Speech by Minister of Trade and Industry George Yeo at the National Press Club in Washington DC on 30 April 2003
A MESSAGE OF HOPE IN TRADE LIBERALIZATION
1. Early next week, President George Bush and PM Goh Chok Tong will be signing the USSFTA at the White House. Although Singapore is a city-state, it is the 11th largest trading partner of the US, with bilateral trade amounting to over US$34 billion a year.
2. The USSFTA is an advanced FTA, comprehensive in scope, which places special emphasis on high tech concerns like the protection of intellectual property and the rules of e-commerce. Singapore is already a home to 1,300 US companies. The FTA will make Singapore even more important to US companies for financial services, the biomedical sciences, software, R&D and entertainment, in addition to traditional areas like HQ services, manufacturing and logistics.
3. This afternoon, I would like to talk about the wider significance of the FTA. The USSFTA will be the first US FTA with an Asian country. It signals US intention to be a long-term player in Asia which is a region which some believe will become more important to the US than Europe. Everyone is aware of Northeast Asia's importance to the US, not least, over the problem of North Korea. But Southeast Asia is also of great strategic importance because of its size and its location astride some of the world's most important sea lanes. It is also home to one-fifth of the world's Muslim population. It is important that they see in globalization and freer trade a message of hope for themselves and their beliefs. Following the USSFTA, other countries in Southeast Asia are now interested in stronger economic links with the US. When President Bush announced at the APEC Leaders' Meeting in Los Cabos last year, his proposal for an Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative was warmly received. This US Initiative envisages a network of bilateral FTAs with ASEAN countries.
4. Winning over Muslim hearts and minds is very important. The recent Iraqi War represents a historic opportunity to open a new chapter in the relationship between the US and the Muslim world. Having invested so much energy, blood and treasure on removing Saddam Hussein, it is to be expected that the US should want to set the Middle East on a different course of political and economic development. However, it is crucial to set the right level of ambition. To attempt more than what is possible will lead to disaster. For example, while we can agree that Iraqis should govern Iraq, the democratic arrangements that are made should hopefully not lead to a theocratic Shiite state and civil war. Winning the peace will be much more difficult than winning the war. But if it can be done with sensitivity to the history and culture of the people, the future will be a brighter one for all of us.
5. Already September 11, the Afghan War and the Iraqi War together have altered profoundly the internal dynamics in the Islamic world for years to come.
6. What happens in the Middle East will affect us in Southeast Asia directly. With about 180 million believers, Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country. Muslims are also in the majority in Malaysia and Brunei. Altogether, about 20% of the world's Muslims live in Southeast Asia. They are mostly Sunnis of the Shafiie tradition. Islam was first brought to Southeast Asia by Arab and Indian traders in the 13th century. It was a progressive religion which spurred trade and economic development, and brought about better hygiene. Supported by Ming China, Malacca became the first Muslim trading empire in the 15th century. From there, Islam spread to other parts of Southeast Asia becoming the majority religion in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
7. Before Sep 11, Islam as a political force was growing in importance. In secular Indonesia, the fall of Soeharto saw the re-emergence of long-suppressed Islamic groups. His successor, Habibie, deliberately cultivated this Islamic base in line with his political interests. During the special parliamentary session of October 1999, a Muslim coalition denied the front runner, Megawati, the Presidency and installed in her place a cleric, Abdurrahman Wahid. She only became President more than a year later (July 2001) as a result of corruption charges against Wahid. When Sep 11 happened, her Vice President, who is from a Muslim Party, remarked publicly that he hoped the tragedy would help the US atone for its sins. Although she dissociated herself from this startling remark, her ability to act against local terrorists at that time was conscribed. The Indonesian Army, on the defensive because of past misdeeds, would not act without a clear executive order.
8. In November that year, Singapore uncovered a network of terrorists called the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) with strong links to al Qaeda. The links extended all over the region, with the masterminds operating from Indonesia. Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines took action, arresting many of them and ferreting out the underground tentacles. But, for many months, Indonesia would not act because many of the leaders were in denial. It was only after the Bali bombing of Oct 12 last year that the Indonesian establishment was galvanized into action. Bali strengthened President Megawati's position considerably. One of the radical Islamic leaders, the emir of JI, a militant cleric by the name of Abu Bakar Bashir, was arrested and is now being tried for treason and terrorism.
9. In Malaysia, PM Mahathir seized the initiative after Sep 11 to put the opposition Islamic party on the defensive. Terrorists and would-be terrorists were arrested, including the son of the opposition leader who had trained in Afghanistan. While Mahathir has not quite succeeded in increasing Muslim support for the ruling coalition, the non-Muslims who make up one-third of the population rallied around him. Externally, Mahathir became a friend of the US, erasing to some extent memories of the Anwar case.
10. The Afghan War was generally seen to be justified in Southeast Asia because of Sep 11 and the close alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban.
11. In sharp contrast, the Iraqi War has aroused considerable anger among Southeast Asian Muslims. In Indonesia, moderate Muslim leaders led the demonstrations to prevent the extremists from taking over the crowds. The leaders of the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the two major Islamic movements, were careful to say that the war to remove Saddam Hussein, while a crime against humanity, was not an attack on Islam as such. This was a critical distinction to diffuse the charge that the US was on a crusade against Islam. President Megawati handled a tricky situation sensitively and came out stronger. In Malaysia, PM Mahathir made scathing attacks against the US and tried to rally support in the Non-Aligned Movement which Malaysia chairs and the Organisation of Islamic Countries which Malaysia would soon chair, while at the same time taking action against the Islamic opposition.
12. Thus, in different ways, Indonesian and Malaysian leaders were able to contain Muslim protest against the Iraqi War and calm things down. When the SARS epidemic struck Southeast Asia like a bolt from the blue, it quickly deflected attention away from Iraq. Two weeks ago, I visited a mosque in my district for a dialogue with Muslim leaders on the Iraqi War. The conversation quickly turned to SARS instead.
13. As a result of Sep 11, the Afghan War and the Iraqi War, the wind has been taken out of the sails of Muslim extremists. Had Saddam Hussein got away with thumbing his nose at the US, Muslim radicals in Southeast Asia would have been energized. The hand of moderate Muslim leaders has thus been strengthened. The prospect for peace and economic development in Southeast Asia has therefore improved. But the problem of terrorism will be with us for some time. Humiliated by the quick victory over Saddam Hussein in Iraq, some Muslims will join terrorism organisations like JI to take revenge. We must therefore stay vigilant and keep our guards up.
14. How the US handles the reconstruction of Iraq in the coming months and years will be very important. If a new Iraqi government which is seen to be legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis takes over, the charge that the Iraqi War was a war against Arabs or Muslims would collapse. This will help the forces of moderation and modernization in Islam. Reconstruction is thus an effort which requires the support of the international community.
15. It is crucial that the US also insists on a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. Among Muslims in Southeast Asia, this has become a touchstone of US sincerity and fairness. Even among Muslims in remote Southeast Asian villages, Palestine remains the No 1 international issue in their minds. The images they see of the West Bank and Gaza on television and in the newspapers are a daily provocation.
16. Three years ago, I met Israeli Trade Minister Ran Cohen in Davos. He said he would like to visit me in Singapore with his Palestinian counterpart, and together the three of us would hop over to an Indonesian island just south of Singapore to meet our Indonesian counterpart. At that time, President Wahid of Indonesia wanted stronger links with Israel. I agreed immediately. Israel is an old friend of Singapore having helped us to build our Armed Forces in the early days of our independence. The Israeli Minister wanted the Singapore industrial estate in Indonesia to be an example of how Israel and Palestine could work together. There was so much hope at that time. Within six months, however, the peace process unravelled and it all seemed like a summer dream.
17. But it is not a dream. A lot of good can come out of the Iraqi War if we act with wisdom and moderation. However, it is not a challenge which can be overcome in the Middle East alone. Southeast Asia is also important. The USSFTA can lead to a new relationship between the US and 250 million Muslims in Southeast Asia. If they benefit from globalization and freer trade, and see a better future for themselves and their children in modernization, it will have a significant impact on the entire Muslim world.