Ambassador ONG Keng Yong, who graduated from MAAS in 1983, remembers his time in Washington and sheds light on Singapore’s “price taker” approach to foreign policy.
By Ambassador ONG Keng Yong
In 1981, as a junior diplomat from Singapore, I was awarded a scholarship to pursue a
full-time master’s degree in Arab Studies. Having been admitted to the University of
Pennsylvania’s program, my wife and I were all set to spend two years in Philadelphia.
When our Ambassador in Washington, D.C. learned of my plan, however, he persuaded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore to send me instead to Georgetown’s CCAS. He said there’s no better place on earth than Washington, D.C. for a budding diplomat from a developing Asian country!
I spent an extraordinary two years at CCAS. It was a hard grind, struggling every day to
learn Arabic and coping with the theories of international relations and political science. In between, though, I visited the august halls of the U.S. Congress and other
universities in the Washington area to hear famous political leaders and scholars
seeking to change policies and the lives of their constituents. The Ambassador had
been correct: No place on earth can beat the capital of the United States in terms of its
combination of altruistic, diplomatic, intellectual, multicultural, and political pursuits.
Singapore’s diplomatic service is a small corps of professionals who are expected to
multi-task and cover a wide range of subjects and vast geographies. A diplomat on
study leave must also maximize his or her time in academia, which I was able to do
through the many training and network opportunities available in Washington. What I
learned in class, as well as what was happening inside the Beltway during that period of time, gave me invaluable academic and policy grounding.
After graduating from Georgetown University, I spent four years at the Embassy of
Singapore in Saudi Arabia. The Arabic competency I acquired at MAAS was very
useful, though the colloquial versions used in the streets of the Arab world were a
struggle. My classes on the history of the Middle East, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and developments in Islam, helped me survive grilling by Saudi officials, Arab diplomats, and the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Baz who questioned me on Singapore’s policy towards Muslims.
Singapore’s foreign policy continues to be shaped by the views of the country’s
founding fathers, who basically took the world as it is. We are the “price taker,” as
Singapore is too small—about 90% the geographic size of New York City—to dictate
terms to others. We make friends and seek to be useful to all, avoid taking sides, and
focus on problem-solving and the future. As inter-state issues are complex and time-consuming, we learn to accept that certain issues cannot be resolved neatly or quickly,
and that the best approach is to manage a win-win rather than a zero-sum game. This
means looking for like-minded countries and cooperating with each other to get things done.
In practical terms, for global and regional issues we act on the basis of principle,
cooperate on the mutuality of interests, and think in a strategic way. For a small country like Singapore, the rule of law and a rules-based regime are essential for survival in global affairs. Increasingly, foreign policy and domestic policy are not regarded as separate but as two parts of a complementary agenda. Citizens no longer see foreign affairs as “foreign” and want their own ideas to be advanced, while policy makers must synergize resources and opportunities, and apply the most suitable option.
My life and that of my wife changed greatly after joining the Arab Studies program at
CCAS. Our collection of camel artifacts and paintings since the posting in Saudi Arabia is still growing and bringing us joy—as well as headaches as we move around the world. My knowledge of the Arab world has continued to open doors to official contacts and connect me with fellow travelers through the labyrinth that is Middle East politics and society today.
Ambassador ONG Keng Yong entered the Singapore diplomatic service in 1979 and
has been posted to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, the U.S., India, and Nepal. For five years,
he was Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
headquartered in Indonesia. He is Executive Deputy Chairman of the S. Rajaratnam
School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Concurrently, he serves as Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and
Singapore’s non-resident Ambassador to Pakistan and Iran. He graduated from MAAS
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 CCAS Newsmagazine.