In 1996, when Chan Heng Chee arrived as Singapore’s new envoy to the United States, there were only five women ambassadors in Washington. The world hadn’t yet heard of Facebook, Twitter or social networking, and Bill Clinton was already in deep doo-doo over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But Chan had her own scandal to deal with. Two years earlier, Michael Fay, 18, had been arrested for spray-painting cars and stealing street signs. His punishment: four months in jail, a $2,200 fine and six strokes of the cane.
“It was not an easy time for me,” she recalled. “We had just gone through the caning of an American teenager for being a very naughty boy. My initial problem was to change the image of Singapore and remind Americans that Michael Fay was an aberration, and that Singapore was more than just this episode. We’re a reliable defense partner and a good trading partner, but somehow that was forgotten.”
Chan remembered that when asked about the incident on MTV, Clinton asked her government to waive the caning altogether. Out of respect to the president, Singapore eventually reduced the number of strokes from six to four.
“Things were raised to a level where it was difficult for us to retreat. It was all blown out of proportion,” she said, noting that Fay didn’t vandalize those cars all by himself; his partner in crime was a “ho-hum” Chinese boy from Hong Kong. “But that was never reported. The whole exercise was portrayed as East against West.”
These days, few Americans remember Fay or his unusual punishment — and Singapore meanwhile has solidified its reputation as a prosperous, squeaky-clean democracy of 5.2 million inhabitants who thrive on foreign trade and investment.
In 2011, Singapore enjoyed GDP growth of 4.9 percent and annual per-capita income of $49,000. At 2 percent, its unemployment rate is among the world’s lowest, and last year its total trade with the rest of the world amounted to $760 billion — a mind-boggling sum for a country half the size of Montgomery County, Maryland.
“Anybody who’s been to Singapore in the last five years realizes that it’s a thriving, glittering city whose cuisine makes it the best place in the world for foodies. We still have one of the finest airlines in the world, and we’re known as an educational and financial center,” Chan told The Washington Diplomat in an interview that stretched nearly two hours.
“But Singapore is not a big power; it’s not a member of the P-5, the G-8 or even the G-20,” she said. “The question for me was always, how do you represent a small country in the most powerful capital in the world, where competition for time is so fierce? How do you get the attention of very high-level officials in the administration — and especially the right kind of attention? You don’t want attention as a country in trouble. That is what I have worked at constantly for the past 16 years.”
But as all good things must come to an end, Chan informed her superiors at the Foreign Ministry last year that when her contract expired, she wouldn’t be renewing it.
“It was time to go,” she said, gazing at the nearby University of the District of Columbia campus through her embassy’s large plate-glass windows. “I believe that one must be willing and ready to give up a job. No one is indispensable. I also think I can do quite a bit and make some contributions to my country when I go home.”
Chan does not intend to go quietly into the night, but will instead return to academia as head of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, to be established in the new Singapore University of Technology and Design.
The university is a venture comprising the government of Singapore, China’s Zhejiang University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s now rising near Changi Airport and will open in three years, even though 400 students already take classes in temporary buildings. The president is Thomas L Magnanti, MIT’s former dean of engineering.
“It sounds very exciting for me. I will look at urban challenges, urban solutions, government issues, the use of technology and new ideas,” Chan said. “The other half of my time, I’ll be ambassador-at-large with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Her replacement in Washington will be fellow career diplomat Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, who’s been Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia since July 2006.
Though she’s not actually leaving until July 14, the last month has seen a string of going-away parties. “Someone said to me that only The Who has had more farewells than me. They went on a five-year farewell tour,” she joked. “Since the end of April, people have been taking me out, saying goodbye.”
On June 19, for example, the Asia Society presented her with its Diplomatic Achievement Award during a gala at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
“I have made very good friends with too many people to name. They are friends I will continue to see and keep up with from Singapore,” she said. “I’ve learned from everyone around me, whether it was about the global economy, security, foreign policy, culture and how you look at Asia.”
Chan’s office is decorated with photographs and mementos that bear witness to her illustrious career and connections. In one corner is a plaque of appreciation signed by 17 female members of Congress. In another is a 1989 black-and-white photo of Chan presenting her credentials to Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, secretary-general of the United Nations.
There’s also her framed Distinguished Service Order, accompanied by a letter from President Tony Tan Keng Yam. His letter notes that Chan “combines intellect and drive with a great sense of dedication, working tirelessly to promote Singapore’s political, economic and security interests in the United States.”
All these will be traveling back to Singapore with her, along with the veteran diplomat’s prized furniture, artwork, books and collection of vinyl records.
The job of ambassador itself has changed dramatically in the last 16 years, Chan told The Diplomat.
“The new technology is challenging because it forces a diplomat to think how you are going to reach out. If you do not use the new tools, you’ll fall behind,” said Chan, who never tweets and doesn’t have a personal Facebook account.
On the other hand, she said, “I find the workload much heavier now. Productivity has increased with new technology, but the email does not stop. And because of that new technology, I don’t have to stay at the embassy, so I work longer hours than before.”
Chan said she used to get to sleep at 12:30 a.m., but now she often can’t turn in until 2 a.m. — and there are still breakfasts to attend at 8:15 a.m. sharp.
One of more than two dozen women ambassadors now serving in Washington, Chan notes that Singapore, like the United States, also has many women in high positions in the private sector, including CEOs of major banks. “But in government, we had a woman minister who lost the election and no women as full cabinet members. The U.S. is really far ahead of Singapore in this regard.”
Chan has many friends in Congress, including Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
“But the person I really admire in Washington is Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton,” said the ambassador. “She has shown how a woman leader can behave with dignity, projecting high intelligence, her command of knowledge a factor to be reckoned with. She has an energy, diligence and drive which is unequaled.”
Chan says her departure is “bittersweet” because — although she worked hard to see passage of a bilateral free trade agreement that came into force Jan. 1, 2004 — she will not be able to continue her work with CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States), which reviews the national security implications of specific foreign investments here.
“Because of Singapore’s interest in purchasing U.S. companies, I’ve had to learn something about that CFIUS process,” she noted.
When Chan arrived here in 1996, Saudi Arabia’s Bandar bin Sultan was dean of the diplomatic corps. Then he left, and Djibouti’s Roble Olhaye, who’s been here since 1988, took his place. That makes Chan the second-longest serving ambassador here — and one of the diplomatic corps’ top experts on the inner workings of Capitol Hill.
“I came just in time to see President Clinton run for re-election against Bob Dole. I was plunged into the political process by attending the two conventions. That was my introduction to American politics,” she recalled.
“I did not see many negative ads, and the political atmosphere was less charged then. The conventions were like carnivals. That has changed. I watched this year’s Republican primaries and saw how contentious and fractious it was — and this was within one party. These days, the contests seem to be much sharper and quite destructive. I shouldn’t be, but I’m constantly surprised at how the [Republican] Party comes together to rally behind the presumptive nominee.”
Politics in Singapore has changed as well, albeit on a less dramatic scale. In 2011, the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the country since its independence in 1965, returned to power with the lowest number of votes in its history.
Still, its grip on power remains solid — the party got 60 percent of the popular vote and garnered 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats. But the election, which featured a small but strong opposition campaign, revealed stirrings of public discontent and served as a warning shot that the conformist city-state won’t be immune to political debate.
“This election marks a distinct shift in our political landscape which all of us must adjust to,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted by the New York Times as saying following the party’s victory. “While the voters have given the P.A.P. a strong mandate, many voters, including some of those who voted for us, clearly expressed their significant concerns both on the issues and our approach to government…. We hear your voice. The P.A.P. will learn from this election and put right what is wrong.”
The party has since worked to tackle issues such as a growing disparity between rich and poor and rising tensions between native Singaporeans and the foreign workers flocking to the wealthy island.
In fact, Chan says Singapore has changed far more than has the United States during her decade and a half in Washington.
“When you read about Singapore today, it’s about the buzz, and now everybody wants to live there,” she said. “It has developed in so many directions and sectors that we now engage with the U.S. across a much more broad-based front. It’s not just defense and trade. We cooperate on educational exchanges. We learn about your biotech industry, your IT industry, we try to learn how you develop gardens and develop museums.”
There’s no question that Singapore’s success depends on a healthy global economy. Its largest trading partners in 2011 were Malaysia, the European Union and the United States, with U.S.-Singapore trade at $60.9 billion — or 7.9 percent of the total.
“Much of the growth you see in Asia is because all of us are part of a production chain to produce different parts of a product which will eventually enter the American and European markets. If demand slows down, our growth is affected,” Chan explained.
And that’s exactly what happened in 2008, when Singapore’s GDP grew by only 1.5 percent and shrank by 0.8 percent the next year. Recovery only began in 2010, and has continued, tepidly, ever since.
“The dynamism of China and India has helped the entire ASEAN region, and that to some degree has mitigated the economic downtown in Europe and the slow recovery in the U.S.,” Chan explained. “But we would be like ostriches with our heads in the sand if we believed that without a recovery in Europe or the United States we can really reach the economic highs that we enjoyed in the past.”
Besides being a major player in the maritime industry, Singapore also ranks 14th when it comes to overseas investment in the United States. Very few people know, for example, that oil rig maker Keppel AmFELS — a subsidiary of Singapore-based Keppel Offshore & Marine — is the largest employer in Brownsville, Texas. Or that Mobile Aerospace Engineering, a unit of Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd., employs 1,500 people in Mobile, Ala.
All told, Singapore has invested a cumulative $20.6 billion in the United States, while U.S. investment in Singapore has crossed the $100 billion mark and generated $17 billion in profits last year.
In 2003, the two countries signed a free trade agreement, the first FTA between the United States and any Southeast Asian country. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama visited Singapore as presidents; Bill Clinton did not.
“Singapore is a city-state and a nation-state. The country punches above its weight,” Chan said proudly. “I have countries’ ambassadors coming to see me as if we were a middle power, which we are definitely not.”
We asked Chan what was the defining moment during her long ambassadorship. She replied that although Hurricane Katrina left a deep impression on her, “9/11 had a lasting effect, because the whole way of access to the U.S. changed. Airport security has become so much a part of our lives.”
She said that even as diplomats, she and her fellow ambassadors were frequently deemed “SSS,” which means “selected for special screening” at airports.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Singapore built the Changi Naval Base to fit the dimensions of U.S. aircraft carriers. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) also sent a handful of engineers and dentists to Afghanistan’s Bamyan Province — because that’s what the provincial governor specifically asked for. SAF deployments peaked in 2010, with about 100 personnel taking part in various weaponry, medical and other specialized teams.
Overall, said Chan, Singapore’s security and defense relationship with the United States has improved significantly over the years.
“In 1992, Singapore signed a memo of understanding to allow the U.S. to access our facilities,” she said. “But Singapore had already been arguing for a U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region to remain after the Vietnam War. We put our money where our mouth is by offering these facilities to the United States. And when George W. Bush decided to go into Iraq, Singapore was one of the members of the Coalition of the Willing. Our position then was that if the U.S. decided to go into Iraq, it had to win.
“More recently, she said, “we have deepened our defense cooperation by signing the Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005, expanding it to cover new issues like intelligence exchange and how to deal with terrorism. We are likely to receive the littoral combat ships in Singapore next year.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in fact, used his stop in Singapore last month to unveil the administration’s plan for “pivoting” U.S. military forces toward the Asia-Pacific. “Make no mistake,” he said, “in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region” — a rebalancing that nations such as Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines have welcomed as a hedge against Chinese dominion over critical but disputed economic arteries such as the South China Sea.
So are there any issues where Singapore and the United States don’t see eye to eye?
Yes, Chan told us without hesitation. “Singapore does not support unilateral sanctions against Iran. It’s a philosophical principle; we believe in constructive engagement, not isolation.”
Likewise, Chan’s government has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Nor has Singapore — a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — ever supported sanctions against Myanmar, formerly Burma.
“I’ve had to keep explaining to my American friends that Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. To be absolutely honest, U.S. sanctions were not that effective because China and India were there also. China opened the front door and India opened the side door,” she said. The ambassador suggested that once all economic penalties against Myanmar disappear, “the entire region will benefit” — especially Thailand, Singapore and India.
Chan attributed divergent views on human rights and democracy in Singapore and the United States to “different nuancing” between the two countries.
“In the U.S., freedom of speech is first on your Bill of Rights. In Singapore, it’s fourth or fifth. Singaporeans would instead emphasize the right to a job, the right to a good education, the right to a home. Personal freedom would be number four. By and large, Singaporeans value the personal freedom to move in and out of the country and travel where you want, but it’s not our top priority.”
That’s not to say dissension doesn’t exist in Singapore. The country has again attracted attention for someone disobeying its strict anti-vandalism laws. A young female artist dubbed the “Sticker Lady” has rallied support and even inspired copycats after being arrested for reportedly plastering stickers on traffic signals, which she defends as a form of street art. The incident has renewed a debate on freedom of speech and artistic license in the tightly regulated, some say highly restrictive society.
Back in Washington, Chan certainly never restricted the conversation, welcoming the free flow of debate. During her time as ambassador, she became famous for her salon dinners, which usually attracted 15 or 20 people and were a weekly occurrence.
“I try to bring together a group of people and have a very good conversation around the table on issues of the day — whether it’s about politics, security or what’s happening in the eurozone,” she said. “I find Washington stimulating and rewarding because of the discussions and conferences of think tanks, and I count many journalists among my friends. They ask good questions and are so well informed.”
Chan said she’s also interacted regularly with the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Asia Society, the Nixon Center, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
These think tanks, she said, run the gamut from very liberal to very conservative, “and some try to be centrist with bipartisan participation. So it’s important for any diplomat coming to Washington to understand the spectrum of views.”
So, what advice does Chan have for Singapore’s soon-to-be Ambassador Mirpuri?
“Engage with everybody. You must have high energy and engage at all levels. Step back and enjoy yourself as well,” she counseled. “There’s much to enjoy in Washington and in the United States. One of the joys of being an ambassador here is the fact that you can also visit all the states, though I did not make it an ambition to visit all 50.”
Chan did travel to 42 of them, though she never made it to Nebraska, Oregon or the Dakotas. Among her favorite places: New York, Boston, San Antonio, New Mexico, Arizona, “and the West Coast as you drive from San Francisco to San Diego.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.