Singapore’s Prime Minister Looks Ahead Two Decades

By Shlomo  Maital

Lee Hsien Loong

   After many visits to Singapore, I’ve come to appreciate the highly intelligent, competent political leadership, and capable civil service, this small nation enjoys.  (And, by the way — good-looking!)….

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of founding leader Lee Kwan Yew, is a Harvard graduate and highly articulate.  Recently, he delivered an address, “Scenarios for Asia in the next 20 years”;  here is a summary. 

   “Since the end of the Cold War, Asia’s strategic weight in international affairs has grown. It is home to more than half of the world’s population, and its share of global GDP has risen from one fifth to one third.   This morning I will talk about both the clear trends and the critical uncertainties in Asia over the next 20 years. The key players will still be the US, China and Japan.

    “Let me begin with the US. Today it is the dominant global power. In the Asia-Pacific, US power and influence have underpinned regional security and stability since the Second World War, and enabled all countries to prosper. The US has been a benign and constructive power, which explains why it is still welcomed by countries in the region. The Obama administration’s “rebalancing” towards Asia reflects the American strategic view, that the US has been and always will be a Pacific power. Unfortunately, the strains of being the global policeman have taken their toll on the US. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US more than 50,000 soldiers killed or wounded .  The American people are naturally war weary. They are reluctant to engage in new fights or take on fresh burdens, whether in Syria, Ukraine or Asia. Its adversaries sense this, and harbor hopes that the US has lost the will to advance its interests and defend its “red lines”.                  

  “I believe that in 20 years’ time, the US will remain the world’s pre-eminent superpower. China’s GDP will probably exceed America’s in absolute terms, but not in per capita terms. The US will still be the world’s most advanced economy, leading the way in innovation, technology and talent. I expect the Fortune 500 global list to include many new American companies which do not yet exist today, just as neither Google nor Facebook existed 20 years ago. Shale gas will enhance the competitiveness of US industries, and could also be an additional tool of American diplomacy. The US armed forces will still be the most formidable and technologically-advanced in the world.”

     “There are two key uncertainties … The first is how soon Americans get over the current mood of angst and withdrawal, and regain the confidence and will to advance American interests around the world. The second is when the US can get its politics to work. Politicians on both sides need to come together to overcome the present gridlock and forge a consensus on the way forward, rather than be mired in partisanship and fundamental disagreement.”

      Lee’s key point: The U.S. must continue its role as the world’s superpower/babysitter/democracy advocate.  If it turns insular and fails in this role, the world will be a mess.  To succeed in this role, America must regain its self-confidence, and fix its gridlocked political system.

     Keep in mind – Singapore is tightly linked to America, economically and politically, and has enormous interests in America continuing to play a key role in Asia.  So part of PM Lee’s speech is wishful thinking, and part is analysis.  Let’s hope his optimism is based on analysis, not just hope. 

   Today is Memorial Day in America.  In a memorial ceremony, the names of some 50,000 American casualties since 9/11 are being read.  Years ago, the names of the 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam were read; it took three whole days non-stop.   If America is tired of policing the world, one can understand.  It matters for all of us, and our children and grandchildren, whether America will have the energy and spirit to continue to act for the world’s interests, not just America’s – and whether America will have the wisdom to intervene wisely,  much more wisely than its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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