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The Big Read: Forget dollars and cents. Hosting Trump-Kim summit’s real value is in affirming S’pore’s place in the world

SINGAPORE — It was a surreal moment on Tuesday morning (June 12) when United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shook hands in front of a global audience, heralding a remarkable thaw in ties between two of the world's fiercest adversaries.

Singapore’s role in the historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is testament to its value to the international order and the effectiveness of its foreign policy, said analysts.

Singapore’s role in the historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is testament to its value to the international order and the effectiveness of its foreign policy, said analysts.

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SINGAPORE — It was a surreal moment on Tuesday morning (June 12) when United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shook hands in front of a global audience, heralding a remarkable thaw in ties between two of the world's fiercest adversaries.

History was made, and Singapore, as the host, would be noted for its small contribution to world peace and security.

In the days leading up to and after the summit, many headlines were focused on the quid pro quo for the host nation of staging an event that the world's spotlight would be trained on. That, said analysts and others who spoke to TODAY, is just scratching the surface, and the key benefit for Singapore is something less tangible, but much more important: Another example of the country's oft-cited ability to punch above its weight, the value of even-handed, straight-talking diplomacy, and a buttressing of its soft power.

Singapore's role in the event is testament to its value to the international order and the effectiveness of its foreign policy, they said. The Republic is one of the few countries that has developed deep and wide-ranging ties with Washington while keeping lines of communication open with Pyongyang amid tight international sanctions.

It has been a tough balancing act for the country, which has pursued an even-handed brand of foreign policy — aiming to be a friend to all and enemy of none — in accordance with international law, but one that has paid off time and again, and in terms that cannot be measured merely by price tags: A hard-earned reputation as an honest broker, willing to speak hard truths, and a valued counsel to bigger powers.

That, the analysts said, is the true value that being chosen to host a high-profile, history-making summit brings to Singapore. "The fact that Singapore was chosen to play such a role speaks volumes of its astute foreign policy and high level of policy capacity," Nanyang Technological University (NTU) political scientist Woo Jun Jie told TODAY.

"More than simply being an event organiser, Singapore has also shown how small states can play the role of peacemakers, simply by fostering strong bilateral relations with all parties and helping to bring conflicting partners together when needed," said Assistant Professor Woo, who is with the NTU's public policy and global affairs programme.

Said Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong: "Foreign countries and leaders that matter to Singapore are familiar with what Singapore can do or cannot do. Where there was any doubt, the Trump-Kim Singapore summit has clearly demonstrated our ability and capability."

"What has happened with the Trump-Kim summit is that the relevance of Singapore as an important place in the world of politics, economy and human development has been reaffirmed and strengthened."

"This is very valuable for us, as we have today new geopolitical and technological dynamics around the globe, and the growing assumption is that the 20th-century architecture and institutions are not relevant anymore," said Mr Ong, who is also the executive deputy chairman of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

He added that it should not be taken for granted that other countries will accept Singapore's role hitherto without envy and resistance.

Photo: Reuters

Indeed, while Singapore's reputation as a neutral party and honest broker has been enhanced, it cannot afford to be complacent on the international stage.

But in the short term, at least, there are potential benefits in the form of an enhanced reputation and soft power, as well as attention from the Trump administration. In the longer run, there may be access to economic opportunities in North Korea.

The S$20 million cost of staging the event, observers noted, was a strategic bet that may yield substantial dividends in future.

The meeting on Tuesday, which lasted more than five hours, yielded little by way of hard commitments, but in terms of substance, it was difficult to understate its importance: The net effect was of walking both sides away from a possible conflict. Experts and commentators noted that Pyongyang won several concessions, the biggest of which was the suspension of war games between the US and South Koreans, a goal it has long sought.

In turn, Mr Trump has confidently stated that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat, while American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hopes to see signs of "major disarmament" by the North within 2.5 years - that is, by the end of the current administration's first term in office.


Singapore has a record of hosting sensitive and high-profile political meetings, and this would not have been possible without an even-handed and omni-directional foreign policy.

Some of the high-profile events that come to mind include the 2015 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, as well as the 1993 meeting between then Straits Exchange Foundation chairman Koo Chen-fu and his Chinese counterpart Wang Daohan. The Wang-Koo meeting was the first official meeting since 1949 to occur between the two sides.

Professor Tan See Seng, deputy director of the RSIS' Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, noted that Singapore has long been seen and endorsed by others as a state that can play, and has played, the role of an honest broker or moderator.

"It is not just the hosting of summits of this sort, but, equally, the informal mediating role that Singapore has sought to play in the past, say, between China and the US or between China and Taiwan," he said.

Notably, Singapore did not offer to host the meeting - that was decided by the two sides, and then presented to Singapore, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said earlier.

"We did not put our hand up, but we were asked. And in this case, both the North Koreans and the US felt that we were an appropriate venue," he said.

"I think Singaporeans can be proud. Proud that we've been chosen because they know that we are neutral, reliable, trustworthy and secure," he added.

Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Analysts said the venue for the Trump-Kim talks had to be in a country with diplomatic relations with both North Korea and the US, and few countries met the condition. Switzerland, Mongolia and the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas were among the locations initially considered.

The Republic's ties with the US are deep and wide-ranging, and span the gamut from defence to the economic. North Korea recognised Singapore's independence in 1967, and an embassy was established in the Republic in the 1970s. Although Singapore has implemented sanctions against North Korea in line with the relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, it has also made it a point to keep lines of communications open with the reclusive regime.

Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

Dr Kei Koga, of the NTU's public policy and global affairs programme, said that given Singapore's foreign policy approach of maintaining neutrality when dealing with the major powers, it has gained a reputation of being trustworthy.

"It is generally difficult for any country to be trusted by both the US and North Korea, and thus far, Singapore's foreign policy has been successful in nurturing this type of soft power," he said.

This trust was put to good use before the June 12 event, with Dr Balakrishnan making whirlwind eve-of-summit trips to Washington and then Pyongyang to tie down the details. This was crucial, said NTU's Asst Prof Woo. "In doing so, he was able to gain a closer understanding of the two parties' positions, as well as establish closer ties between Singapore and the two nations."

But there was much more to do.

Mr Ong, the Ambassador-at-Large, said: "Since we are such a world-class facility and have a good reputation to uphold, our five-star service involved us reaching out to ascertain what each of the summit participants would actually require, and then to ensure a pleasant stay for them in Singapore."

He added that given the threat of terrorism, "nothing could be left to chance". Around 5,000 Home Team officers, backed by nearly 2,000 personnel from the Singapore Armed Forces who were deployed with live ammunition and across a variety of assets, ensured that the security operation went without a hitch.


With the summit — and the frenzy in the days leading to it — streamed live on mobile phones and beamed into living rooms across the globe, the world's eyes were on Singapore.

The smooth conclusion of the meeting boosted the country's already strong reputation globally as a safe and secure place, said observers.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law lecturer Eugene Tan said Singapore fared relatively well - the event was safe and secure, and things went smoothly. There were no major hiccups, the security of the two leaders and their delegations was never compromised, and traffic snarls and security checks were not deeply disruptive, he added.

But while Singapore is already world-famous for its level of public safety, and its diplomacy has a glowing reputation within the global community, there were other factors that led to it being the choice for the summit.

Assoc Prof Tan believes strict laws governing protests and the country's ability to put in place a no-nonsense public-order framework quickly may have been key.

"Both leaders would chafe at the prospect of being the subject of protests while in Singapore," he said. "It is precisely because Singapore is uber-orderly and secure that she is attractive and acceptable to both the US and North Korea as host for talks of such a sensitive and delicate nature."

Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Strict public-order laws meant the two leaders were unlikely to encounter major security threats or be embarrassed by demonstrations in the streets, allowing them to focus on the substance of their talks, he added.

Before and during the summit, the authorities were quick to quash any sign of disaffection. TODAY reported earlier this week that five South Korean women arrested near the St Regis Singapore hotel — where Mr Kim was putting up — were deported with a stern warning.

Another group of South Koreans held up banners near the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island, where the summit took place, demanding that the remaining hostages from the Korean War be freed. They were advised by police against protesting and left the area.

Beyond an affirmation of its ability to keep order amid intense global scrutiny, hosting the summit burnished Singapore's reputation in other ways. Mr Curtis Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, said: "It signalled that Singapore is doing the right thing when it comes to how it is addressing its own interests, but is also trying to be a positive contributor to the region, and in this case, the world."

"The Trump-Kim summit reaffirms Singapore's nature as a small but mighty nation that can contribute in a way that goes well beyond its size," Mr Chin, who is Asia fellow with non-profit think-tank Milken Institute, added.

Mr Ong, the veteran diplomat, said there is also "bonus" for the Republic: Better ties with both countries in the future.

"Even though we could not get into the substantive agenda of the summit, we made friends individually. Otherwise, how can a little red dot get so close and so much airtime in the powerhouses in Washington DC and Pyongyang?" he said.

Dr Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at think-tank Lowy Institute, said the summit should have earned Singapore "some valuable credit with the Trump administration, given that South-east (Asia) must compete with other parts of the Indo-Pacific region for attention, and (with) Singapore's status as a close security partner rather than a treaty ally".

On the North Korean front, Mr Kim was quoted by his country's state media as saying he was impressed by Singapore's economic development and hoped he could learn from the country during a night tour of some downtown landmarks on Monday.

SMU's Assoc Prof Tan said Singapore could have set Mr Kim thinking about the possible models for his country, given the young leader's limited exposure to the world.

"The blend of market-economy capitalism and strict political control could also be an instructive lesson for North Korea as it takes very tentative steps in embarking on an early, cautious rapprochement with the global community," he said.

Photo: Reuters

As Mr Kim took in the sights in town, Singapore's style of government may well have been an eye-opener to him, said Assoc Prof Tan. "It's a system that is relatively open to the world for trade, investments, people and ideas, while having a communitarian, no-nonsense democratic system."


As always with Singaporeans, however, euphoria is often tempered with grumbling, and the summit was no different.

The S$20 million figure, in particular, caught the attention of many. While most defended the spending, there were some who argued against spending such a large sum without direct benefits for Singaporeans.

Much of the debate was on social media, but on the ground, too, some Singaporeans interviewed by TODAY shared similar sentiments. For example, a food-delivery rider who only wanted to be known as Arvin, 53, said: "We're not involved in the fight. Why must we spend money for them?"

To a man, however, observers said the money was well spent.

Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from NUS' Department of Political Science said the Republic's S$20 million investment was a "strategic bet" on the summit turning out well and leading to further progress on the decades-long differences between the US and North Korea.

Ms Anwita Basu, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, pointed out that the S$20 million bill was a "minuscule amount" of the budgeted expenditure for 2018.

"Not only has this delivered significant soft power for Singapore, but it has also been a celebration of the country's spectacular infrastructure and security capabilities," she added.

Mr Ong said the bill was "certainly worthwhile". "We cannot see the sum of S$20 million as overspending. In fact, much of the money pays the regular salaries of all the personnel engaged in the work for the summit," he said.

"A wise man from India once told me, 'You want money, you spend money. And please, no money, no talk'".

He added: “I am now more concerned about how to say ‘no’ to other requests (for Singapore to host major events). What is the key consideration for the Singapore Government to draw a line? Is it beneficial to our country to host other summits, and if we do not host, what harm will that bring to Singapore?”

Amid the congratulatory mood and the euphoric glow after the summit, however, Assoc Prof Tan sounded a cautionary note.

All the effort and money would ultimately amount to little if success meant that Singaporeans think the country has "arrived in terms of our foreign policy, our neutrality and how others view us".

"We should not get ahead of ourselves and imagine that Singapore's soft power is so influential," he said.

"We have to continue to further develop an international reputation for neutrality… We are some way off from being known as robustly neutral like Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries like Norway," he said, adding that the Republic has been perceived as being pro-US.

"We still have some way to go in terms of our international standing and the evolution of our soft power," he added.

"The quest for relevance on the world stage has to be in our DNA, and we have to strive towards that on our own terms, defined by our own values and identity."

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