'Quality of next-gen leaders will be critical factor'

'Quality of next-gen leaders will be critical factor'
Former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar has released a memoir covering his boyhood, career as a law academic, and 31 years in politics. Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu takes its title from his philosophy as Foreign Minister, a post he held from 1994 to 2004. He tells Rachel Chang his views on a post-Lee Kuan Yew future, why Government cannot sit back on issues of race and religion, and why he has no desire to return to public life, even to the Istana - a question asked of him in 2011.

Former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar has released a memoir covering his boyhood, career as a law academic, and 31 years in politics. Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu takes its title from his philosophy as Foreign Minister, a post he held from 1994 to 2004. He tells Rachel Chang his views on a post-Lee Kuan Yew future, why Government cannot sit back on issues of race and religion, and why he has no desire to return to public life, even to the Istana - a question asked of him in 2011.

Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu sums up Singapore's approach to foreign affairs. How does Singapore keep its seat at the table as a second superpower, China, emerges?

It's the nature of every big power to try to line up as many smaller countries on their side. So it's not surprising that China would want to have Singapore's support on many issues but, at the same time, the United States, too, wants to line up as many countries. So what do we do? We have to demonstrate, as best as we can, that just like them, we are driven by calculations of our national interest. We don't want to go out of our way to upset or annoy any country, but if our interests coincide, we will support them on an issue. If our interests do not coincide, we will disagree.

And that's why in my books (both this one and 2011's Diplomacy: A Singapore Experience), I (recounted) episodes where sometimes China tried to bully us, sometimes the US tried to bully us. I hope the way we've exercised our foreign policy over the years has shown the US and China that we want to be on good relations with both. Sometimes we disagree with one, but it doesn't mean we are permanently on the side of the other.

Singapore is not a claimant in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but it is also under pressure from China and ASEAN. ASEAN countries which are claimant states want the grouping to stand with them. But China insists these are bilateral disputes that non-claimants should not interfere with. How do you think Singapore should handle this situation?

We place emphasis on two things: firstly, the observance of international law, which means both general international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, in particular, the maintenance of the rights of navigation and overflight in the sea lanes of communication. That's where our national interest lies in South China Sea maritime claims.

Secondly, the other prong of Singapore's foreign policy on this is: Support ASEAN.

But when I say support ASEAN - ASEAN does not have a territorial claim as such, nor does ASEAN have a position on the rights and wrongs or the merits and demerits of any particular claim. ASEAN's position is that these disputes must be resolved in a way that avoids tensions or conflict, and is in accordance with international law. That is in sync with Singapore's position.

Avoidance of tensions and conflict must be of paramount importance for us if ASEAN is not to be distracted in its developmental aspirations for each member state.

So that is, I think, Singapore's role. Basically, ASEAN has to persuade other countries - including some of the claimant states which are ASEAN countries, and China - that it is in the best interest of all to resolve this in accordance with international law and, most importantly, in a way that does not heighten tensions and conflict.

Some say Singapore's counsel will no longer be sought out by bigger countries after the passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose insight and analysis was prized by big-power leaders.

It is true that the leaders sought out his views. (But) leaders have also sought out the analysis and views of (Emeritus Senior Minister) Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, (Deputy Prime Minister) Tharman Shanmugaratnam. So Mr Lee Kuan Yew's shoes are not easy to fill. But so long as Singapore is viewed as successful, a small country which has carved out a certain role in the region and in global affairs, people will be interested to know what makes Singapore tick - and what are the views its leaders have.

So the quality of the leaders after Mr Lee Kuan Yew is going to be a critical factor. The succeeding generations of leaders can make their own niche, their own mark and expertise.

So it may not be one new Lee Kuan Yew, but it can be several individuals who are highly regarded. Different people can fill different roles, and by leaders I don't just mean Cabinet ministers, but everybody else - permanent secretaries, diplomats, etc.

Collectively, they make up an image, and the reputation of Singapore. So that may be the post-Lee Kuan Yew future. It's not one towering figure but a mosaic of many different individuals that make up the Singapore story.

In your book, you say you're not pessimistic about Singapore's future the way some others are, because you see in young Singaporeans an innate pride in, and passion for, Singapore.

Yes, I'm not as despondent as some people about the attitudes of the younger people. Innate pride is critical. You cannot expect people to make the extra effort for the country if they don't feel pride in a country.

Look at the number of young people who were part of the process of paying tribute to Mr Lee. Now, you may need a psychologist to analyse what all that means. But there seemed to be a genuine feeling of sorrow about his passing. And inherent in that feeling was also an appreciation of what is the Singapore he helped to shape. That is also a good sign.

Pride, passion and patriotism cannot be achieved overnight. Often this is acquired over many generations and hundreds of years, after periods of disasters, suffering, victories. So it is a tall order to expect to achieve this quickly for our young nation. But I sense the process has begun. It's only if people feel neutral about the country, then I'll be worried.

The nature of politics will change. Nothing is cast in stone (and) politics will evolve. But I'm thinking about the long-term future.

Of course, how do you avoid a sense of (the young) taking for granted (success) - that is a challenge. Singapore really has not had a major calamity or terrible crisis to bring about solidarity.

So when major crises are absent over a long period of time, there is, by nature, a tendency to take what you see around to be the normal. There's a danger in that. How do you overcome that? It's not easy. It requires a lot of political education and hopefully Singaporeans travel and see how things are in other countries.

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