It was a privilege to be asked by the White House to serve as the overall lead Advance staffer for Vice President Kamala Harris’ historic trip to Singapore in August 2021, her first to Asia as VPOTUS. The following are my personal views only, sharing a few thoughts of what the engagement meant for my home country and my adopted one, Singapore.
I have supported foreign visits on behalf of the White House and U.S. government senior leadership on five continents, but none have rivaled the complexity of executing a vice presidential visit, in all of its logistical scope, scale, and intricacy, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It was an honor – but also a daunting challenge – to be asked by the Office of the Vice President to lead the overall delegation that would prepare for Vice President Harris’ visit to Singapore. No visit of this kind is ever easy. This one involved weeks of negotiations with the Singapore government, and we ultimately were supported by over 340 American personnel, spanning logistical, security, communications and transportation resources, that traveled for the engagement. But while I have done this work in dangerous environments, and with more challenging governments, I was not fully prepared for the difficulty of executing a presidential-level advance while adhering to Singapore’s stringent COVID-19 safety protocols.
Here are a few thoughts of what the visit signified, and how we can advance the U.S.-Singapore relationship, as well as our regional interests in Southeast Asia, even further.
Reaffirming America’s Vital Status as a Pacific Nation
The visit by America’s first vice president of Asian-American heritage was consequential, if not historic, on multiple levels. And the Singapore government fought hard, including via laudable diplomatic efforts by Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri in Washington, to ensure that Singapore was “the first country to be visited in Asia” by the American President or Vice President in this Administration.
It also should quell any lingering calls of, “whither America?” in Asia. The messaging and events that VPOTUS undertook while in Singapore once again demonstrated America’s unparalleled ability to lead on the full spectrum of bilateral and regional issues – including political, economic, security, and civil society issues – in collaboration with its partners.
The VP reaffirmed our security interests in Asia, and the deep collaboration with the Singapore defense forces, by touring the USS Tulsa, a littoral combat ship that was moored at the Changi Naval Base, having just finished regional exercises. Simply enabling this on-ship briefing, amid strict COVID-19 measures enforced by both countries, took intense coordination up through and including discussions at the Pentagon and White House.
In her meeting at the Istana with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Vice President Harris did not shy away from the most challenging issues facing our Indo-Pacific partners. These included our interests in the South China Sea, the ongoing situation in Myanmar, and battling the impacts of climate change, which are acutely felt by Singapore and other island nations. She also pressed for reopening of travel with the United States, and advocated women’s economic empowerment and LGBTQ interests.
A highlight of the visit was the surprise announcement, during her vision-setting speech hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at Singapore’s iconic Gardens by the Bay, that the United States would host the 2023 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. This news was one of many examples of the VP’s focus on regional issues that span ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific.
Signaling the Strength of the U.S.-Singapore Partnership
Both sides wanted this visit to happen with equal vigor. The strict safety protocols by which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would allow the American delegation to enter and operate within the country were ultimately governed by a lengthy, legal undertaking between the countries. The limitations imposed to prevent a new COVID-19 spread ultimately had a significant operational impact on our team, as well as our colleagues in the U.S. Secret Service, the White House Communications Agency, and others on the ground.
But we recognized, as well, that this agreement was a necessary concession to allow our staff to operate – albeit in a limited, safe, and highly-structured way – to get their jobs done. Not a single American government staffer arrived at Changi International Airport on a commercial flight; rather, the hundreds who traveled in advance of the VP did so via “MilAir” flights on C-17 “Globemasters,” landing at Paya Lebar Air Base on the same humongous jets that carry the armored vice-presidential motorcade vehicles overseas. Over 6,000 COVID-19 tests were administered on these personnel over the two-weeks they were on the ground, and our itinerary and schedule was controlled and closely monitored.
What these necessary compromises allowed, however, was for our two governments to announce a range of new bilateral and regional initiatives and “deliverables,” all of which will strengthen the relationship in years to come. These wide-ranging, high-level commitments were touted in an official White House Fact Sheet.
Advancing U.S.-Led Economic Standards in Southeast Asia
Finally, a note to address a key question on the minds of many in the business community here in Singapore, “Where do we go from here, and how do we engage?” The visit established fertile ground for collaboration on a range of trade, economic, and commercial interests. But I believe there are two which hold particular promise.
First, the visit heralded the announcement that the U.S. and Singapore would establish a High-Level Dialogue on Supply Chain Resiliency. The Vice President made this announcement after holding a spirited roundtable with business leaders – ably moderated by my friend, Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei of AmCham Singapore – focused on tackling current regional and global supply chain challenges, and leveraging public-private partnerships to build more resilient systems. Industry input will be needed to shape the work and ambitions of this initiative, which will be regional in scope and led by the National Security Council in Washington, and from the Ministry of Trade and Industry here in Singapore.
Another significant outcome was the launch of the U.S.-Singapore Climate Partnership, which will focus on the development of high-quality climate standards and regional collaboration on sustainable finance, clean energy infrastructure, and innovation and deployment of new climate-resilient technologies. The U.S. Departments of the Treasury, Commerce, Energy and Transportation intend to develop a robust workplan in consultation with their Singaporean counterparts, and with industry. Companies looking to move the needle on sustainability standards in Asia should take heed, and consider engagement.
Despite the unique challenges the visit presented, I leapt at the opportunity to help ensure its success. It is not every day that one gets the opportunity to represent the highest levels of the American government in the country that I now call my adopted home. And most importantly, I look forward to working with our network of friends and partners, whether in the business community, the Singapore and American governments, or others who call Southeast Asia their home, to strengthen our partnership in the years to come.