The following is part one of an article first published in ThinkChina.sg by George Yeo, a former Singapore minister for foreign affairs, who is now senior adviser for Kuok Group and Kerry Logistics. In 2018, China celebrated the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s new policy of reform and opening up. In those 40 years, China’s economy grew roughly 50 times in US dollars, 200 times in renminbi terms and about 90 times in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). Although the bulk of the effort was made by the Chinese people themselves, China was also helped by foreign assistance. Ten foreigners were awarded the China Reform Friendship Medal in 2018 for making a signal contribution to China’s astonishing transformation during this period. One of the recipients was Singapore’s founding father and long-time prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew . The process of selecting the 10 individuals for the medal must have been elaborate and controversial. A large pool of candidates would have been carefully considered. The selection having been made and announced to the world, the list is forever recorded in Chinese history. How long can Singapore walk the tightrope between the US and China? This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China . Diplomatic relations were a necessary formality. Lee Kuan Yew had told Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo much earlier that when that day came, Singapore’s one-China policy required the state symbols of the Republic of China in Singapore to be taken down. Significantly, Beijing noted without objection the use of training facilities in Taiwan by the Singapore Armed Forces. Indeed, Singapore’s unofficial relationship with Taiwan made possible the 1993 talks between Wang Daohan, of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, and Koo Chen-fu, the head of Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation, as well as those between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, both of which were critical milestones in cross-strait relations. SINGAPORE’S ‘CHINESE-NESS’ Singapore ’s unusual role in the drama of China’s great revival has its roots in the history of China’s interaction with Southeast Asia over the centuries. It is Singapore’s “Chinese-ness” as an independent sovereign country (and not only as a trading post like Penang) which makes Singapore of special interest to China. Singapore’s success as a young country caught the eye of Deng Xiaoping when he steered China in a new direction in 1978. During his visit to Singapore in November that year, Lee Kuan Yew remarked that if Singapore – with a population three-quarters Chinese, many of whom were descendants of coolies – could achieve a certain level of development, how much more could China with its long history and vast talent. In 1985, China’s State Council appointed Goh Keng Swee as an economic adviser on coastal development and tourism. Singapore was an inspiration to Deng. On his famous Southern Tour of 1992, Deng remarked that in social management, China should try to learn from and do better than Singapore. Like Dazhai for agriculture and Daqing for industry, Singapore quickly became a pilgrimage destination for reform and opening up. That year, scores of Chinese delegations visited Singapore. It was an honour for Singapore but many agencies were overburdened. Lee Kuan Yew then made a proposal to Chinese leaders for the two countries to work together on a joint project. Chinese officials could abstract from Singapore’s positive and negative experiences while Singapore officials would benefit from understanding China’s conditions more deeply. That was the spark which ignited Suzhou Industrial Park , Tianjin Eco-city, the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Connectivity Initiative and a number of other joint undertakings. Xi’s call to Singapore: a subtle ‘reminder’ about the South China Sea? During the ‘90s, Singapore was an essential case study in China for economic development, social management and urban planning. Lee Kuan Yew directed that special courses be organised for Chinese officials in Singapore universities. Their alumni now number in the thousands, some among whom currently hold high positions. Not long after Deng’s famous remarks, Vice-Minister of Propaganda Xu Weicheng led a delegation on a 10-day study visit to Singapore, following which he wrote a short primer on this curious, predominantly Chinese city state. It became a classic of how China viewed Singapore at that time. In 1995, Ding Guangen, a Politburo member responsible for all aspects of public communication and an old intimate of Deng Xiaoping, spent over a week in Singapore with a high-level ministerial delegation. As the minister for information and the arts, I was their host. They worked mornings, afternoons and evenings, taking no time off for shopping or sightseeing. Every aspect of public communications in Singapore was studied with care – bookshops, cinema halls, public libraries, museums, newspapers, radio, television, and the internet which was then in its infancy. They called on Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and others. They quizzed me on the use of the internet and its effects on society. I replied that the internet could always be regulated, explaining how, as a matter of principle, we blocked a hundred sites (principally porn and hate sites) through internet providers. It was only some months later that I understood the purpose and the reason for the seriousness of Ding Guangen’s visit. It was to make final checks before China announced its national policy on the internet. FAR-SIGHTED APPROACH Imagine if, instead of opening up a parallel cyber-universe, China had out of fear of new media blocked its development. Where would China be today without Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Huawei , ByteDance and other infocomm technology companies which even the US is wary of today? It was a remarkably farsighted approach although not one without risk. Internally, there must have been furious debate about loss of control to external influence and manipulation. The study of Singapore gave some assurance. Thus, at a critical juncture in China’s modern history, Singapore made a small contribution. Across a broad front, Singapore supported China’s reform and opening up, which the Tiananmen incident almost derailed. During the crackdown in June 1989 , the Singapore government issued a statement expressing not only sorrow but also hope for the future. I had just joined the Cabinet and saw senior ministers leaving early after lunch for a meeting with Lee Kuan Yew to discuss Singapore’s response. In 1990, formal diplomatic relations were established. Understanding Deng Xiaoping’s determination to put China firmly back on track, Singapore supported China’s early joining of Apec. I remember vividly the first meeting that China took part in. At an informal lunch in Bangkok, China’s Li Lanqing, Taiwan’s Vincent Siew, Hong Kong’s Brian Chau and myself spontaneously decided after collecting our food from the buffet line to sit together at the same table. I felt like a relative joining a family lunch. China’s membership of Apec (which necessitated careful agreement on the terms of Taiwan and Hong Kong’s inclusion) could not have come about without the leadership of US President George H.W. Bush. At his meeting with Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in January 1992, Bush asked Lee to convey to China’s President Yang Shangkun, who was visiting Singapore a few days later, his wish for improved relations with China. At his meeting with Yang, Lee also encouraged China to join GATT (later WTO ) as quickly as possible. It was my privilege to have been Lee’s note taker for both meetings. The return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, was celebrated with joy in Singapore. I was in Hong Kong with Lee Kuan Yew at a historic moment, which was deeply emotional for many ethnic Chinese around the world. Singapore’s English-language Straits Times carried the headline “China ends 155 years of shame”. Unfortunately, the Asian financial crisis followed soon after. While Asian economies were toppling one after another, China pump-primed its economy and kept the renminbi steady. At the turn of the millennium, China’s economy streaked ahead of Asean ’s. When Premier Zhu Rongji offered an FTA with Asean at the Leaders’ Summit in November 2000, Asean leaders did not know how to respond because China was increasingly seen as an economic competitor. Singapore played a leading role in securing Asean’s positive response to Zhu by insisting on an early harvest package for the other nine Asean countries. We saw a historic opportunity for regional stability in China’s gesture of friendship and seized it. When the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Co-Operation between Asean and China was signed in Phnom Penh in 2002, Zhu made two remarks: one, that if the FTA resulted in an unfavourable balance to Asean after 10 years, it should be renegotiated; second, that China would never seek for itself an exclusive position in Asean. THE TRADE GAME Within our diplomatic capabilities, Singapore lobbied for China’s early accession to the WTO, which finally took place in Doha in November 2001. The negotiations were difficult for China, with the US, EU and Japan coordinating their demands. Feeling the pressure, China’s trade negotiators requested Singapore not to add to their burden. Since Singapore’s needs were more than adequately covered by the major powers, we agreed immediately. A few years later, Singapore, together with New Zealand, Chile and Brunei, launched the Trans-Pacific Partnership . I encouraged China to become a member too. China Commerce Minister Shi Guangshen demurred, explaining that China had already paid too heavy a price for entry to the WTO and could not afford more concessions. Indeed no other developing country joined the WTO on tougher terms. In 2008, Singapore and China concluded an FTA that went beyond the Asean-China FTA. Around 2011, China indicated it would not stand in the way of a free-trade agreement we were negotiating with Taiwan while objecting to other countries doing the same. In 2013, Singapore and Taiwan signed an agreement, carefully named ASTEP (Agreement between Singapore and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu on Economic Partnership). This was extraordinary and attested to the deep trust by China that Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan would help and not hinder eventual reunification. That trust enabled Singapore to provide the venue for Xi Jinping’s unprecedented meeting with Ma Ying-jeou as an equal. That equality extended to the equal sharing of the bill for dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel. Xi brought Guizhou Mao-tai while Ma brought Kinmen Kaoliang, both equally powerful spirits. Can Beijing leverage overseas Chinese in struggle with US? Singapore could only play this unique role because of its Chinese-ness. Just before he became foreign minister (and without our foreknowledge of his coming promotion), I hosted Yang Jiechi as an MFA Distinguished Visitor to dinner in February 2007, where he spoke of the “mutual affection between our two peoples”. I was touched. It was a sentiment I shared but could not have expressed. Singapore’s Chinese-ness is part of our DNA, entangling Singapore with China in a way which causes complexities both domestically and in our foreign policy. Singapore’s Chinese-ness was a key reason for our separation from Malaysia . But affirming our multiracialism was fundamental to the establishment of Singapore as an independent sovereign country. The challenge of race, language and religion is never fully overcome. That is why we have to make the pledge every day. From time to time, there are heated debates over culture, education, immigration and other related issues. The key in all cases is balance. We must never take our eye off this ball. If we do, the consequences can be serious. With the growing importance of China to Singapore, we have to trim our position all the time. One foreign ambassador asked me why it was necessary for Singapore to have both a China Cultural Centre and a Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. I replied that it was absolutely necessary to separate the two to avoid confusion. I think he was testing me. From time to time, there are heated debates over culture, education, immigration and other related issues. The key in all cases is balance. Singapore can never afford to have other countries in Asean see us as a Chinese state in Southeast Asia. Lee Kuan Yew made it a matter of principle that Singapore would establish diplomatic relations with China only after our neighbours had done so. For many years, Singapore together with other non-Communist Asean countries worked with China to counter Vietnam ’s expansion into Cambodia. After Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia, it sought Asean membership and invited Lee Kuan Yew to be an adviser. However, there was lingering suspicion of Singapore’s relationship with China which took some years to dissipate. I knew the concern had largely evaporated when, one day in 2002, while reporting to Vietnam Premier Phan Van Khai on the work of our bilateral economic commission, he started giving me homework. STRENGTH IN SOVEREIGNTY Yet, it is not possible for others not to see us as majority cultural Chinese in our make-up. This is not a matter of presentation but of fact which we should wear naturally. When Francis became Pope in March 2013, he established a commission of eight Catholics to recommend reform of the Vatican’s administrative and financial system. For two years I did not know why I was asked to be a member. The appointment came as a surprise to me because I had not been active in my diocese. Only later did I find out that the Holy Father had asked for a Chinese Catholic to be included (all the others being European) and I was that Chinese. Someone told a Cardinal who was putting the commission together that I had left government and become available. However, it is paramount for Singapore’s Chinese-ness to be distinguished from our status as an independent, sovereign, multiracial country. In 2013, the Philippines took China to an arbitration tribunal under UNCLOS over South China Sea claims. The Philippines invoked compulsory arbitration. As China had opted out of compulsory arbitration when it acceded to the treaty (like many big countries), it refused to participate. The tribunal (which included a judge appointed on China’s behalf since China refused to appoint any) decided that China could not exclude itself and went on to construct China’s case, again on China’s behalf, without its participation. Not unexpectedly, the tribunal ruled against China. Had Asean been asked for its support by the Philippines before it took China to compulsory arbitration, I doubt we would have agreed. But the Philippines did not need Asean’s permission and had every sovereign right to act on its own. Singapore was put in a difficult position because many years before, Singapore had played a leading role in establishing UNCLOS and felt a certain obligation to defend its judicial process when the tribunal made its finding against China. As a small country, Singapore is very reliant on multilateral institutions for its political and economic well-being. Singapore’s relationship with China was affected for a couple of years but has since recovered. At that time, many mainland Chinese were unhappy that “Chinese Singapore” did not take China’s side. Singapore’s Chinese-ness is only one facet of what makes Singapore Singapore. There is an Indianness in us too. In 2010, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram invited me and my wife to his hometown in Chettinad for a holiday. As old friends, he wanted to acquaint me with his Chettiar heritage. During one conversation about the role Singapore played in India’s development, he casually remarked that many Indians considered Singapore to be a part of India. He meant it affectionately and I appreciated the sentiment. Today, such a remark would be readily misunderstood. Notwithstanding, Singapore’s relations with India are of strategic importance to our long-term well-being. Yet another facet of Singapore is our reflection of Malaysia. In the speech I gave in Kuala Lumpur at the launch of my book in 2016, I described Malaysians and Singaporeans as “one people, two countries”. Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, both old friends and colleagues who honoured me by their presence, smiled. It is often difficult in a crowd of Malaysians and Singaporeans to distinguish between the two. This affinity naturally complicates bilateral relations, as it does too in our relations with China and India.