During his recent trip to the Washington, Mr Lee said that it was "vital" for the TPP to be ratified. But vital for whom? Even if we accept the premise that free trade is good for Singapore – which I don't given that neoliberals have hijacked it (see here) – we have already signed a slew of free trade deals to last us several lifetimes.
We have inked bilateral trade agreements with the US, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, and Jordan. We are negotiating several more with Canada, Mexico, Pakistan, and Ukraine.
On a regional basis, we have the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In the pipeline are more multilateral trade deals: Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) currently being negotiated between ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as well at the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA). There is also a raft of FTAs signed by ASEAN of which Singapore, of course, plays a key role.
So if we already have trade deals with all the major markets around the world, why is Mr Lee such an avid spokesman for the TPP?
Here's one clue: “(The TPP) is an integral component of America’s rebalance to Asia,” Mr Lee lets on. “Apart from the economic benefits – trade, market access, standard setting – it’s also vital from a strategic point of view and a strong signal of the US commitment to continue its deep engagement in the region.”
That's code for US military presence and engagement in Asia. On this point, US President Barack Obama made no bones that America, not China, should write the rules – and he was not just referring to trade rules. In a reference to the South China Sea dispute with China, he makes it clear that PM Lee's recent visit to Washington DC “reflects the important role that Singapore plays in the rebalance of American foreign policy to the Asia Pacific. With Singapore’s partnership, the United States in engaging more deeply across South-east Asia and Asean, which is central to the region’s peace and prosperity. Singapore is an anchor for the US presence in the region, which is a foundation of stability and peace.”
Indeed, America is shifting 60 percent of its naval capabilities and assets to the Pacific, much of them docked in Singapore. Colonel Eric Shirley of the US Army announced: “Right now we are targeting Singapore as a potential future home that could best support the interest of the Pacific Command, and all the partner nations in the region.”
(Incidentally, all the announcements pertaining to Singapore being used as a US military base seem to be made by the US military, our Ministry of Defence keeps rather silent.)
And in case we think that all the warm pronouncements at the White House and clinking of champagne glasses are an indication that Singapore and the US are – to use the Internet slang – BFF, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger quickly disabuses us of the idea: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”
Gateway or doormat?
And while Mr Obama champions US interests, what is Mr Lee championing? Are US interests congruent with the interests of the Singaporean people?
Since we signed the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in 2003, multinational corporations have made an even bigger presence in Singapore with little technological know-how being transferred to local companies; billionaires have moved into the country unimpeded, raising prices; household and corporate debt have ballooned and threaten our financial stability; income inequality has widened to an alarming level; and our local talent has hollowed out, replaced by foreigners.
Through all this, the Singaporean people remain voiceless and powerless. The US is certainly not blind, it only chooses not to see the PAP's crushing of our political rights, the persecution of opposition leaders and harassment of civil society actors, the lack of press freedom and the subjugation of the election process.
Are we really the gateway or merely the Welcome doormat that ushers the US into the house of Asia?
And while Mr Lee cheerleads American interests in Asia, China looms in the background. China is now our largest trading partner and we are its biggest foreign investor. We have also opened our immigration gates to Chinese nationals and imported hundreds of thousands of its workers into our economy.
If anyone thinks that the Middle Kingdom is not watching, he should listen to the dark warning that a Chinese academic recently made: “Can [Singapore] sustain the contradictory two-faced approach towards China? If the South China Sea conflict between China and the US deepens, and the US drags Singapore in, will Singapore remain safe?”
Apart from Chinese missiles falling on Changi Naval Base where the US ships are anchored, how will such a conflict impact us if one were to break out?
Historian and China expert Professor Wang Gungwu warns that “Some segments of Singapore's Chinese population may sympathise with China. If that happens, Singapore would have to make extra efforts to demonstrate its national coherence.”
This does not even take into account the hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals studying and working in Singapore. Will they sit idly by if more than just angry words are exchanged between the antagonists over the Spratly Islands? What will this do to our internal security?
Therein lies the danger. Is the PAP's foreign policy of aligning itself so unthinkingly with the US getting Singapore needlessly embroiled in global disputes?
Who's wearing blinkers?
Think also Iraq War. We were again promoter-in-chief for the US when Mr George W Bush wrongly fingered Saddam Hussein as possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ordered the invasion of the country.
Back then, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong inserted himself into the scenario and chastised his critics: “It is clear to everyone, unless that person wears blinkers, that this is a war to remove the weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein.”
We even arrested six – yes, 6 – people who protested outside the US embassy against the invasion.
As it turned out, Mr Bush was wrong; there were no WMDs. And Mr Goh is now very silent. But the war has broken Iraq, killed millions of people in the process and provided a haven for groups like ISIS.
(Mr Lee now pledges to increase Singapore's involvement in Iraq by announcing during a joint news conference with President Obama that we will send a medical team in the war against ISIS.)
As the world becomes more interlinked, it is also becoming a theatre for big powers to play out their domination games. Should Singapore continue to be a proxy for someone else's interests especially when those interests are not aligned with ours and, worse, could lead us to dangerous conflicts?