'I’ve Gotten to Know so Many Wise People Through Asia Society'
Ambassador Chan about Singapore, her many interests and on how Asia Society influenced her life.
Rebecca Farner: You are Ambassador-at-Large with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What exactly is the job description of an Ambassador-at-Large?
Ambassador Chan: I do whatever the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asks me to do. When I returned from the United States and became Ambassador-at-Large, my first job was to be Singapore’s envoy to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – a consultative body of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to promote and protect human rights. In 2016 I was the leader of Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva 2016. On that particular assignment I had to follow the Ministry’s policies and instruction. On other matters if I choose to speak, I’m free to speak whatever I want.
I addition to your job as Ambassador-at-Large, you have various other mandates and still teach at the University. How do you manage to juggle everything?
I find that I have many intellectual interests. Focus on one doesn’t satisfy me and I like to do many things at the same time. My Ambassador-at-Large position is half time. The other half I’m at the University. I run the Lee Kuan Yew Center for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Last year I decided I want to teach a master’s course on smart global cities. I am also global Co-Chair of Asia Society. I wanted to give time to this worthy organization. My interest in internationality came with the good fortune to have participated in Asia Society events. When I was younger, I had the opportunity to attend a Conference because somebody more senior than me could not go and suggested I’d go in his place. That bounced me into a new orbit. I’ve gotten to know so many wise people, businesspeople and diplomates through Asia Society. I hope I can help Asia Society continue its good work.
Did you always aspire to a diplomatic career?
No, I always wanted to stay at the University. I didn’t know that I could be an Ambassador. I was the first woman in my country to be an Ambassador. When I was offered the job by my Foreign Minister, I was startled.
Would you say you are a feminist?
I don’t think I am a conscious feminist. I’d say I’m feminist by being. I just wanted to do well in my job and I didn’t let barriers stop me. I just did it. I guess I’ve shown the way for others by being the first. But I’m not actively fighting for women’s issues. I think you just have to do good work.
Singapore itself is doing quite good work. Like Switzerland you have no significant natural resources but are still economically successful. This is a unique story in Southeast Asia. Why Singapore?
We have a great geostrategic location and Singapore was blessed to have a first generation of dedicated leaders. It’s a virtuous cycle. You start well and you just keep improving. It could have been a vicious cycle and gone downward. Lee Kuan Yew was fighting communism and he did it by a better government – a non-corrupt government. If you are without resources, you emphasize on people. As Lee Kuan Yew said, it was just as well we didn’t have oil. We had to make our way in the world, work hard and focused on education.
Where do you still see potential for improvement in Singapore?
The whole world is changing all the time. You can’t sit on your laurels; you always have to improve. Singapore is now focusing on smart technologies, because without natural resources the only way to really move ahead is to have the whole country to become smart – a smart nation. We want people to be able to embrace technology. Singapore is very aware of the digital divide. We’ve got to work hard to make sure those who are left behind – the ageing, the poor – get accessed to technology as well.
What are your personal wishes for Singapore?
I wish we will continue the way we are. I wish Singaporeans would excel but never be complacent. If you want to stay ahead and want to enjoy a good life, preserve what you have and keep going.
Where are you heading in the next years yourself?
I will continue as I do. I hope I will have my wits about me until the day I die. I cannot see myself not active or without the ability to enjoy everything around me.
Ambassador Chan Heng Chee is Ambassador-at-Large with the Singapore Foreign Ministry and global Co-Chair of Asia Society. She also chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities and is Chairwoman of the National Arts Council, a Member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, a Member of the Constitutional Commission 2016 and Deputy Chairman of the Social Science Research Council, Member of the Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") and Data, Trustee of the National University of Singapore, and Member of the Yale-NUS Governing Board.
Rebecca Farner is Project Manager at Asia Society Switzerland.
For all of our events we have the honor to welcome interesting and fascinating speakers. They are not just experts of a particular field, but often have access to corners of the world most of us don't. As part of our Behind the Scenes series we let them speak about their life stories and experiences.