Globalisation and the draw of people's deeper identities

Former foreign minister George Yeo spoke on human identity, and the challenge of understanding and accommodating differences amid changing geopolitics at the Foreign Ministry's 9th S. Rajaratnam Lecture last Friday. This is an edited extract.

Singaporeans have to be big-hearted and broad-minded to embrace others not like themselves, and this is an idea that is worth living and fighting for, says Mr Yeo.
Singaporeans have to be big-hearted and broad-minded to embrace others not like themselves, and this is an idea that is worth living and fighting for, says Mr Yeo.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Each of us has multiple identities. They run deep and are important to us. These identities could be religious, national, ethnic, tribal or personal, but they are not to be trifled with. Among close friends, it is all right to make fun of a person's identity but, even so, one has to be careful.


Technological change is undermining hierarchies everywhere and an important reason for the anger against institutions based on hierarchies. This is a big subject now commonly subsumed under the phrase "The Fourth Industrial Revolution". In the past, institutions were maintained by ritual, by fear, by mystification, by hypocrisy, sometimes by outright lies. With cameras and microphones now ubiquitous, this is no longer possible. Those who pretend to be what they are not get quickly exposed and laughed at in the social media.

The support for Brexit expressed popular frustration with the loss of control to Brussels, to institutions so complicated that they no longer enjoy the affection of ordinary people. Thus, the larger issue of Brexit is not the United Kingdom but the nature of the European construction itself. In their hearts, the Europeans remain a collection of tribal peoples who are proud of their distinct identities. The sense of Roman citizenship, which was an overlay, disappeared a long time ago. Although the Western Roman Empire was reincarnated in the Roman Church, Christianity as a higher identity uniting Europeans lost its force during the religious wars that culminated in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution in 1789 spread into many parts of Europe.

In the United States, the election of Donald Trump reflected a widespread loss of trust in the institutions that have made the US the most stable country in the world. Great institutions are never easily changed or dismantled. There must first be a period of creative destruction, which means years of political upheaval and unhappiness. It will not be easy to break up encrusted vested interests.

We are seeing fragmentation everywhere. The nation-state itself is weakening as talent, capital and knowledge become more mobile. Patriotism based on the multinational state is weakening. The digital revolution is dramatically redistributing power in human society. Today, 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 on knowledge, wisdom and moral authority.

Singaporeans have to be big-hearted and broad-minded to embrace others not like themselves, and this is an idea that is worth living and fighting for, says Mr Yeo.
Singaporeans have to be big-hearted and broad-minded to embrace others not like themselves, and this is an idea that is worth living and fighting for, says Mr Yeo. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Fragmentation, however, does not dissolve into chaos. The fragments are still held together by deeper identities that link them up across political borders and across economic and cultural domains into complex neural networks. The apps on our smartphones are a manifestation of such network formation. For good or for ill, people are linking up to others with similar identities or interests. Being physically together no longer ensures interaction. Through the smartphone, the passengers in a train are each in his own world. We have become comfortable ignoring people around us. Sometimes, one gets the same feeling even around a family dining table.

The growth of networks creates new challenges. The Internet makes it easier to extend networks around the world. Birds of the same feather seek out one another. The Internet can broaden our minds but it can also narrow them. Those who have a deep interest in particular subjects are fed more material on the same subjects and encouraged to network with others who share that interest. That's how self-radicalisation happens.


The governance of networks is difficult because they straddle national jurisdictions. The dominant form of governance in the world today is through national governments. No government has full control over the Internet. International cooperation is difficult and slow. During the Cold War, it was the US that led the non-communist world. Today, the world has become increasingly multipolar, calling into question US leadership. Superpower leadership is costly, having to be backed by expensive military power. Both at the national and international levels, governance has become more complicated and less effective.

The Soviet Empire was the first major casualty of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Once the central governance structure cracked, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe became independent and, within the Soviet Union itself, each republic became an independent state. Those new countries that are held together by a deeper sense of identity are stable, including the core of Russia itself. Others like Yugoslavia broke up into smaller pieces. Even a smaller piece like Bosnia-Herzegovina would not hold together without strong outside intervention.

For a time, the US, seeing itself as the sole superpower, the New Rome as some neo-conservatives call it, intervened to re-create the Middle East on the basis of democracy. Sept 11 became a reason to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Arab Spring a reason to remove Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It has been an absolute disaster. Without strong, brutal leaders holding tight the reins of power, these countries broke up into warring factions. In Libya, the deep identity is tribal and the conflict there is thus mostly tribal in nature. In such a situation without a dictator, it is Salafi Islam that is most able to unite tribes against common enemies. Ironically, the beneficiaries of the removal of Gaddafi are groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) acting against the West.

It was the underestimation by the Americans of the depth of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide in the Middle East that led to civil war and external interference in Iraq and Syria. An Arab ruler in the Gulf once told me that the most stable border in the entire region is that between Turkey and Iran. It is the same border that separated the Ottomans from the Safavids. The Safavids made Iran a Shi'ite country 500 years ago. Children were taught to curse the first three caliphs - Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. Safavid Iran became a Shi'ite kingdom. The Ottomans were Sunni. The agreement between them was that no Shi'ite in the Ottoman realm would bear arms. In this way, the Shi'ites in the Ottoman realm could not easily become a fifth column for Iran. This kept the peace. When the American coalition invaded Iraq, a major objective was the transfer of power to the Shi'ite majority. An old understanding had been unwound with cataclysmic repercussions across the entire Fertile Crescent. Iran benefited while alarm bells rang in the Saudi Kingdom. The predominantly Sunni cities of Aleppo and Mosul are right now being recaptured by soldiers who are predominantly Shi'ite or Shi'ite-led, one with the help of Russia, the other with the help of the US.

It might be that Humpty Dumpty would have fallen anyway, eventually. Still, if we had known how fragile the shell was, we might have found a better, gentler way to bring Humpty Dumpty down from the wall. But all this is in hindsight. It is easy to be wise after the event.

Here in South-east Asia, we have to be mindful of not riding roughshod over deep identities. We ignore these identities at our peril. Indonesia's relatively smooth transition to a modern democracy could not have been foreseen during the Asian financial crisis when the vast country was in danger of breaking up. If there had been civil war, Singapore would not have been left in peace. After East Timor became independent, successive Indonesian presidents had the wisdom to accommodate the Acehnese. I remember talking to then-president Abdurrahman Wahid when he visited Singapore. As the Minister-in-Attendance, I was in the car with him. His touching wish was for an agreement that enables the Acehnese to feel that the land they live on is their own. After the Boxing Day tsunami, then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono held the Indonesian Army back so his vice-president Jusuf Kalla could negotiate a peace agreement with GAM (Free Aceh Movement). Pak Jusuf, who monitored proceedings from Jakarta through two mobile phones, asked then-minister Hamid Awaludin to invite GAM leaders in Helsinki for an informal meeting to break the ice first and build up trust before the start of negotiations. There can be no stable peace without respect and accommodation of differences.

The challenge of the ethnic groups in Myanmar is an ongoing struggle. Many Western and Islamic countries are pressuring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to solve the Rohingya problem in Rakhine state. There is an urgent need to ameliorate the suffering of the Rohingyas but this is a difficult political issue. Daw Suu cannot settle the Rohingya issue without first achieving a peace agreement with the other minority ethnic groups who collectively make up one-third of the population. When her father Aung San signed the Panglong Agreement with the seven most important minority groups in 1947 on the eve of independence, which included the Rakhines, Bengalis were recognised as an ethnic minority but not Rohingyas. The ethnic issue is further complicated by the fact that many ethnic groups straddle the borders with Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand.

Myanmar's peaceful transition from a military government to a democratically elected government is a miracle that could not have been achieved without the patient support and understanding of Asean and other countries. What is needed now is economic development, without which there can be no solution to the ethnic problem. During Daw Suu's recent visit to China, China agreed to play a helpful role. Earlier attempts to have a peace agreement without involving China could not succeed. For every Kachin living in Myanmar, there are two living in China. For every Wa living in Myanmar, there is another living in China.


Asean is culturally the most diverse region in the world because of its complex geography. As a result of the Australian plate crashing into Asian tectonic plates, the entire region between the Himalayas and Australia is corrugated into high mountain ridges, deep valleys, indented coasts and the world's biggest archipelago, with strangely shaped islands like Mindanao, Sulawesi and Halmahera. Over the centuries, tribes have migrated southwards from the Chinese mainland, down the peninsulas and into the islands. Some were forced up the mountains. As empires waxed and waned on opposite sides, they brought to our shores aspects of their civilisation and bits of their DNA.

There can be peace in South-east Asia only if we recognise and respect this diversity and build institutions based upon acceptance of diversity. While we should influence one another positively, we should never impose our views or our wills on one another.

The Malays describe the region as the lands below the winds (tanah di bawah angin). The winds blow one way six months of the year and the other way the other six months. The region is in between China and India not only geographically but also culturally. The instinct in coastal South-east Asia is therefore to be open and neutral, welcoming all who come peacefully to our shores. Every time the China trade flowed strongly, it brought opportunity and prosperity to the kingdoms and principalities in the region. The China trade that flowed in the 19th century, the one that created modern Singapore, was, however, different. Trade was opened up by gunboats and had to conform to Western rules. During that period, South-east Asia was carved up into colonial domains, except for Thailand, which astutely adjusted to whichever was the prevailing power.

The new China trade of the 21st century will revert to earlier China trades, which allowed for greater diversity. President Xi Jinping's One Belt, One Road is based on a voluntary principle. There is no requirement to change one's internal operating system in order to become part of it. As with the Internet, one can participate in the network by accepting certain protocols, similar to TCP/IP. This is now unfolding on an epic scale, transforming the face of Eurasia. Powers that see China as a rival are reacting uneasily to this development. The US and Japan are refusing to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). India is not enthusiastic, worried that the Kashgar-Gwadar corridor will affect it adversely. These countries fear that China will pull too many of the strings.

China will fail if it tries to dominate its neighbours by force or intimidation. Deng Xiaoping once said that, if China ever tried to be a new hegemon, other countries should unite with the Chinese people to defeat it. What China is doing instead is to make use of its economic strength to win friends and influence people. Those who are friendly to China are rewarded while those who are not so friendly find themselves economically disadvantaged. However, the Chinese know that they cannot expect an exclusive position for themselves in South-east Asia, which was precisely the point made by then-premier Zhu Rongji in Phnom Penh in 2002, when he signed the Framework Agreement for the Asean-China Free Trade Agreement with Asean leaders. No one in Asean wants China as an enemy. The more China is a friend, the more the US, Japan, India and Europe will also be welcomed as friends because that gives us diversification. The more, the merrier.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea must, however, be well managed. The US is understandably concerned. However, trying to play off the US against China, or vice versa, is a dangerous game for Asean countries. All of us in Asean are small powers in comparison with these two. We end up being minor pieces on their global chessboard, to be sacrificed when expedient. The high tension earlier this year seems to have ameliorated as all four countries with competing claims and China are talking in a constructive way. Because of long contact with South-east Asia over many centuries, China has a fine sense of Asean's diversity and calibrates its foreign policy to this reality.

Asean itself is slowly but steadily inculcating in its people a sense of Asean citizenry. The Asean flag now flies alongside national flags of member states in all overseas missions. Next year, Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary. I hope we will be able to field an Asean soccer team for the World Cup one day, cheered on by all the people of Asean.


Singapore's identity is rooted in our geography and history. At the southernmost tip of the Eurasia landmass, we are where ships turn as the winds change direction. Singapore is a child of the maritime silk route. In the coming decades, this China trade will flow with greater strength than ever before. Behind China, there is a rising India. As Professor Wang Gungwu put it beautifully, we are where the mandalas of China and India intersect. The growth of One Belt, One Road is therefore a historic opportunity for Singapore that, provided we seize it with both hands, will take us far.

There can be peace in South-east Asia only if we recognise and respect this diversity and build institutions based upon acceptance of diversity. While we should influence one another positively, we should never impose our views or our wills on one another.

Singapore's destiny is in South-east Asia. We are at the heart of Asean and the most Asean-ised of all the Asean countries. Every member country in Asean has a strong presence in Singapore. The rich diversity of Asean has its reflection in the Singapore crystal. We are densely connected economically and culturally with all the other nine countries. It is for this reason that Singapore has always been a strong advocate of Asean unity and integration. Asean's role as a neutral platform friendly to all major powers is irreplaceable. Provided we do not take sides, all the major powers will wish us well and support our deeper unity and integration. Asean must always be reluctant to Asean-ise bilateral problems that individual Asean countries might have with major powers. Unless there are overriding reasons for Asean as a whole to be involved in such bilateral disputes, it should refrain from doing so. On the South China Sea, for example, Asean does have a strong interest in freedom of navigation, but Asean should take no position on territorial disputes between the four claimant states and China. Asean should also studiously avoid taking sides in the unavoidable rivalry between the US and China.

There is a strong alignment between Singapore's foreign policy and Asean's foreign policy. Despite having left the Government for some years, in my present capacity in the private sector, I am constantly reminded by Asean friends of the important role Singapore plays in fostering Asean unity.

Singapore's Chinese-ness is an inseparable part of our existence in South-east Asia. It was our Chinese-ness that impelled so many Singaporeans to support China's war against Japan, that led the Japanese militarists to kill many young men after the British were defeated, that made the British keep Singapore out of the Malayan Federation, that enabled Lee Kuan Yew to persuade the Tunku to take Singapore into Malaysia, and that caused Singapore to separate not long afterwards in 1965. That same Chinese-ness continues to link us in a myriad of ways to the unfolding drama of China's great transformation in the 21st century and to the situation of the ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia. Singapore's Chinese-ness is a huge advantage in this period of history but it also complicates our foreign policy. One senior Chinese diplomat once noted to me that "there is considerable mutual affection between the people of China and the people of Singapore". The other side of this emotional coin is the occasional overreaction to disagreements between us. I remember former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas once expressing to me his deep concern about Singapore's deteriorating relations with China many years ago over an incident that I've long forgotten. His concern came as a pleasant surprise to me.

Singapore's links with Malaysia and Indonesia, with India and with the Muslim world, are similarly fraught with emotional complications. The POA issue (over Points of Agreement on railway land) with Malaysia took over 20 years to resolve largely because the emotional trauma of separation for both sides took time to heal. After 51 years, we are still very much one people separated into two countries. In a group, it is difficult to distinguish Singaporeans from Malaysians. Among Indonesian leaders, there is sometimes a sense that Chinese Singapore is somehow exploiting Indonesia, benefiting disproportionately from the relationship. The ethnic Chinese connection with Singapore is woven into the fabric of economic life in South-east Asia and complicates our relationship with Indonesia. Notwithstanding all this, Singapore and Indonesia remain the closest of partners. With One Belt, One Road, our two countries will grow even closer together in the coming decades.

Singapore's links to India are also profound, and will be a growing advantage not only to us but to the entire region. By 2050, India will be either the second- or third-biggest economy in the world. Some of my Indian friends consider Singapore to be virtually a part of India. Singapore is, of course, an Indian name, Sanskrit in origin.

Singapore's links to the Muslim world are inseparable from our other links to South-east Asia, China and India. The recent picture of President Tony Tan Keng Yam meeting Singapore religious students in Egypt's Al-Azhar University shows how intimately connected we are to the Middle East and the Muslim world. Every coin has two sides. While we celebrate the connections, we are also ineluctably affected by the turmoil in the Middle East including the challenge of jihadi terrorism.

What all this means is that the Singapore identity is complex and dynamic. This complexity is part of our everyday life. We will never stop worrying about it. We will never stop arguing over policies affected by our multiple identities in education and housing, language and culture, national security and foreign policy. The latest debate is the elected presidency.

In having to grapple with these tensions, which are never fully resolved, we develop a Singapore culture, a higher Singapore identity, which is accommodating and inclusive, while being always sensitive to issues touching on race, language and religion. Each and every Singaporean has multiple identities. Being Singaporean means understanding and accepting this reality, even celebrating it. The Singaporean has to be big-hearted and broad-minded in order to embrace others not like himself. This is the Singapore idea that is worth living and fighting for. Indeed it is an idea the world desperately needs. Singapore is only Singapore if it has this universal appeal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Globalisation and the draw of people's deeper identities'. Subscribe