Safe, clean, efficient, neutral … and a master of understatement.
Observers say these are among the key reasons why Singapore, entrusted with hosting Tuesday’s summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is well on its way to becoming “Asia’s Geneva”.
The Lion City this week signalled it would try to stay out of the limelight when the two bombastic leaders meet for their landmark meeting dubbed the “Greatest Show on Earth”.
Singapore has been admirably discreet regarding the logistics of the visit, the downtown hotels where the leaders are expected to stay and the summit venue on Sentosa island.
The city state’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan quipped on Wednesday that he had reassured both sides the host country was “there to serve coffee and tea”.
Oh Ei Sun, who studies regional foreign policy, said it was such self-effacement that made Singapore the top pick for the talks.
“It is precisely this sort of playing the good host while not being overly intrusive that endears them to many rival parties,” said Oh, senior adviser on international affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.
“They mediate only when explicitly called upon by either or both sides,” Oh said.
Singapore has insisted that it did not go looking to host the event – Balakrishnan said his government was approached first by Washington, and later Pyongyang.
Still, the Lion City’s diplomats privately say the opportunity was welcomed with open arms.
Coming three years after Singapore hosted the 2015 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou, the Trump-Kim summit is seen as further burnishing Singapore’s credentials as a neutral nation on par with Switzerland.
Geneva’s traditional neutrality has until now made it the preferred venue for high-profile diplomatic talks.
That status dates back to 1864, when it hosted a meeting of European states for the signing of what are today called the Geneva Conventions. The conventions set guidelines for how countries at war should treat people who are not – or are no longer – taking part in hostilities, including prisoners.
Other major summits held in Geneva include the 1955 meeting of US, Soviet, British and French leaders, the 1985 summit between US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the 1994 meeting between officials from Washington and North Korea that led to the signing of an accord to freeze and dismantle Pyongyang’s fledging nuclear weapons programme.
That so-called “Agreed Framework” unravelled in 2003 when the current leader’s father Kim Jung-il withdrew his country from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
More recently, Geneva hosted several rounds of intra-Syrian peace talks involving the Bashar al-Assad government and opposition groups.
Singapore has a far shorter history – it did not become an independent republic until 1965 – but it is already approaching “the stature of being the ‘Geneva of the East’,” according to Lawrence Loh, a professor of governance at the National University of Singapore.
Loh said the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum – held at the Shangri-La Hotel where Trump is expected to stay from Sunday – has allowed Singapore to build its credentials since the first dialogue in 2002.
The Lion City prides itself on its adroit “maximum number of friends” foreign policy – devised by its founding premier Lee Kuan Yew.
While the island republic has close military links with the United States, it is not one of Washington’s treaty allies, and over the years has allowed over 2,000 warships from some 30 countries to berth at its naval bases.
With the world’s “centre of gravity” in terms of power and influence moving towards Asia, Singapore is likely to begin sharing the stage with Switzerland and Norway as neutral places for diplomatic arbitration, said Oh, the foreign policy observer.
Still there could be some downsides for Asia’s Geneva, some observers say. International relations researcher Shawn Ho said hosting high-profile events could open Singapore up to negative publicity.
As if to prove his point, international media described the city, one of the world’s safest places, as “staid”, “placid” and “boring” (hackneyed descriptions that will no doubt have elicited eye rolls from many locals).
One US website this week said the meeting would shine a light on Singapore’s “repressive views on free speech”, referencing the country’s media landscape which critics say is heavily controlled by authorities.
On Friday, police said they had arrested two South Korean journalists and were investigating two others for allegedly attempting to break into the North Korean embassy a day earlier.
Balakrishnan, who said Singapore was “happy to play [its] part for world peace”, will be hoping local authorities will not have to deal with many more such ugly scenes in days to come. ■