Singapore must stay exceptional with cohesion, helmed by first-rate leaders: ESM Goh Chok Tong
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong says Singapore has to stay exceptional by remaining cohesive as a nation with first-rate leaders to navigate the choppy seas of the changing world order.
As a small state with its own changing domestic landscape, it will have its work cut out, he said.
Mr Goh shared his views, experiences and hard truths on how Singapore navigates, survives and even thrives in a challenging world - at a public lecture, "Navigating A Changing World: Perspectives of a Small State", at Harvard University Asia Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Monday.
Mr Goh, who was invited to speak as an Ezra F. Vogel Distinguished Visitor, named after eminent Asia scholar Professor Ezra Vogel, said the perennial challenge for small states is to preserve their independence and remain relevant and competitive.
He said they'll have a long and bumpy journey with recurring political, economic and financial crises, and even regional conflicts, along the way.
Stressing the need for domestic consensus, Mr Goh said Singapore's experience has shown that small states can overcome the odds and play a meaningful role in the international arena if they can succeed as a country - with a vibrant economy, effective and forward-looking national institutions, as well a progressive and prosperous society.
He said governance must be outstanding and there must be a national consensus on where the country is heading and how problems are to be solved:
"Unless we are respected as a successful country, we cannot expect to exercise any international influence. Why should others listen to us or deal with us if our house is in disarray and we cannot even solve our own problems?" he asked.
Mr Goh said Singapore has been able to navigate changes in the international environment because it has had far-sighted, competent and decisive leaders since independence and has succeeded in building a prosperous society.
But there's no guarantee that it can continue to do so successfully in future; and it has to continue to strive to stay ahead of the curve, adjust its policies in a rational and pragmatic manner and stay united as a people.
"We must see the world as it is - an ocean of big fish, small fish and shrimps - and not what we wish it to be. And therein lies the challenging task of having to forge a consensus with greater political diversity and citizen involvement, while retaining our agility to respond decisively and quickly to challenges and opportunities," said Mr Goh.
Mr Goh, who was prime minister from 1990 to 2004, said in his 14 years at the helm, his singular mission was to "Keep Singapore Going".
By this, he meant safeguarding the country's independence, securing its future, growing the economy, improving the livelihood of Singaporeans, preserving social harmony and expanding Singapore's international space.
"These changes and the global environment are not always benign. They include not just geopolitical shifts, but also economic competition and the impact of technological advancements. One wrong turn, and the consequences may be disastrous," he said.
Mr Goh said this does not mean that small states are destined to be the vassals or chameleons of the world.
Instead, Singapore takes a realistic and strategic view of the world, makes itself relevant to others in vital areas, plays a positive international role and contributes constructively to global issues.
To prosper in the fluid international environment, small states must keep enlarging their diplomatic, economic and strategic space.
And one way Singapore has done so is by building strong relationships, especially against the backdrop of a key relationship - that of the United States and China.
A constructive relationship between the two giants, said Mr Goh, is good for both parties and vital for the rest of the world, especially for small states like Singapore.
As China grows, some degree of competition with the US is inevitable but there's no reason why competition cannot take place within a stable framework, with both countries exercising their responsibilities as international stakeholders.
Unlike US-Soviet relations, there's no ideological divide between the US and China, as both sides want essentially the same things - stability in their relations and in the international system to pursue economic growth and a better life for their people.
He cited an African proverb "When elephants fight, the grass gets hurt" to make the point that small people are sacrificed by warring chiefs and small countries suffer collateral damage from conflict amongst big powers.
Countries such as Singapore have a vested interest to ensure elephants do not fight, said Mr Goh.
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