Looking Back on Deng Xiaoping’s Landmark Visit to Singapore

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Looking Back on Deng Xiaoping’s Landmark Visit to Singapore

The trip, when Deng met Lee Kuan Yew for the first time, offers a reminder of the importance of competent leadership to nations’ development.

Looking Back on Deng Xiaoping’s Landmark Visit to Singapore

The bust of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on the banks of the Singapore River. The reverse bears the quote, “Development is of overriding importance.”

Credit: Sebastian Strangio

Competent leaders can have substantial effects on the development of nations and the growth of diplomatic relations between them, as demonstrated by the case of China and Singapore. How did relations between the two independent countries first develop? The start of cordial and collaborative relations between the two nations can be traced to 1978, and the meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to Singapore and Southeast Asia. As the paramount leader of China, Deng was a transformational leader whose leadership contributed to the peaceful, productive economic growth of China and the development of cordial relations with countries in the region. Deng was in Singapore from November 12 to 14, 1978, when he for the first time met with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

This visit enabled these two remarkable leaders to meet and understand each other, as well as establish subsequent collaborations that influenced both countries and, indirectly, the region as a whole. This trip, which also saw Deng visit Malaysia and Thailand, was intended to galvanize support from these Southeast Asian countries for China amid its growing tensions with the Soviet Union and Vietnam, which was then gearing up to attack Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia.

After Deng explained China’s position to Lee, Lee informed Deng that the Southeast Asian countries were concerned about Beijing’s support for communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia and its denunciations of local governments through radio broadcasts. Deng was receptive to these concerns, and within two years, China ceased these antagonistic practices, and relations with the Southeast Asian countries gradually improved.

Deng’s visit to Singapore also enabled him to see first-hand the growth and development of Singapore as an island and a nation-state. Deng first visited Singapore in 1920 when he was 16 years old, on his way from China to France for a work and study program. Singapore was then a British colonial port city.

Fifty-eight years later, Deng witnessed Singapore’s transformation into a modern city-state. Other than China, Singapore is the only independent nation where ethnic Chinese form the majority. During Deng’s visit, Lee stated that if the Chinese in Singapore, who descended from poorly educated migrants from southern China, could succeed to this degree, mainland China could do even better with the right policies.

In the subsequent years, Deng and his administration opened up China and adopted policies that uplifted the lives of hundreds of millions in China. Another key leader in China who played a significant role is Xi Zhongxun. He led in the opening of Guangdong province and its growth. In addition to reforms to the agricultural economic system in this southern Chinese province, Xi advocated for the opening up of Guangdong. Xi Zongxun is the father of the current president of China, Xi Jinping, who was once the Governor of Fujian.

In a speech in Beijing on April 8, 1979, Xi Zhongxun said, “Guangdong is adjacent to Hong Kong and Macao and has a large number of overseas Chinese. It should make full use of this favorable condition to actively carry out foreign economic and technological exchanges. Our provincial party committee has discussed that when we come to this meeting, we hope that the central government will give some power, let Guangdong take the first step, and let it go.”

Deng supported Xi Zhongxun’s bold and visionary proposal. Inspired by his experience in Singapore, Deng also cited Singapore as a successful case study. Subsequently,  the Chinese Communist Party approved the pilot implementation of special economic zones in Shenzhen and Zhuhai, and later Shantou and Xiamen, in southern China. With effective leaders aligned to a shared vision, China’s economy opened, evolved, and grew substantially over the subsequent decades.

Despite not opening official diplomatic relations until October 1990, the good relations between Singapore and China continued to develop in the years after Deng’s visit. In December 1984, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, who played a huge role in the independence of Singapore and its nation building efforts, retired as deputy prime minister and the following year, was appointed by China as an advisor on the development of China’s special economic zones.

In the conclusion of a prescient speech that Goh delivered in 1987, he noted that China’s incipient transformation was “the final phase of the historical process of transforming an ancient civilization into a modern industrial state.” He added, “China has decided to come to terms with the modern world of science and technology, of business management and information systems. In the process of modernizing, she offers some unique opportunities to foreign investors who understand her policy objectives and who take a long-term view of their investment.” His advice more than 35 years ago remains relevant today and this remains Singapore’s main approach to development.

In 1992, when Deng visited Shenzhen, he referenced his visit to Singapore in 1978, telling local officials that the city-state’s society “is quite orderly…We ought to use their experience as a model and we ought to manage things even better than they do.” Like many successful leaders, Deng and fellow leaders such as Xi Zhongxun had an ongoing desire to learn and improve, and to overcome the challenges facing them, ultimately setting China on the path to peaceful development.

In October 2023, when I visited the Futian district of Shenzhen in Guangdong province, filled with towering skyscrapers and electric vehicles driving down the tree-lined streets, it reminded me of a larger, newer variation of the Central Business District in Singapore. My two American and British friends from San Francisco and London who were traveling with me remarked “The future is here.”

As reflected in their multiple visits to China and their many meetings with its leaders, Lee and Goh believed that it was in Singapore’s national interest to support China’s efforts to reform and open its economy. Lee also advocated for China to be integrated into the global economy. For more than 40 years, the public and private sectors in Singapore have actively supported China’s economic development. Since 2013, Singapore has been the largest foreign investor in China, and the economic growth of China has benefited both Singapore and Asia as a whole.

In November 2010, Lee Kuan Yew, then serving as minister mentor, and then-Vice President Xi Jinping unveiled a small bust of Deng Xiaoping along the Singapore River. Though Lee and Deng have since passed away, the warm and mutually beneficial relations between the leaders and people of Singapore and China continue to flourish. This month, Singapore ministers led by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong met their counterparts in China and both countries signed more than 20 memoranda of understanding and agreements to further enhance collaborations and partnerships.

Deng and Lee were able to set visionary goals for their people and successfully work with their fellow leaders and teams to motivate and guide their citizens to strive towards a brighter future. They were also receptive to feedback and advice, while seeking to constantly learn and do better, for their respective countries and the region.

On the 45th anniversary of Deng’s visit to Singapore, as we recall the roles of outstanding leaders and look toward the future, the aspiration is that the current leaders will take a similarly long-term perspective. In particular, there is the hope that the sometimes troubled relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, will improve. With capable leadership and amicable relations, there is no reason why the countries of our region cannot continue to experience peace, prosperity and progress for decades to come.