May 14, 2007

How long more can the Starlight still shine brightly?

The crash of the Taiwanese F-5F Tiger fighter jet that killed 2 SAF "Starlight" personnel last Saturday, was an unfortunate metaphor for the strained relationship between Singapore and Taiwan in recent years, and also the issue of the Starlight presence in Taiwan.

Being a Singaporean working in Taiwan for the past 6 years, I'm naturally sensitive to such events, not because I'm worried of being spat by the locals with a mouthful of betel-nut juice, but believe it or not (coming from a so-called "quitter"), about the image of Singapore in the eyes of the Taiwanese.

An article by a China Times editor expresses her views on the crash, and summarizes quite succinctly the history of how Starlight came to being, and how relations soured to its present state. Here is my translation, any mistakes all my own.

The original article can be viewed here.

How long more can the Starlight still shine brightly?

by Sheena Chang (China Times)

The Taiwanese military fighter accident that killed two Singapore servicemen who were training in Taiwan, has forced Singapore to officially acknowledge for the first time the existence of the "Starlight program". This accident may not necessarily affect the continued existence of the "Starlight program", but Taiwan-Singapore relations, which has gone increasingly downhill these past few years, is really the question worth noting.

Due to Singapore's limited geographical size, there is no space large enough for military exercises, hence the need for co-operation with allied countries for training agreements. Thanks to the close friendship between former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the late Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo, both countries signed the agreement for the Starlight program in 1975, after which Singapore began to dispatch servicemen to Taiwan for training.

Military training agreements are different from normal bilateral cooperation, because national defense is the lifeline of a country's survival, and troop equipment, engagement plans and operational capability are of the utmost national security and obviously cannot be leaked. Allowing foreign troops to train with local forces exposes much of the internal workings to them, and this cannot be achieved without a certain degree of mutual trust. As a result, the Starlight program remains the best testimony of the relationship between Taiwan and Singapore.

Bilateral ties were really quite good in the past, as Lee Kuan Yew enjoyed the scenery of the Sun Moon Lake and A-Li Shan, and visited Taiwan on vacation every year, often in the company of Chiang Ching-kuo. After observing Lee Kuan Yew chatting with the locals in Hokkien, Chiang lamented his own inability to talk to converse with the locals, with Lee even exclaiming "I'm also a Taiwanese".

After Lee Teng-hui succeeded as president, he originally continued friendly relations with Lee Kuan Yew, making his first official foreign visit to Singapore. But due to Lee Teng-hui's criticism of Lee Kuan Yew's "Asian-style democracy" , leaving Lee Kuan Yew frothing at the mouth, the rift between the two Lees being to widen from that point on, with Lee Kuan Yew not returning to Taiwan on vacation for several years. But from a wider perspective, the two Lees represented two different models of Confucian cultural development. Lee Teng-hui professed to have founded democratic reform Taiwan, and Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore is the successful example of the patriarchal model. Lee Teng-hui felt that the significance of his democratic achievements surpassed that of Lee Kuan Yew, but of course Lee Kuan Yew begged to differ.

Once the seeds of discord were sown, ties were difficult to mend, especially when the "two Lees" were known for their temperament and pride. Afterwards to make matters worse, Lee Teng-hui's visit to the US ignited cross-strait tensions with China, which Lee Kuan Yew criticized repeatedly on Taiwan's actions. Of course, Lee Teng-hui was not known for accepting such face-on criticism, and this led to a further deterioration of ties.

The foreign media eloquently described Lee Kuan Yew as "a fish too big for its pond". Indeed, to a big fish like Lee Kuan Yew, a small pond like Singapore was not big enough to contain his political aspirations. Hence he hoped to play a bigger role in the international arena, including cross-strait relations and China's development.

He focused on the practical side, and felt that China's rise cannot be taken lightly, and cross-straits peace must be maintained. As a result, he disagreed with Taiwan taking a radical stance and standing for independence in defiance of the Chinese Communist Party, which obviously fell on deaf ears with the Taiwanese government.

The national interests of Taiwan and Singapore are certainly different, and it is difficult for the outsider to understand the long-term suppression of pride, the indignity and fear of security constantly being threatened. But Taiwan's reading and handling of the international situation is still at odds with international society, causing the country to distance itself with the rest of the world.

But Taiwan is still a very suitable military training location, and therefore although Singapore continues to sign training agreements with other countries, Taiwan-Singapore ties continue to turn cold, but the Starlight program still manages to hang on. The thing is, it may be quite impossible for the time being for Taiwan and Singapore to recover their former close relationship.


Ang Han Hwee said...

I share your sentiments about the images of Singapore in the eyes of Taiwan too. I'm only here half your time but most of the time here i kept silence about my nationality until asked. Because you never know the person you are talking to has a good or bad impression of Singapore.

ahmad said...

Hi Han Hwee,
I also tend to conceal my Singaporean identity until asked, because my Taiwanese accent is quite authentic and people normally don't notice I'm a foreigner. But people that I've talked to here generally regard Singapore in a positive light, it's ME that's giving them the negative side of the story...*ahem*

Anonymous said...

Hi one & all,
Maybe the gahmens of both sides has their relationship souring..
My experiences are that generally the people of both countries are cordial & expresses admiration for each other.
Taiwanese love Sengkapoh for her ability to keep her place, buildings, even people - clean.
We Sengkapolians love the character, the free spirit, resilient, gracious fun-loving attitude of the Taiwanese.