Stories > A Global Perspective

2018 • Issue 1

A Global Perspective

Associate Professor Simon Tay, a public intellectual who wears many hats, talks about Singapore’s place in the ASEAN community and regional environmental efforts.


Associate Professor Tay, who is also editor-in-chief of the Asian Journal of International Law, regularly contributes articles to various publications in Singapore and overseas.


imon Tay is a lawyer, author, environmentalist, and former Nominated Member of Parliament. He says he does not know how to define himself but, as early as 2000, the World Economic Forum – a Swiss non-profit organisation committed to “improving the state of the world” – dubbed him a “global leader of tomorrow”.

It’s not hard to see why. Tay is an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s faculty of law; the chairman of independent think-tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA); a senior consultant at Singapore law firm WongPartnership; and an advisory member on the boards of companies like Toyota, Hyflux, and Far East Organization.

Tay also represents Singapore at the ASEAN Regional Forum, which works to promote peace and security through dialogue and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. His work with the SIIA on combating the haze, and with the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, of which he is vice-chairman, has made Tay one of the faces of environmental efforts in Asia.

He says he learnt early in his career, from watching people such as Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, that good people who take positive action can make a difference. Another invaluable lesson that Tay says he learnt from Koh was the importance of increasing one’s circle of influence and cultivating one’s own image, skills, and stature. He also believes that after becoming an expert on an issue, one should look for other experts. No one person has all the answers, but he knows that whenever he reaches out to someone or makes another cross-border friendship, the gigantic tasks ahead of him become a little smaller.

“...There Is Always Room For Improvement In Knowledge And Empathy, So That We Can Better Understand And Operate More Fully In The Broader Society We Exist In. Singaporeʼs Contribution To Asean-wide Initiatives...cannot Be Just About Politics And Economics.”

Simon Tay

1. As Singapore’s representative in ASEAN, what do you see as its value to Singapore and vice versa?

Our economic and political future will be better if we maintain good relationships with our neighbours. It would be good for us, as we currently stand with regard to economic and political growth and development, to take on related issues. Singapore has capital and expertise; it is also able to contribute to institution building in ASEAN.

Of course, such efforts are not purely altruistic. We are the top investor in Myanmar, and near the top in Vietnam and Indonesia. This shows that the commercial part of our relationships has grown. But there is always room for improvement in knowledge and empathy, so that we can better understand and operate more fully in the broader society we exist in.

Singapore’s contribution to ASEAN-wide initiatives in general cannot be just about politics and economics. There has to be a “human face” to development in the region. Singapore and ASEAN need to consider how best to meet the needs of ASEAN’s people.

2. In both the ASEAN context and on an international level, how important is it for Singapore to build strong relations with other nations?

The haze is an example of why we need to work with other countries. It is a transboundary crisis caused by fires in neighbouring countries. It is something that Singapore is affected by, but cannot address on its own.

Also, few Singaporeans are going to make their future living out of Singapore alone. Singapore has become a hub and we think of it as a global city. At the community level, we’ve held talks on how to be more environmentally conscious, and hosted dialogue on promoting racial and religious harmony and combating discrimination. At the government level, we have advised the Brunei government on the haze. We’re now working with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, with support from the UN Environment Inquiry, to research the current state of green finance in Singapore.

3. How can we help Singaporeans better understand ASEAN’s significance?

ASEAN’s purpose includes political, security, economic, and socio-cultural aims. On politics and security, it is intended to maintain peace, security, and stability, which includes common responses to security threats and crime. On economics, it aims to create a single market and production base, and promote sustainable development. And on the social and cultural front, it has goals of alleviating poverty, strengthening democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights, plus other aims related to increasing the well-being and livelihood of people, such as education and promoting a common ASEAN identity. Most people are probably familiar with the organisation’s economic aims, but its political and social goals are likely not as commonly understood. In 2018, with the ASEAN chairmanship, Singapore will be in a good position to explain ASEAN’s significance.

4. How can Singapore continue to be a successful member of the ASEAN community?

Singaporean companies can invest and make us helpful or relevant to our neighbours. And when we deal in politics, we have to be much more ready to listen than talk. In many areas, we are not the experts. We are not living in that village; we are not on the ground. Active listening is a very important skill. We’ve got to listen and understand. One must have an awareness of cultural differences, rather than holding on to an assumption that everyone can learn from us.

5. In your opinion, has Singapore managed to communicate, to the world at large, who we are as a people, our beliefs and values?

Singaporeans are seen as practical people concerned with survival and profit. Some see us as a bit too smart for our own good; they may believe that what’s good for Singapore might not be good for them.

It’s not a competition of affections, but a matter of how to create win-win situations. Singapore wants to invest in other countries, and it’s looking for good quality investors who think long term.

6. You have been heavily involved in water resource management. Can you share an example where we have shared our knowledge for the benefit of others?

Water supply is an existential problem for Singapore. Half our water is piped from Malaysia. The second treaty on water supply will expire in 2061. But Singapore is now in a position where, if the price is not right for us in a discussion about a new agreement, we will be able to rethink our stand. We will try to reach an agreement, of course.

Our initial dependence led to us developing a powerful technical and commercial hub. Consider Hyflux: It started as a small company and now has big projects in Algeria and Egypt, making potable water accessible in these largely desert regions in amounts previously unheard of. It is great that Singapore, through companies like this, can do good (bringing potable water to millions of people) while doing business. Singapore can share its solutions for the benefit of others, and for profit too.

7. What is the role of SIIA’s regional strategy and can you give an example?

The SIIA has been tackling the haze for the past 15 years. When the PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) hit 400 in 2013, it was a critical moment – Singaporeans realised it wasn’t just a once-in-awhile nuisance.

We launched Sustainable World Resources, a policy dialogue with ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. We looked closely at companies with large plantations producing wood pulp, palm oil, and other resources. We looked at non-governmental organisations, experts, and local communities. We went right down to visiting the situation on the ground. We did this when we launched the first dialogue in 2013, and, at this year’s conference, we created a framework for green financing – implementation of financial instruments or investments that deliver positive environmental results, on top of business as usual.

We should find ways to motivate the right projects. If our banks are lending blindly to the wrong businesses, they need to open their eyes.

Last November, we brought a group of Singapore investors to a meeting in Jakarta. Community groups showed us what they would like people to invest in. We will be working together to make a difference.

8. You mentioned ways of motivating the ‘right projects’, such as green financing. How can that be achieved?

We are there to bring attention to it, to advocate that these are the right policies, then concierge some of the Singaporean investors. [In the aftermath of the haze] the governor of Palembang – the city in the region of the worst fire in 2015 – told us that they’ve put out a new model where they are encouraging investors, companies and communities to work together. We are focusing our limited resources on Indonesia and the haze. But more broadly, I think that green financing has a chance to take off because of the need for infrastructure in the region, energy structure etc – I think that will benefit everybody.

9. What is global citizenship? What does it look like for Singaporeans?

Singaporeans need to know what the global trends are, and find our own responses to them. Our Government does this, but increasingly, people are getting tired of the Government telling them what to think. For example, Singaporeans can consider whether we, as a financial hub, should think about investing in solar power, rather than fossil fuels. That way, we could find ourselves more obviously doing our part as a responsible global citizen.

10. Finally, on a personal note: your career has been incredibly varied and prolific. Can you share what it is that drives you?

The word, for me, is more “vocation” than “career”. I’ve always thought it important to gain knowledge and try to look for new ways to contribute to the country and the broader community. My Chinese name means “noble aspiration”, and to me, that speaks of trying to help society around you.

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