Different opinions have emerged as to why Representative to Singapore Vanessa Shih (史亞平) is being reassigned, and there is a wide divergence between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ account and suggestions being bandied around by the news media. We don’t know the truth of the matter yet. However, the ministry needs to make clear what the ramifications are for national sovereignty, democratic principles and the conduct of our envoys.
One of the suggestions is that Shih flew the Republic of China (ROC) flag and sang the ROC national anthem during the ROC centenary celebrations in Singapore, in violation of that country’s observance of the “one China” policy. This was reportedly much to the annoyance of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) and other senior Singaporean officials, which would explain why they recently discontinued contact with senior Taiwanese officials.
As a representative of the ROC, there was nothing wrong with Shih’s conduct at the ceremony. The Taiwanese representative in any other country would have acted likewise. Since Singapore raised objections, the ministry should really have supported its representative office for maintaining national dignity, especially since the incident took place during the centenary celebrations. Singapore really shouldn’t have reacted as it did, coming out with guns blazing over the arrangements for a single event and making it all but impossible for Shih to remain in her post.
Another suggestion is that the Singaporean government was irked when Shih reportedly contacted individuals from the city-state’s opposition Workers’ Party (WP) during Singapore’s general elections in May last year, when she apparently discussed the Taiwanese background of WP member Chen Show Mao (陳碩茂). For the Singaporean government, this crossed the line. Again, there is nothing unusual about a representative expanding their contacts within the country they are stationed in. Talking with members of the opposition is part of their job. We know from leaked US cables that former American Institute in Taiwan director Stephen Young met with members of the opposition here. After all, developing a rapport with politicians in any country is exactly what diplomats should be doing. If Singapore finds fault with Shih for this, then its understanding of democracy and international conventions leaves much to be desired.
The third possibility is that there has been little concrete progress on negotiations for the Agreement between Singapore and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu on Economic Partnership (ASTEP) after two years, and that Singapore is using this as an excuse to request Shih’s reassignment. However, the talks are currently stalled at Taiwan’s bottom line regarding financial services and agricultural imports from Singapore. There has yet to be a breakthrough in these talks, which concern the national and business interests of both sides. Unless either side changes their position, nothing is going to happen any time soon and the representative in Singapore doesn’t have control over this.
According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添), Shih’s reassignment is simply a routine rotation within the ministry.
Whatever the reason for Shih’s reassignment, Singapore has made it abundantly clear that it has been dissatisfied with her, taking issue with the way she has conducted her official duties as well as her own personal style. It is important to recognize this.