Daring and drive: Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean on the principles propelling Singapore

In a world where size is often equated with might, Singapore is considered tiny, whether in land size or population. Yet, the Republic finds a way to have mutually beneficial partnerships with other nations, including superpowers, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum on 5 October 2023.

“We make friends with countries big and small, near and far, and make ourselves relevant and useful,” said Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, at the forum, organised by the NUS Students’ Political Association.

“We add value to them, so that they can add value to us,” he added, attributing this to Singapore’s ability to anticipate and adapt to remain relevant at home and abroad. This has been a central trait behind Singapore’s success, along with two other principles – working towards an open, collaborative world; and strengthening social cohesion. 

Reminding ourselves of these three principles that have guided the nation’s 3G leadership is important, in light of the transition to the upcoming 4G leadership, noted Ms Phedra Neo (NUS Political Science, Class of 2023), the forum’s project director. It is also in line with the theme of the evening: “Daring and Drive: A Reflection by Singapore’s Third Generation Leadership”.

Principles over procedures

Singapore’s secret ingredient for geopolitical success is adhering to principles over SOPs, or standard operating procedures. 

“An examination of our history will show that our decisions have always been underpinned by a core set of fundamental principles,” shared Mr Teo.

An abiding principle is foreseeing change to grasp opportunities. He cited the evolution of three major government-to-government projects between China and Singapore as examples of how the Republic brings value to bilateral relations.

In 1990, Singapore first partnered China on the Suzhou Industrial Park “to build a model suited to China’s modern aspirations”. Almost two decades later, Singapore “anticipated and adapted” to China’s environmental goals, resulting in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city in 2008.

This relationship evolved again in 2015, with the launch of the China-Singapore Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. Singapore had noted China’s focus shifting inland from the eastern coast and worked with them on air, road and sea transportation connections.

“At each stage, we studied, anticipated. Then we could contribute value,” Mr Teo told the audience of over 200, made up of mostly tertiary students.

A pertinent role in an open world

A second principle is working towards an open, connected and collaborative world, amid rising protectionism and superpower rivalry.

Mr Teo pointed to Singapore’s crucial role in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which provides a universal legal framework for governance of the oceans. After nine years of intense negotiations involving more than 150 states, Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh oversaw its adoption as President of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. 

If not for Unclos, the “world would have been mired in dispute”, said Mr Teo, adding that island countries like Singapore would have “effectively become landlocked while other countries have expansive claims of jurisdiction over international waters”.

Other ways that Singapore advocates for a more open, collaborative international order is its participation in climate change issues.

For example, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Ms Grace Fu facilitated discussions at COP26 in 2021 on carbon markets – widely acknowledged as one of the most challenging issues for countries to concur on due to transparency and greenwashing concerns.

“We are a small, low-lying island and the full consequences of global action – or inaction – on climate change will impinge upon us,” said Mr Teo. Singapore plays a “quiet role” in facilitating and brokering agreements, especially on divisive topics.

Strengthening social stability

Even as Singapore faces external existential threats, it is perhaps just as important to look within. The third and final principle, he shared, is to forge and harness social stability – “our greatest source of strength”.

Reflecting on violent racial riots and union strikes in Singapore when he was growing up, he noted, “These all seem like distant memories but these happen in other countries regularly.”

The Forward Singapore exercise, which spurs dialogue on the social compact, will reveal key societal shifts to take the country forward. “But a report is a report,” he said. “It will take many years of collective work in society to make those aspirations come true.”

The session ended with questions from the floor, on topics from trust in the government and race relations, to the 4G leadership and superpower tensions. As youths expressed opinions on the nation’s future, it was apt that forum moderator, Associate Professor Leong Ching, Vice Provost (Student Life), brought to mind the significance of the event’s location at NUS in its Kent Ridge campus. 

“In 1972, there was a ground-breaking ceremony in this place. NUS was built on 190 hectares of hilly terrain, welcoming 8,000 students,” said Assoc Prof Leong, who is also Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“For a young nation, (Kent Ridge) is also a place of great hope, optimism and grand ambition… so where better to have a dialogue on daring and drive?”