New book seeks to tell story of America through 'critical' Singapore viewpoint

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SINGAPORE - A new compilation of essays on the United States aims to tell the American story through Singaporean eyes faithfully, accurately and sympathetically - but also critically and in unsanitised fashion.

This was how veteran diplomat Tommy Koh described America: A Singapore Perspective, a 200-page book that he co-edited with Mr Daljit Singh, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute think-tank.

Published by Straits Times Press, the book contains 29 chapters authored by diplomats, academics and journalists from The Straits Times, and spans various aspects of the US including governance, politics, economy, defence, foreign policy and culture.

The publication's launch on Thursday (Dec 9) was attended by about 40 people at the National Library building, with US Embassy deputy chief of mission Rafik Mansour as the guest of honour.

Speaking during a panel discussion moderated by ST Opinion editor Audrey Quek, Professor Koh reiterated that the purpose of the book was to explain and not defend the US.

He pointed to how two essays he contributed were fairly critical, with one highlighting the gap between American ideals and reality; and another the existing widespread prejudice against African-Americans. "It's an honest book," said Prof Koh, who previously served as Singapore's Ambassador to the US from 1984 to 1990.

He was also based in New York as Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1968 to 1971, and again from 1974 to 1984.

Prof Koh remarked that he was concerned and dismayed by the degree of division and polarisation in the US today.

"In my years in Washington, one of the things I admired very much about America was the political culture. After an election, the candidate who loses will be gracious… he will accept the outcome," said Prof Koh. "The leaders of the two parties may be competitors, but.. they were able to put country before party and party before self."

Today, American leaders have their priorities the other way round; and the relationship between Republicans and Democrats is toxic, he added. "They see each other not as competitors but as enemies. So this is an America that is worrisome."

Mr Singh said: "The political polarisation does bother me because if there is a lot of internal strife, isolationist sentiments will strengthen, and America will withdraw from the world."

In response, Mr Mansour, who was also on the panel, said addressing inequities and meeting basic citizen needs in areas like healthcare and childcare would help mend such divisions in the US.

The book contains 29 chapters authored by diplomats, academics and journalists from The Straits Times. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Citing the January 6 storming of the US Congress by supporters of former president Donald Trump, he acknowledged that it was a shocking event to both Americans and people who believed in the country and its ideals.

"That day reminded us of how fragile a democracy is," said Mr Mansour. "We think that we have a well-established democracy, but it's definitely not perfect… our work is clearly not done."

He then proceeded to quote US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said in a February interview that the Jan 6 attacks had also demonstrated the resilience of US democracy - because members of Congress returned to the buildings that had been under siege; and because the US responded in a transparent way for the world to see.

Mr Blinken had said that "unlike in some other places, we're not trying to sweep it under the rug".

The book's editors, Prof Koh and Mr Singh, agreed on the staying power of American resilience.

"America is the world's only superpower. It has the world's largest economy, the largest military and very significant cultural power," said Prof Koh, echoing points made in the preface of the publication.

There, he and Mr Singh wrote: "We do not agree with friends who hold the view that America is in terminal decline and will soon be overtaken by a rising power.

"They have underestimated America's strength, resilience and political will. We believe that America will continue to be the leading power of the world."

America: A Singapore Perspective is available at major bookstores and the Straits Times Press Books website at $32.10.

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