My farewell concert

05/08/2010

On 6 July 2010, shortly before leaving Singapore, I gave a piano recital in the Singapore Arts House (the Old Parliament building) in aid of the Business Times Budding Artists Fund.

The idea for this charity concert arose during a dinner hosted by Stavros Yiannouka, Vice Dean, and Astrid Tuminez, Assistant Dean, LKYSPP, at which I met the charming Deputy Chairman of the Business Times Budding Artists Fund, Dr. Clara Lim-Tan. Wine often leads to inspiration and Stavros’s choice in wine is always excellent…

The Budding Artists Fund provides music, art, dance and theatre classes to children from less well off families. The cause struck a chord with me immediately since I come from a working class family in a Welsh mining village and my own musical education benefitted considerably from private and public sponsorship.

Thanks to the support of the Lee Kuan Yew School and to generous press articles published by both the Business Times and the Straits Times, the concert was sold out and the event raised 10 000 Singapore dollars for the Fund.

Two lovely young violinists – Gloria and Shaine – and the One Republic Choir, all trained by the Fund, gave wonderful performances at the concert.

I performed works by Chopin, Mortelmans and Debussy. (The full programme notes may be viewed by clicking on the link at the end of this post.)

The concert was followed by a splendid Italian buffet and reception generously offered by “Sapore italiano”.

For me personally, it was a wonderful way to say “goodbye” to the Lee Kuan Yew School after the exceptional academic year which I spent there and to all my friends in Singapore. It was a real privilege to play in such a magnificent building – I really felt that this beautiful, intimate venue with the delightful reception and buffet supper recreated exactly the atmosphere of the “salons” in Paris in which Chopin first performed his compositions.

One more remarkable memory which I will keep of Singapore…….

For more details about the Business Times Budding Artists Fund,please click here.

For the interviews in the Straits Times and in the Business Times and for the full concert programme, please click below. Read the rest of this entry »


Korea: the sinking of the “Cheonan”

31/05/2010

As a visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School with some knowledge of the Korean situation (I was EU Commission Ambassador to South Korea from 2002-2006), I was invited to comment on the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the “Cheonan”, on Channel News Asia’s radio on 19 May and then on the 8pm television news bulletins on 20 May and 24 May.

It is very difficult to summarise in two minutes on tv a situation as complex as that of the Korean Peninsula, the last remnant of the Cold War. So I will try to take advantage of this medium to address the excellent questions raised by the Channel News Asia interviewers at greater length and hopefully more cogently.

I should preface my remarks by expressing my deepest sympathy for the loss of 46 innocent lives in the sinking of this ship – the sense of grief and outrage prevalent among the South Korean public is understandable.

The first question I was asked was of course whether the measures announced by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in retaliation for the alleged sinking of the Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo would have much impact on the North.

In all honesty, I have to admit that I think the South Korean President went as far as he possibly could go, without risking a dangerous military escalation. But in practice, the measures will not affect North Korea that much.

When President Lee was elected just over a year ago, he abandoned the so-called “sunshine policy” towards North Korea, initiated by former President Kim Dae Jung and pursued by his successor President Roh Moo Hyun, insisting instead on greater reciprocity from the North in return for economic assistance from the South. North Korea made things worse by exploding two nuclear devices, the first in 2006, the second in 2009, by testing missiles and by walking out of the Six Party Talks on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula (the talks involving the two Koreas plus China, Russia, USA and Japan had come surprisingly close to a deal in 2008). In practice, bilateral dialogue between the two Koreas has been suspended for the last 18 months.

The banning of bilateral trade between South Korea and North Korea announced by President Lee is significant (roughly $ 1bn per annum) but North Korea will probably replace this trade with increased trade with China, its main source of vital food and energy requirements.

Prohibiting North Korean vessels from using South Korean waters could affect the North but it also raises the prospect of military engagement especially in disputed waters.

President Lee has advocated a pragmatic approach to South Korean companies operating in the Kaesong industrial zone, situated just over the border in North Korea, which employs 30 000 North Korean workers and is considered to be the flagship for the co-operation between the two Koreas advocated by former President Kim Dae Jung. South Korea has said that it will also continue humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

So, since bilateral measures are unlikely to have a great impact, South Korea will raise the sinking of the Cheonan in the UN Security Council. It is not clear what kind of UN measures South Korea will request. North Korea is already subject to UN sanctions following its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, so there is not much more the UN can do. It is unlikely that the UN would impose tough economic sanctions, since China and others would not wish to precipitate the collapse of North Korea.

The US, Japan and most European countries can be expected to support a South Korean request for some sort of UN sanction. The question remains how Russia and China will react.

Both Russia and China have voted in favour of UN Sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

However, this case is somewhat different. Russia has already questioned the independence of the report proving that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Indeed they have asked why Russian experts were not invited to take part in the investigation. This would seem to indicate that Russia will take its time to evaluate the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

China is in a much more difficult situation. The North Korean leader, Kim Jung Il, visited China at the beginning of May 2010, that is while the South Korean investigation into the Cheonan disaster was taking place. China is Pyongyang’s only real ally at the moment and China is keen to avoid a sudden political or economic collapse of the North Korean regime. China has always detested instability on its borders and would not want millions of North Korean refugees pouring into China.

The South Korean media and some western media have expressed disappointment that Chinese Premier Wen Ziabao did not condemn the North Korean attack during his summit meeting with Japan and South Korea held in Jeju on 30 May. I think such expectations are unrealistic. In view of North Korea’s repeated and vehement assertions that it was not involved in any way in the sinking of the Cheonan, the Chinese Premier could hardly call Kim Jung Il a liar – especially in front of their old enemy, Japan!

Chinese diplomacy is cautious – especially when the stakes are so high. China undoubtedly has influence in Pyongyang but it also knows that the regime there is at its worst when it feels isolated.

The interviewers then asked me whether I thought there could be another war on the Korean peninsula. I believe that the military option is unthinkable and none of the belligerents can seriously be envisaging such steps. However, we must avoid a situation where parties stumble into war through tit for tat measures. The best hope we can have is that behind the scenes, China and the US can find a way of bringing all parties back to the Six Party Talks or whatever diplomatic framework can be made to work.

One last remark. North Korea’s vehement denial of any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan leaves me perplexed. In my contacts with North Koreans, I always found them very logical – indeed brilliant negotiating tacticians. Usually, when they explode a nuclear bomb, launch a missile over Japan, fail to launch a satellite, throw out the IAEA nuclear inspectors, they are quick to claim responsibility and even to boast about their achievements. It is always obvious how they will use these steps to obtain more from prospective negotiations. The North Koreans had always been careful not to antagonize South Korean public opinion. But in the case of the Cheonan, none of this applies.

I have just read the excellent article on 28 May published in the “Tribune” by Glyn Ford, former Member of the European Parliament and one of the most knowledgeable Westerners about North Korea I have ever met. In his article, he suggests that the EU could play an extremely useful role in helping the two Koreas out of the current impasse. Interestingly enough, in my 6 interviews by Singapore media last week, not once did any presenter mention the EU……


Cheers!

27/04/2010

This blog is getting serious and boring, so here is a photo of me having a drink with charming colleagues from the Lee Kuan Yew School!


My trip to Penang, Malaysia – what Tourists don’t usually see

13/04/2010

Just before Easter, I decided to spend a long weekend on the island of Penang. I had been attracted there by Wikitravel accounts of UNESCO world heritage sites, glorious unspoilt beaches and wonderful rainforests.

I am not going to write to you about those traditional tourist ghettoes.

Frankly, they did not impress me. Penang is just like Singapore – only poorer and dirtier. You can’t see much of the mountains or the historic buildings or the sea for the concrete towers springing up everywhere. As for the beaches, I could not take advantage of them because the sea was very polluted and apparently swarming with jellyfish.

So I am going to talk to you instead about the other side of Penang, which you will not find described in travel guides.

I hired a taxi for two days and visited most of the island. My driver was very knowledgeable and took me to see the Penang industrial zones.

Despite its booming tourism and retirement homes sector, Penang’s wealth is based on its special manufacturing zones, situated mainly near the airport, where a host of multinational corporations – especially in IT and electronics – have based low cost assembly operations.

To my amazement, the overwhelming majority of workers in these plants are single women from Vietnam and other poorer South East Asian countries. When I asked people why a low-income, high unemployment country like Malaysia would want to import so many workers, I was told bluntly that no Malaysian would ever consider working in such factories, while the companies claim that they can only compete with products from China by using imported – mainly Vietnamese – labour.

Having visited a few factory sites, my driver took me to the special villages built to house these single Vietnamese women. I was especially impressed by some tower blocks, apparently housing 9 000 women. I had a walk around and spoke to a few women who could speak French. Apparently, Vietnamese immigrants are normally indentured for 3 years. In the first year, they earn no wages – all goes to pay off the “agency fees”. In the second year, they can hope to earn perhaps US$ 200 per month and they might be able to save a little in the third year. There are only 2 ways to earn real money in practice. Either they can do a lot of overtime at the factory or they can work on the side as prostitutes in the bars in Georgetown.

I really cannot see any benefit to Malaysia in pursuing this kind of development. There are very few jobs for locals. Importing single Vietnamese women into a tiny island like Penang can only bring social problems. There is little transfer of skills or technology to Malaysia.

As for the Vietnamese female workers, wouldn’t it be better to employ them in Vietnam? At least there they would have the comfort and support of their families and communities.

But there is some good news. The Malaysian government has just published its “New Economic Model”, in which it deplores the kind of industrial development which I saw in Penang. Malaysia will never escape the “middle income trap” by pursuing this kind of low tech manufacturing, wholly reliant upon unskilled foreign labour. My experience is purely anecdotal but I cannot but support the government’s determination to move on.

So, if you visit Penang, don’t forget to see the industrial zones and the foreign worker villages – I dare say you will learn more about Malaysia there than in the Peranakan shophouses of Georgetown.


EU Climate Change Policy Post-Copenhagen

16/03/2010

On 16 March 2010, I gave a public lecture on this subject at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

My remarks were based on the European Commission Communication, published on 9 March (click here for full details)

My talk was followed by an interesting question and answer session, moderated by Professor T. S. Gobi Rethinaraj.

In response to questions concerning the EU’s apparent loss of leadership at the Copenhagen meeting last December, I pointed out that since the EU is the only party to have clearly defined, legally binding and enforceable CO2 emissions targets until 2020, other major emitters tend to take the EU’s contribution for granted. In practice, the Kyoto Protocol is kinder to outsiders than insiders. However, it looks as though the EU will remain for some time to come the only party with clear commitments and the only emissions trading scheme in the world (since it looks as though both US and Australian attempts to introduce cap and trade will fail) and the EU will continue to lead by example. A side-effect would be that as the EU’s share of world carbon dioxide emissions falls dramatically, the EU will in fact have less leverage in global negotiations.

Other questions discussed include the role played by nuclear power in France and Europe; the importance of overseas development assistance in encouraging renewables; the potential for vast displacements of people as a result of global warming; the need to reform the European emissions trading scheme; EU member states’ taxation policies on fossil fuels.


New EU Trade Commissioner, Karel De Gucht, visits Singapore

04/03/2010

On 3 March 2010, the new EU Trade Commissioner, Karel De Gucht visited Singapore in order to launch the negotiation of a new generation bilateral Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Singapore.

The Commissioner also gave a public lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, hosted by the Dean, Kishore Mahbubani.

The Commissioner provided an overview of EU trade policy, concentrating on the need to conclude the WTO Doha Development Agenda negotiations as part of the solution to the global financial crisis. He also stressed the importance of the bilateral FTA negotiations with Singapore which represent a new chapter in the trade and investment relationship between the two parties. He hoped that the agreement with Singapore and the decision in principle to begin negotiations on an FTA with Vietnam would lead ultimately to an ambitious EU agreement with ASEAN as a whole. In the lively question and answer session which followed his talk, he provided a robust defence of the EU’s trade policy, of the EU’s relevance to the world economy and of the EU’s role as a model for regional integration. The many students who attended were clearly impressed by Karel De Gucht’s frankness and his command of the subject.

If you want to see the entire webcast, please click here
Let’s hope he comes back soon!

Click here for some comments in the Singaporean press:Singapore-EU FTA talks kicking off on Monday


Lisbon Treaty: impact on EU external relations

25/02/2010

On 24 February 2010, the EU Centre in Singapore organised a panel discussion on the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on the EU’s relations with the rest of the world.

Click here for the programme: Flyer-24Feb2010-LisbonTreatyPanelDiscussion-v3

I gave an overview of the origins of the Treaty, its main institutional and policy changes and the main features affecting the EU’s external relations. My Commission colleague, Anne Pollet -Joris, currently a lecturer at NUS, described in detail the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on EU trade policy. Finally, Nicole Alecu De Flers, Visiting Fellow at the EU Centre, outlined the possible implications for EU-ASEAN relations, the main provisions on foreign policy and security and an assessment of the possible advantages and disadvantages for the future influence of the EU on world events.

There was an excellent turnout for the panel discussion.

The discussion was chaired by Reuben Wong, EU Centre, and was followed by a lively question and answer session.

I think the main points to emerge from this discussion could be summarised as follows:

  • it is still not clear whether the Lisbon Treaty will really streamline EU decision-making and make an enlarged EU more effective
  • despite all the debate surrounding democratic accountability in the EU, the negotiating process, the ratification process (failed referenda in France, Netherlands and Ireland) and the new decision making procedures introduced under the new Treaty represent little real progress in legitimacy
  • some doubts were expressed as to the enhanced role of the European Parliament and increased possibility for non-trade issues to hijack future EU trade agreements
  • lack of clarity in the respective roles of the new President of the European Council, the new EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, the President of the Commission, the six-monthly rotating Presidency of the Council for key EU policies relevant to Foreign Policy. Whether the EU will be able to present one face to the outside world will depend very much on the personalities involved and the nature of outside events.
  • maintenance of unanimity voting on foreign policy and defense issues will continue to limit the real effectiveness of the EU role in the world. 
  • it would be premature to try to assess the chances of success for the new External Action Service, since so much will depend on the implementing provisions to be adopted by the EU Council, the staff ressources made available by EU Institutions and Mamber States’ diplomatic corps and of course on the budget to be adopted by the Parliament.

For more details, please click here to visit the EU Centre in Singapore website.