FOR the past 25 years, Lee Kuan Yew has personified Singapore to the world. He has been the principal architect of Singapore's foreign policy. He has also been Singapore's chief diplomat to the world. He hands over to his successor a principled and pragmatic foreign policy which has enabled Singapore to survive and prosper. This article will attempt briefly to assess Lee Kuan Yew's foreign policy achievements.
With a population of barely 2.7 million and a physical area of only 626 square kilometres, Singapore is one of the world's smallest states. However, Singapore enjoys a role and influence in the world quite unlike those enjoyed by other countries of similar size. This is due to two factors: the stature of Singapore's former prime minister and the country's record of achievements.
Why is Lee Kuan Yew so greatly admired by his peers abroad? Because of his intellectual brilliance, his political experience, extraordinary powers of analysis and judgment, his eloquence, his willingness to offer candid and disinterested advice and his domestic record of success.
His political longevity places him in a very special category of elder statesmen in the world. Up to Nov 28 this year, he was the longest-serving prime minister in the Commonwealth and the longest-serving head of government in Asia. His address to the Joint Meeting of the US Congress on Oct 9, 1985, was a reflection of the esteem which US leaders of both parties have for him. In the same way, the fact that he had often been asked to be the keynote speaker at the biennial meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government is an example of the respect he commands from the prime ministers of the Commonwealth countries. In Asia, his views on world affairs are sought and listened to with respect by the leaders of countries ranging from China and Japan to Hongkong and Papua New Guinea.
Lee Kuan Yew has won the admiration of many foreign scholars. The many meetings between him and the professors of Harvard, Yale, and other universities and think-tanks in America always produced intellectual discourse of the highest order. It is quite extraordinary for the prime minister of a Third World country to have held fellowships at both Harvard and Yale and to have been conferred honorary doctoral degrees by three prestigious universities in the United States and two in the United Kingdom.
The foreign media
Lee Kuan Yew has always had a love-hate relationship with the foreign, especially American and British, press. On the one hand, he enjoys his intellectual encounters with the more able and gifted members of the Western media. On the other hand, his sensitivity to criticism, his contempt for those who had not done their homework and his resentment against any attempt by the "whites" to preach at him, have given him and Singapore a rather bad press in the West in recent years. The fundamental cause of the disagreement is the Western media's insistence that Singapore should follow the principles of Western liberal democracy and Lee Kuan Yew's belief that such principles had to be adapted to the special circumstances of Singapore.
However, even his critics admire his moral and intellectual courage in being willing to face them. From the point of view of the Third World, Lee Kuan Yew's willingness to stand up to the Western media has helped to strengthen Singapore's credentials as a country which is independent-minded, notwithstanding its general pro-Western foreign policy.
The defects of our virtues
No human is perfect. Even a great man such as Lee Kuan Yew is not without foibles. Indeed, we all suffer from the defects of our virtues. Thus, Lee Kuan Yew's brilliance sometimes causes him to appear arrogant, his single-mindedness as dogmatism and his candour as indiscretion. I remember that I once urged him to be more discreet in his remarks about other countries. I think it was after a speech he made in Singapore during which he made some disparaging remarks about the Calypso culture of the Caribbean countries.
The remark had been widely reported by the Caribbean media and had caused offence to our Caribbean friends. Lee Kuan Yew replied that he was known for his candour and he should not be expected to speak like a diplomat. He said that if he had ruffled any feathers it was the job of our diplomats to smoothen those feathers. I protested that as our Prime Minister he was our chief diplomat to the world.
The seven pillars of Singapore's foreign policy
What foreign policy legacy is Lee Kuan Yew leaving to his successors? What is his vision of Singapore's role in the region and the world? Below are seven pillars of Singapore's foreign policy which bear the imprint of Lee Kuan Yew.
First, we have a pragmatic foreign policy based not on any ideology or doctrine but upon the fact that our foreign policy must be constantly guided by one lodestar, the security and prosperity of Singapore.
Second, we rely, first and foremost, on ourselves. Thus, Singapore has never sought foreign aid from the developed countries, believing that the world does not owe us a living. This belief in self-reliance has also led us to develop a capacity to deter aggression. To quote Lee Kuan Yew: "In a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimps, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp."
Third, we must accept the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. This has instilled in us a pragmatic and hard-headed attitude towards realities. Our realism, however, is not a fatalistic attitude. We are constantly seeking to change the status quo for the better.
Fourth, Singapore is committed to making Asean work and to good relations with our five regional partners, especially our two immediate neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew's support for Asean and his personal rapport with President Suharto and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are important assets.
Fifth, Singapore is a member of a larger, dynamic and increasingly prosperous Asia-Pacific community. Singapore supported the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) and is the location for the Secretariat of the Pacific Economic Co-operation Conference (PECC). Singapore has played and will continue to play a seminal role in the evolution of the Pacific Community. Singapore's commitment to Asean is not inconsistent with its support for the Pacific community.
Sixth, Singapore is a member of the world community and is a good citizen of the world. Singapore has supported the primacy of the principles of the UN Charter and the collective security system centred on the UN Security Council. As a small country, Singapore has a vested interest in ensuring respect by all states for the principles of international law governing relations among states. Singapore's free trade policy, its environmentally sensitive development policy, its strong support for the UN and Gatt, and the role of her diplomats as neutral chairmen are some examples of Singapore's contribution to the world community.
Seventh, Singapore will work with other countries to ensure a stable and peaceful environment in our region. Singapore favours the continued presence of the United States in East and South-east Asia and is against its precipitate withdrawal from the region. We favour a balance-of-power in South-east Asia which produces a stable political order and are against any destabilising changes or an arms race by the regional powers. Singapore is not, however, against the need to re-assess existing security arrangements in the region in the light of the ending of the Cold War.
With the help of Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye and S. Rajaratnam in the earlier years, and S. Dhanabalan and Wong Kan Seng in more recent years, Lee Kuan Yew masterminded Singapore's external relations. In 1965, Singapore's independence was questioned by some. Now, no one does. In 1965, Singapore's economic prospects looked dubious. Now, Singapore's economy is one of the powerhouses of the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.
Singapore's place in South-east Asia is secure, because of Asean and because of Singapore's good relations with her neighbours. Singapore is plugged into the world grid of trade, investment and technology flows and is a good economic partner of the United States, Japan and the European Community. Singapore is viewed by others as a good citizen of the world community.
In sum, Singapore's relations with other countries, both within and outside the region, are excellent. This happy state of affairs is due to the collective efforts of an extraordinary crew, but, especially, to an illustrious captain, Lee Kuan Yew.
In May 2012, former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 93, made a 15-hour trip from Hamburg to Singapore to meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew for the last time. They met for three days to discuss world politics. Matthias Nass, Chief International Correspondent of the German weekly Die Zeit, facilitated the discussion by posing questions from time to time.
Mr Helmut Schmidt and Mr Lee Kuan Yew held meetings in May 2012 at the Shangri-La Hotel. Excerpts of their conversations were included in the final chapter of Mr Lee's book One Man's View Of The World which was published a year later. – ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Once again, one last time the old friends wanted to speak to one another. At the beginning of May, Mr Helmut Schmidt and Mr Lee Kuan Yew met for three days in Singapore. The former chancellor, 93, and "Harry Lee", 89, the longstanding former prime minister and founding father of modern Singapore, had agreed to meet for a broad survey of world politics.
China's claim to power, America's self-doubts, Europe's crisis - these were the topics of a discussion in which both took stock of a total of 60 years of foreign policy.
The talks took place at the Shangri-La Hotel and always started at 2.30pm with a break after 1 1/2 hours. Mr Schmidt would then smoke a cigarette, Mr Lee would have a rest in his hotel room. After that, another hour of talk.
During dinner in a bigger circle, Mr Schmidt and Mr Lee led the discussion. The others would quietly speak to their neighbours.
They are friends and they once were powerful, each in their own way. Now, they take stock of their political career.
Helmut Schmidt: When I came to Beijing the first time, I was welcomed by the Emperor of China - it was Mao Zedong by the way.
Lee Kuan Yew: (Laughs)
Schmidt: Mao was a harsh fellow.
Lee: He was a great guerilla fighter who liberated China. But he also destroyed China with the Cultural Revolution. Eighteen million people died of hunger because they were supposed to melt down all knives, forks and spoons. The man was crazy. He thought after liberating China, he could just simply change the world.
Schmidt: He thought: "We don't need the industrial proletariat; we will take the rural proletariat."
Schmidt: But normally people in villages are not revolutionary.
Lee: I am not so sure about that. Now that people have iPhones, Internet and nationwide television, I think they are very dissatisfied because they can see the prosperous cities on the coast and their own pathetic houses.
Schmidt: When did you actually become Confucian?
Lee: I have already asked myself this question too. I think I was educated as a Confucian. Concerning family and values. There is a Chinese proverb which goes like this: If you care for yourself, you care for your family; if you are loyal to the Emperor, the country will be successful. This means, first of all, that you need to care for yourself and be a gentleman. This is a basic need. Every individual should try to be a gentleman.
Schmidt: I was raised as a Christian and, in the end, I believe in nothing.
Lee: Well, Europeans are different from the Americans. Americans are still religious...
Schmidt: Terrible! In such a naive way!
Lee: ...and they think evolution and Darwinism are nonsense, that the world was created by God.
I think Europeans are mentally far developed, as a consequence of two world wars. They were witnesses of pointless feuds and hostilities, hope and ambitious plans, that have led to nothing but tragedies. Napoleon tried to unify Europe, later Hitler did as well.
German newspaper Die Zeit: Especially against this backdrop: Is the European Union that we have today not a great achievement and an inspiration for other regions in the world, despite all its flaws?
Lee: No, I do not view the European Union as an inspiration for the world. I view it as an enterprise that was conceived wrongly because it was expanded too fast and it will probably fail.
Zeit: So Asia cannot learn from the European integration?
Lee: We cannot achieve integration in the same way, that is for sure. But what we can draw from this is the growing insight into our common interests, free trade zones, and then we can build up on it step by step. The problem in Asia is China's dominant position.
Zeit: So is free trade the maximum of what can be achieved in Asia?
Lee: Free trade and a feeling of belonging together; we do not fight each other. We settle differences, that is a fact. We meet regularly; we do not threaten each other.
Zeit: Couldn't the current crisis bring Europe one big step forward towards political unity?
Schmidt: In theory, you may be right, but in reality, we need leadership figures. We need people like Harry Lee or Jean Monnet.
Zeit: Like Angela Merkel?
Schmidt: No. Who was the greatest political leader during your time?
Lee: Deng Xiaoping.
Schmidt: I agree. I think Deng Xiaoping was the greatest of the political leaders I met.
Lee: He was 150cm tall but as a political leader, he was a giant.
Schmidt: And he was a smoker! (Broad laughter)
Lee: Yes he was. And he did not have pulmonary emphysema.
Schmidt: I had a discussion with him in 1983. We were sitting together, the two of us and an interpreter. We had known each other for almost 10 years then. That is why we were somehow familiar with each other and were speaking openly.
I teased him by saying that when being realistic the governing people in Beijing were not very sincere people; they claim to be communists but, in truth, they are rather Confucians.
And somehow he was shocked, he needed a few seconds, and then he replied the following, only two words: "So what?" (Lee laughs) I agree, he was a great man!
Lee: And he was prepared to learn. He came to Singapore and found this small island without resources, wealthy and rich with goods; people were doing shopping, their purses were full.
He looked at it, asked precise questions and came to the conclusion that it was our openness towards investment that brought technology and new markets to our country.
He returned home and set up six special economic zones with Singapore as a role model. He was successful and opened China step by step. This is what saved the country.
Schmidt: The 20th century was called the American century. Will the 21st century be a Chinese century?
Lee: If we are looking at GDP, yes. By 2035, the Chinese GDP will be higher than the American one. I am not so sure about soft power, the force of attraction because the Chinese language will be a problem for anyone who wants to integrate in China.
Zeit: There is a lot of talk about the "global shift" from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Is the Atlantic the ocean of the past and the Pacific the ocean of the future?
Lee: No, I don't think one should see it this way. I think that from the point of view of the Americans, Europe is a relatively safe ally today. Their problem will be China. So what does this shift mean?
It means that Americans need to concentrate their economic investments and military activities on the Pacific. It does not mean a shift of power in the world. It means that the American perspective shifts to a new threat to America's dominating position.
Schmidt: Yes. But their supremacy will not be as important as it was at the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century; it will decline step by step, and China will become stronger step by step, and Russia will not change step by step. (Lee laughs)
Lee: I agree with the last point. Yes, China will get stronger but I do not think China can get so dominating that it will control the Pacific.
Schmidt: No, this will take a very long time. It will take longer than one century.
Lee: It is impossible.
Schmidt: I am not sure if it is possible. But it is impossible in the 21st century.
Zeit: Where will Europe be in this new Pacific world? Which role does it play in the 21st century?
Schmidt: The word "role" reminds me that it comes from the world of theatres. In a theatre, there is either a tragedy or a comedy. We have seen enough tragedies; two world wars in one century, now is the time for a comedy. (Laughter) And there is a grain of truth in this nonsense.
Europeans are making fools of themselves. For 60 years, they have tried to unify Europe and now, we are in a deep crisis.
I have been convinced about the necessity for a European Union since 1948, I was 30 back then. But I underestimated the difficulties, mainly those of the national psychology and I underestimated the fact that there are 35 languages in Europe, on the basis of which Europeans define their national identities. On the other hand, Europeans will not suffer from their future. They will become less important...
Lee:...but they will lead a pleasant life.
Schmidt: Yes - and they will get very old. Older than you and me!
A picture taken off TV in 1983 showing then PM Lee discussing world economic problems with Mr Schmidt (centre) and former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger in Japan. – ST PHOTO
Zeit: One of the biggest success stories of Europe is that it is a peaceful continent today. I think one can rightly claim that Europe has learnt from its history.What about Asia? There are still tensions between China and Japan. There are many political flashpoints: Korea, Taiwan, Kashmir.
Lee: Asia has its own national interests which are in conflict with each other. There are two main forces: One is the importance of the Chinese economy, which is swallowing the Japanese, Korean and those of the rest of Asia. The wealthier and stronger the Chinese get, the more confident they are. That is why the other countries want America to be present as a counterbalance.
Schmidt: I think that one achievement of the Europeans, namely the welfare state, will spread out to other regions, to parts of Asia and definitely to the United States. The welfare state will definitely have a future.
Lee: The welfare state has to become more modest. As a student I grew up in Great Britain, immediately after the war. Back then, the Beveridge Plan was in place, according to which the British should be cared for from the cradle to the grave. I witnessed how this system failed.
When I went back to Singapore, where the British had introduced the same system, I silently ushered in the volte-face and said: No, no. First you rely on your family and when the family has used up all its resources, I help you.
Schmidt: Such a turnaround, namely that Europeans turn to their families, will not happen.
Lee: No, once you have lost this fundamental structure, you cannot rebuild it.
Zeit: In The Ballad Of East And West by Rudyard Kipling, it says "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". Is this ancient wisdom still true?
Lee: It is not true any more due to the possibilities of travelling and communication. The East is slowly changing and maybe the way the West perceives the East will also change.
Schmidt: I think the perception of the East by the West is lagging behind.
Lee: Well, I cannot judge that because I don't live in the West. I only visit. But the people I meet, who travel, are familiar with the West.
Schmidt: If they travel. Not everyone who travels understands what he sees. Especially if he is a foreign minister! (Laughter)
Zeit: Since the beginning of industrialisation, the Western model has been the dominating economic and political role model. It also influenced Asia. Is the West still an example for Asia or doesn't Asia need this role model any more?
Lee: Asia had to become industrialised because it was surpassed, because it initially refused to accept the industrialised mechanisation of the West. You know what the Chinese Emperor Qianlong told the British Ambassador Macartney in 1793: "We do not need these toys." Now, China tries to learn as fast as possible; the change in China is progressing because the political leaders think that the country has to catch up with the West and because it is underdeveloped.
Schmidt: I think around the year 1500, the Chinese civilisation, including sciences, was ahead of the European state of the art. Then the Europeans slowly developed something called democracy, something the Americans call capitalism, something that the Americans call responsibility to protect today, by which they mean the protection of human rights in other countries. It seems to me that Europeans understand these three elements as something that needs to be applied everywhere. And of course the Chinese, the people of Singapore, and a lot of other peoples, for example, in the Arab world, don't buy it. They are prepared to take over industrialisation but not democracy or human rights.
Lee: The Japanese and the Chinese and also the Koreans do not believe that it is their job to tell others what they have to change in order to better govern themselves. They say: "This is your responsibility. I do business with you on a neutral basis. I am not trying to change you."
The West has this missionary tendency, you think you have a system of universal values: democracy and human rights.
For some strange reason, democracy established itself in India, but not human rights. The most extreme human rights violations take place in India. In China, the idea of human rights is only starting to flare. But the idea that the state ranks highest and is untouchable is still very strong.
Schmidt: I think the Confucian system, which is still existent according to how I see it, has a big advantage because it barely has any religious aspects.
Lee: That's true. That is also why there have not been any wars due to religious reasons in China.
Schmidt: This is a huge advantage. The missionary eagerness of the Christian Americans, for example - one should try to find out where this is justified in the Bible. Because it is actually not deeply rooted in the Holy Scripture.
Lee: But it belongs to the culture of a people and its leaders to want to improve the government of other peoples. From my point of view, the West has the urge to think: I have been enlightened; I want you to be enlightened too.
But you can turn this motivation into the positive - that they think they would make the world a better world.
Lee: On the other hand, one can also perceive it as arrogance, namely that you think your system is better and you want to impose it on me. (Schmidt lights himself a cigarette)
Schmidt: Please excuse me, I was absent-minded and lighted a cigarette. Because I know that you are allergic to tobacco smoke, I did not smoke during the last two days and I will not smoke on the third one.
Lee: Thank you!
Zeit: Which human rights are universal and which are not?
Lee: The right of every individual to live his life as he wants, the right of every individual to security for himself and his family, the right of every individual to work, to education, to medical care and schools for his children - that, I think, the Chinese would accept.
But the individual right to go to court before being sentenced and put into jail, that is not a right which fits into their imagination. They decide whether one is a threat and then they lock one up.
Zeit: What about the right of free assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion?
Lee: The freedom of assembly is very limited in China.
Zeit: Should the West defend this right?
Lee: How can the West intervene here?!
Zeit: It is the Chinese themselves who ask for these rights. In 1989, demonstrators put up a "Goddess Democracy", a portrayal of the Statue of Liberty at Tiananmen Square.
Lee: Yes, but they were very idealistic young men who either had their heads chopped off or ended up in America. And the people just see it as an incident.
Schmidt: I think even as an old lad, I would fight with my own arms against people who try to abolish individual rights, and not only the right to life but all rights. But I would strictly refrain from intervening in another country to defend individual rights in the other country.
I have to say that I am very worried about the current catchphrase, responsibility to protect.
Lee: Like in Libya - if you kill a dictator by air strike, you have many little military leaders in the end and every one of them becomes a dictator.
Schmidt: Or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Lee: Yes. At the end of the day.
Zeit: Aren't there cases where you would have considered "the responsibility to protect" for the right answer? For example, in the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or in the case of the genocide in Rwanda?
Lee: I think genocide is not acceptable today at the international level. And if you kill people because of their race and you want to decimate the race, there is a right to intervene. Especially if a large country decimates a small one. Otherwise, there would be lawlessness in the world.
Schmidt: There is a danger that the responsibility to protect is unlimited. We probably would have had a good reason to protect the people in Rwanda.
It was a too-difficult enterprise, which is why it did not happen. Probably we even had a moral obligation, like with the people in Chechnya. It did not happen. Probably we had a moral obligation in the case of Tiananmen Square. There was no help. We did fulfil the duty where it was easy or where we would have propaganda advantages.
Lee: It must be practicable. One could not intervene at Tiananmen Square because it would have meant starting a fight with a very strong opponent. Rwanda - I think the Americans regret not to have intervened.
Schmidt: Do you regret that we have not intervened? (Long pause)
Lee: If you ask me whether I would send troops to stop the conflicting parties, I would give a negative answer. But when you ask me, whether I think that what you do is wrong, I would say: "Yes it is wrong."
Schmidt: I guess you are aware of the double-standard character of your answer yourself.
(Schmidt reaches out for his cigarettes again)
Mr Schmidt bidding farewell to Mr and Mrs Lee at Paya Lebar Airport after an official visit here in October 1978 to improve economic ties. – ST PHOTO
Zeit: Careful! (Laughter)
Schmidt: From time to time, I reach into my pocket automatically (laughs)
Zeit: For 500 years, the West has reigned over the world. This era is now coming to an end. Which era starts now? The Pacific century?
Lee: I do not share the view that this is the Pacific century. I believe it will be a century in which the Chinese and the Americans are competing for power across the Pacific. If Europe is capable of unifying, the world will have three poles. And with the Russians - should they recover - it will be a world with four poles.
The centre of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That's true. You must not forget that until 300 years ago, China produced 50 per cent of global GDP and it is step by step getting there again, unless something happens internally.
Zeit: That would mean that this is not really a rise, it is more of a reincarnation of China?
Lee: Whichever way you want to put it, it means a stronger China, a louder voice in the various organisations of the world and more military strength to keep others away from the country's borders.
Schmidt: It appears to me that this concept of a shift of power centres from the Atlantic to the Pacific originates in America and it has, in a way, been used to legitimise a shift in the strategic positioning of the US navy and the air force.
Today, the Americans have an air base on Australian soil and they have a permanent fleet reaching from the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea right to the coastal regions of Canada. In my view, the Americans are exaggerating.
I fully agree with Harry's answer. If we hadn't had the immense financial crisis in 2008, I would still repeat my old slogan that we are approaching a tri-polar world. It would have consisted of China, the US and Europe.
Lee: That could still happen.
Schmidt: It could still happen. Since that profound financial crisis, I am not so sure any more.
Lee: Europe can only move in two directions. If it is to preserve its unity and the euro, there must be more integration. It must not stop half-way. That's why I believe that the Greek crisis gives Europe the time to decide whether it wants to divide up into small states again and exist without influence, or whether it will unite and have one voice in this world.
Schmidt: I agree with you completely. The problem is that there are no outstanding leading personalities in Europe at the moment.
Lee: Yes, but crises can bring about leaders.
Schmidt: That is also correct. World War II produced Winston Churchill. But that does not happen in every century.
Lee: One never knows. This crisis will not come in two or three years, it will come in 10 to 20 years. When it comes, Europeans can make the decision: We will either get closer together or we won't matter any more. And once they have decided this question, there will be the opportunity for new leaders to appear.
Schmidt: We both won't live that long.
Lee: That's right, but I think I can make relatively certain prophecies. If that does not happen, Europe will not have a real weight and that would be a great pity for the world.
Schmidt: But it can still carry on living happy and satisfied in its little corner.
Lee: Yes, that is true. But it will not be part of the council of the world in which decisions over big events are made.
Schmidt: That's true.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew presenting a Chinese version of his memoir to Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping when they met at the Great Hall of the People Olympics on Aug 7, 2008. MM Lee represented Singapore at the Olympics opening ceremony. This is the second meeting for both of them, following their first in November 2007. – ST PHOTO
When a young party secretary of Fuzhou city visited Singapore in the early 1990s, he was invited to a private meal with then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
It was not, in diplomatic speak, optical parity. There was a chasm in their relative political statures.
The visitor, a little-known man named Xi Jinping, was a city-level official, barely 40 years old. His host was a global statesman who had just stepped down as prime minister but was still influential in Cabinet.
Compatibility was not the main item on the menu. It was cultivation.
Mr Lee, it is believed, wanted to meet Mr Xi because, among other reasons, the offspring of a Chinese revolutionary hero was seen as a potential leader of China.
His foresight stands Singapore in good stead, now that Mr Xi is set to take over control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Thursday.
For decades now, Singapore has nurtured ties with young Chinese officials, honing the art of spotting future leaders in a long-term political investment.
China analyst Li Mingjiang says: "Singaporean politicians understand very well that friendship and connections with Chinese leaders are very important for the sustained growth of bilateral relations."
The purpose, adds the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies observer, is to develop "person-to-person relations" early in their careers.
Besides Mr Xi, Singapore leaders have also been building guanxi (connections) with other contenders for the new Politburo Standing Committee, the apex council of the CCP.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this week in Vientiane, in response to questions by Singapore reporters: "We are very familiar with many of the people who are likely to be in the next leadership team (in China).
"We have worked well with them and we hope we will continue to work with them in the future."
Incoming premier Li Keqiang, for instance, was courted as early as 1995.
Then, a Young People's Action Party (Young PAP) delegation led by chairman George Yeo met Mr Li, who was leader of the Communist Youth League (CYL), here in Beijing.
It was the first visit between the two ruling parties.
In 2006, Mr Lee Kuan Yew detoured to north-eastern Liaoning to meet Mr Li, who was in charge of the province.
Such trips in China are often telling of who the Singapore Government is eyeing.
Besides Beijing and Shanghai, Singapore leaders usually like to fan out to the provinces, often selecting those governed by rising Chinese stars - no matter how remote.
"It is important to start this 'familiarisation' or 'reaching out' efforts early so that these up-and-coming leaders have Singapore constantly on their radar screens," says the East Asian Institute's assistant director Lye Liang Fook.
Of course, Singapore tries to build relations with future leaders of other countries too. China is by no means unique.
But given the growing strength of Beijing and its centrality in this region, it makes the political tilling in China critical.
In fact, in recent years, Singapore has already begun cultivating four Chinese young guns who are likely to rule in 2022.
PM Lee made a quick stop in 2010 in central Hunan to meet its provincial chief Zhou Qiang, 52, and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong visited northern Inner Mongolia to see its party boss Hu Chunhua, 49, last year.
Both Mr Zhou and Mr Hu are known proteges of President Hu Jintao, and earmarked for promotion to the Politburo.
Singapore also inked a deal in September for the Jilin Food Zone, a major project in the north-eastern province under Mr Sun Zhengcai, 49, another political star.
Young PAP chief Teo Ser Luck has met another high-flier - Mr Lu Hao, 45, leader of the CYL - three times since 2009.
But the long game of Chinese talent-spotting is a tricky task.
Politicians, civil servants and even businessmen all chip in with field reports.
Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Teo Siong Seng told Insight he and fellow members are unofficial scouts.
They keep an eye out for promising young officials in China during business trips and invite them to Singapore to meet the politicians.
But given the unpredictability and opacity of politics here, it is not easy to identify the right men.
"If you get it wrong, not only will you lose your investment payback, but you may also even get into trouble," says China expert Huang Jing from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
"For instance, if Singapore had been cultivating Bo Xilai, it would have been counterproductive."
PM Lee had met Mr Bo, purged in recent months amid a murder scandal involving his wife, in south-western Chongqing in 2010.
But in an era when strongman politics in China has faded, Singapore has a relatively broad-based scouting strategy.
Instead of just focusing on one or two, it builds ties with a large team of leaders, insuring itself against the vagaries of elite Chinese politics, when a princeling today could quickly turn into a pariah tomorrow.
Professor Lu Yuanli of Shenzhen University's Centre for Singapore Studies says the trick is to not "overdo it in building ties with a particular leader or a province lest others are offended".
Professor Huang cites a hypothetical scenario: "If you give Zhou Qiang, who is perceived as a next-generation leader, a project, rising local leaders like him, say Hu Chunhua, may expect that Singapore can do a similar project for him. But given Singapore's size, it is not feasible for it to do too much...
"You don't want to build up a reputation that Singapore is very shi li, which means pragmatic in a nice way or self-interested in a not so nice way."
Thankfully for Singapore, it has had more hits than misses in its decades-long cultivation of Chinese leaders.
Mr Xi, for example, is seen by many as friendly to the tiny nation. His endorsement of a major 10-part documentary on Singapore is a clear sign of the bilateral feel-good mood, which he is likely to encourage in his decade-long administration.
It could translate into closer trade ties, more businesses and political exchanges.
In tangible terms, Singapore can look forward to being a key offshore yuan clearing centre. It is a status coveted by other cities like Tokyo and London.
"So far, Singapore has done well in building relations. Singapore leaders are welcomed in many parts of China which may not be open to leaders from other countries," says Prof Lu.
Former foreign minister George Yeo, for example, was allowed a rare trip to restive Tibet in 2009. He was the first foreign minister to take the famous Qinghai-Tibet railway - the world's highest.
When Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen visited earlier this year, he was given a tour of the South Sea Fleet, which takes charge of the contentious South China Sea.
Such successes are, clearly, due to more than just clever talent-spotting. Good relations are founded on many other efforts as well. And both countries have established many institutions to interact regularly.
There is the annual meeting of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation - the highest-level body for political ties and economic cooperation.
Seven regional councils have also been formed, each tasked to build ties in a province in China.
Major state-led projects like the Suzhou Industrial Park and the Tianjin Eco-City also provide convenient and long-term platforms for exchanges.
The friendship of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has remained a key goodwill touchstone too.
But with the departure of the founding generation, observers say Singapore needs to keep up and even enhance its scouting and cultivation, despite the challenges.
China is simply too big a player in Asia to be ignored or downplayed, say observers.
"It is just like stock investing. If you invest in a blue chip, there are low risks but there are also low returns," says Prof Huang.
"But identifying the future leader in China is like investing in a start-up. The risks are higher but there could be a lot of rewards too."
Mr Lee Kuan Yew receiving the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal from ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as a tribute to his accomplishments as Singapore’s founding father on Oct 18, 2011. Mr Lee, who was on a week-long visit to Washington and New York, became the first Asian to receive the annual award, which honours people whose accomplishments exemplify the legacy of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln. - PHOTO: FORD'S THEATRE/ROBERT ISACSON
They honoured the controversial, though increasingly appreciated, Asian elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew at the historic Ford's Theatre in Washington recently, and I wish I had been there.
Exceptional leaders are hard to find anywhere on the globe, including in Asia. Until his recent retirement from the Cabinet, this tough-as-nails guy - now 88 - had helped to organise and run tiny Singapore almost like nobody has ever run anything. He certainly did not do things 100 per cent the American way. This made this US-led award event all the more extraordinary and noteworthy.
They call it the Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medal. Recipients are said to somehow exemplify the legacy of old Abe (America's 16th president Abraham Lincoln) himself.
So now, modern Singapore's founding prime minister finds himself in the same category as past awardee Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-apartheid crusader and 1984 Nobel peace laureate. And Mr Lee has become the first Lincoln awardee ever from Asia.
Who would have thought? Western human rights organisations must be furious, with their staunch principles. They so hated his control over the opposition and dissent. But Singapore, under Mr Lee, never cared much for what rights ideologues thought. Singaporeans did it their own way: They wanted nation-building results - and fast. Within decades, this is precisely what they have achieved.
The speed-demon era of Mr Lee is almost over, of course. Yes, his son is the Prime Minister and so the results-first legacy will endure for a time. But a new generation is moving into power and things will begin to change. This is as it should be. Nothing that is dynamic can stay the same.
In accepting the Lincoln Medal, Mr Lee made exactly that point about China. The 1.3-billion-people question is whether some sort of evolution towards democracy, however defined, is in the cards for what, in an earlier time, was called the Middle Kingdom.
The precise Mr Lee handled this monumental question this way: "The Chinese know their shortcomings. But can they break free from their own culture? It will mean going against the grain of 5,000 years of Chinese history.
"Can China become a parliamentary democracy? This is a possibility in the villages and small towns. This will be a long evolutionary process, but it is possible to contemplate such changes.
"One thing is for sure: The present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years."
One listens to what Mr Lee says about China with more than passing care because of his track record for correct assessments. Though a staunch and unyielding anti-communist, he accepts the inevitability of China's historic rise in this century and rates paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as the greatest leader he has personally met in his long career. When one considers the parade of stars in Mr Lee's illustrious life, that assessment is significant.
People had been calling him minister mentor until he gave up that title. But it was an apt title. My own gratitude to Mr Lee for his assistance with my journalism dates back to 1996, the year my op-ed column on Asia was launched in the Los Angeles Times (four years later it morphed into the syndicated version you are now reading).
It was a typically torrid October day in Singapore when he greeted me in his office. I had heard of him but never met him. The interview was scheduled to last about 20 minutes but rolled on for an hour. I asked him to focus on a rising China and how it might all backfire.
He said he had not been asked that before and, uncharacteristically, took a dozen seconds before speaking.
"Where could China go wrong? Impatience; wanting to make faster progress than circumstances allow; pushing too hard; taking short cuts that could set them back." This he said in 1996!
He added: "The natural ability is there... but that doesn't mean they can do what France and Germany can do... All the elements aren't yet in place... For instance, putting an object into space is not the same thing as getting a 747 airline accepted by the commercial airlines of the world. They lack this depth, and if they push too hard, they will stumble."
Mr Lee warned China against irritating smaller countries in Asia: "They have so much to do at home, they need their neighbours' cooperation. Look at this (off and on) row over Senkaku, which the Chinese call Diaoyudao."
But in the 1996 flare-up, China showed commendable restraint. So he pointedly added: "They could have made it a very big deal. China has been very cool - firm but no histrionics. That (should) sum up their policy for the next 10 to 20 years."
China's neighbours argue that it has not - that the nation has been pushing too hard in the South China Sea.
Perhaps China should inaugurate a Deng Xiaoping Award. Mr Lee could be its first recipient. Then he could give a speech and China's leaders would listen. It might do them some good. A properly and peacefully developing China is a gigantic plus for the world, not to mention for China itself.