SINGAPORE - Shortly after her arrival at the Istana on Monday (Aug 23), United States Vice-President Kamala Harris was presented with a spray of purple-pink orchids named in her honour.
The hybrid flowers – a trademark show of Singapore’s orchid diplomacy – came with an official “birth certificate”, which Ms Harris accepted with a laugh.
“Well, I’m pleased to welcome this orchid into the world,” she said, as she and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posed for photos with the lushly flowering Papilionanda Kamala Harris.
But the talk soon turned to weightier matters when both leaders had their closed-door meeting. This was followed by a larger meeting at which several ministers and senior US officials were present.
Joining PM Lee were Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.
With Ms Harris were Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Singapore Rafik Mansour, Chief of Staff to the Vice-President Tina Flournoy, Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice-President Phil Gordon and Special Assistant to the President Edgard Kagan.
Topics discussed included the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, bilateral cooperation and regional developments.
The Americans were formally welcomed to the Istana by PM Lee and his entourage on Monday morning, with everyone standing to attention as the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band played The Star-Spangled Banner, followed by Majulah Singapura.
Both leaders inspected the guard of honour before entering the 152-year-old Istana building, where Ms Harris was presented with her namesake orchid.
America’s first female vice-president then paid a courtesy call on Singapore’s first female president, Madam Halimah Yacob.
Both women had a good and frank discussion, Madam Halimah said in a Facebook post.
This took in topics such as the strategic importance of the US to the Asia-Pacific region and how its presence has contributed to its peace and stability, as well as the strong and comprehensive bilateral ties between both countries, especially in the areas of defence and economic cooperation.
Other topics of conversation included the close educational and people-to-people ties on both sides, as well as the empowerment of women – “a subject close to both our hearts”, Madam Halimah said.
Ms Harris then met PM Lee and the rest of the Singapore delegation, before both leaders fielded a joint press conference at which the topic of Afghanistan came up several times. The Vice-President was asked whether she was satisfied with how her country implemented its withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as its potential impact on US credibility abroad.
Meanwhile, Mr Lee was asked if the current situation in Afghanistan had changed Singapore’s calculus on how much it could rely on America as a regional partner. He was also asked about the conditions that would need to be met for quarantine-free travel from the US to become a reality.
But the pandemic meant that reporters – who would previously have addressed both leaders in person - spoke to them virtually, from a separate holding room in the Istana. These included journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and several wire agencies, who had arrived with Ms Harris on Air Force Two.
The Vice-President later headed to Changi Naval Base, where she boarded littoral combat ship USS Tulsa, which had just completed a multilateral exercise with 20 countries, including Singapore.
Standing in the ship’s hangar bay against the backdrop of an American flag, she told the sailors of the importance of their work in defending a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“Our nation is stronger, and it is safer because of you,” she told them. “Because of your sacrifice, and because of your service.”