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Diplomatically Speaking: Ambassador Chan Heng Chee
Lessons in free trade, great cooking, and protocol from the longest-serving woman in the diplomatic corps
When Ambassador Chan Heng Chee arrived in Washington as Singapore’s top diplomat in 1996, she was one of only five female ambassadors to the U.S. and the first from East Asia. Now there are 27 women in the diplomatic corps, and Ambassador Chan is the second-longest serving diplomat in Washington. We spoke to her about the challenges of representing a small country’s interests, finding the perfect curry powder in Washington, and what American businesses can learn from Singapore. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Are there things that you miss about home? I know you’ve been overseas and in the U.S. for quite some time. What do you miss most, and how have you adapted to life here?
Actually, the United States must be one of the easiest countries to have a posting in. I think many countries come with an understanding of American popular culture, American foods, because your franchises are in our countries—McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, Seattle’s Best… . I did my post-graduate in Cornell, and I’ve been in and out because I’ve done sabbaticals… . For Singapore, we are a cosmopolitan city, and most of us travel quite a bit, it was quite an easy fit.
Most of us would miss our home foods, authentic home foods. I’d emphasize authentic. But I have a very good chef—I’ve had a series of good chefs—so they reproduce what we get at home. And today, in Washington, I can get most of the spices that I need. In fact, I don’t bring anything from home, I don’t write home for care packages. I buy everything here [she recommends Kam Sam Supermarket, Hmart, the Asian Supermarket chain] and we reproduce the authentic flavor in our kitchens.
Has that been a recent development?
When I arrived in July 1996, I was amazed at how much I could find here. I only imported a special brand of curry powder, but that was because I didn’t want the brands that were in the markets. I’m quite particular about that. I still import that because that’s the luxury.
Are there any restaurants that even come close to what you eat at home?
I think [rather than going to restaurants for authentic food] the Chinese ambassador would say the Chinese embassy. Taiwan, the trade representative from Taiwan would say his house, and the Thai ambassador will tell you the best Thai food is in his house. I think we all feel very strongly about our own kitchens.
It ha to be interesting being a liaison between Singapore and its expatriate community. Are there ways that Singapore is changing because so many students are studying overseas?
A decade ago, we were seen to be clean, efficient, a very good city to do business, but boring. [People said] “Singaporeans are so straight-laced.” Today, nobody says that anymore… . Young Singaporeans are hanging loose these days. They studied overseas, they worked overseas, and they’re lively. Where previously we were engineers, economists, computer scientists, and medical scientists, today we have added to that list chefs, dancers, musicians, playwrights, creative people. And Singapore has become a center for creative graphics and animation. Singapore clearly has changed.
I’m sure that has to be gratifying.
It’s easy for me to represent Singapore. It’s easy and hard. When I came, it was hard because we had just caned the American boy. It was challenging, but we have turned a page. That made my work very challenging in the beginning because I had to explain to Americans, especially to American media. Singapore is really quite a wonderful country… . Today, I don’t find it difficult to represent Singapore because everyone identifies Singapore as the country that works. It’s the little country that could.
What are some of the challenges of advocating for Singapore’s top issues in a town where people have issue-based schizophrenia? When you first arrived here, trade was a much hotter issue [Singapore signed a free-trade agreement with the U.S. in 2003 that went into effect in 2004].
Americans and free trade seem to go hand in hand, and then the voices for free trade got softer. During this time of recession, it hasn’t been a very clear or loud voice. I do talk to people about free trade, even up on the Hill. Singapore has a good story to tell. In signing the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, I can report to people on the Hill that the U.S. has a trade surplus with Singapore. Before the financial crisis, it was $10 to $13 billion in the U.S.’s favor. You sell more to Singapore than you do to Russia. And to many of the European countries… . We are a major oil-refining center. We are the current largest oil-refining center in the world, so we buy a lot of chemicals and petroleum-industry products.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned over your time here about how to reach out?
First, don’t waste anybody’s time. If you don’t have an issue, don’t make the call. Find the issue, and be clear about your presentation. Congressmen are busy people. Courtesy calls aren’t something that they’d like to do a lot of.
Do you think there are special challenges to being a woman in the diplomatic corps?
The specific advantages of being a woman ambassador, when I came, I found myself often seated next to the host on the left side or the right side because I’m a woman. That wins you a seat for the first time. I think hosts are discerning. If you make good conversation or intelligent conversation, you’ll get good seats.
Has it been a relief to have more women in the corps? Do you feel like you have company?
One of the difficulties of organizing the women ambassadors, we come from different regions, our issues are different… it’s hard to organize us. Because ultimately ambassadors are here to represent their countries and push their issues and to have a dialogue with the United States on their specific issues. We are ambassadors first.