Home >opinion >Singapore: The middleman of global diplomacy

When it became clear that US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un would meet, the choice of the venue seemed self-evident. It had to be in the region, in a place that could be relied upon to have excellent infrastructure, and which would be neutral. The South-East Asian island-republic of Singapore was the obvious candidate. 

Singapore has long punched above its weight as a critical intermediary in international affairs. Its long-serving late prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, understood the limits that size imposed on his island and realized that in a world where nobody owed anybody a living, Singapore would have to identify a role for itself which would make it useful—no, crucial—in a global economy, so that Singapore would remain relevant and not face any existential threat. 

Threats of survival were not fantasies: Indonesia had taken over East Timor after the Portuguese left, delaying its independence by a quarter-century. Singapore invested vast amounts in its defence forces to send a clear message that it could not be taken for granted. Neither Malaysia, from which Singapore separated in 1965, nor Indonesia, from whose Riau islands you can see Singapore, should think of taking any risks—such was Singaporean thinking. It is called the “poisoned shrimp" defence—if you swallow us, it would be very painful.

Singapore aimed to be, and succeeded in becoming, the critical middleman—the one who adds value while extracting some value from the transaction for its own prosperity. Being a successful middleman is not easy. A middleman who merely adds costs is not useful and can be discarded. 

For the Trump-Kim summit, the middleman had to offer space for dialogue, create conditions for conversations, and step aside discreetly, knowing when he is wanted, and, more important, when to disappear. Earn trust, offer security—that was the expected role, and Singapore ticked all the boxes.

Geneva has turned this into an art. The pristine Swiss city, with its breathtaking beauty of the Alps and the placid lake mirroring the peaks, offers just the kind of calm ambience where the bitterest military foes can put aside their differences and hatred momentarily and work towards peace. 

Singapore has long modelled itself on Switzerland. In the 1990s, when I lived there, Singapore’s leaders frequently talked of emulating the Swiss standard of living. In terms of per capita income (measured by purchasing power parity), by early 1994, Singapore had overtaken Switzerland. So it was Singapore, and within Singapore, the island of Sentosa, where Trump and Kim met. Sentosa has a golf course, a marina, and an amusement park so G-rated that even Disneyland might seem risqué in comparison. And yet, it offers seclusion. 

Sentosa also has history, and some of it embarrassing. British guns, intending to ward off a naval attack from Japan (which came from the Malay peninsula instead) were stationed there. And Chia Thye Poh, a self-described socialist who had been imprisoned for 23 years without charge, was released in 1989 but confined to the island for years before he was allowed to travel abroad in the late 1990s. 

Middleman it certainly became, but Singapore’s role was limited to that of the innkeeper, not the mediator, or an arbitrator. It provided space for Trump and Kim to live out their fantasies—Kim, to brag to his people how he brought the mighty Americans to Asia to negotiate; Trump, to eye the Nobel prize. It would be a travesty if he gets it, but as Tom Lehrer put it: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." And Singapore? It burnishes its brand abroad, and at home, reminds everyone about the crucial role it plays as a middleman in global diplomacy. 

Online commentary in Singapore echoes the enthusiasm, as if on cue: that this was Singapore’s moment in the sun, a matter of great pride. More critical voices pointed out that Singapore’s role was rather minimal, unlike the Swiss, Finn, and Norwegian diplomats, who play a more active role in bringing warring parties together. 

What Singapore also offered—and other glitzy Asian cities could not—was the absence of political protests. Singapore has strict laws that restrict public demonstrations, even if they are peaceful, and there are limits to what people can say at public gatherings, which in any case require permits, and those aren’t easy to get. And Singapore implements those laws earnestly and often prosecutes protesters who question its domestic policies, such as the death penalty. 

Kim only knows of stage-managed parades, and Trump would like nothing more than similar synchronized, contrived demonstration of power on the Washington Mall. Both wanted a frictionless summit with plenty of photo opportunities under clear skies on a warm sunny day, regardless of substance. Commentators who have analysed the communiqué have pointed out exactly that: Progress in negotiating the positions of the two countries has been minuscule; denuclearization is to apply to the entire Korean Peninsula, which may have implications for the “nuclear umbrella" which the US provides South Korea; and the annual war games involving South Korean and American troops are to end, which is a significant coup for Kim.

Where else but in Sentosa, Singapore’s fantasy island for pleasure, the amusement park within what William Gibson once called “Disneyland with the Death Penalty", would such a summit, so devoid of substance and yet so vivid in imagery, take place?

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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