Yale News

Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, who previously served as a secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, spoke at Yale on Monday about frequent misunderstandings involving Southeast Asian countries.

Kausikan delivered the annual George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies in Luce Hall to an audience of students, professors and community members. The lecture, titled “How to Think about Southeast Asia,” discussed specific conflicts in Southeast Asia and expressed concerns about the international community’s attitude toward the region.

“I spent almost 40 years trying to persuade American policymakers, journalists and academics to think about Southeast Asia in more nuanced ways — that is, if they think about Southeast Asia at all,” Kausikan said. “I nevertheless persist … because the U.S. has always had and will always have a crucial influence on the international relations of Southeast Asia, and this is irrespective of whether American policy succeeds or fails.”

Kausikan was the Singaporean ambassador-at-large until May 2018. He represented Singapore at the United Nations and as ambassador to Russia. The former ambassador has also written books about Singapore and is currently the chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

In the beginning of the presentation, Kausikan said Southeast Asia served as a battleground during the Cold War and is now the economic battleground between America and China. He also discussed the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an organization of 10 Southeast Asian countries working to promote international cooperation. He criticized U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump for their approaches to the region and said both ignored Southeast Asian interests amid intense economic competition with China.

Kausikan’s nearly 40-minute presentation was followed by a question-and-answer section. Kausikan voiced concerns about what he saw as China’s missteps in dealing with the region and discussed issues like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and climate change in Southeast Asia.

During his speech, Kausikan often used sarcasm and drew laughter from the audience. Sarah Yang DIV ’21, who attended the lecture, told the News that Kausikan’s humor made the talk interesting and accessible.

“I really enjoyed hearing about what’s happening in the Southeast Asian region and the fact that he was trying to give us a little bit more of a nuanced perspective on how to see the different interactions with the region, as well as dispel different assumptions that we might have,” Yang said.

Yang added that Kausikan was a “down-to-earth” speaker and made the talk all the more engaging.

Nadia Irwanto ’20 said she attended the lecture because she thinks Southeast Asia is a region often overlooked by many.

“Ambassador Kausikan has been working on foreign policy for a very long time and he’s also very honest with his opinions, so it’s interesting to see how he can sell it to people at Yale,” Irwanto said.

The George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture series was established in 1986.

Amelia Davidsonamelia.davidson@yale.edu