[About this blog] Inspired by local soccer player Mike Lim during my rookie reporter days at Singapore Polytechnic, I set up this blog in August 2002. I feel that blogging is a novel platform to document interesting facets of my life and my thoughts on certain issues. [Email blogger] ephraim@singnet.com.sg

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

[Call on China VP Xi Jinping and Meeting with FM Yang Jiechi]

Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, who is on an official visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), called on PRC Vice President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing today. Vice President Xi and Minister Yeo expressed satisfaction at the excellent state of Singapore-China ties across all levels. Vice President Xi reaffirmed China’s strategic and long-term approach to Singapore-China relations. Minister Yeo reiterated Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s invitation for Vice President Xi to visit Singapore. Welcoming Minister Yeo’s forthcoming visit to Tibet, Vice President Xi said that Minister Yeo could see the reality of the situation in Tibet for himself. Vice President Xi and Minister Yeo also agreed that both countries should work together to further strengthen ASEAN-China relations.

Minister Yeo met and was hosted to lunch by PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi earlier today. During their meeting, the two Ministers exchanged views on the current state of Singapore-China relations. They also discussed PRC Vice Premier Wang Qishan’s forthcoming visit to Singapore the following week and PRC President Hu Jintao’s participation at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Singapore in November. The Ministers also agreed that Singapore and China should work closely together bilaterally and regionally, especially through fora such as ASEAN, ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit and APEC.

Minister Yeo called on National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman and former Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing yesterday.

Minister Yeo will depart Beijing today for Qinghai province and Tibet Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to meet the local leaders in Qinghai and Tibet.

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[Call on PRC National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Li Zhaoxing]
Former Chinese FM Li Zhaoxing did much to improve bilateral relations between China and Singapore. I had the pleasure of calling on him at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

[Opening of NKF Hougang-Punggol Dialysis Centre]
On Sunday morning, the new NKDF dialysis centre at Hougang-Punggol was officially opened providing an important facility for residents living in the area. I did the honours with fellow MP Yeo Guat Kwang and NKF Chairman Gerard Ee.

This project started at the height of the TT Durai scandal when Singaporeans lost confidence in NKF. At that time, there were calls to close down NKF and for the government to take over. One evening, Mr Lee Bock Guan of the Singapore Buddhist Lodge leaned over to me at a dinner function proposing that the various religious groups in Singapore make a special effort to raise money for NKF in a show of support. I replied that the public response would be negative. However, his good intentions weighed on me. Later that evening, I counter-proposed that instead of raising money for NKF generally, we raise money to build a dialysis centre which would help kidney patients. He agreed immediately and pledged to get others to join in. When I called Gerard Ee the follow day, he said it was a good idea. I knew that Guat Kwang's division had need of such a centre. He was enthusiastic and said he would involve the local community - grassroots organisations, coffee shops etc. The Buddhist Lodge and various Taoist organisations under Mr Tan Thiam Lye's leadership made major contributions. Other religious groups chipped in as well. One Sunday morning, Guat Kwang and I took part in a fund raising by coffee shops in his division.

Today NKF is functioning well again. Public confidence in it has been restored. The Hougang-Punggol Dialysis Centre is the fruit of all the good work put in by so many good people.

Mr Gerard Ee

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang

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Monday, August 17, 2009

This morning, I did the groundbreaking for a new attraction in Sentosa, the world's biggest skydiving simulator. Basically you get into a windtunnel that blows at 200km an hour simulating terminal velocity in a skydive. Around that speed, you can go faster or slower by adjusting your body geometry. It is not only fun, it can also be used as a training facility. iFly will be opend in the second half of next year. To commit me to a dive, I've been given a custom-fitted helmet.

Watch the publicty videos here and here

[A Piece by Thant Myint-U]
The piece below by Myint-U is worth reading. He is a thoughtful son of Myanmar who feels deeply for his country and his people. I learn much meeting him from time to time.

Let's Talk to Burma, China Sure Is

By Thant Myint-U
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Twenty years of sanctioning and lecturing Burma's military regime have failed. The West needs to engage with Burma's leaders, increase humanitarian aid and reopen commercial relations with the country. If it doesn't, not only will positive change remain as elusive as ever, but the country will turn quickly and irreparably into an economic vassal of China.

In a sign of just how impervious the regime is to Western pressure, last week, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to her fourth spell of house arrest. Two thousand political prisoners remain locked up. And a transition to democracy appears nowhere in sight.

I was born in the United States in 1966 to Burmese parents. My grandfather, U Thant, was then serving as the United Nations' third secretary general. I witnessed repression in Burma firsthand when I was 8, during the violent unrest surrounding my grandfather's funeral.

In 1989, just after college, I spent a year in Thailand and along the Thai-Burmese border, working with dissidents and trying help the first wave of Burmese refugees. Thousands had been killed during a failed anti-government uprising. Suu Kyi had just been placed under house arrest. And the ruling junta, after losing relatively free elections, was refusing to hand over power. Later in Washington I argued with members of Congress and others that maximum sanctions were the best way to topple the
dictatorship. It was an easy argument to make.

By the early 1990s nearly all Western aid to Burma had been terminated, and development assistance through the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had been blocked. A decade later, embargos and boycotts had cut off nearly all economic ties with the United States and Europe. None of the senior Burmese government officials or their children (these are the only international sanctions targeting children) are allowed to travel to the West.

But as the regime not only survived but began to seek trade, investment and
tourism, I started having doubts. My feeling was that the West should use the opening and find a back door to change while the front door remained firmly shut.

In 2006 I published a book, "The River of Lost Footsteps," in which I argued for a shift in the West's approach. Even when, in 2007, new protests were violently crushed, I still believed greater engagement was the right way. I felt that many policymakers and journalists were missing the bigger picture.

Few seemed aware, for example, that Burma was just emerging from decades of civil war. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government and more than a dozen different ethnic insurgent armies hammered out cease-fires, a breakthrough that went virtually unnoticed in the West. (Today, though the cease-fires remain, there is no permanent peace.) And few seemed concerned by the country's grinding poverty, the result of decades of economic bungling as well as embargos, boycotts and aid cutoffs.

In 1991, UNICEF's country director warned of a humanitarian emergency among Burma's children, arguing that more aid couldn't wait for the right government. Eighteen years later, Burma still receives less than a tenth of the per-capita aid handed out to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Tens of thousands die needlessly from treatable diseases.

These challenges have been ignored in the hope that sanctions and tough talk would lead to political change. But that hasn't happened.

Part of the reason is that the people who fashioned the sanctions didn't consider how the rise of Asia's giants -- China and India -- would transform Burma. As American businesses pulled out in the mid-1990s, Chinese and other Asian companies poured in. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore, and massive hydroelectric and mining projects are being signed. Within two years a 1,000-mile oil and gas pipeline will stretch across Burma, connecting China's inland provinces to the sea. The U.S. trade embargo led to the near-collapse of the garment industry in the late 1990s, throwing tens of thousands of people out of work, but for the regime this has meant little.

Burma today is in no danger of economic disintegration. Without Western engagement, however, Burma's 55 million people risk becoming a virtual colony of their 1.3 billion Chinese neighbors to the east. There is no nefarious Chinese takeover scheme, but the vacuum created by Western policy is being filled.

The old Burmese generals will soon retire, and a new generation will rise to the top. Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's powerful autocrat, is 77 and ailing. Any chance for change requires support from at least some military leaders. Yet we've done nothing to try to influence the worldview of Than Shwe's possible successors. The upcoming generation of officers will be the first never to have visited Europe or America.

Last winter the Obama administration announced a review of Burma policy. I hope it will reconsider the United States' long-standing reliance on sanctions. It's not just that they don't work, but that they've been hugely counterproductive, taking away the one big force -- American soft power -- that could have played a role in reshaping the landscape.

Asia has experienced many successful democratic transitions, and none came about because of the sanctions and lectures that Western powers and advocacy groups seem to think will work in Burma. Generals don't negotiate away their power in the face of threats. You have to change the ground beneath them.

Engagement is not just about talking -- it's about dealing with the powers that be enough to get a foot in the door and create new facts on the ground, especially through economic contacts with the Burmese people. Nor is it based on the notion that economic development will automatically produce democracy, but that we must tackle simultaneously Burma's political and economic ills.

Many in America and worldwide are again outraged by goings-on in Burma. But without new thinking, 20 more years will pass and the dream of a prosperous, democratic Burma will be more distant still.


Thant Myint-U is the author of "The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma."

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

[Welcoming Thai FM Kasit to Aljunied GRC]
Thai FM Kasit asked to visit Singapore a few days ago as part of his round of consultation with ASEAN FMs on the situation in Myanmar. An hour after he arrived in Singapore from Jakarta, I hosted him for a simple working dinner at Bliss Restaurant in Punggol Park. I strongly supported his proposal to write a joint letter to the Myanmar Government appealing for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. We had a short media interview after dinner before proceeding to my division's National Day Dinner at Hougang Ave 8. After speeches, my wife accompanied Khun Kasit to visit two HDB apartments while Zainul Abidin and I went round toasting residents.


Minister George Yeo: I am delighted to host Foreign Minister Kasit from Thailand for a simple dinner this evening in my own constituency. He has just been to Malaysia and Indonesia to consult ASEAN colleagues about the situation in Myanmar. We had a useful discussion over dinner. We felt very disappointed by the recent verdict. Even though we appreciated the fact that part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence was reduced, the fact remains that she will still be incarcerated for another year and a half, which means that for the coming elections in Myanmar she would not be able to participate in any way. This is not only unfair ─ we felt that it would go against the spirit of free and fair elections and national reconciliation.

Khun Kasit has proposed the idea of ASEAN Foreign Ministers writing a joint letter to the government of Myanmar expressing our disappointment and also our hope that in the spirit of the ASEAN Charter and in consideration that we are a family in ASEAN that they should consider giving her a full amnesty ? allowing her to participate in the coming elections and then helping to create national reconciliation in Myanmar. I told Khun Kasit that Singapore will, for sure, be happy to sign such a letter. He told me that both Malaysia and Indonesia are also prepared to. He is now contacting the other Foreign Ministers and getting as many as possible to sign this letter, which we hope will help soften the hearts of the government in Myanmar in reviewing its decision and allowing a process which in the end reaffirms the unity of ASEAN and strengthens the entire ASEAN family. Khun Kasit ..

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit: First of all, I would like to thank Foreign Minister George Yeo for this invitation. I think the acceptance of my coming here was done very quickly, a reflection of the style that we would like to work together ? that is, if there is anything of urgency and importance, we should be able to meet as quickly as possible. I think that my presence here is a reflection of that spirit of cooperation and the closeness in the ASEAN family. So once again, I would like to thank George Yeo and his colleagues.

Secondly, we are a big ASEAN family and anything that happens in any particular country (which) is of importance, it is incumbent on all of us to find a way out together. It is in this spirit of family togetherness and working together for the betterment of each member country, in this case the situation in Myanmar and secondly for the centrality, strength and advancement of ASEAN which Myanmar is very much part and parcel of. The appeal to the Myanmar government is from fellow family members, that we would like to see national reconciliation and elections that would be inclusive. We do not want any personality or any political groups and so on to be excluded. It is very much in the spirit of the ASEAN Charter as rightly said by Foreign Minister George. The consultation is again part of the way that we do things together ? that anything of importance, we have to consult with one another.

I hope that our Myanmar friends would listen that we are not interfering in their internal affairs. I think that the judicial process has been completed which we respect, but I think the commuting of the sentence and the provision of the amnesty is more of a political decision. It would be good for the people of Myanmar, for the respectability of Myanmar as a county, for the cohesiveness of ASEAN together and for the respectability of ASEAN as a whole in the eyes of the international community. I hope to have more consultations with my other ASEAN colleagues, Foreign Ministers, and if need be, I would also like to have interactions with our Myanmar counterpart.

Question: I am just wondering Minister, could you clarify if Thailand would be drafting the letter?

Minister George Yeo: Thailand is in the Chair of ASEAN, so Thailand is taking a leadership role in this regard. We are so happy that Khun Kasit has been applying himself to this challenge. The letter will be drafted by Thailand but all of us will of course give our views. In the end, a letter acceptable to as many Foreign Ministers as possible we hope will be agreed to and sent to the Myanmar government.

Question: Is there a timeframe for the letter?

Minister George Yeo: Well. Khun Kasit.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit: As soon as possible. Within this week.

Question: Beyond this letter, will ASEAN be taking a stronger position towards Myanmar in any other ways?

Minister George Yeo: Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN family and will always be a member of the ASEAN family. For this reason, we should never cut off Myanmar. Our policy is to engage them and through engagement, develop a certain trust and respect as members of a family. It was this trust and respect that enabled us to help Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis as PM Abhisit said two days ago on the BBC, enabling us to build a bridge connecting Myanmar to the international community. That bridge is very important not only to Myanmar and to ASEAN, but also to the world. We should not only maintain this bridge but we should also strengthen it where we can. So while we express our views, more in sorrow than with anger, it is also with affection for the people of Myanmar.

Question: Is the anything you would like to add?

Minister George Yeo: Let me explain why we are meeting here. The reason is because when Khun Kasit said that he would like to come to Singapore after Indonesia, I told him, “Look, I am having a National Day dinner at my constituency, so why not we meet just before that and you join us for our National Day dinner?” Half way during [the National Day] dinner, he will be visiting some of our HDB flats as well to see how we live our lives here. We feel so honoured that he should be here this evening in my constituency, and to join us in our National Day celebrations.

Question: Mr Kasit, you are only here for a day?

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit: Only a day, but I think it is not the number of hours or the number of days that matters. It is the programme itself. I would like to see democracy at work very much at the grassroots level. To be here with Foreign Minister George in his constituency and to meet ordinary Singaporeans, as a politician, I think that this is something wonderful.

Question: Where will you be going after this?

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit: Tomorrow, I will be going to see the new Marina Barrage as well as the Harmony Centre to see multi-cultural activities, which is very useful for us in our deliberations on how to find solutions to the problems in the southern part of Thailand.
. . . . .

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

[Professor Wang Gungwu's speech at the inauguration of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre]
Professor Amartya Sen has spoken for those of us who have been involved for the past three years in the project to see Nalanda University restored as an international hub of learning. His is the voice of all those who recognize what Nalanda stood for and can stand for again. Minister George Yeo took a key initiative about Nalanda with the exhibition in the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore called, “On the Nalanda Trail”. I believe his interest further encouraged the Indian Prime Minister to approach the East Asia Summit with his proposal. Another initiative was to get this Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre going in Singapore. So it really should be Minister Yeo who should be speaking today. But he has modestly declined to do so.

Two recent events can be linked to what we are doing today. The first is the launch of the book, entitled Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, published by the Institute of Policy Studies. Among the things that Goh Chok Tong did as PM, what has been seen as remarkably bold was his “look to India” policy in 1993. This happened when George Yeo was the Second Minister of Foreign Affairs. I would like to think that his participation in that historic shift is not unrelated to his initiatives to move the policy deeper into the realm of cultural history and the human condition that Nalanda signifies.

The second is a link to the Chinese monk Xuan Zang, the man who recorded Nalanda for us over 1,350 years ago. I refer to China’s great Indologist, Ji Xianlin of Beijing University, who published in 1985 the annotated edition of Xuan Zang’s Records of the Western Region. Sadly, Ji Xianlin died last month, on July 11. Just four days ago, on August 6, he would have celebrated his 98th birthday. I first met him at Peking University when he was rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution. He was unbowed and resumed his work to prepare the Xuan Zang book for publication. His student, Wang Bangwei, is a member of Professor Sen’s Mentor Group. He followed his teacher by producing a new edition of two books by another famous monk, Yijing. Yijing’s books provided the most detailed information about the monks of East Asia who stopped at the Buddhist centre of Srivijaya on their way to Nalanda. When Ji Xianlin died in Beijing last month, China’s premier Wen Jiabao publicly acknowledged his contributions to Chinese awareness of Indian civilization.

I shall not dwell on the contributions of Goh Chok Tong and Ji Xianlin. They provide different perspectives of how the spirit of Nalanda has shone through centuries of diminishing contacts between India and the east. Buddhism blossomed in China, Korea and Japan during that time. It took different forms in Southeast Asia, especially in the mainland states and among the peoples of Yunnan province. More recently, after decades of Western dominance, new minds of India and eastern Asia have met. Rabindranath Tagore’s trips to Japan and China and later to Southeast Asia did much to clear the way to a restored recognition among local leaders and scholars. Tagore personified the modern face of India and a new generation of Chinese Buddhist thinkers found him an inspiration.

Singapore has its own focus. It was a small part of Srivijaya for centuries. As Kwa Hock Guan outlined yesterday in The Straits Times, the need for a trading and cultural hub in Southeast Asia cannot be separated from the region’s past. And the need for such a hub remains at the heart of Singapore’s future. In the 1980s, the leaders here recognized the vitality of China’s renewal and, in the early 1990s, they were quick to discern the powerful impulses behind India’s transformation. We now see the possibility of ASEAN acting as a new platform for what is emerging across the oceans of Asia, from Japan to the Arabian Sea.
If only in the imagination, Srivijaya stands as a symbol of the revitalization of all the interactions that had taken place. Two examples are noteworthy. The Chinese had organised an inclusive concept of tianxia (All Under Heaven) into a formal tribute system. The Indians depicted the world differently through images of overlapping mandela that defy political borders. In today’s world of sovereign nation-states, one might ask, can a Srivijayan-type future soften the structure of one and sharpen the lines of the other? Can new kinds of relationships then flow between the Indian and Pacific Oceans?

The Chinese have an idiom, zhusi maji (thread of spider, trail of horse), that is, fine traces that are connected although they are barely visible. My association with the Nalanda project has made me aware how such traces are in all of us. Take my own experience when Minister George Yeo asked me in August 2006 to organize the first international meeting to discuss the Nalanda proposal. We met that November. Professor Amartya Sen was unable to come but he was with us in spirit. As I prepared for that meeting, I was surprised by the traces that came to my mind at the mention of Nalanda.

I immediately thought of my late friend Dr Devahuti whom I met 50 years ago in the history department of the University of Malaya in Singapore. She told me that she was using Xuan Zang’s Records of the Western Region to complete her study of the reign of King Harsha Vardhana, who had supported Nalanda University and met Xuan Zang. By chance, a new book published in New Delhi in 2005 had just reached me. It was entitled India and China, a volume that collected all references to Sino-Indian contacts in history. One of its editors, Geng Yinzeng, was a student at Peking University of the late Ji Xianlin. The other, Tan Chung, was a close friend of Devahuti at the University of Delhi. I had also just read his moving foreword to her posthumous study of Xuan Zang, called The Unknown Xuan Zang. This reminded me of meeting Romila Thapar in Delhi in 1951 when we were both undergraduates. In the midst of celebrating an independent India and a newly reunified China, we talked about ancient India-China culture contacts. When Romila and I met again at the School of Oriental and African Studies a few years later, it was she who told me of Devahuti’s interest in Xuan Zang.

A few more traces followed. I recalled my father speaking admiringly of Tan Yun-shan, the father of Tan Chung. Tan Yunshan, like my father, had also been a teacher in Chinese schools in British Malaya in the 1920s. My father described Tan Yun-shan as the man who met Tagore and worked in Visva Bharati in Santiniketan. Tan Yun-shan worked tirelessly for close relations between China and India, and brought Tan Chung to India to continue his work. Despite the difficulties for Chinese in India after 1962, Tan Chung went on to teach Chinese to generations of Indian students. My father was not a religious man, but when he talked about Tan Yun-shan, he showed me the Buddhist sutras that his grandfather and grand-uncles had annotated at the end of the 19th century.

So much for traces of Nalanda: zhusi maji, spider threads and horse trails. In a few minutes, that name had filled my mind with people whose civilizations had not been interacting for over 1,000 years. How many myriads more of such traces would be found if we set out to look, not only for historical ruins and artifacts but also for the various levels of response as people hear the call of Nalanda. I have no doubt that the Indian genius that was Nalanda connects with all of you or you would not be here.

The modern rediscoveries linked with Nalanda are no less exciting. From Angkor and Champa to Borobodur and Prambanan, and to the multiple references in Chinese historical documents, explorers and officials from all over the world have been involved. The British official who identified Nalanda and worked on its reconstruction, the French philologist who recovered the history of Srivijaya, the archaeologists who dug up Chinese trade goods in the midst of Hindu-Buddhist monuments, all of them helped to inspire people to appraise afresh their own neglected pasts.

Today there are scores of local scholars who are ready to lead and guide the new work to be done. But the basic pattern is set. There are no borders to learning, research and discovery. The Nalanda tradition shows us that this was the principle that moved people to travel thousands of miles, braving hostile terrains and stormy seas, in their search for knowledge. Singapore inherited one such tradition from the West. Our Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre now seeks to associate closely with another tradition, one that is rooted in our past, but has the potential to redefine our future. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies is proud to provide a home for a small part of the new Nalanda University that is about to be reborn. As chairman of the ISEAS Board, I congratulate Professor Amartya Sen and his colleagues for setting this venture in motion. It is early days yet, but I believe that the spirit that has been released is an infectious one, one that inspires all those concerned to ensure that the mission will be completed. Thank you.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

[Inauguration of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre]
The Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre was officially inaugurated at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) this morning by Nobel Prize laureate Prof Amartya Sen. Both he and Prof Wang Gungwu, ISEAS Chairman, gave wonderful speeches, each a counterpoint to the other.

The Buddhist Lodge has been a major patron of the Centre. At the launch of the Centre on Tuesday morning, Mr Lee Bock Guan donated an additional $300,000 (over the $1million given earlier).

The Centre will be partner to the new Nalanda University which is being established near the site of the ancient university in Bihar. Prof Sen chairs a committee of mentors overseeing the work, of which I am privileged to be a member.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

[ASEAN Day Reception]

Fellow Citizens of ASEAN,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to join everyone here this evening to celebrate ASEAN's 42nd birthday. It is especially wonderful to see so many young people here because, if we succeed in gradually forging an ASEAN community, it is the young people who will feel a greater sense of ASEAN citizenship than their parents.

2 In 2007, ASEAN Member States decided to celebrate ASEAN Day together. After 42 years, we take some satisfaction in ASEAN’s success as a regional organisation, perhaps the most successful among developing countries. Although we are diverse in many ways, we do share much in common. With the ASEAN Charter now in force, we are all learning to sing the ASEAN Anthem with one voice. Not quite with one voice yet. I think for future ASEAN Day celebrations we should have karaoke so that all of us can learn the words and remember the tune.

3 ASEAN has indeed come a long way. It has helped maintain peace and stability in the region, promoting year by year greater political and economic cooperation. ASEAN has created favourable conditions for the development of our peoples. We have responded well to challenges like the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS, the Boxing Day tsunami and Cyclone Nargis, each time emerging stronger as a result. Two weeks ago in Phuket, ASEAN Foreign Ministers in a spirit of compromise took a major step forward and endorsed the formation of the Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission. Three years ago, this would have seemed highly improbable.

4 In March this year, ASEAN Leaders adopted a Declaration on the Roadmap for an ASEAN Community by 2015. But for ASEAN to succeed, our peoples must also feel a growing sense of common ASEAN citizenship. The ASEAN Community has to be built both top down and bottom up.

5 We should encourage ASEAN youths to become familiar with the region as a whole, its geography, its history and culture, and develop an affection for Southeast Asia. This has to be done in a practical way through experience, through travel, student exchanges, joint projects, song contests and other activities. One example is Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s co-organisation of this ASEAN Cinematic Showcase with the Foreign Ministry. Tonight’s finale film, a heartwarming Indonesian movie called Rainbow Troops, is but one of five films showcasing and celebrating the cinematic talent and diversity of ASEAN.

6 Later this month, a student forum will be held by NUS and SMU as part of our celebration of ASEAN Day. We must progressively widen the circle of participation and the range of activities so that ASEAN is in both our mind and our heart.

7 We are very fortunate to have the goodwill of all our major partners. In Phuket, we celebrated the accession of the US to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and we look forward to the European Union (EU) doing so. There is work to be done because of the nature of the EU. It is technical in nature. That should complete the circle of important friends that have all acceded to the principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. It is our good forture that all of them want us to prosper, want to see us more integrated and want us to do well because our integrity and our success will in turn help make their relations with one another in this region easier.

8 Happy ASEAN Day!

. . . . .

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[One Year Countdown to the First Youth Olympic Games]
Next Friday will be a special day and moment to look forward to. This will be a milestone and a big celebration for the First Youth Olympic Games.

On 14 August 2010, the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games will begin. And this Friday will be the one-year countdown to the games.

Do join us at the Padang this Friday evening!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

[Lunch with Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna]
India's External Affairs Minister Shri S M Krishnan transited in Singapore on his way to Australia. We had a pleasant lunch together at St Regis. I had asked for the Chinese menu to be extra spicy in his honour. He is a very experienced leader who was already a minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet. I first knew him when he was Chief Minister of Karnataka. Under him, the state grew from strength to strength, making Bangalore a househould name around the world.

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["Where Got Ghost?"]
When Jack Neo invited me for the gala premiere of his new movie "Where Got Ghost?", I accepted immediately. I've known him for a long time and was the Guest of Honour for one of his earliest movies "Liang Po Po". Later, he told friends that without a certain relaxation of our dialect policy in the early 90's, his movies could not have taken off.

Jack is a very sharp observer of our society. He sees the humour in many of our everyday complaints and frustrations. He also enjoys poking fun at the government from time to time which once provoked a response from PM. His movies have not only done well in Singapore, they also have a following in Malaysia, which is not surprising, and Taiwan as well, which is a little surprising.

"Where Got Ghosts?" is a movie in three parts, each a morality tale about greed, cutting corners and chasing after riches. They are about 4D gambling, NS and filial piety (following Money No Enough Part II), subjects near and dear to many Singaporeans. Jack has invented a new English word "horr-medy". You've heard of tragi-comedy. Well, this is a new genre we can be proud of.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

[14th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Women Leaders Network Meeting]
I was very privileged to be invited to attend the 14th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Women Leaders Network Meeting or APEC WLN in short. Today was the first of the two-day meetings which involved members of the 21 APEC economies and three non-APEC countries were in attendance as well. The two Plenary Sessions were enjoyable. It reflected what the women believe strongly in and how far they would go to bring forward a women's perspective.

One tongue-in-cheek quote that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his speech during the opening ceremony was this: "Manpower not fully exploited is women power."

It was a great experience rubbing shoulders with Ministers from all over the 21 economies and an interesting day.

[Farewell Cory!]
I went over to the residence of the Philippine Ambassador this morning to sign the condolence book, expressing our deep sympathies to the people and government of the Philippines. I decided to wear a yellow tie instead of the usual black in honour of President Corazon Aquino. At a crucial moment in history, she was called to serve even though she had not been prepared for high office. She will always be remembered with affection because of her role in restoring freedom and democracy to the people she loved.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

[National Day Celebration at Eurasian House ]

Fellow Singaporeans, friends of Singapore, we are delighted to gather here this morning at the Eurasian House to celebrate Singapore’s 44th birthday. Over these two weeks all over Singapore, Singaporeans of different ethnic groups and religions from different walks of life, come together to observe National Day. They meet in schools, in community halls, at the power stations, on Jurong Island, in shipyards, very often joined by non-Singaporean friends and colleagues and relatives. We are delighted this morning to welcome all Singaporeans to this Eurasian House for our celebration.

Our multi-ethnicity is something very unusual. Most countries, almost all countries, have now, with globalisation, become multi-ethnic and multi-religious. In many countries, this has become a source of problems, and we need only to read the newspapers everyday of unhappy conflicts in different parts of the world, arising out of diversity.

In Singapore, our diversity is in our very essence. No one can imagine a Singapore which is not multi-ethnic or multi-religious. In fact, diversity is an idea which defines Singapore not only to ourselves, but to the world. We are able to manage this diversity only because we have national policies which are overall fair, which treats everyone equally, which allows talent to rise, and which; when the outcomes appear too uneven because of competition, we try to make accommodations in order that no one is left behind, so that no ethnic group, no religious group somehow becomes trapped in under-development.

But it is not just policies and government, it is also what we are as individual Singaporeans, what we experience, teach our children, how teachers teach students in schools, how employers treat their workers. Above all, it is what we ourselves are in our hearts. If we are close-minded, if we are insecure, it will show eventually in how we treat one another, and distrust builds upon distrust, suspicion upon suspicion and very quickly, it is not at all difficult to find ourselves in a situation not too different from that we find in other countries.

So, on the one hand, policies, on the other hand, a common instinct that this diversity is part of us, which can be problematic, but also can be beautiful. It is this same spirit, which opens our hearts to people from other countries as well, welcoming them here as colleagues, as tourists, as students, sometimes and increasingly so, as in-laws and as relatives.

We in Eurasian Association feel particularly honoured that this observance ceremony should be held here in the Eurasian House. The Eurasian community is by far the smallest community in Singapore, or the least definable one out of the four. There was a time when it just got lost in the decimal points, and it was considered “others” as the O in CIMO - Chinese, Indians, Malays and Others. I must say that created a certain resentment among the Eurasians in Singapore, that they were not treated in a sufficiently respectful way. There was indeed a time, when the community was demoralised, when many of its members emigrated in the 70s and 80s. But we have rounded the corner over the last 20 years. Their morale has gone up, the community has grown, new members have been inducted, there is a new Eurasian spirit. The rules are being relaxed now to enable parents in mixed marriages to decide that their children should be called Eurasians when they enter primary schools. In some ways, this community has made great contributions to the overall well-being of the Singaporeans.

A few weeks ago, we had a wonderful musical called “Eurasiana”. President Nathan was the patron. The hall was packed over the two performances. After that many Eurasians remarked to themselves, “Why, I did not know there was so much talent in our community.” But they were reminded as all Singaporeans were reminded, that over the years, Eurasians have made indispensable contributions to Singapore’s history and development, Singapore’s past to Singapore’s present, and will continue to make such contributions to Singapore’s future.

In a way, the morale of the Eurasian community is a measure of the morale of Singapore as a whole – a measure of our health as a multi-ethnic society. All of us know how to treat the rich and the powerful around us. But just as a society is not to be judged by how it treats its rich and its powerful, so we as individuals are not to be judged by how we treat the rich and the powerful. We are to be judged by how we relate to the poor and the weak among us. It is for this reason that we have self-help groups in Singapore, to make sure that we do not only do what we naturally do, but we also do what is morally and socially right to do. In some ways, the fact that the four self-help groups, which are observing National Day together for the first time should choose as their first venue, the Eurasian Association, that itself says a lot about what we are as Singaporeans, about a diversity which we have learnt to treasure and which we celebrate today. Happy National Day!

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Watch the video of the speech

Saturday, August 01, 2009

[The DNA Coding That Makes Us Singaporean]
It is time again to take the flags out from the storeroom. On TV and radio, we hear familiar strains of national songs. Soon it will be National Day again. With each year, the memories accumulate. There is little which is completely new or exciting. Instead there is the reassurance of what is familiar, of ritual and tradition. As with other young Singaporeans, my children grew up cele! brating NDP as part of the annual cycle of events.

Life is about memories. One day scientists may be able to produce human clones. But a clone is a different invididual because it has different memories. Some memories are shared. That's what creates a community. The greater the memories shared, the more cohesive that community becomes. That, however, makes it harder for members of such a community to bond with members from other communities.

Communities defend their collective memories tenaciously. Attempts to erase them are met with the fiercest resistance. Put another way, communities which readily forget quickly disappear.

Singapore is composed of ancient communities which were brought together by historical accident. If Raffles did not have to return Java back to the Dutch in 1815, he would not have founded this island as a trading post for the British East India Company. Singapore would have remained one of many unremarkable islands in this archipelago. It was the opportunities created by free trade, law and order which attracted our ancestors here. Economics alone, however, are not enough to forge a sense of nationhood. The first stirrings of nationalism were not about Singapore but about revolution and independence in ancestral lands far away. The Second World War, the hard years of Japanese occupation and the dismantling of empires quickened the historical process. And an intense debate about the nature of Singapore's nationalism had first to take place. Independence through merger with Malaysia was a dead end from which we had to reverse. Yet the idea that an independent city-state without its traditional hinterlands could survive, let alone prosper, seemed improbable.

After 44 years, we have much to be grateful for, much to celebrate. Our collective memory of struggling to become a nation has become a part of us. Because we understand instinctively the potential divisiveness of race and religion, we have to be intolerant of intolerance. This acceptance of diversity is what makes Singapore what it is today. It has become a part of our collective DNA. It is the coding which Singaporeans of different races and religions share in common, and which unites us as National Servicemen. It is the same coding which enables us to flourish as a cosmopolitan city with cultural links to different parts of the world.

Paradoxically, it is our differences which unite us. But only provided we have this bit of DNA which is expressed in the flag we wave together on National Day.

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