There was one not-terribly-well-acknowledged behind-the-scenes heroic figure during the Kim-Trump Singapore Summit.
That was Singapore’s leader, the distinguished former Brigadier, now Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong, son of one of Asia’s most dynamic politicians, Lee Kuan Yew, who, even his enemies reluctantly concede, pulled Singapore from struggling entrepot port to the region’s money hub.
Singapore started off as a poor place, populated by tough, hardworking Hakka Chinese families who pooled their meagre wages in clan associations – even amahs – the redoubtable armies of cleaning ladies who served the British military families of Holland Park and Tanglin, had an association that took their money and returned it in times of sickness or death.
Changi was, in those years, not Asia’s favourite airport, but an RAF base, along with RAF Tengah and Seletar. ‘Changi Village’ British army wives would insist was cheaper for groceries than Orchard Road and the Magnolia Milk supermarket where Americans shopped.
Singapore was a simple, hardworking pull-together place, still carrying scars of a brutal Japanese occupation and getting over the dual threats of an ‘Emergency’ the Communist-led insurgency that attacked rubber planters and British-owned businesses.
After that, Singapore had to deal with being shown out of the nascent ‘Malaysia’ federation and the threat of an Indonesian invasion ( the single Indonesian para who managed to land in the vegetable gardens of industrious Singaporean farmers was taken in and given a bowl of noodles, while a small boy was sent off to alert the Gurkhas).
It’s slightly nostalgic to remember, that Sentosa island, which may now enter history books as a meeting place comparable to Yalta, was once a Japanese prisoner of war camp and was later owned by the glamorous daughter of Singapore’s first millionaire film magnate. Christina Loke Wan Tho had great hopes for her little island and now they’ve been fulfilled.
So Singapore has much more history than simply a commercial trading post. It’s one of the most stable places in southeast Asia and thanks to its no-nonsense practicality, it has managed to survive and prosper where other, richer, better-endowed nations have failed.
“We are sort of Israelis of Asia,” my Singaporean friend tells me, “surrounded by people who don’t really like us much, who’d like to see us go down. But now we have walls of steel.”
One sobering message that may be read from the Trump-Kim summit -and South Koreans have read it in consternation and anger is that the US under President Trump will in the future, not place the same value on its former allies in Asia as his predecessors did.
Yes, we have ANZUS and Australia has been accorded ‘most favoured nation’ treatment but the bill be no doubt be presented in due course.
It’s fervently to be hoped that the Turnbull government understands this tricky line of realpolitik, a tightrope balancing trick. We will need future friends and allies and the sooner such friendships are struck and strengthened, the more secure we will be.
Brexit has provided an opening to renew our ties with Britain; ASEAN is another vital association (could our Foreign Minister not lobby to change the rules that state that entry to ASEAN must be granted by each individual member, and not by the majority?)
Singapore is the quiet one at the table, but the one whose voice often carries the most heft. Australia should explore ways to share mutual goals and shared objectives with Singapore.
Perhaps we could start by handing back Christmas Island. Under the British, it used to belong with Singapore, along with other tiny islands, including the menacingly-named Blakan Mati, “Look behind you”, the name a reminder that it was a popular haunt of Bugis sea pirates).
Somehow in the general confusion of paperwork surrounding independence on the Malayan peninsula, Australia acquired Christmas Island. Perhaps it’s time to give it back.
Tina Faulk was an expat brat in Singapore during the Konfrontasi years.
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