Thoughts : International Development : Singapore’s Role in International Development

Yes, Singapore can afford to grow a bigger heart

I couldn’t agree more with Ms Laurel Teo’s Insight article, ‘It’s time our small city grew a bigger heart’ (ST, Oct 22). Perhaps we ought to take pride in Singapore giving away scholarships to students of foreign countries, rather than seeing ourselves as being taken advantage of.

Yet I don’t think such a thought would be easy for many Singaporeans who are facing so much pressure living in this globalised world.

However, one ought not to lose heart as, on the same day, we read of the great outpouring of generosity by Singaporeans towards the situation of Huang Na, a schoolgirl from China who went missing. No doubt there are many Singaporeans with big hearts. We just need to change the way we view things.

In particular, if Singaporeans would see that altruism and generosity are a good thing and that certain policies adopted by our Government have been inspired partly by such a spirit, we would perhaps be inspired to be more generous.

I am an exchange student studying international development in the University of Toronto. What attracted me to study here was my positive impression of Canada’s role in the international-development arena. From what I have read and learnt, I was impressed with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin’s effort in leading Canada and the world in helping the developing countries grow out of poverty.

I have told my friends that here is a country I would be very proud of being a citizen of. Not that I desire to seek citizenship here as Singapore has always been my first love. I am extremely proud of being a Singaporean but I would be prouder still if, one day, I could tell my overseas friends of Singapore’s leading role in the development of our Asean neighbours.

Singapore is without a doubt the richest country in our area, in per-capita terms. We have gone from Third World to First. And this is something we ought to be proud of. Yet this brings with it a social responsibility to be generous to the countries around us. We may be small as a dot and because of that not be seen as that influential a country in our region. However, we can show Asean our generosity, rather than our arrogance and self-centredness, which we are sometimes known for.

My dream is that Singapore would one day be known for its generosity in Asean, and not as the first economic wonder here. To this end, we need to not just concern ourselves with economic growth, as important as that may be. We all know we won’t be the most advanced nation in this region within a few decades, no matter how well we do things.

There’s no point in trying to stall the progress of other nations by refusing to be generous and not giving them scholarships and the like. Let’s instead continue to succeed economically but also build up goodwill among our fellow Asean nations by being even more generous.

I write this letter also hoping to find out more from the Government about our role in international development. Besides its policy of free trade (which anyway benefits Singapore as much as it does the developing countries around us), how much is Singapore doing in terms of foreign aid to developing countries? Are we planning to do more?

I hope the Government’s response isn’t that we are just leaving this to the ‘market’ or to international civil society or social movements to sort things out. No doubt that is important, though if the world is to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and if Singapore is to be one of those helping the poorer countries eradicate poverty, I believe more can be done. I hope so, for many lives in this region may depend on that.

Ontario, Canada

Singapore prioritises and structures its foreign aid

IN HIS letter, ‘Yes, S’pore can afford to grow a bigger heart’ (ST, Oct 29), Mr —– made a passionate appeal to Singaporeans to be generous and asked about the Singapore Government’s role in international development.

We agree entirely with Mr —– that no country can be indifferent to the plight of less fortunate countries. We live in one interdependent world.

Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong dealt with our international-assistance policy comprehensively in his speech to the Singapore International Foundation’s Anniversary Gala Dinner in September 2001. Now Senior Minister, Mr Goh described the international assistance we provide as ‘an obligation we assume as a responsible international citizen’.

We refer Mr —– and your readers to the full text of SM Goh’s speech, which is available at stars.nhb.gov.sg (click here for the speech).

But we must also be realistic. We are a small country and what we can do is limited. This is not an argument for doing nothing. It is an argument for carefully prioritising and structuring our assistance. We believe that international assistance is most effective when the frameworks and infrastructure to use it are present. That is why the bulk of our aid is in the form of technical assistance. We share our experiences with other countries so that they may adapt them to their own conditions.

The flagship of our technical-assistance effort is the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP). Since it was established in 1992, the SCP has trained over 31,000 officials from 157 developing countries. This is not an insignificant number for a small country like Singapore.

Still, the demand for international assistance is infinitely elastic while our resources are finite. We therefore give priority to our own region, Asean. At the centre of this effort is the Initiative for Asean Integration, which includes the Singapore Scholarships, where Asean students are given full undergraduate scholarships to study at our universities, and training centres in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to impart technical skills in a wide variety of fields to workers.

Singapore also makes voluntary direct financial contributions to international organisations. We contribute to the World Bank for its International Development Assistance Fund, to the Asian Development Bank for its Asian Development Fund, to the United Nations Children’s Fund, the UN Development Fund for Women, the UN Development Programme and to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, among others.

In 2001 SM Goh announced that the total value of our international assistance, using Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development standards, was about S$117 million. The figure is now considerably larger. Singaporeans have no reason to be ashamed of what the Government is doing by way of international assistance.

But like Mr —–, we do not believe that being a responsible international citizen is a matter for the Government alone. All Singaporeans have a role to play. And indeed Singaporeans have rallied to join the Government and the Singapore Red Cross to contribute in recent years to humanitarian efforts in Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Calls for international assistance will not diminish. Partnerships among the Government, non-governmental organisations and the people are the way forward.

Tan Lian Choo (Dr)
Director, Public Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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2 Comments

  1. Hi there,

    I did a quick search on Google about Singapore and its involvement (or lack of) in international development and got directed to this post. I’m a Singaporean now in Sydney doing a Master in Development Studies and have always wondered why Singapore, as such a wealthy and seemingly developed country, have such little interest in being a donor country. When (if possible for you to share) was the above note from the MFA was issued?

    Cheers!
    Mathilda

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