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COVID-19: Lessons from Three Smart Small Asian Nations     Part 1. Singapore 

By Shlomo Maital

  We can learn a great deal from three small Asian nations or semi-autonomous areas (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan) about how to deal with COVID-19. These lessons are summed up in today’s New York Times, by Hannah Beech:*

     Here, Part 1, is how Singapore acted. 

   I taught MBA students in Singapore, at Nanyang Technological Institute, for many years, and came to know Singapore and its people well.

     I can sum up Singapore’s cultural DNA, in place from Day One, in large part thanks to its brilliant founding leader Lee Kwan Yew: We are a small nation, disliked by our huge neighbors. To survive, we must be the very best at everything, and accept no excuses for incompetence.

     “Singapore’s strategy of moving rapidly to track down and test suspected cases, provides a model for keeping the epidemic at bay, even if it can’t completely be stamped out completely.

       “With detailed detective work, the government’s contact tracers found, among others, a group of avid singers who warbled and expelled respiratory droplets together, spreading the virus….   If you chase the virus, a Ministry of Health official said, you will always be behind the curve.”

       Singapore has had a relatively few cases and few deaths, even though the Chinese New Year brought a lot of arrivals from China initially.

     The author writes: “Early intervention is the key. So are painstaking tracking, enforced quarantines and meticulous social distancing – all coordinated by a leadership willing to act fast and be transparent.”

     Singapore’s key benchmark: To trackers seeking where the COVID-19 was contracted, for those testing positive —   you have two hours to bring us concrete answers. Two hours. No excuses.

     In Singapore, “details of where patients live, work and play are released quickly online, allowing others to protect themselves.”  

         Violation of privacy? Embarrassing? Of course. But public health comes first. And a disciplined population accepts this.

[Important correction: My friend Bilahari Kausikan, former senior Foreign Ministry official in Singapore, writes:  NYT story was misleading in one detail: it gives the impression that we release the names of the infected. We don’t do that but refer to them by case number. The details are of date, time and places they have visited so that you can be alerted and if you have been there at the material time and date, get yourself checked.”]

       Western nations seem to be chasing the virus, after it has arrived, rather than acting pre-emptively well before it unpacks its bags and settles in.  

         Perhaps next time, we will follow Singapore’s lead? 

  • “Asian hubs offer model for tackling an epidemic”. New York Times March 19/2020


How Asia Sees the Trump Presidency

By Shlomo Maital


Here is how my friend Bilahari Kausikan, former First Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sees the Asian reaction to the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. This is from the Nikkei Asian Review:  

 Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Whatever they may say in public, few East Asian governments will greet the news with much enthusiasm — and all will harbour a degree of unease.   Only the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made their preference for him known. But they are hardly typical and the latter, for once, did not follow China’s lead.

  • Beijing is usually scrupulous about avoiding comment on the domestic politics of other countries, but still felt it necessary to publicly criticize Trump’s stance on climate change.   A South China Morning Post poll published on Nov. 5 showed that 61% of Chinese preferred Trump’s Democrat rival Hillary Clinton, higher than her final share of the U.S. popular vote. Only 39% of the Chinese preferred Trump, lower than his share of the U.S. popular vote.   A study by the U.S. journal Foreign Policy of Chinese elite attitudes, published on Nov. 7, concluded that while they viewed Clinton as unfriendly, most felt that Trump would be a disaster for the U.S. and hence for global stability.  
  • China’s leaders may not admit it, but they know that the U.S. is vital for the maintenance of regional stability.   Beijing values stability above everything else, particularly with the Chinese Communist Party’s crucial 19th congress only a year away and internal labour and social unrest endemic.  President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has generated a great sense of insecurity among cadres across all sectors of the state.   In October, about 1,000 military veterans in uniform protested outside the ministry of defense in Beijing. It is impossible for such a large and conspicuous group to have gathered near such a sensitive area without at least the tacit connivance of some senior cadres.
  • Like most of East Asia, China hates surprises. Clinton was a known quantity and would have stood for continuity in American policy toward the region.  But East Asia is also pragmatic, not wont to just wring its hands in despair over new realities. Governments of the region will work with whoever is in power in the U.S.

Understanding China and Asia

By Shlomo  Maital     


Bilahari Kausikan 

One of the wisest persons I know is Biliahari Kausikan, formerly Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, and now Ambassador at Large.  He has an exceptionally clear view of global and Asian geopolitics; I’ve been ranting and nagging him for years to write a book, or at least a regular blog.

    Here, for my readers, is an excerpt from his recent document “A World in Transformation”. 

    The world is undergoing a profound transition of power and ideas. The modern international system was shaped by the West who prescribed its fundamental concepts, established its basic institutions and practices and influenced all major developments. That era is now drawing to a close. No one can predict the future and we do not know what will replace the western dominated system. But we can at least glimpse some of the issues that will have to be confronted.

      Washington and Beijing are now groping towards a new modus vivendi. Neither finds it easy and establishing a new equilibrium will be a work of decades and not just a few years. Sino-US relations are already the most important bilateral relationship for East Asia, setting the tone for the entire region. As the 21st century progresses, Sino-US relations will become the most important bilateral relationship for the entire world influencing almost every aspect of international relations, just as US-Soviet relations did during the Cold War.

    The Chinese government and people are rightly proud of what they have achieved. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in so short a time. Still it would be a dangerous mistake to try to understand the global and regional transitions that are underway by simplistic slogans such as ‘Asia rising, the West declining’ as some Chinese intellectuals and even some officials occasionally come close to doing.  The changes in the distribution of power that are occurring are relative not absolute. The global patterns of trade, finance, investments and production chains that have evolved as a result of East Asian growth cannot be characterized by geographically defined dichotomies. Many economic roads now pass through China and many more will in the future. Nevertheless the final destination is still more often than not the US or Europe. China is certainly rising. But it is always a mistake to believe one’s own propaganda and the west and in particular the US is not declining. All who have underestimated American creativity, resilience and resolve have had cause regret it.

   Two competing visions of regional order are in play: a Sino-centric vision built around the ASEAN plus Three (APT) forum which comprises the ten Southeast Asia states with China, Japan and South Korea, and a broader and more open architecture built around the East Asia Summit (EAS) which is the APT with the addition of the US, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.

     Given the growing centrality of East Asia in the world economy and the strategic weight of the US and China, the outcome of the debate over a new East Asian architecture will be the single most important influence on the global architecture of the 21st century. This is the strategic significance of what has been dismissed by western observers who do not really understand what they observe, as talk shops. No option has yet been foreclosed. Both the APT and EAS are experiments. But China’s preference is clear.



Singapore’s Prime Minister Looks Ahead Two Decades

By Shlomo  Maital

Lee Hsien Loong

   After many visits to Singapore, I’ve come to appreciate the highly intelligent, competent political leadership, and capable civil service, this small nation enjoys.  (And, by the way — good-looking!)….

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of founding leader Lee Kwan Yew, is a Harvard graduate and highly articulate.  Recently, he delivered an address, “Scenarios for Asia in the next 20 years”;  here is a summary. 

   “Since the end of the Cold War, Asia’s strategic weight in international affairs has grown. It is home to more than half of the world’s population, and its share of global GDP has risen from one fifth to one third.   This morning I will talk about both the clear trends and the critical uncertainties in Asia over the next 20 years. The key players will still be the US, China and Japan.

    “Let me begin with the US. Today it is the dominant global power. In the Asia-Pacific, US power and influence have underpinned regional security and stability since the Second World War, and enabled all countries to prosper. The US has been a benign and constructive power, which explains why it is still welcomed by countries in the region. The Obama administration’s “rebalancing” towards Asia reflects the American strategic view, that the US has been and always will be a Pacific power. Unfortunately, the strains of being the global policeman have taken their toll on the US. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US more than 50,000 soldiers killed or wounded .  The American people are naturally war weary. They are reluctant to engage in new fights or take on fresh burdens, whether in Syria, Ukraine or Asia. Its adversaries sense this, and harbor hopes that the US has lost the will to advance its interests and defend its “red lines”.                  

  “I believe that in 20 years’ time, the US will remain the world’s pre-eminent superpower. China’s GDP will probably exceed America’s in absolute terms, but not in per capita terms. The US will still be the world’s most advanced economy, leading the way in innovation, technology and talent. I expect the Fortune 500 global list to include many new American companies which do not yet exist today, just as neither Google nor Facebook existed 20 years ago. Shale gas will enhance the competitiveness of US industries, and could also be an additional tool of American diplomacy. The US armed forces will still be the most formidable and technologically-advanced in the world.”

     “There are two key uncertainties … The first is how soon Americans get over the current mood of angst and withdrawal, and regain the confidence and will to advance American interests around the world. The second is when the US can get its politics to work. Politicians on both sides need to come together to overcome the present gridlock and forge a consensus on the way forward, rather than be mired in partisanship and fundamental disagreement.”

      Lee’s key point: The U.S. must continue its role as the world’s superpower/babysitter/democracy advocate.  If it turns insular and fails in this role, the world will be a mess.  To succeed in this role, America must regain its self-confidence, and fix its gridlocked political system.

     Keep in mind – Singapore is tightly linked to America, economically and politically, and has enormous interests in America continuing to play a key role in Asia.  So part of PM Lee’s speech is wishful thinking, and part is analysis.  Let’s hope his optimism is based on analysis, not just hope. 

   Today is Memorial Day in America.  In a memorial ceremony, the names of some 50,000 American casualties since 9/11 are being read.  Years ago, the names of the 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam were read; it took three whole days non-stop.   If America is tired of policing the world, one can understand.  It matters for all of us, and our children and grandchildren, whether America will have the energy and spirit to continue to act for the world’s interests, not just America’s – and whether America will have the wisdom to intervene wisely,  much more wisely than its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital