SM Teo Chee Hean at the Middle East Institute's Annual Conference

SM Teo Chee Hean | 23 February 2021

Opening address by SM Teo Chee Hean at the Middle East Institute's Annual Conference on "Meeting the Future Together: Opportunities and Challenges for the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East" on 23 February 2021. 


The Indo-Pacific and the Middle East: New Partnerships for a Changing World

Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute (MEI),

Ms Michelle Teo, MEI Executive Director,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to join everyone today at the MEI’s annual conference. I am glad that the MEI has continued with this conference with today’s gathering of distinguished Middle East experts, to discuss this important region, and what the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East can do together.

The Indo-Pacific and the Middle East

Asia, including both the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East, is responding to a changing world. The centre of gravity of the world is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in particular in the economic arena. This includes energy and trade flows, and increasingly in two-way trade and investment, capital flows and technology. Many economies in this vast region have been growing much faster than their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, pulling the centre of global economic activity steadily eastwards.

Internally, both regions are responding to new domestic imperatives. Both regions are undergoing significant demographic changes, with some regions and countries characterised by growing young populations, while others are rapidly ageing. Today, I want to focus on the youth part.

Asia on the whole is home to the world’s largest number of youths aged 15 to 24. 30% of the world’s youth are in Central and South Asia, numbering 361 million as of 2019. In East and Southeast Asia, despite slowing birth rates, there are 307 million or 26% of the world’s youth. In the Middle East and North Africa region, nearly half of the current population are aged 24 and below.

These youths have different ideas of personal independence than their parents’ generation. They have different expectations for education, employment, travel and social participation. They demand greater engagement from their governments. The role played by youths in the Arab Spring from a decade ago, as well as the youth movements in East and Southeast Asia demanding reform, demonstrate the need for governments to continually address the needs and demands of young people.

Beyond facing similar external and internal circumstances, both the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East have unique characteristics which make engagement and exchanges all the more interesting and fruitful. Let me highlight three key areas: first, economic partnerships; second, religious exchanges; and third, people-to-people interactions.

First, economic partnerships. The Middle East has traditionally been a key source of energy. But as the world grapples with climate change and shifts towards clean energy, countries are looking for alternative economic models and sources of growth. On the other hand, East Asia and the Indo-Pacific have traditionally been a source of industrial and consumer goods. Countries are now seeking to transform their industrial base, look for green growth, and move up the value chain.

Against this backdrop, new partnerships are forming. Trade between our regions is growing and becoming more diverse. For example, between 2000 and 2018, GCC trade with China grew by five times to US$139 billion, and with India by four times to US$77 billion. Singapore was the first country from outside the region to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC. The GCC-Singapore FTA, which came into force in 2013, has helped to bolster our economic ties over the years and laid the foundations to diversify our trade with the GCC. When traditional supply chains were disrupted by COVID-19 last year, Singapore looked to the Middle East to diversify our supply chains and safeguard our food supply, such as by importing prawns from Saudi Arabia – something not so traditional, but a useful source for us nevertheless.

Investment flows are also now two-way. Whereas Gulf sovereign wealth funds had previously focused more on mature markets like North America and Europe, they have recently shown greater interest in Asia. For example, the Saudi Public Investment Fund has broadened its domestic investments to include overseas ones, including a US$45 billion investment in a high-tech fund managed by Japan’s SoftBank. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has invested in property in Singapore and Shanghai as well as India’s agrochemicals company, UPL Corp. The Qatar Investment Authority announced last month that it is looking for deals in Asia to diversify its investment portfolio, including in India, Malaysia, Singapore and China.

New partnerships are forming in sectors like technology, sustainability and info-communications development. Both sides can work with each other to accelerate their modernisation and diversification efforts. For example, there is potential to participate in various initiatives across the Middle East, such as Smart Dubai 2021, Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Programme 2030, and Morocco’s Mohamed VI Tangier Tech City. In August 2020, the UAE started operations at the first unit of the South Korean-built Barakah nuclear power plant, marking the first operation of a peaceful nuclear reactor in the Arab world.

Second, religious interactions. The Middle East has inspired and influenced the religious beliefs, values and practices of many faiths. The major world religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism trace their origins there. In particular, the Middle East holds special significance as the origin of Islam and the seat of its holiest sites.

Through globalisation, societies around the world have become increasingly multicultural and diverse. It is difficult to think of any society anywhere in the world without a Muslim community. Muslims form the second largest religious group in the world with 1.8 billion followers, after Christians with 2.3 billion followers. According to the Pew Research Centre, the Muslim population will grow twice as fast as the overall world population between 2015 and 2060. In the second half of this century, Muslims are likely to surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.

However, Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa constitute only 20% of the world’s Muslim population. Here in the Indo-Pacific, we collectively have the largest number of Muslims anywhere in the world, at 62%. The top four countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world, as of 2015, are all in the Indo-Pacific – Indonesia with 12.6%, India with 11.1%, Pakistan with 10.5% and Bangladesh with 8.2%.

As the seat of Islam, how the Middle East understands the religion, and Islam’s relationships with other faiths, will shape the practice of Islam all over the world, including in Asia. Many aspiring Islamic religious teachers from our region, including Singapore, study in the Middle East and North Africa, and come back to contextualise what they have learnt to our own multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Arabic is now the fifth most spoken language in the world with more than 250 million native speakers. Here in Singapore, our secondary school students have been able to learn Arabic as a third language, in addition to English and their mother tongue, since 2008. Other third languages offered in Singapore include Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. The learning of Arabic will bolster our people-to-people ties and promote a better understanding of the Arab world and Islam.

In fact, this has taken on greater importance today. Islam has unfortunately been misinterpreted and misused in some quarters. The Indo-Pacific can work together with the Middle East to stand firm against violence and terrorism, and promote more tolerance, moderation and accommodation among all religions. We should also work together to promote a better understanding of Islam, in particular its fundamental beliefs and values, around the world. These include major initiatives such as Jordan’s Amman Message and the UAE’s Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019. 

Third, people-to-people interactions. The Indo-Pacific and the Middle East have our own cultural characteristics, but also many similarities. This has provided the impetus for regular engagement. For example, Korea and Japan are not only major investors in the Middle East over the past few decades; they have also had significant historical cultural and commercial exchanges. The traditional Korean lunar calendar was likely to have been influenced by Islamic calendar science. There was a grand mosque in Gaegyeong, the capital city of the 13th-century Goryeo kingdom. The Ottoman Empire established relations with Meiji Japan, and sent a mission with 600 officers and soldiers to Japan in 1890.

China established relations with the Middle East even earlier, in the 7th Century during the Tang Dynasty. China is now re-engaging the Middle East in a major way, most notably through the Silk Road Economic Belt of its Belt and Road Initiative. India, given its proximity, shares deep civilizational roots, cultural exchanges and historical linkages with the Middle East.

Southeast Asia too has a long relationship with the Middle East. The Tang Shipwreck – a 9th Century dhow, laden with porcelain from China, including Chinese porcelain decorated with Islamic motifs – which was discovered off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia in 1998, was likely to have been bound for present-day Iraq and Iran. This dhow paints a picture of the rich economic, cultural and people-to-people exchanges that connected civilisations along the Maritime Silk Road over more than 1,200 years – along the ancient trading routes between the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and China.

The discovery of the Tang Shipwreck confirmed that overland routes were not the only trade connections between East and West, and that Southeast Asia lay at the heart of a well-established global maritime trading network. Beyond economic exchanges, this route facilitated the exchange of ideas and peoples. Muslim traders brought Islam from the heartlands of the Arab peninsula to Southeast Asia. Some Arab traders sank their roots in Southeast Asia, of which the Hadramis from Yemen were the most prominent. The Aljunieds, the Alkaffs and the Alsagoffs are among the well-known Arab families in Singapore. To commemorate these longstanding ties, Singapore and Oman collaborated to build a replica of the dhows which made such remarkable journeys. Named the “Jewel of Muscat”, she sailed from Muscat to Singapore in 2010 with a crew comprising Omanis and Singaporeans. 

We also share a more recent history. Many of the countries in the Gulf became independent from European powers at about the same time as those in the Indo-Pacific, from the late 1940s to the 1960s. This shared historical context and political experience bind us together. Our two regions can exchange experiences and knowledge about each other’s development journeys and governance as we foster closer ties between the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. In fact, the more we know one another, the more we appreciate the things that we share in common.

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how closely intertwined our countries and people have become. This makes it even more imperative that we rethink, refresh and revitalise our traditional relationships; build more diverse and wider networks; and explore new areas for cooperation in technology, the digital economy and people-to-people ties. There is also an opportunity for us to shape a new world architecture for all countries big and small to cooperate and thrive in peace together.

The MEI has provided this useful platform to encourage inter-regional interaction and promote Asian scholarship on the Middle East. I would like to thank all the participants for supporting this conference and sharing new ideas for cooperation. I wish everyone fruitful discussions in our continuous journey of friendship, partnership and rediscovery between our two regions.

Thank you, and I look forward to hearing your views and ideas as well. 


Mr Bilahari Kausikan (Moderator): SM, your presentation stressed the new partnerships across a variety of domains that are being forged between the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. It is certainly timely and important to draw attention to these possibilities. However, a necessary condition for the success of partnerships in any domain is stability. Both regions face a variety of security challenges – both traditional like terrorism and geopolitical shifts, and non-traditional like climate change and demographic changes. Traditional and non-traditional security challenges can reinforce each other to form vicious circles that once established can be difficult to break. So, the approach should be to not allow them to form in the first place. Do you see the two regions forging partnerships to deal with such challenges and if so, do you have any suggestions?

SM Teo Chee Hean: There are indeed a variety of security challenges facing our two regions. Apart from the traditional security threats like terrorism and geopolitical shifts, we also face non-traditional threats like climate change, demographic changes, and public health risks such as the COVID-19 pandemic – one which has been occupying our minds quite a lot this past year. I can think of three levels at which we can look at these security threats, which our two regions can work together on.

First, at the national level, to build domestic resilience and capability to deal with crises. Second, to build regional groupings, which can assure ourselves more regional security and stability. Third, how we partner each other to strengthen the multilateral system and the international system, so that all countries, big and small, can live in a safer and more stable world.

First, sharing experiences for building national resilience and stability. Each of us in our own countries has our own national context, but we can learn from each other's experiences in promoting financial stability and economic growth with diversity and resilience. This allows us to build our own national resilience and strength. I think we could see that during COVID-19, where each country had to draw upon its own national resilience and strength built up over many years – whether it is in financial and economic strength, social cohesion, or public health and the capability to deal with crises. We have learnt from each other. I have received in my work a number of delegations from the Middle East. I have visited a number of countries in the Middle East – all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and several others. We have learnt from each other how to deal with crises. For example, we have learnt how to respond to crises in food, interruptions in food supply, and how to build resilience.

We have learnt how to deal with violent extremism. I have visited a number of rehabilitation centres in the Gulf region to learn from their experiences and brought some of these lessons home. We have participated actively in the Aqaba Process convened by His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan. We have also initiated such discussions on our own. We had a successful International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS), which had our President Halimah Yacob as patron. We had the inaugural ICCS in June 2019. It was a very useful experience to see how different countries with different cultural and religious contexts build social cohesion within their own societies.

Second, building regional peace, stability and cooperation. It is important that in each of our own sub-regions in Asia, we build a climate where we can work together, minimise differences, and strengthen regional peace. We have, for example, the GCC in the Gulf, and ASEAN in Southeast Asia. ASEAN has managed to keep the peace in our region for the last four decades, even though, in the first four decades after the Second World War, we had conflicts of one kind or another that ravaged the region. But in the last three, four decades, we have been able to keep the peace in ASEAN, between countries. This has been a very important part of the development and growth of the Southeast Asian countries and the betterment of life for our people.

At the regional level, we sponsor a variety of platforms for such interchanges. For example, Singapore has successfully held the Shangri-La Dialogue, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), for a decade and a half. I have attended this series of dialogues, and the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.

There are a number of different platforms. There is the Asia-Middle East Dialogue (AMED) which was mooted by Singapore in 2004. Since 2014, we have had more than 500 persons come through the AMED Regional Training Centres in Amman, Jordan, as well as in Qatar. These provide another useful flow of exchanges.

Now, with the major changes taking place in the world – geopolitics and the new administration in the US, there is also an opportunity for countries in our two regions to work together to strengthen the international multilateral system. This is fundamentally important for us, because for countries big and small, we need to work together to strengthen the system. We have agency and the ability to do so.

One example where we have worked together successfully is in the Global Governance Group (3G). This was a response of small and medium countries to the formation of the G20, which was the big economies in the world. The small and medium countries decided that we cannot let big countries in the world set the agenda for all of us. So the Global Governance Group was formed.

Out of the 30 countries in the Global Governance Group, five are from Southeast Asia – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. We also have our counterparts from the Middle East – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. By working together, we can help to shape the multilateral system as well.

Moderator: The first question from the audience is from one of our board members, Mr Anthony Teo. Middle Eastern countries have their own strengths and so do the various countries in the Indo-Pacific. But the perennial challenge for all of us is turning local strengths into global or inter regional contexts in order to promote cooperation. Will you care to comment on how this could be done?

SM Teo: Certainly on the economic side, there are many complementarities. It is also coming about because of the desire for countries from both parts of the Asia region – the Middle East, as well as the Indo-Pacific – to diversify their economies, and to meet the challenge of climate change. Many of the Middle Eastern economies have tended to be driven by energy and energy exports, but they are looking for diversification. You can see this in every country in the Gulf – in the smaller Gulf states, Qatar, the UAE and in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its economy away from energy in a very major and fundamental way.

This provides opportunities for both regions to work together. Many of the countries in the Gulf are looking to export not just traditional fossil fuel-based energy, but green energy as well, from the copious amounts of sunshine and open spaces that are available. There is a great hunger for green energy in our part of the world, as there has been for traditional fossil fuel-based energy. There are also opportunities to leverage each other's strengths for economic cooperation, development, infrastructure, trade, consumer goods and the new digital economy. It just requires a bit more push and a bit more imagination to do that.

Moderator: Thank you. The next question is from Asif Shuja who is originally from India, but we poached him from the Delhi Global Institute and he now works in the Middle East Institute. His question is about youth. In the context of the role of youths and people-to-people contacts, could you please elaborate on what kind of interactions between the youths of the two regions can be promoted? What kind of mechanisms, if any, could be devised and promoted to encourage a healthy give-and-take between the youth of our regions?

SM Teo: One of the greatest advantages of youth is idealism, which is not coloured by life experiences. As you grow older, you begin to think that this cannot be done, that cannot be done; we have tried that – it does not work. But for young people, there is always idealism and hope. The idea that we can do it, we can break the old norms, we can break with tradition, and we can try new things. That sense of hope and idealism infects the youth all over the world. It is always very exciting to be able to get them in touch with each other, and to do new things. Hence in Singapore, in our school system, we have Arabic as a third language. We encourage our students to study multiple languages, so that they can interact and understand the world better. I hope that is something that we can all encourage our people to do in our own respective countries.

In the new world, there are many more opportunities for interaction and travel. I know that in our universities, we have students from all over the world, who come here either to study on a full-time basis, or more often than not, to come here for a semester, for a term, or for seminars. It is really very exciting to have students and young people come together and share their experiences. And you will realise that you have so much more in common, than you have that is different. Once we have that realisation, then we can start to work together to see how we can strengthen our commonalities, solve our problems together, and build a better world together.

Moderator: SM, you have been making some visits recently to the Middle East, even Morocco and North Africa. How do you see Muslims there working together with the Muslims in Southeast Asia in terms of the development of religious thinking and practices that could bring about better understanding within the Muslim and non-Muslim world?

SM Teo: I have visited all the GCC countries, and our students who take religious studies in the universities in these countries – from Al-Azhar University in Egypt, to the University of Jordan and Yarmouk University in Jordan. When I was in Morocco, I went to the University of al-Qarawiyyin and spoke to the people there, and it was very interesting. What struck me from these visits was that there was a diversity of views in the Muslim world, and a diversity of practices of Islam. But at the core, of course, there are key pillars of belief.

I would say that in each country, there has been contextualisation of Islam to their particular historical and cultural context. This is also true in Southeast Asia. Islam came peacefully to Southeast Asia, and not by conquest – by merchants, traders and religious teachers who came and converted not by conquest, but by example. That is itself a very useful historical lesson for us. We can build greater harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims by understanding how we can take Islam and contextualise it to the societies, cultures and peoples that we have in each of our own countries and regions, and also contextualise it to the modern world. If we are able to do that, and have a good discourse on that, we would be able to contribute to bringing greater understanding and harmony between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Moderator: Could you share your thoughts on how Egypt fits into Singapore’s view of the Middle East, and the prospects for developing more cooperation between Singapore and Egypt?

SM Teo: Egypt was one of the first countries to recognise Singapore when we became independent, so we always remember that very gratefully. I have had a number of very productive visits to Egypt and there are economic opportunities there. One very important engagement that we have with Egypt is the education of our religious scholars. All the muftis in Singapore have graduated from Al-Azhar University, and there is a very strong tradition for that.

Recently, we started a post-graduate programme in Singapore for our future religious leaders, who may have received religious education from different parts of the world, with different traditions in the Islamic world. We wanted to bring them together for a post-graduate programme to contextualise their learning to Singapore. We have engaged Al-Azhar to help us to design and run this programme. That is one aspect of a very important relationship that we have with Egypt.

But Egypt and Singapore also have a very long historical connection for another different reason. In the old days, the days of the sailing ships, the main trade route from Europe to East Asia was by the Horn of Africa, and following the trade winds across the Indian Ocean and back. These trade routes brought the ships through the archipelagic waters of Southeast Asia, but not necessarily through Singapore. It was the opening of the Suez Canal, and the advent of powered ships, that allowed ships to travel on the shorter sea route between Europe and East Asia. That brought ships through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea, through the Malacca Strait, through Singapore, and eastward.

It was only because we were able to overcome the tyranny of how the winds blew, and the tyranny of geography – through the Suez Canal, that brought our two countries even closer together. There remain considerable opportunities to develop economic and trading ties between our two countries. The Suez Canal Zone, for example, has many economic opportunities. I know there is interest in port development in places like Alexandria.

Moderator: Let me give the next question to Ambassador Kassim Buallay, from Bahrain, who is also an old friend of mine. This relates to the topic of people-to-people contact. He would like to know your assessment of whether the current level of people-to-people contact is of the required depth and standard to achieve objectives that we all share, which you have mentioned in your opening remarks.

SM Teo: Quite frankly, I think we can do a lot better. I will explain why. For each of our respective regions, we have tended to look to the developing countries. The Gulf region will look to Europe and America. For us too, we look to the developed countries as models of growth and places from which we can take useful experiences and lessons for the development of our own countries. Therefore, the people-to-people ties have tended to flow in that direction – economy, education, where we go to study, where we get our ideas from, and who our consultants are.

As each of our regions develops greater confidence in ourselves and accumulates our own experiences, we can look more to each other to share these experiences of governance, and development of education models and social models. And then we can have the confidence ourselves to develop these ideas further. With that increased self-confidence, and the ability to discern for ourselves what kind of relationships we want and what kind of development model we want, then there will be greater opportunity for people-to-people relationships. Ambassador, if you ask me whether I am satisfied with the level of interaction, the answer is no. Am I optimistic for how development can grow in the future? I would say I am optimistic because of the trajectory of the development process.

Moderator: We have time for one question, but there are quite a number of questions. I will try to combine two questions together because I think they are complementary. The first part is, Southeast Asia has, despite some problems, by and large been a very peaceful region. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of the Middle East. What are some things about Southeast Asia that you think can be applied to the Middle East? And the second part is more focused on Singapore – how can Singapore keep itself relevant to the Middle East?

SM Teo: I will try and answer the first one. One of the things that we have learned in the Southeast Asian context is how to live with each other in peace. We are an enormously diverse region in Southeast Asia. We have constitutional monarchies, and governments and political models of all shapes and sizes. We have been able to pursue cooperation with each other, and to live in peace with each other, over the last three to four decades with ASEAN. That, in itself, is a huge achievement.

What we have learnt is that, if we are together, it is more likely that we will be able to maintain peace and stability in our region. If we are divided, we are more likely to open up opportunities for those differences to be accentuated and to become worse, and perhaps result in more disagreements and conflicts in our region than might otherwise be needed. I would say that is the great lesson for us in Southeast Asia. The Middle East has its own history and it is also a very difficult history. But I think there is room for optimism in the future.

I spoke about the Middle East being the crucible of three great religions of the world – Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I see the Abraham Accords as an opportunity for a renewed dialogue and a renewed search for peace in the region. If there is a desire for that and a sincere and genuine wish to settle differences in an open and fair way for people in the region, then I think that there will be opportunities through these breakthroughs for a more peaceful future. That is what I hope to see both in Southeast Asia and in the Middle East.

Moderator: The second question is, how will Singapore keep itself relevant?

SM Teo: Singapore hopes to engage with the rest of the world. When I visit countries, I will say that we do not aspire to or wish to be your biggest investor or your biggest partner. What we aspire to do is to try to understand what each country's needs and requirements might be, and what are the things which are most important to each country. Then we look at our own portfolio in Singapore and try to understand what we have which can fit in best with your needs and requirements. If we can identify those things, then we have the basis for a good partnership.

I would say that is how Singapore has always tried to keep itself relevant and make friends with other countries in the world – to try and understand what each country wants, what each country needs, and what from our own portfolio we can offer to that country which fits in with their wants and needs. It is not what we want to do for them or with them, but what they want to do with us. That is how we have always approached our partnerships and relationships with other countries, to try and understand their point of view and how we can work with them.

Moderator: Thank you SM.