One of singapore’s highly regarded diplomats, Chan Heng Chee’s 16‑year tenure as Singapore’s top representative in Washington began at a time when US-Singapore relations were fraught with tension because of the caning of American teen Michael Fay for vandalism in 1994. Chan was then East Asia’s first female ambassador to the US. Nonetheless, bilateral ties between the two countries flourished in areas including trade, defence and security with the signing of the landmark US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in 2003 and the Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005.
Going back to the 1960s, Chan had already achieved another unprecedented feat—she was the first woman to graduate with first-class honours in her political science course at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Before taking on her current role as an ambassador-at-large in Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012, the revered diplomat and academic was the founding director of the NUS Institute of Policy Studies and helmed the university’s department of political science. She weighs in on the future of Singapore’s politics.
What are the challenges that lie ahead for us as a nation, in terms of renewing Singapore’s political leadership?
Chan Heng Chee The challenge is to get enough intelligent and politically talented men and women who will enter politics to face an electorate that is more demanding and articulate, and to come up with the right policies to deal with an unpredictable and disruption-beset world. But Singaporeans do love Singapore, and the wave of support that followed the passing of our first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew demonstrated that fully. I expect the few good men and women will always stand up to be counted and enter the political fray because they believe it is important for the continued prosperity and security of the country. Singaporeans, too, understand that when they enter politics, it would require them to make sacrifices and give up their privacy. However, they also know the good they can do for the people and the country, and the satisfaction they will get.
How can Singapore further embrace our multicultural diversity and at the same time, deepen our common identity as Singaporeans?
Chan We should go beyond what we know to understand other cultures and religions, and we will learn empathy. We can also make an effort to enlarge our social circle to include other ethnic groups and religions if we do not already do that, and have our schools teach more about multiculturalism in our academic texts by delivering more in-depth knowledge. What sets Singapore apart from other countries such as Hong Kong or a Chinese-dominated city is our racial and ethnic diversity, and the fact that we embrace this as part of our local identity.
Given the attraction of global cities and international jobs, how can Singapore be an equally attractive city for Singaporeans in the future?
Chan Singapore is home; it is where our family is. It is an attractive city to work and live in as it is, and foreigners here see that. HSBC’s recent Expat Explorer survey reported that expatriates in 190 countries found Singapore to be the best place to work and live for the second year running. This must say something about the liveability of Singapore.
It is natural to think that the grass is greener on the other side. But speaking as someone who has lived overseas for a long time, Singapore compares very favourably. We have great job opportunities. We may not have the variety of the bigger cities such as London or New York, but it is up to our own enterprise and entrepreneurship to create jobs that suit us and the way we choose to live.
You have made your mark as a leader in the male-dominated fields of political science and diplomacy. What do you think is needed to boost female representation in politics and diplomacy?
Chan More women need be interested in entering politics and diplomacy. We also need to change the mindset of Singaporean men. It is a shame that so few members are invited to join the boards of companies. Many belong to the C-suite, but few are elected onto boards. And it is usually the same few women who get appointed.
The government shines in providing for the practical needs of our population. What then are the intangible areas of Singaporean life that the government could look further into?
Chan Perhaps, it is a question that Singaporeans could ask themselves. For the development of our inner self as well as the spiritual and aesthetic parts of us, it must be a personal journey. The government has built parks and gardens, concert hall facilities, museums, small theatres and great universities. People must then enjoy the facilities and spaces, and use them to our advantage. We can go to a park, for instance, but we could be taking photographs, or be meditating, or just enjoying family time. Alternatively, we can go to a play, a concert or the museum to let art stimulate our creativity.
Illustration: Yohei Yamaguchi. Images: 123RF.