US envoy David Adelman bowing out - with satisfaction

But outgoing ambassador will stay on here to pursue business interest

American ambassador David Adelman, 49, enjoys laksa and "hawker-style wet noodles", and regularly snacks on nasi lemak. He says that when his diplomatic stint ends, "I am going to stay here... I am going back to private life... My family is thriving
American ambassador David Adelman, 49, enjoys laksa and "hawker-style wet noodles", and regularly snacks on nasi lemak. He says that when his diplomatic stint ends, "I am going to stay here... I am going back to private life... My family is thriving here." ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Sitting on the verandah of his sumptuous villa near Holland Village, comfortably clad in a cotton shirt and khakis held up by a golfer's belt over leather loafers, Mr David Adelman looks out on tropical vegetation as he expresses satisfaction over his 31/2 year stint as the American envoy.

Not far from his home is Ford Avenue, a reminder of an early American manufacturing presence on the island. Later came big names like Hewlett-Packard, DuPont and Seagate Technology, which not only boosted Singapore's status as an advanced manufacturing centre but also helped spawn home-grown managerial legends like Mr Koh Boon Hwee.

The flood of investments has not ebbed. Indeed, 49-year-old Mr Adelman's diary has been chock-full of appearances at plant openings and extensions as companies spanning pharmaceuticals to aerospace establish manufacturing and research facilities on the island.

At home, the American economic revival is on track. For those in Asia who worry that United States budget deficits will prevent a full strategic pivot or re-balancing towards the region, here is news, he says: The deficit is shrinking.

It is a good time to bow out. As he ends his tenure, Singapore, he notes with satisfaction, is America's most favoured investment spot in all Asia.

A political appointee, Mr Adelman explains why he was an early backer of then senator Barack Obama's presidential ambitions.

"I believed in the run up to elections that America's hard-earned goodwill around the world had diminished and that it was important in 2008 that we elect someone who would restore that goodwill," he says. "I believed Barack Obama would be the person. I also thought it was time my generation should lead the country. We were close in age. His two children are close in age to my three."

Has America's first black president lived up to the promise?

Mr Adelman ponders the question. He notes that the 44th president came to office at a time of great economic challenge and kept his word on winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was eliminated in 2011. The economy is strengthening. American businesses have shed a lot of their debt. Families are de-leveraged as well.

"I think the President has a lot to be proud of."

Sipping coffee and munching cupcakes, Mr Adelman suggests he was well prepared for the Singapore assignment, not just from boning up on his briefing books.

His taste for spicy laksa was in-built, for example, in his fondness for "hawker-style wet noodles". And he regularly snacks on nasi lemak. A month ago, he and his wife Caroline drove on a whim to a Little India restaurant that serves Bengali food.

Still, his innings in Singapore had a hint of controversy even before it began. At his confirmation hearings before the US Congress, Mr Adelman said he intended to use public diplomacy to work towards greater press freedoms, freedom of assembly and ultimately, more space for opposition parties in Singapore.

Perhaps it did not need a heave from the American ambassador to accomplish that.

"Singapore has changed in many ways over the last four years," he notes. "PM Lee Hsien Loong described the elections in 2011 as a watershed. And he recently gave an interview to The Washington Post where he describes Singapore's politics as to-ing and fro-ing. Singapore's politics is increasingly a marketplace of ideas and continues to develop."

The Government here has made nascent moves to regulate the online media during his tenure here, prompting companies such as Google to write letters of concern. Mr Adelman defends online freedom, saying the content brought to the public square by such companies is a great benefit, promoting open discussion, which is a bedrock American principle.

A trained lawyer, he cites former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's thinking to bolster his argument.

"Lee Kuan Yew once spoke about this and concluded it could not really be regulated while suggesting that China's efforts to block the Internet were futile," he says. "I think he got it right. We are watching this very closely."

Likewise, he chuckles when asked whether his stint has given him a better appreciation of the Singaporean governance model.

"Singapore government officials are thoughtful. They are excellent city planners and administrators," he offers. "Let me put it this way: I have a fuller appreciation of the challenges that come to Singapore because it is such a small country. I think the Government has clearly done a terrific job developing this country and the proof is in the pudding."

The son of a hardware salesman and a nurse, Mr Adelman was born in New York City but built his public career as a lawyer and state senator in the southern state of Georgia. He has been publicly lauded for his pro bono work for US veterans and helping those affected by domestic violence. Coming from a family surrounded by love, where his father never raised his voice, much less a fist, helped make him aware of how pervasive domestic violence was in the US, he says.

"It is an incredible honour to represent those victims. We are all at our best when we are able to give voice to those who do not have a strong voice of their own."

So, what now that his tenure is ending? Back to the land of Coca- Cola, as Bob Dylan would say, or is Georgia on his mind?

Well, here is the surprise.

"I am going to stay here," says Mr Adelman. "I am going back to private life. I am going to have a business interest in Singapore and elsewhere in the region. My family is thriving here. The US will always be home. But Americans are increasingly engaged around the world and I am a part of that."

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