a rare trip to restive Tibet in 2009. He was the first foreign minister to take the famous Qinghai-Tibet railway – the world’s highest.

When Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen visited earlier this year, he was given a tour of the South Sea Fleet, which takes charge of the contentious South China Sea.

Such successes are, clearly, due to more than just clever talent-spotting. Good relations are founded on many other efforts as well. And both countries have established many institutions to interact regularly.

There is the annual meeting of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation – the highest-level body for political ties and economic cooperation.

Seven regional councils have also been formed, each tasked to build ties in a province in China. Major state-led projects like the Suzhou Industrial Park and the Tianjin Eco-City also provide convenient and long-term platforms for exchanges.

The friendship of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has remained a key goodwill touchstone too.
But with the departure of the founding generation, observers say Singapore needs to keep up and even enhance its scouting and cultivation, despite the challenges.

China is simply too big a player in Asia to be ignored or downplayed, say observers. “It is just like stock investing. If you invest in a blue chip, there are low risks but there are also low returns,” says Prof Huang.

“But identifying the future leader in China is like investing in a start-up. The risks are higher but there could be a lot of rewards too.”