Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at Book Launch of “World in Transition” by Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, 9 March 2021, 6pm

10 March 2021

1. Thank you Janadas, Professor Chan Heng Chee, Friends. We are here to launch a book based on the three lectures that Heng Chee has given, as part of the S R Nathan Fellowship. 

2. As I look around the room, I think for most of us here the late President SR Nathan was a key figure in our lives, in our careers, in our personal lives. By his sheer presence, his inspiration, and as a role model. I recall my father always speaking admiringly of his childhood friend, a few years older than him, and whom he looked up to, who had done so well and done so much for Singapore. Personally, he was also one of the few people I consulted before entering politics two decades ago. I cannot reveal the content of that conversation, but I will tell you that it made a difference. 

3. Mr S R Nathan was always a realist. He looked at the world with unvarnished eyes and looked at it, and our position in it, critically. He was always looking for how we could do better, and survive and thrive despite a sometimes bleak and cruel world. And he was always trying – at least as far as I could observe, which was the latter part of his career – to inspire and teach, and get the next generation to do better than the founding generation.

4. On all these three counts – of being critical, of being optimistic and hoping for a better future, and of trying to inspire the next generation – I cannot think of anyone who is a better exemplar of these three qualities than Professor Chan Heng Chee herself. She has spent a lifetime both in academic pursuit – public life, political science – but also beyond the academic towers in practice, as our representative to the United Nations and to the United States. Even now she is still our Ambassador-at-Large, and I think you are still serving as Chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and I am sure there are a host of other additions that you have taken on.

5. Professor Chan has one of those CVs where, if you just picked any appointment or any achievement at random, any single one of those achievements would be a career highlight for most normal people.  I know you are too modest to admit that, but it just shows a lifetime of service and achievement. 

6. I think the secret to how you have done all this is the fact of your abiding curiosity. This desire to keep exploring and learning is why you have been such a distinguished diplomat and luminous public intellectual in Singapore and beyond our shores. I believe a diplomat’s success is predicated on this desire to keep learning and keep exploring. You have to be truly and passionately interested in the world and in the people you meet. If you are just going through the motions, you will never make it. 

7. We know that Professor Chan’s primary field was supposed to be political science and diplomacy, but at the same time, if you have been keeping track of what she is doing now, she has exploring sustainable development, innovative cities, urban planning. We have even had conversations about digital technologies and the ethics of artificial intelligence. All this just illustrates her deep curiosity about the human condition, human society and the fact that she has eclectic interests in arts, science, culture, history. 

8. Your formidable intellectual powers are complemented obviously by your vivacious, effervescent, and absolutely charming personality. And you have to admit, Janadas, that combination has made her extremely potent and extremely effective. It explains her effectiveness as a diplomat. It also explains her innumerable friendships within and without Singapore. There is no shortage of senior people who will tell you fondly of their long relationships and their abiding respect for Ambassador Chan. The fact that she is willing to pick up the phone, take a question, provide her views and advice.  You are probably one of the few Ambassadors who, on leaving Washington, gets former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to make a speech in your honour. This rich well of experience I believe has been the fount on which you have delivered these three lectures, and now is the subject of your book.  

9. I read through these lectures to reflect for myself. You have explored the way technology is disrupting the way we live, work, play, learn, interact, and you have made the observation – which I agree with – that in fact this disruption caused by technology is the longer term and more profound trend. COVID-19 is a kind of catalyst, an accelerator, and not necessarily the primary driving force itself. The lectures also touch on topics including your hypothesis that democracy has faltered, but will survive; that capitalism has floundered, but has also highlighted a need to think more profoundly about society and the society that we want to create out of this new future. 

10. You have reminded us that we are no longer in a unipolar world and are perhaps moving towards a world order of “two and a half poles”. I will leave you to describe how the other half pole comes about. You have laid out the key security flashpoints between the US and China. You have also highlighted the rise of techno-nationalism, which we can see has clearly played out over the last few years, and the need for a global discussion on common standards – and my own personal belief on open standards and open data. And of course, the need for Singapore to find our niche, define our role, achieve relevance and the ability to stick together to implement policies and – I suppose this comes back to your political science background – your constant reminder to the government to do things with “a human heart and human touch”. 

11. So your advice, as always, is spot on. I can assure you that there are many people, beyond those watching on YouTube or those who will read the book, for whom your ideas will provide fertile seeds that will change minds, change attitudes, and help us make sense of the world that we are in. On that note let me say again, congratulations for all that you have done. Congratulations for this book, and thank you for your leadership, your inspiration, and for being a role model to all of us.  

12. Thank you. 

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