PM Lee’s official visit to the US

Leaders pay tribute to deep bilateral ties

Left: PM Lee and Mr Obama toasting their friendship at the state dinner. Both spoke warmly of each other during their speeches, with PM Lee saying Singapore admires America's "dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal". Left below: Mr Obama an
At the dinner, Mr Obama said the US-Singapore bond goes beyond geopolitics, and that "our partnership is rooted in more than strategic interests. We're bound together by history, by family and by friendship".ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Left: PM Lee and Mr Obama toasting their friendship at the state dinner. Both spoke warmly of each other during their speeches, with PM Lee saying Singapore admires America's "dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal". Left below: Mr Obama an
PM Lee and Mr Obama toasting their friendship at the state dinner. Both spoke warmly of each other during their speeches, with PM Lee saying Singapore admires America's "dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal". ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Left: PM Lee and Mr Obama toasting their friendship at the state dinner. Both spoke warmly of each other during their speeches, with PM Lee saying Singapore admires America's "dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal". Left below: Mr Obama an
Mr Obama and Mrs Lee at the dinner, which was attended by nearly 200 people. PHOTO: REUTERS

Obama, PM Lee give speeches reflecting strong personal rapport, express confidence US-S'pore ties will endure

remy Au Yong When US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised their glasses at the state dinner on Tuesday night (yesterday morning, Singapore time), it was a toast to not just the depth of current bilateral links, but also the strong personal rapport between the two leaders.

In tributes that each lasted about seven minutes, the two spoke warmly of each other and even threw in a few jokes.

Just as he did during the arrival ceremony earlier on Tuesday, Mr Obama liberally littered his remarks at the dinner with Singaporean references and colloquialisms.

He started his toast by acknowledging the recent inclusion of hawker stalls in the Michelin food guide. "We all know how seriously Singaporeans take their food. In Singapore, even the street vendors - the hawker stalls - earn Michelin stars - which creates some pressure this evening," he said to laughter from the audience of nearly 200.

"We were tempted to offer each of you a Singapore Sling or some chilli crab. However, for those of you who know its unmistakable scent - which never seems to go away - you'll understand why we are not serving a fruit known as durian here in the White House."


The Dendrobium Barack and Michelle Obama, a gift from Singapore, is a cross between the Hawaiian Dendrobium Pink Lips and Singapore's Dendrobium Sunplaza Park. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

When it was his turn to take to the podium in the White House East Room, Mr Lee landed punchlines of his own.

He spoke of how former US ambassador Steve Green was crucial in teeing up the midnight golf game between former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong and former US president Bill Clinton that eventually led to the US-Singapore free-trade agreement.

Noting that Mr Clinton was serving his last term then, he quipped that this "shows what can be done even during lame duck periods".

But the biggest laughs came when Mr Lee took a jab at conspiracy theories about Mr Obama not being born in the United States.

While announcing Singapore's gift of an orchid hybrid named Dendrobium Barack and Michelle Obama, he said: "This is a hybrid of breeds native to Singapore and Hawaii, where the President was born - most of us believe."

Jokes aside, both leaders also expressed confidence that US-Singapore ties would endure.

Mr Lee said America has much to offer Singapore.

"Singapore admires America's dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal. These qualities attract the best and brightest from around the world," said Mr Lee.

"This is something that Singapore hopes to emulate as we seek to tap this spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship."

Mr Obama, in turn, said the bond between the two countries goes beyond geopolitics.

Noting that the first American representative to Singapore - a planter named Joseph Balestier - still has a road named after him, he said: "It's a reminder that as we pursue a more peaceful and prosperous order in the Asia-Pacific, our partnership is rooted in more than strategic interests. We're bound together by history, by family and by friendship."

The ceremony, which ran for nearly four hours with political leaders, corporate chiefs and TV stars in attendance, capped off Mr Obama's 12th state dinner and the first one he has granted in honour of a South-east Asian country.

After their meeting earlier on Tuesday, Mr Lee and Mr Obama faced the press, both advocating strongly for free trade.

And while Mr Lee declined to weigh in on the US election when asked, he said he hoped cooler heads would prevail after the polls in November.

"Our experience of American elections, presidential elections, has been that many pressures build up during the election campaign. And after the elections, in a calmer, cooler atmosphere, positions are re-thought, strategies are nuanced, and a certain balance is kept in the direction of the ship of state. It doesn't turn completely upside down."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'Leaders pay tribute to deep bilateral ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe