Speech by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the President’s Annual Diplomatic Reception, 24 April 2015

Prime Minister


Distinguished Guests

Good evening. I am delighted to welcome our friends to the Istana for this year’s diplomatic reception.

2015 is a milestone year for Singapore as we celebrate 50 years of independence. Sadly, it is also the year our nation lost Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister.  Together with his team, Mr Lee laid the foundations for modern Singapore, and our growth and prosperity.  Mr Lee’s passing has given Singaporeans and friends of Singapore much to reflect on. 

Singapore’s Global City Strategy

When Singapore became independent quite suddenly in 1965, the odds were against us.  Mr S Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Foreign Minister, then said of our fledgling nation: “Facts and logic dictate that an independent Singapore cannot be viable.  A small city state without a natural hinterland, a large domestic market, and no raw materials, had a near-zero chance of survival politically, economically or militarily”.  To guarantee our survival, Mr Lee and his team pursued friendly ties with all countries – with those in the region, as well as those further afield.  The number of leaders who travelled to bid farewell to Mr Lee is testimony to the enduring relationships Singapore has forged over the decades.

This network of friends is not the only reason behind Singapore’s continued survival and success.  Mr Lee’s ambition was to transform Singapore from “mudflats” into a “metropolis”.  To achieve this, we had to think global and make ourselves relevant to the world.   To surmount Singapore’s inherent limitations, including the lack of natural resources and a small domestic market, we strived to become a global city, rather than a regional one.  This was long before the term “globalisation” became fashionable.  By injecting ourselves into the network of global cities, we turned the world into Singapore’s hinterland.  This has been key to Singapore’s economic success.

Over the decades, we have plugged Singapore into the international shipping, air, and financial grids.  We have expanded Singapore’s international footprint and forged win-win partnerships bilaterally, regionally through ASEAN and with International Organisations.  We have also grown a network of 20 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with over 30 of our top trading partners.  We are on track to achieve an ASEAN Economic Community later this year, which will transform the region into a single market and production base, fully integrated into the global economy.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Making Friends, Giving Back

In Singapore’s crucial formative years, we were fortunate to have friends who supported and stood by us.  We also received expert advice on a wide variety of issues including growing our economy, greening of Singapore and building up our armed forces. For example, the late Dr Albert Winsemius played a major role in formulating Singapore’s economic strategy. Winsemius was a Dutch economist who led the United Nations Survey Mission to Singapore in 1961, and became a great lifelong friend of Singapore.

We received help in many other ways as well.  When the British Armed Forces unexpectedly decided to withdraw early from Singapore and with our own Armed Forces still in its infancy, the Five Power Defence Arrangements or FPDA with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom helped to assure Singapore’s security.

As we have been helped by others in the past, Singapore is contributing back to the international community and doing our part to assist other countries. We have been sharing Singapore’s developmental experience through the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP).  Close to 100,000 officials from over 170 countries have attended our SCP programmes, which cover a wide array of topics, ranging from sustainable urbanisation to human resource development to public governance. We hope that these programmes will be useful to our foreign friends and help smoothen their developmental paths.

Network of Missions

The tradition of the President’s Annual Diplomatic Reception was started in 1985 by former President Wee Kim Wee as a small gesture of thanks to all the Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Heads of International Organisations who have contributed to Singapore’s progress in numerous ways. 

Today, there are some 70 resident missions in Singapore, with 80 more accredited from third countries.  This is a big leap from just 24 in 1965!  You have all helped to enable your capitals and citizens to better understand Singapore’s policies, values, and aspirations.   

I would also like to recognise the work of our Honorary Consuls-General (HCGs) and Honorary Consuls.  In 1974, the Singapore Government appointed Mr Joseph Habis as our first HCG in Lebanon and he remains our longest serving HCG.  Over the past 41 years, nothing related to Singapore has been too big or small for him to attend to.  When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, Mr Habis continued to send reports, even after postal links between Lebanon and the rest of the world were severed.  He even roped in some friends who were travelling out of Lebanon to help send those reports. In 2008, when our national football team faced Lebanon during the World Cup Qualifiers, Mr Habis made sure he was there to cheer for both the Singapore and Lebanese teams!

Today, Singapore is ably represented by 31 HCGs and Honorary Consuls across 26 countries.  They help to project Singapore’s voice abroad. They also play a vital role in assisting Singaporeans overseas in countries where we do not have a diplomatic presence.  Many of our HCGs are distinguished individuals in their own right and have become loyal friends of Singapore.  They are in Singapore this week for a meeting and I am pleased that they could join us tonight.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As the people of Singapore celebrate our Golden Jubilee, it is timely for us  to take stock from where we came from, consider where we are now, and start to plan to go  forward to where we want to be headed.  And as we continue on this Singapore journey, we hope for your continued friendship and support.  Singapore would not be here today if not for the invaluable partnerships forged with your countries and organisations over the decades.

Thank you.