Watch If Trump Is ‘Aberration’ for U.S., Says Singapore's Chan

  • Minister in Prime Minister’s Office Chan speaks in interview
  • Chan Chun Sing is seen as a potential future prime minister

Trump's North Korea Equation for China Trade

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Sitting at the southern end of the strategic Malacca Strait, Singapore is Southeast Asia’s wealthiest state, a financial center where some of the world’s biggest banks do business. But the small nation of 278 square miles (720 square kilometers) has been snared in a tussle for influence between the U.S. and China.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said his country should not have to choose between the big powers. Maintaining that balance has not been easy.

Singapore has found itself in China’s cross-hairs for allowing the U.S. military to operate from the island-state. Equally, the election of Donald Trump as president has cast doubt on the future of the U.S. commitment to the region. Trump has already abandoned a 12-nation Pacific trade pact that Singapore had strongly advocated.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing is part of Lee’s “nucleus” of a new team of Singaporean leaders. Promoted to ministerial roles after entering parliament in 2011, Chan is also Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress and Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association.

With a prior career in the military, Chan, who turns 48 this year, has been tipped as a potential future leader, and Lee has signaled he doesn’t plan to govern past the age of 70 (he is now 65). In an interview with Bloomberg News, Chan discussed Trump, China and domestic politics.

Has U.S. policy on Asia changed under Trump?

Many people speculate about what Trump will do both on the security and economic front. Those are immediate issues. So, while we watch those issues carefully, I think the other thing we have to watch very carefully is dynamics. What kind of perspective the American public is taking with respect to their political system and in the longer term, what kind of leadership it is likely to throw forth. That will have serious implications on the world. So, some people say that Trump is an aberration but is Trump an aberration or is he a reflection of a larger set of forces within the U.S.?

Is the U.S. likely to stay in Asia?

I don’t think it’s a binary option where the U.S. is either here or the U.S. is not here. The issue is really how focused the U.S. will be in providing that security umbrella within the Asia Pacific. Having said that, with a rising, more confident China, China would also want its own geopolitical space. But it’s not a zero-sum game.

I think both the U.S. and the Chinese share a common interest, which is a stable Asia Pacific.

Are ties better again with China?

I think it is a broad relationship and it’s deep. There will be differences once in a while. To say that you never have differences is probably unlikely and unreal.

Read about tensions between Singapore and China here

I am confident that the relationship will continue to grow but of course, as a small country, we must be keenly aware of what China’s development priorities are and see where we can play a role.

Is it possible Singapore has to choose sides?

We never start our foreign policy with the thought of whose side we should be on. That’s the wrong way to look at the issue. What we believe to be the correct way is to first consider what Singapore’s interests are. Secondly, what a foreign player’s interests are and finally, where we can work with them on a win-win relationship where we can value-add. It doesn’t mean that just because Singapore is small that we can’t value add.

As a small country, you have to constantly balance between your principled approach and your pragmatic approach. You can’t be all principles and no pragmatism because you’ll be in the dustbin of history quite fast unless you navigate the waves of change.

Was it a calculated risk to revoke Huang Jing’s residency?

I don’t think it’s the first time we’ve done something like that and we did not name any country. We do not like nor do we allow foreign interference in domestic politics. I think every sovereign country would want to preserve their own right to self determination.

Read about the Huang Jing case here

We try to maintain the big picture, we try to make sure that the bigger relationship is not disrupted and held hostage by a small episode.

Can the People’s Action Party stay relevant?

Any Singaporean leader and the whole leadership team must have the ability to connect with Singaporeans and win confidence. That takes time. In today’s world, the demand for connection is much more intense. I always have this joke that if you’re a military commander, you can go left or you can go right but you make sure everybody goes with you.

Is it time to move on from Lee family influence?

At every turn of our history, our number one challenge has been to find a set of leaders that have the capability and commitment to run a country. I don’t think Singaporeans will accept a leader just based off a certain surname. We do not run a dynastic system here. It’s an open, transparent system and Singaporeans will vote for the leader that they think best. It is not about the family.

Could that next leader be you?

I think it’s too premature to say, not because it is impolite but because the most important question to ask at that point in time is what the kind of leader required for that moment is.

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