Embassy of the Republic of Singapore - Washington D.C.

Speech by Ambassador Chan Heng Chee as the Guest-of-Honour at the NUS Department of Political Science 50th Dinner Anniversary, Orchid Country Club, Friday, 30 March 2012

The Uses and Limits of Political Science

Good evening,


            Thank you for inviting me to join the 50th Anniversary Gala of the Department of Political Science.  It has been a while since I connected with the Department and I welcome this opportunity.



2.         I spent some time thinking about what I would say this evening.  Should I give the standard review of Singapore-US Relations  which ambassadors are expected to do, or should I speak on something broader and sweeping like "Democracy, Globalisation and Competitiveness:  the Singapore Experience"?  Incidentally, that was the title of the talk I gave to the Yale Law students a couple of weeks ago in New Haven.  It was useful as I could add my take on the controversy some Yale Faculty members kicked up on the Yale-NUS liberal arts college project.  I decided it would be more appropriate on the 50th Anniversary to say something personal and link it to the general, so that it will have more meaning for this occasion. After all, I was among the first graduates of the Political Science Department and taught there for many years.  It is amazing to me that I stand here before you as the institutional memory of the Department for its first 30 years.



3.         I entered the University in 1961 and was among the first intake of political science students. We were not a big class. Approximately 40 students or so.  It was a new department. There were all of two professors -- Professor RS Milne and Dr KJ Ratnam.  More teaching staff joined later.  In colonial Singapore, Law and Political Science were the last disciplines to be established in the university, as the British authorities feared they would generate anti-colonial thinking.  Law was established before Political Science.



4.         Why would anyone in those days study Political Science?  What were the job prospects?  Why did I choose to study Political Science? We were not particularly politicised coming from the English schools. I had heard of David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, even as a schoolgirl as I had an uncle who contested in the 1955 Singapore elections. I was vaguely aware there were riots associated with bus strikes and there were some problems with the Chinese schools. Much later when I studied the history of Singapore, I learned of the Hock Lee bus strikes and the sit-ins in the Chinese schools stirred by the communist front.   After my 'A' levels while waiting to start University, I  did a stint as a newspaper stringer, in the Singapore Free Press,  I was paid 63 and a half cents per sq inch column if I got published, and at the same time held a part-time job with Vietnam Press working for a Vietnamese correspondent, Tony Troung.  Every morning he would tick off news items from the major newpapers, I would summarize the reports and he cabled them back to Saigon.  You can say hanging out with journalists got me interested in politics.  But when I signed up for the course, my parents who were ordinary middle-class dialect speaking folk, asked me if I would go to jail if I studied political science! I brushed aside their concern.  Singapore was not yet independent. We were semi-autonomous, but we had a fully-elected assembly. The PAP was elected to power in 1959.



5.         The establishment of the Department coincided with an exciting and tumultuous period in our political history. Outside the Bukit Timah campus the big questions of Singapore's political future were debated -- the creation of a national culture,  the  split within the PAP resulting in the breakaway of the left wing and formation of the Barisan Sosalis, and  merger with Malaya. Some of the political discussions filtered to the campus in talks and an occasional forum.  But we studied in relative peace and quiet. The politics outside in the city did not touch us as students in class. The education I received was a broad and good one. Introduction to Politics: a study of political concepts -- power, the bases of power, sources of power, types of power, Political Thought, Comparative Politics, a study of different governments, and the beginning of the study of the politics in developing areas, identified as different from the politics of the developed world. Particular attention was paid to the politics of communalism, as it was about Malaya and ultimately important for Singapore as we saw ourselves then as merging with Malaya one day.  There was International Relations of course and Public Administration. It is hazy now. We were given a list of Great Books by RS Milne every year, which I only read later as a graduate student and an academic, but it was important that as students we were given such a list. The names of the titles and the authors stuck with me. I knew these were the books I should aspire to read. These were the books with the big ideas. They were insights into understanding society and the world and action around us. In our list then was clearly Plato's Republic, Machiavelli's The Prince, Fredrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, among others.  Today in the Great Books list one would include Malcolm Gladwell's, The Tipping Point and Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan.



6.         On August 9 1965, the fateful day when Singapore was separated from Malaysia, I was at the airport taking a flight to Cornell University in the United States to pursue graduate studies. RS Milne recommended I go to Cornell for its program on Southeast Asian Studies as it was the best. He thought it was important that the first graduate in Political Science should return to strengthen the department in teaching and understanding the politics of the region around us.  It was in Cornell that my real feel for Singapore politics began.  I wrote my MA thesis on" Singapore: The Politics of Survival" which dealt with the immediate post separation period and the politics between Singapore and Malaysia. I read the Straits Times in the Wason Library and microfilm and every publication I could lay my hands on.  I was totally in tune with what was happening in Singapore and the political discourse of the day.  I was not bonded by my scholarship from Cornell, but there was no doubt in my mind I would return to Singapore.  My generation was lucky. We had a sense of mission. It was very natural for us to return home after we graduated.



7.         After Cornell I joined the Political Science Department as the first Singaporean on the staff. The department was collegial and stimulating. As the only woman staff member I must say I never felt any gender bias. The men were gallant but gave no quarter in argument.  I felt only strong support.  It was the most critical time for the University's development, the significance which I only understood much later as I matured as an academic and teacher.  There was the undercurrent of decolonisation of the University, putting locals in charge, but still welcoming foreign academics, Western academics, but the University began to employ more Asian academics. There was the debate over "relevance" and to what extent the University should serve and contribute to the national objective or retain the right to be an ivory tower. This was the tussle over how much "university autonomy." It was part of the inevitable process of change of new countries starting on the road to nationhood. There was the "Asian values" debate and whether there was such a thing as "Asian democracy." Some of us in the Arts and Social Science Faculty even explored the question whether there was such a thing as Asian social science.    I think in the end we concluded there was not. All our analytical concepts were taken from Western social science. Our rationale and intellectual construct was a Western social science one. But we had a genuine desire to find a framework/s, insights and judgments that were more rooted in our context to understand our own development better. This sentiment was shared in all the newly independent countries.



8.         So how did political science help me in my career and what were the uses of political science in what I do?



9.         In my case it was obvious.  I joined the political science department and immediately put to use what I learned, teaching and passing it on to others. But I believe political science because of the nature of the subject, provides a frame of reference or frames of reference for the graduate to understand the world around him/her. For instance the entire study of political development, of state building and nation building, national identity, was immediately useful to me as a starting point to understand what the government leaders were doing when I returned to Singapore in 1967.  It was a laboratory situation. I think Gabriel Almond and Bingham Powell and their generation of political scientists would have had a field day if they had come to visit.  If I were to teach the course on political development today I would add another book to the reading list on nation- building and that is Lee Kuan Yew's From Third World to First.  In his first four or five chapters of the book he practically gives you a blueprint on how to build a nation, from a practitioner's point of view.  It is one way of doing it. What is important is that he tells you very frankly and precisely: I was faced with this situation, I had to make the economy work, these are the facts, I had these choices and I chose x for the following reasons.  I needed to build an army, I had these choices, I chose y and these are the reasons why. And it goes on. The World Bank in Washington is fascinated by the book and copies have been given to any developing countries who want to understand how Singapore works and if they can do a Singapore. Political Science is useful.  But one should recognise that nations at birth do not come with a clean slate. There is history, tradition, endowments or lack of, and external pressures that must be dealt with and the political road forward is not an easy one.  Political scientists recognise this as the political economy of change and a whole field of study centers on this.



10.       But it was not until I became a diplomat that I found I had to marry political science with operational requirements and that was when I really appreciated the uses of political science and also the limits.



11.       I served a PR at the UN from 1989 to 1991 and was appointed Ambassador to the United States in July 1996.  After two years at the UN and almost 16 years in Washington as a practitioner, let me tell you what I learned.


(i)         My training and experience as a political scientist was excellent preparation for my job.  I had some idea of the structure of the UN and when I went to Washington, of the political system of the United States. At the UN I had some knowledge of the international issues on the radar screen, for instance, the Cambodian issue which was the big issue for us, the end of the Cold War and the beginning of co-operation between the P5 members which had eluded the Security Council since the UN was established.   But that familiarity with the issues was only buying the ticket to gain entry.


(ii)        The analytical ability one takes for granted comes in very handy in our work where you have to write political reports and explain what is happening on the ground.  This ability is informed by theory. But I discovered some of the analyses and ideas I read had to be discarded or modified. They seemed ivory towerish once I hit ground.  Sometimes the writings were simply wrong.  And it happened often in the analysis and speculation about what happened in certain events or why nations acted the way they did in a particular episode. One finds in reality, in the real affairs of state it did not happen like that.   Let me give you one example of where theory does not really fit the reality. I was asked to write a chapter for a book on American Negotiating Style by USIP, a bipartisan Congress supported think- tank in Washington. Thinking over my experience with American negotiators coming out of the USSFTA negotiations and from the Strategic Framework Agreement negotiations, I told the meeting brainstorming this topic that Americans don't really negotiate, and they don't know how to negotiate. The negotiators just keep on repeating what they are proposing in the hope that the other side will see the light and accept the offer. Americans also believe what they have to offer is right and best for everyone's interests all round. Americans negotiate 80% of the time among themselves, in interagency discussions, and about 20% with the foreign party. After I made this observation several foreign diplomats who had been in negotiations with the United States nodded their heads in agreement. USIP thought it was an interesting observation and their book played on this theme quite a bit.


(iii)       What political science does not teach is the importance of personal relationships in diplomacy and the importance of the individual in history, and that people skills are crucial in our work.  Frankly I think personal relationships and people skills are important not just for diplomacy but every other job as well.  You have to engage people, talk to them and you have to make yourself interesting, otherwise why would anyone want to engage with you. The role of networking has been underrated. Increasingly we are a networked world.  It applies to relationships too. Building networks is the new game internationally and even nationally, and we have to be adept at it. Singapore has thrived on connectivity.  Human networks is connectivity.


(iv)       Political Science also does not describe diplomacy as entrepreneurship or taking initiatives. A diplomat especially an ambassador is above all an entrepreneur. She makes things happen where otherwise it will not happen. You have to be creative and think up projects and implement them.  That makes for an effective diplomat. And in real life apart from the analysis, you have to deliver the outcomes or to seal a deal.


(v)        We can talk of national interests influencing policy, but two people working together or negotiating, rather than take opposing sides can work to get a win-win solution. I have told younger diplomats in my Mission that they must learn not only to work with people who agree with us, but also people they don't. They are different games obviously. I am always struck by how Americans are able to sound friendly and agreeable but at the same time end up saying "no". You should never enter a meeting with body language that gives away your position.



12.         I would like to conclude with a few remarks on the role of technology in the practice of politics and diplomacy. Five years ago none of us could have predicted the power of new media and social media and its impact on politics today.  We have read of the impact of social media on the Arab Spring and we have seen an active social media following in the politics of Singapore, especially in the last GE of 2011. Politicians have to deal with social media and harness it for their use and projection. It is a source of knowledge, a means of communication and of mobilisation. As diplomats we find information has exploded exponentially with the arrival of new media and social media. In Washington a question I'm asked in policy circles quite frequently is "What do you follow online?" They assess how savvy you are and your political position to what you log onto. Our problem is to follow the best websites and make out which blogs are more reliable. And we must read different political positions. As diplomats we have to use social media smartly to connect with our contacts and the larger American public. We use it to reach Singaporeans in the United States and abroad and also Singaporeans at home through Twitter and Facebook. Embassies see this as competing for mindshare and building outreach and influence. Some writers have tried to tackle this new topic discussing the consequences of social media, but they are just beginning.



I should now end where I started.  It is good to be back with the Department. Many of you are here to recall old days. It is 50 years now and may the next 50 years continue to produce good thinkers, citizens and leaders for our society.


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