Lesson from a lady
Belittling Aung San’s struggle for economic interests nearly
messed up Singapore’s standing with the new Burma. By Seah Chiang Nee
Oct 5, 2013
(Synopsis: The slight probably caused her to turn away
from the Republic’s materialistic approach to life.)
IN my long working years I have gotten used to our
reporters asking departing dignitaries what they thought of Singapore,
expecting some lavish praises.
Generally, they would not be disappointed since most
guests – however unimpressed they are – would not want to appear impolite
towards their hosts.
Their kind comments, whether deserved or not, made great
headlines in a compliant press.
In her first ever visit here, Burma’s opposition leader
Aung San Suu Kyi was a refreshing exception and by doing so, taught Singapore’s
leaders a valuable lesson.
Although she carefully observed diplomatic niceties, the
revered Nobel Peace laureate was frank about what she liked and disliked about
During her final press conference, she was asked the
familiar question of what she saw in Singapore that she might like to recreate
She replied, “I don’t think ‘recreate’ is the word,
If the host had hoped that she would cite Singapore as a
role model, they were disappointed.
Her country, she said, would not want copy the city’s
materialistic and high pressure living that had come with its affluence.
Her comments actually reflected a public complaint here
that the government accords higher priority to Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
rather than the people’s welfare.
A recent survey found that most citizens would accept a
slower growth rate in exchange for a more relaxed lifestyle.
Some want a United Nations-type Happiness Index, not just
GDP, to measure progress.
Upon being briefed that Singapore’s education system was
“workforce-oriented”, Suu Kyi, 68, said: “That made me think, what is work all
about? What are human beings for? What are human lives about?”
Despite that reservation, her visit has affirmed Burma’s
close ties with Singapore as it seeks investments and technocratic expertise.
Although she was merely an opposition leader, Suu Kyi was
greeted as though she were a national leader.
She met the whole Singaporean leadership – Prime Minister
Lee Hsien Loong, President Tony Tan and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
This may be due more than just Singapore’s charm
Years before Burma’s political changes came about, the
republic had been sucking up to the military leaders even though they were
suppressing her movements – principally for economic reasons.
They are now making up to the opposition.
Since time immemorial, foreign policy here has always
been an extension of international trade and investment.
Founding leader Lee Kuan Yew once said: “We will trade
even with the devil for our survival.”
Like many governments, the leaders here failed to
correctly read the determination and prospect of Suu Kyi and her people’s
revolution against the powerful military.
Singapore’s older leaders, who were ideologically of a
different mould from Suu Kyi, had made remarks about her that they would
probably rather not have made with hindsight.
Goh Chok Tong, for example, had said that Suu Kyi could
not provide a solution to Myanmar’s problems because she was part of the
And former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once said it was
better for her to stay at home than to interfere in politics.
“There is only one instrument of government and that is
the army ... If I were Aung San Suu Kyi, I think I’d rather be behind a fence
and be a symbol than after two or three years, be found impotent,” he added.
To his credit, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien
Loong, adopted a different attitude.
Instead of running down the lady’s capability, he threw
his support behind her declared candidacy for president in the 2015 election.
Suu Kyi will be a “capable” president if she gets
elected, Hsien Loong said, and Singapore will be there to help Myanmar
economically if the need arises.
That provided the salvation point to Singapore’s future
friendly ties with her if she gains the leadership.
The foreign policy of Singapore, being a small country,
has generally been to avoid getting caught between two big conflicting forces.
Traditionally foreign policy here had always been
circumspective in dealing with or supporting the incumbent - but carefully
keeping the door open to its rival, just in case.
When Lee Kuan Yew paid official visits to America or
Britain, for example, he made it a point to call on the opposition leader.
In the former Burma this was, of course, not possible.
Few visitors would be allowed by the generals to meet Aung San during the
height of frictions.
Staying away from her was understandable, but there was
no need to make any discouraging comments about her struggle.
For Singapore to have stayed neutral, it was understandable.
But for Singaporean leaders to criticise Aung San – when her movement was
popular – at a time when she when she was weak was unnecessary!
Suu Kyi’s diplomatic weaving around the past slights here
last week was a good lesson for Singaporeans.
None of this, however, has affected the gathering
business momentum between the two countries.
Singapore is Burma’s third-largest trading partner,
with trade reaching S$1.8bil last year.
An increasing number of Singaporeans are flocking to the
nation of 60 million people to invest or trade.
Suu Kyi’s visit here has shown her to be an extraordinary
Her departing words shook Singaporeans who had been led
to believe in the superiority of the Singaporean development model for less
“I think we have much to offer you, come and find out,”
Suu Kyi said.
“Perhaps Singapore could learn from us on how to have a
more relaxed way of life.”
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