With political upheavals in the US and Europe casting a shadow of uncertainty over Asia recently, it was fitting that the first NUS U@live forum of the year featured US Ambassador to Singapore The Honourable Kirk Wagar delivering a talk titled “Perspectives on the Pacific Century”.
Addressing a packed audience of 350 staff, students, alumni and invited guests at the NUS Shaw Foundation Alumni House on 3 January, the straight-talking Ambassador shared his insightful perspectives on the implications of recent events on politics, trade and security in Southeast Asia.
Undoubtedly, the biggest question on everyone’s minds that evening was how much the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Mr Donald Trump would affect US-Singapore relations — to which Mr Wagar’s response was a reassuring “not much”.
“I believe we are currently sitting in the most dynamic country in the most dynamic region in the world,” he said of Singapore. He added that US has always had a strong presence in the country, and this will not stop. “Singapore has allowed us that platform into Vietnam, into Indonesia, into Malaysia, for decades…so in answer to the question ‘Is America committed to this region?’, my answer right back is ‘Where are we going to go?’”
Allaying concerns that the change in presidency would thwart advancements made under the Obama administration, Mr Wagar remained optimistic that “facts win over ideology” and reassured that there are checks and balances in place.
After the presentation, members of the audience were invited to pick the Ambassador’s brains during a question-and-answer session moderated by Chair of the U@live Organising Committee and former Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Viswa Sadasivan. The session kicked off with a question on what has surprised Mr Wagar the most since coming to Southeast Asia. A fervent cheerleader for ASEAN and diplomatic relations, Mr Wagar was struck by how average citizens were not more enthusiastic about what he saw as enormous strengths of ASEAN. He felt that many did not realise that ASEAN’s large workforce and strong economy is the answer to much of the economic growth that will happen in the region.
He also touched on topics such as wealth inequality and increasing labour competitiveness, urging the audience to become more engaged in the region, as human beings. “We need to focus on growing a country, not an economy,” he said.
Another hot topic was the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While many have assumed the agreement has completely fallen through, Mr Wagar encouraged the audience to “wait a while”. He said that it might be tweaked or take a different form, but is unlikely to be completely discarded. “The concept that a trade agreement is a be-all and end-all for our economic engagement is insane,” he candidly pointed out.
The engaging forum ended with the Ambassador recounting his three most memorable moments since being sworn in as US Ambassador to Singapore in 2013 — his nerve-wracking meeting with former Singapore Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 2013; witnessing an entire nation united in mourning when Mr Lee passed on in 2015; and current Singapore Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s official state visit to US last year, the first by a Singaporean Prime Minister in 31 years.
Organised by NUS Alumni Relations, the quarterly U@live series, now into its seventh year, aims to raise thought leadership by engaging eminent NUS alumni and revolutionary leaders in robust discussion on pertinent topics.