The Sessions: Singapore in Southeast Asia (Between China and India)

By: Sarah Kow

Few events have the capacity to fill Chatterbox on a week 12 evening. But the dialogue session with Chairman of Kerry Logistics and Chancellor of Nalanda University, Mr George Yeo was more than sufficient a reason to attract a crowd. Seats were occupied half an hour before the allotted time – students had to be encouraged to leave their seats and return to the refreshments.

The session, originally meant for the students of Dr Mustafa Izzuddin’s module, UCV2209: The Heterogenous Indians of Contemporary Singapore, was shared generously by the USP Alumni and faculty member to a wider audience. It began with a short introduction from the guest speaker that petered quickly into a dialogue. Seated comfortably amidst the nest of sofas and assorted chairs that Chatterbox had become, Mr Yeo responded to question after question fielded generously by the audience. He remained welcoming of their diverse queries and gracious in the face of more combative ones.

Exhibiting a surprisingly narrative manner of response, Mr. Yeo chose to answer most questions with anecdotes demonstrative of his experience, leaving the audience to siphon what they would off them. His passion showed in his descriptions of travelling and interacting with foreign acquaintances, so much so that he even apologized at times for having “rambled on”. He also entertained the crowd with his light-hearted and witty analogies while keeping a straight face himself – likening China’s growth to a redwood tree and India’s to a sprawling bush which elicited waves of laughter from the audience.

Mr Yeo’s reiterated the oft-articulated sentiment of China and India as the hubs of brain power, making up a large proportion of the world’s population. He then situated Singapore in relation to the two by making reference to his earlier analogy about their patterns of growth – China’s being fearsome and orderly, and India’s comparatively fast and organic. Singapore’s strength, in his opinion, lay in its ability to switch channels and moderate between the two.

“Culture takes a long time to evolve,” Mr Yeo voiced, and even then, it is often unconscious. He explained that it was futile for us to try and change the culture of others when we could hardly change our own. We can only learn to bridge the cultures through open-mindedness and as Mr Yeo put it, “going beyond our separateness to find commonality”. In having largely achieved a multiracial co-existence, this is where he believed that Singapore had succeeded.

In a room filled predominantly by critical and perhaps even cynical young scholars, Mr Yeo’s talk of cooperation and unity might have carried a mark of dissonance. If students had come in anticipation of opinionated and fatalistic soundbites about international deadlocks, it might have been difficult to see the silver lining that Mr Yeo was trying to highlight.

But the Chancellor of Nalanda University did not deny the existence of international tensions. Beyond acknowledging them, he recognized the power plays at work between sustaining and emergent powers on the global playing field. He simply frowned upon the use of aggression as a means to settle international tensions, instead considering compassion and diplomacy to be the best way to manage adversaries or nascent threats.

Case in point, Mr Yeo recognized the need for Southeast Asian countries not to make an enemy out of China due to its role as a vital trading partner, somewhat explaining the stalemate over the South China Sea dispute. He also thought India-China relations rather healthy – despite being in economic competition, the two nations acknowledge each other as ancient civilizations and are experiencing favorable transnationalism in the form of labor and product flows between the two.

Being of the personal belief that optimism is much needed and lacking in the sphere of international relations today, Mr Yeo’s diplomatic outlook was certainly welcome.

The session concluded officially with the presentation of tokens of appreciation and a group photo, although as chairs were stacked and furniture reconfigured, the clumps of hopeful students lingering behind with further questions suggested there was much more to be said than time permitted.

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A valiant attempt at capturing the whole crowd.

(Edit: 7 November)

“The session began with a short introduction from the speaker that petered quickly into a dialogue” to 

“The session, originally meant for the students of Dr Mustafa Izzuddin’s module, UCV2209: The Heterogenous Indians of Contemporary Singapore, was shared generously by the USP Alumni and faculty member to a wider audience. It began with a short introduction from the guest speaker that petered quickly into a dialogue.”