Half of S'pore's Cabinet ministers studied in the US, including the PM: Biden nominee for S'pore Ambassador Jonathan Kaplan

Singapore has not had a US Ambassador since Kirk Wagar left in 2017.

Sulaiman Daud | October 27, 2021, 03:27 PM

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President Joe Biden's nominee for the post of Ambassador to Singapore, Jonathan Kaplan, had the opportunity to make his case before the U.S. Senate on Oct. 20.

In the hearing, he touched upon the U.S.' strong economic and security ties with Singapore, but also addressed questions about Singapore's press and media freedom.

Who is Jonathan Kaplan?

Jonathan Kaplan is a businessman who made his name in the technology sphere. According to Bloomberghe was formerly the CEO of a company called Pure Digital Technologies.

The company invented the flip video camera, and was bought out by Cisco in 2009 for a cool US$590 million (S$795 million).

Kaplan left the company and started a new fast food restaurant called Melt, which sold grilled cheese sandwiches. It also had a technological element, being one of the first fast food chains to allow customers to make takeaway orders on their smartphones.

He left this company in 2016, and is currently the chairperson of a non-profit organisation (EducationSuperHighway) that seeks to connect public schools in the U.S. to the Internet.

The Wall Street Journal identified Kaplan as someone who raised at least S$100,000 (S$134,800) for Joe Biden's presidential campaign in 2020, citing records publicly released by the campaign.

What did Kaplan and the Senate say?

During his Senate hearing, Kaplan was joined by Nicholas Burns and Rahm Emanuel, Biden's nominees for Ambassadors to China and Japan respectively.

Perhaps understandably, this meant that the hearing was dominated by questions from the senators for Burns and Emanuel, with Kaplan being addressed rather less often.

However, the hearing, which you can watch on C-SPAN, yielded some interesting insights into the U.S. view of Singapore, and Kaplan's priorities should he be nominated to the post.

Kaplan's opening statement

Economic ties

In his opening statement, Kaplan said that the U.S. partnership is "critically important" to strengthen relationships and defend the U.S. position within the Indo-Pacific region.

"For 55 years, U.S.-Singapore diplomacy has fostered a strong friendship, a mutual respect and a steadfast commitment to one another. The United States and Singapore's enduring partnership is based on mutual economic interests, robust security and defence cooperation, and strong people to people ties. Our two countries are close partners in support of a rules-based economy and unwavering security throughout the region."

Kaplan added that Singapore is a "vital economic partner" of the U.S., with over 5,400 American companies registered here, providing investment for the region, and directly supporting over 215,000 jobs in the U.S.

He noted that the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore was the first that the U.S. had with any Asian country, and that it has now become the "cornerstone" of a US$90 billion trade partnership.

He further pointed out that the U.S. is Singapore's largest foreign investor, with over S$270 billion in direct investments. This is also the largest U.S. investment in the Indo-Pacific region.

If confirmed, Kaplan said he would strengthen the bilateral trade relationship, advance an economic agenda promoting shared prosperity, and work closely with Singapore to tackle the climate crisis.

Security ties

Kaplan also noted the security ties between the two countries. He highlighted that Singapore is a critical partner in enabling a strong U.S. security presence in the region.

Singapore is Southeast Asia's largest purchaser of U.S. military equipment, with over S$20 billion in both direct commercial sales and foreign military sales over the past ten years. Kaplan also highlighted the recent purchase of F-35 fighter jets by Singapore.

"If confirmed, I look forward to the opportunity to strengthen our security cooperation, and defend a rules-based international order, which has supported peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region," Kaplan said.

Educational ties

Kaplan said that people-to-people ties are robust, particularly in the educational sphere.

Before the pandemic, Kaplan noted that over 4,000 Singaporeans were studying in the U.S., and over 1,000 Americans were studying in Singapore.

"In fact, more than half of Singapore's Cabinet Ministers have studied in the United States, including the current Prime Minister who studied at Harvard," he added.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indeed earned a Master of Public Administration at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in 1980, where he was a Mason Fellow.

The others who earned the same degree in the Cabinet are Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, Transport Minister S Iswaran and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, with other ministers also having attended other schools in the U.S.

"They may not want to change, we're going to want them to change"

During the hearing, Ben Cardin, a Democrat senator from Maryland, mentioned that when people think of Singapore, they recognise its economic power and strategic location along the shipping lanes, but there's "another part" to Singapore.

"It's a rigid country," said Cardin, citing the Reporters Without Borders ranking that placed Singapore at 160 out of 180 in its annual World Press Freedom index, behind neighbours Cambodia and Myanmar.

He asked how would Kaplan make press freedom a priority, and how the safety of reporters and freedom of the media will "have a voice" in the U.S.'s mission in Singapore.

Kaplan replied that the U.S. and Singapore have been longtime partners in other areas, and when it comes to a topic like freedom of the press, he intends to engage the Singapore government on the issue.

"The nice thing is friends are able to talk about difficult topics.

They may not want to change, we're going to want them to change, but we're going to have a dialogue. This is an area of fundamental freedoms, this is a topic of importance for the Administration, and this is a priority for me."

Cardin then asked, "Will you make your office available for those in Singapore who need a voice in regards to the freedom of the media?"

"Absolutely. Again, globally this is an important issue. It's not just an issue that is personally important to me but it's important to the United States, and the Administration overall," Kaplan replied.

Tim Kaine, a Democrat senator from Virginia, also touched on the topic, saying that for "so much right" in the U.S.-Singapore relationship, the low ranking in global press indices is a "continuing challenge", and said that if confirmed, he looked forward to working with Kaplan on the issue.

Singapore's position

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong previously addressed Singapore's low rankings in Reporters Without Borders' global press freedom index, in 2005 and 2017.

They questioned the methodology used, and the objectivity of Singapore's critics.

No Ambassador for years

Singapore has been without an official U.S. Ambassador since Kirk Wagar departed our shores in early 2017.

Donald Trump first nominated KT McFarland, former Deputy National Security Adviser to the post. But her nomination stalled in the Senate after questions were asked of her role in the investigation over Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump's second nominee, Barbera Hale Thornhill, the head of an interior design firm in Los Angeles, was returned by the Senate for renomination. When Biden took office, he withdrew her name from consideration.

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Top image from C-SPAN video.

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