A Conversation with Singapore Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri
April 8, 2015
Last week, Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri addressed the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, where he spoke of the recent passing of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his strategic vision for Singapore’s role in the world. After the event, co-sponsored by the Asia Foundation and hosted by Foundation President and World Affairs Council Trustee David D. Arnold, Ambassador Mirpuri sat down with the Foundation’s Eelynn Sim to share his thoughts on Singapore’s model of economic prosperity and good governance, and its crucial role in addressing regional challenges. This interview has been edited and condensed.
On Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s passing and U.S.-Singapore relations:
There was a deep, emotional outpouring of support and condolences in Singapore, but also in the U.S. Many Americans came to Singapore to express their condolences. There was really a sense of recognition of Mr. Lee’s contributions to U.S.-Singapore relations, and also of Mr. Lee’s strategic idea that Singapore’s success depends very much on the success of Southeast Asia and the rest of the region. If you look at Mr. Lee’s ideas and vision, they always fit into a role of a wider, stronger, more sophisticated Southeast Asia, and of working very much with the great powers, in particular the U.S.
On the importance of free trade:
Today, as we work through various areas in Southeast Asia and the ASEAN Economic Community [AEC], we’re also looking at broader economic engagement in the Asia Pacific – through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership [RCEP], which involves ASEAN and six other countries including China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], which is a very critical part of the economic architecture because it engages the U.S. in a very forward-looking agreement. All these will come together into something that we call the free trade area of the Asia Pacific. This idea of free trade has been very important in how Singapore and the rest of the region look at the U.S. role. We see this as a way to benefit all the countries in the region – some of which may not be up to the level of joining the TPP at this time – to create bridges that connect the RCEP, the TPP, and APEC into different forms.
On Singapore’s “good governance” model and views on development assistance:
What Singapore has done with our neighbors has been that we give what we call technical cooperation and training. We feel that the best model is to give senior civil servants from around the region an opportunity to move forward on their own development objectives and to see how it really works on the ground. We have a whole buffet of courses available under our technical cooperation programs, ranging from airport management and port management to trade liberalization issues and financial regulation, that countries choose and decide to participate in.
On innovation and the Silicon Valley model:
Everyone wants to have a Silicon Valley. But what comes first? Are the engineers more important? Is the financing more important? It includes a regulatory framework; it includes the desire for risk; and, in San Francisco in particular, and having visited startups in other parts of the U.S. as well, what I find is a very strong sense of sharing ideas. People sit on each other’s boards to learn from each other. But also, U.S. startups want to go look at Asia, to try it out, and then maybe test out their ideas in Singapore. I think we will develop parallel systems. Right now, Singapore is looking towards something called a “smart nation,” which uses big data analytics in areas like transport systems and healthcare.
On the strong role for the U.S. in the Asia Pacific:
What Singapore wants for the region is a strategic vision of peace and stability. Singapore has focused on the U.S. role, not just with ourselves, but with the wider region. For example, the U.S.-ASEAN relationship is something that is very fundamental in U.S. foreign policy today. U.S. engagement is particularly critical as we’re looking at rising tensions in the South China Sea, which may have the potential to boil over. Singapore continues to encourage the U.S. to be actively engaged in the region militarily, but also in economic terms.
On China’s role in the region:
It is, really, working through a very profound economic interdependence between the U.S. and China in the Asia Pacific. So from Southeast Asia, we welcome the regular contact that the U.S. has with China. We’re all looking forward to the summit that the Chinese president will have with the U.S. president later this year. This stands to benefit the entire Asia Pacific region.
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