Ina von Ber, founder of the Ambassadorial Roundtable and organizer of the semi-regular events, brought the ambassador of Singapore, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, to our coastal community to discuss his country’s history and its relationship with the United States and California.
Singapore became independent in 1965. Mirpuri, who, at 53, is older than his country, was born a British subject before briefly becoming a Malaysian subject, and then finally a Singapore citizen. The youth of his country, he said, has played a major role in its development.
“The idea of nationhood is very important to Singapore,” he said. “If you think about the people [fighting for independence] in the late 1700s in the U.S., who had that idea of nationhood, for us, we’re in the very early stages of that nationhood and we’re trying to understand our place in the world.”
Singapore was thrust into independence by the retreat of the British, who had established a port to facilitate trade between Europe and East Asia in 1819. When they withdrew from the tiny island at the tip of Asia, the British left behind an “important maritime harbor,” Mirpuri said, through which “more than 30 million containers pass every year.” Long Beach, the largest U.S. port, he pointed out, sees 6 million pass through every year.
The sudden independence tinged with British heritage, Mirpuri said, has resulted, 48 years later, in a country that has established itself as a hub for communications, transportation and finance. The road to success, however, came in the form of trial by fire, as the British took with them a large chunk of Singapore’s economy.
“It was a very uncertain future that we faced,” he said. “In 1965, Singapore faced 20 percent unemployment and a very uncertain economic future. All we had was a British military base. Twenty percent of our economy was fixed on that.”
Today, Mirpuri said, Singapore has zero unemployment. Not only that, but the country has worked to become a favorite of foreign investors, and the world has responded. The U.S. has more investments in Singapore than it does in China, and five times more than it has in India.
“U.S. companies, many from California and many of them biotech and technology companies, have invested in Singapore because of the intellectual property protection and the rule of law,” he said. “In 1965, when we became independent, a decision was made to open up to foreign investments and to make it a safe haven for investors in the region.”
Singapore has also established itself as a major petrochemical and energy hub, though it has no natural energy resources of its own. Investments from companies like Shell and Exxon/Mobile have made it a nerve center for energy in East Asia.
Mirpuri said Singapore has managed to build itself up by focusing on its shortcomings. Water, for instance, is very scarce in the country, which has to purchase water every day from Malaysia.
“We have now developed new technologies — which I’m going to be discussing with the City Council here — for recycled water, which is potable and available to all citizens, and we’ve worked on desalination,” he said. “We have developed all these technologies because of what we lacked. We looked not at our strengths, because we had no strengths, but instead we’re looking at where we lack things and how to develop based on that.”
Another major target the country set its sights on was a major overhaul of its educational system. When Mirpuri started school in 1966, he said, only 3 percent of those who started with him would go on to higher education at age 18.
“Today,” he said, “70 percent of the children that start school will make it to higher education. Some schools in the U.S. have even started using our math and science systems.”
Looking ahead, Mirpuri said he hopes to continue to grow the relationships between Asian countries and the U.S., through trade agreements and partnerships. He even proposed a reorientation of the way we look at physical maps of the world.
“Normally, when you look at a map, you have the Atlantic Ocean in the middle, Europe [on the right] and the Western Hemisphere on the left,” he said. “We need to reorientate that to put the Pacific Ocean in the middle, the U.S. on the right and Asia on the left because that’s where, particularly for a city like San Diego, your partnerships are going to be.”