Remarks by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 7th Reagan National Defense Forum Panel Session "Advancing Us National Defense: Working With Allies And Partners"

Remarks by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 7th Reagan National Defense Forum Panel Session "Advancing Us National Defense: Working With Allies And Partners"

I'll speak from Singapore's perspective as a small country, in what used to be a difficult neighbourhood in ASEAN, if you remember the 60s to the 80s. But if I can put some context to that partnership that we have with the US: Three months ago, I was with my Prime Minister and we had travelled to New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. And Prime Minister Lee – Lee Hsien Loong – signed a renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with President Trump. And there is a context to this MoU. In my mind, from Singapore's perspective, it was another historic moment and I say another historic moment because the original MoU was signed in 1990. And for those of you who recall history, it was at the time when US had lost its access to Clarke and Subic, and Singapore then stepped forward and said we would offer, it's a small place, we would offer access to US military planes and ships through our military bases.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew signed the agreement, the original MoU, with then-Vice President Quayle. And when Mr Lee was asked why we did that, I want to quote from him because I think this quote is as relevant today as it was then. Mr Lee said: "America's presence, in my view, is essential for the continuation of international law and order in East Asia" – remember this is 1990 – "an Asia in which cooperation and competition increases everyone's well-being, peacefully, and without recourse to arms, has been the norm. This kind of Asia, this kind of Pacific, cannot exist without America being a major economic and security presence."

The renewal of the MoU, I said was historic because it reaffirms our position of the US in our region which has changed considerably since the 60s, the 70s, the 80s. And today, because of the 1990 MoU, the US is the largest user, its military is the largest user of our air base and naval base, and in reciprocity, the US has offered us to train in the US. I do not think there is any other country, big or small, that has the kind of footprint in the US, and we are very thankful for these training opportunities.

Yesterday, I signed an MoU with Secretary Esper which allows us, or provides access to a fighter squadron in Guam so we are thankful for that. And I think these two MoUs exemplify our position via-a-vis the US presence in our region, and I think also sets the trajectory which Singapore sees itself in partnership with the US for the region.

The strong, mutually beneficial defence relationship between the US, the world's largest economy and military, and Singapore, a tiny city-state, is unique. Despite our vast difference in size and resources, how does one explain the depth of this relationship? What are the fundamentals which this relationship is based on? Let me offer briefly three.

First, an openness to ideas and people. There is a resonance between Emma Lazarus' sonnet and our national pledge:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me."

Singapore too is a migrant society, in our roots, seeking to form a united and strong country. Every day, in Singapore, school children and our soldiers recite these lines: "We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation."

Second, a quest for a global system that frees, unites, includes, and enriches, rather than divides and impoverishes. It was former President John F Kennedy's inauguration speech, now nearly 60 years ago, that promised and began the US' relationship to ASEAN member states, in the fight against colonisation and communism:

"We pledge our word that one form of colonial control should not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny."

Singapore opened its facilities to the US military because the forces of Communism, communalism, nativism and great power rivalry threatened the stability and progress of newly-independent ASEAN states. Post-Cold War, the strategic interest, and foreign and security policies of the US, sought to put into place a regional and global order based on openness, fair trade, and the rule of law. Indeed, Singapore's progress has been based on the same principles of multilateralism, free trade, and rule of law. Our external trade is more than three times our GDP, and our students receive the best education both at home and abroad, free to expand their minds and find solutions to the problems that will beset their generation.

And finally, a shared partnership to deal with transnational challenges that threaten us all. Disruptive changes are upon us globally – to the existing international finance and trading systems, existing security arrangements, as well as to counter terrorism and address climate change. We will need the US working with other nations to deal with these challenges.

Thank you.



Well, let us start with the military presence, whether that has been uncertain. The answer to that is no. In fact, there has been a step-up. That is looking from our part of the world and from our point of view, across various Secretaries of Defence, each Secretary that has come by and announced a number of measures at the Shangri-la Dialogue, it has been a step-up. Whether it was in terms of the number of naval ships, whether it was in terms of upgrading the representation of the Indo-Pacific Command, Army as well as the Air Force, as well as these agreements. And we have just heard Secretary Esper say during the afternoon session that he sees our region, as the theatre going forward. So from the military presence, it is not.

From the economic and trading systems, obviously there has been. Globalisation 1.0, if you put it simply, America and its Western allies were seen as prime architects, whether it was the World Trade Organisation, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the international financial trading systems. And it was a bit surreal when the World Economic Forum (WEF) held its meeting and to hear the American administration push a certain line, and President Xi Jin Ping stating certain views. And if you had swapped speeches, some years back, you would have thought that the Chinese side was articulating what the US had said on the other side and vice versa. So the trading system, there are new rules obviously, there have been people who have benefitted more and we accept the US' view that it has been unfairly implemented.

From the philosophical view, in terms of America's value system, what it espouses to export, what it bases its foreign policy on, yes, but I think ASEAN members recognise that America is also responding to its own internal politics. Is US the sole cause of this shift? Probably not. You are responding to the circumstances so I am giving our view from Singapore and you know I presume I speak for some of the general aspects from ASEAN's perspective.


You are the United States so I won't comment on your strategy which you know but for all intent and purposes will be what you're acting on, let me just comment on what my fellow panellist Michele (Flournoy) was saying. And we are really talking about American soft power and foreign policy at its nub. What it is trying to direct at, what it is trying to conceive or what it is trying to bring its partners towards. And context is important because soft power and image is defined not only by your own aspirations but by what the context is and sometimes by your adversaries and antagonists.

So if you take – again from ASEAN's perspective – the 1960s where decolonisation took place, we gained our independence in 1965, it was not so long ago that we did. In fact, Brunei was the last country of the ten that gained its independence, and that was in 1984. In that context, American soft power, if I characterise it with President Kennedy's inaugural speech where he made a pledge and he said that one form of colonial control should not have merely passed away to be replaced by another more iron tyranny. That captured the zeitgeist of the moment. These were newly independent states wanting to participate in the global economy which they were excluded from, as they were colonised.

The rules of international trading were put in place by America and its Western liberal allies and the sum of its parts was greater than the whole, the general economy was lifted and ASEAN today is 640 million, 2.8 trillion USD in GDP, equivalent to the size of UK's economy. It is a remarkable achievement by any record based on American foreign policy, past policy, it worked.

Is the context the same as today? Can you shape China as similar to how you dealt with the Communist threat in the 60s and the 70s? Yes and no. There are certain aspects but consider this, in the last two decades, and remember in the 80s and 1990s, even in early 2000s, the American economy was not doing so well, neither was the European Union (EU)'s. It was the Chinese economy that kept Asia afloat. So again from ASEAN member states' perspective, you could say that they want the best of all worlds, their economic engines are dependent on the US, China and the EU. China is now the largest trading partner of almost all the countries in ASEAN and also including Australia and New Zealand. I think that is a significant change from the 60s and 70s, and whatever strategy America wants to define its core policy or foreign policy, whether it is soft power or foreign policy has to take that into account.


Well, if you took a straw poll of both leaders and the people in ASEAN, I speak on ASEAN so as to contextualise our response. I think most would say that they want it to be continued, America's presence. They do not want to choose and be caught in the great power rivalry between US and China but they also want both to be involved, including other powers. Do we recognise that America's domestic politics is not business as usual? It is hard not to notice. Do we adjust to that? Yes. Do we want the assurance that the main American foreign policy is still inclusive, multilateral and progressive? I think certainly yes and we continue to believe it to be so.

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