Ms. Michelle Gyles-McDonnough: 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations: World Scientific Series on Singapore’s 50 Years of Nation-Building

Oct 30, 2015

Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

Editors and Contributors of “50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations”,

Mr. Max Phua, Managing Director, World Scientific Publishing Company,

Mrs. Elaine Ng, CEO, National Library Board,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for the pleasure of being one of the first to read this book.  I enjoyed it!  From my own perspective as a former diplomat from a small state and now as an international civil servant of the United Nations, I share many of the experiences and perspectives captured in this volume.  Readability is also essential to the literary appetite; and the crispness of the essays and the compelling and instructive stories, keep you reading on.  This volume captures important lessons and advice in an easily digestible package, and could not have come at a better time.

2015 is a momentous year, not just for Singapore, but for the global community.  This year Singapore marked 50 years of independence, proudly showcasing its rich legacy as it transformed itself into one of the world's wealthiest and most advanced countries.  This year, we also commemorate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.  It has been an opportunity to celebrate the significant advances in human progress, as much as a time to reflect on the many remaining challenges to achieving peace, security and inclusive and sustainable development.

Looking ahead to a better world, with our solid achievements over 70 years and also our shortcomings as our starting point, all 193 United Nations Member States have launched a new era for sustainable development with a bold, ambitious and visionary new agenda that will guide our work together for the next generation to end poverty, tackle inequality, reduce disaster risk and strengthen resilience, and build peaceful, stable societies and a life of dignity for all.  This 2030 agenda stands on the foundation of a new global financing framework, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, agreed in July.  To complete the framework, the world eagerly anticipates a new global climate agreement in December that will ensure we protect our planet and safeguard today’s hard-won development gains.  At the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference or COP 21, UN member states will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate that keeps global warming below the critical threshold of 2°C.

This is a universal agenda to transform our world.  Every country on earth has work to do to progress towards it. Singapore, too, will find its challenges in the new Sustainable Development Goals and will need to work domestically and in partnership with countries in the UN to ensure that the nation’s story is as noteworthy at its centennial in 2065.

It is with this reflective and also future orientation, mindful of our transformative agenda to be achieved over the next 15 years that I have read “50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations”.

This volume reaffirms the importance of multilateralism in transforming our world and the profound stake we all have in getting it right.  Seventy years on, it reminds us that the UN is the most representative inter-governmental organization the world has, and that there is no greater hope for a better world than an effective UN, backed by the political will and constructive contribution of its members.[i]  The UN is the most effective forum for dialogue, bridging differences, and harmonising the positions of diverse groups, developed and developing.  It is the forum where small states can not only have their voices heard, but amplify that voice and create political and diplomatic relevance; and where global coherence is maintained and international legitimacy is conferred, guided by the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.  While the UN needs reform, there is no doubt, as was often repeated in this volume, that we are better off with the UN than without it.  As this year’s 70th anniversary theme states, “Strong UN.  Better World.”  In our polycentric and highly networked world, a reinvigorated multilateral system and strong global partnerships will be essential for achieving the new global goals.

The book also illuminates the breadth of the mandate and work of the UN in each of its three pillars: peace and security, development and human rights.  As Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan noted in his essay,  when we speak of the UN, what instinctively comes to mind are the main New York organs – the Security Council and the General Assembly – but there are many other parts of the UN System such as the specialised agencies, funds and programmes that deal with technical matters, e.g., UNDP, UN Women, UNICEF, UNHCR, ITU, WHO, ILO, ICAO, UPU, WMO among others without which, many of the conveniences of modern life to which we have become accustomed, would not be possible and life for the poor, disadvantaged and marginalised would be even more nasty, brutish and short. [ii]

In addition, the human rights system and its special procedures help to ensure that our actions hold always in focus the dignity of the human person.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by member states that differed in their ideologies, political systems, religious and cultural backgrounds, and levels of socio-economic development, represents our common statement of goals and aspirations for the human condition and for the world community.

No two journeys of member states with, and in, the UN are the same.  But through the UN, all countries, developed and developing alike, can find the space to advance their interests and also to contribute to the common good.  Singapore’s journey has been a mutually beneficial and evolving relationship with the United Nations.  Through the skillful diplomacy of Singapore’s representatives and the policy, advisory and technical work of Singaporeans working in the UN Secretariat and its agencies, funds and programmes over the past five decades, as described in this book, we come to better understand the UN ecosystem, the many avenues for, and the nature of, interactions within that system, and the symbiosis in the interactions among member states, and between member states and the UN, for mutual benefit.  It opens a window to the inner workings of the system, pinpoints strategies for meaningful engagement, to project interests, and to build coalitions and consensus, and also highlights formal and informal boundaries and offers a reality check.

Singapore’s journey as memorialised in the book offers as well important lessons for accelerating development and consolidating progress. Singapore has had laser-sharp and practical focus in its relations with the UN.  You are struck from the very beginning of the volume – from Singapore’s Statement to the 20th Session of the General Assembly – by the country’s clarity of vision and understanding of the building blocks to make it reality.  As it embarked on nation building, Singapore, as other newly independent states, recognised it would need assistance.  It was clear on its needs and precise in its ask, and the key lies in what one does with assistance received.

One of the first acts of the Government of Singapore when it attained self-rule in 1959, was to request advice from the United Nations Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance, which would later become UNDP, to develop an economic plan for Singapore.  Dr. Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist, led a UN team of experts in the first industrial survey mission to Singapore in 1960.  His project report would form the blueprint for Singapore’s ten-year industrialisation programme and would influence subsequent development in many sectors of the economy.  A further UN mission in 1963 laid the foundation for the physical development of Singapore with a short-term and longer-term plan for land use and transportation development over several decades.  In the following decades, UNDP, in cooperation with other UN agencies such as the FAO, ILO, ITU, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNCTAD, WHO and the World Bank, would provide technical expertise in almost every economic sector: agriculture and fisheries, manufacturing, transportation and communications, education and government.

The UN is proud to have made these and other contributions, but they are just that.  A nation’s development accomplishments belong to the people of a nation and its leadership.

Singapore was determined in its action during this period of technical assistance.  The country fully leveraged the assistance it received.  Through the life stories and in the exercise of diplomacy set out in this volume, you see repeated again and again, key principles and approaches that have contributed to Singapore’s success: prioritising integrity and professionalism, placing no limits on creativity, possibility and innovation, setting clear goals and targets, discipline of action to make sure implementation stayed on course and investing in its own capacity.  Knowing that “development comes from within” Singapore weaned itself off loans and development aid as soon as was feasible, and invested in its human capital, its institutions, and its infrastructure.  These are important lessons that stand the test of time.

Appreciative of the support it received, Singapore also assumed the responsibility to give back.  As Mr. Rajaratnam said in his 1965 speech, “if we obtain help from others, we must be ready to help others as much in return”.[iii]  It did so through the Singapore Cooperation Programme, and through the establishment of the Forum of Small States and the Global Governance Group.  Through the life stories and experiences of the essayists, we see Singapore’s contribution to the global community through its service as thought leader, a hub for experimentation and innovation and a platform for sharing its ideas, experiences and expertise across numerous fields, from aviation and trade to health and peacekeeping, to public service excellence.

One of Singapore’s most recent contributions to thought leadership and knowledge sharing is through the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (GCPSE).  Through the GCPSE, Singapore is helping to empower policymakers from around the world to explore new development approaches and frontiers in responding to the increasing and evolving demands and needs of their constituents, and building capacities for an effective 21st century public service.  The role of the GCPSE will become increasingly important as the full attainment of the new sustainable development goals will require effective, accountable and transparent institutions and a motivated public service, as well as responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

Singapore also assumed leadership of key organs like the UN Security Council and the General Assembly and its Committees, and of global processes such as the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Earth Summit, and the historic Third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea and so enriched our system of global governance.  I have particular admiration for the masterful leadership of Ambassador Tommy Koh on UNCLOS, as it established the International Seabed Authority in my hometown in Kingston, Jamaica, and the International Seabed Authority played a big part in my own inspiration to join the United Nations.

Singapore’s own achievements and its contribution to shaping our common future have firmly established its credibility, and secured the confidence of member states and their respect as a reliable and responsible partner.

As we move to implement our common Agenda 2030 to transform societies for people, prosperity and for planet, and travel a road to transformation based on peace, stability, inclusion, and partnerships, we will continue to count on Singapore to lead, to open new pathways, to build bridges and forge consensus, and contribute to improving global governance and strengthening institutions that are important to the management of global issues.


As I close, I must note that on birthdays, usually the celebrant receives a gift. In this case, the essayists, and Professor Tommy Koh and his co-editors Li Lin Chang and Joanna Koh, all outstanding daughters and sons of Singapore,  gift this volume to the UN, to complement our archives and fill in the gaps in our history with the experiences of Singaporeans who have served, and continue to serve, in the interest of the global public good; to the diplomats and policy makers of other member states, to draw from the durable and invaluable lessons captured through these essays to inform their own interactions with the UN; and to the public, first and foremost the people of Singapore, but also to all readers interested in the inner workings, role, and contributions of the UN, through a practical, informative and most important, enjoyable text.

We thank you all for this gift.

Happy 50th Singapore!

Happy 70th to “We the Peoples of the United Nations”!

[i] Goh Chok Tong, Address to the UN 50th Anniversary Special Commemorative Meeting in 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations at xxvi.

[ii] Bilahari Kausikan, This Ain’t Kansas, Toto: Some Personal and Eccentric Reflections on the UN in 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations at 28.

[iii] 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations at x.

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