As foreign affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan visits Istanbul today, a Singaporean doing a semester exchange in Turkey examines the new relationship Singapore has with the country known as the gateway to the Middle East and Europe, and why that may be put to the test once an authoritarian leader comes into power. 

By Candy Choo

Turkey is looking to expand into Asia, fed up with neglect from the European Union (EU) and of the chaos in the Middle East. Turkish diplomatic efforts have been directed towards Southeast Asia since 2014, and can be expected to strengthen if the upcoming Turkish constitutional referendum passes.

On a diplomatic visit to Jakarta in 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We, Turkey, would like to be a member of ASEAN, not a dialogue partner.”

It is unlikely that ASEAN would be accepting Turkey – about 12,000 kilometres away from Singapore – as a member, but ASEAN countries definitely want to strengthen diplomatic relations with Turkey. The Turkish Republic might be frustrated with its neighbours, but its geographical position as the gateway to both Europe and the Middle East is Turkey’s greatest asset and will be the key to its acceptance into ASEAN.

With more Turkish bilateral trade agreements with ASEAN countries being set up or undergoing negotiations, it will do well for Singaporeans to monitor Turkish politics – will the conflict within Turkey play out on the bilateral economic stage? Is Turkey still a worthy partner if President Erdogan continues to piss off the EU on his campaign for more power?

Turkey Singapore Relations - Popspoken

“Yes” is spray-painted everywhere to influence voter choices.

A drunk man stumbled down Istiklal Street shouting: “Hayir! Hayir!”, Turkish for “no”. “Evet”, “yes” in Turkish, is spray painted on walls and cobblestone streets alike. Come April 16, the Turkish people will have to make their decision for a president; the last time a referendum was called was in 2010.

If this referendum passes, 18 amendments will be made to the Constitution. Most importantly, President Erdogan will be made Executive President, which means he gets to execute power in the government. Presidency in Turkey used to be a symbolic position, as it is in Singapore. But with this amendment, Erdogan will get to be head of government, state and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Basically, Erdogan would become CEO of the Republic of Turkey.

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A rest-stop set up by the ruling party for the “Yes” campaign.

He sounds like an evil dictator, but the average Turk adores him. He’s like the opinionated kopitiam uncle who actually ran for political office. A charming and powerful orator, he charges at the EU for providing little or no assistance as Turkey houses upwards of 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Mr Erdogan grew up poor, selling lemonade and simit (Turkish bagels) on the street for pocket money. He barely graduated university, according to several sources. Point blank, he was not elite. Despite such humble beginnings, he has not suffered a single political defeat in his career.

In Singapore, we complain that our ministers are getting detached from their people. But in this Republic, the government has given out coal, books, and even refrigerators and washing machines to the poor in rural Anatolian areas (when elections drew near).

The Turkish are easy to please, especially the conservative, religious, pro-Erdogan people. It is evident from the advertisements designed for Turkish consumers. Most use rational appeals because the Turkish people are still low on fulfilling Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For example, this spot is straightforward and reinforces Islamist family values.

(See, Singaporean businesses can look to do business in Turkey now that I’ve analysed the consumer behaviour for you.)

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Volunteers and staffers from both camps wait right outside the metro exit to push campaign brochures into commuters’ hands.

Political parties who know this have employed, mostly, aggressive guerrilla campaigning aimed at engaging passers-by’s attention through gifts and promises. Outside Haciosman metro station, the AKP has set up a rest-stop – complete with a heater and hot tea – so people can wait for their bus out of the cold.

So far, Erdogan has delivered on promises to improve on infrastructure, such as building more bridges and subways to improve the people’s daily lives. In fact, commuters are constantly reminded of this as videos and posters in stations and trains depict the construction of new subway lines.

It’s not difficult to see why some Turks want to keep Erdogan in power. They believe that he cares for them.

His supporters love him so much they stood in front of tanks during the coup.

Make no mistake, Mr Erdogan is indeed implementing an authoritarian regime here in the Republic of Turkey. And you can bet there is opposition.

Turkey Singapore Relations - Popspoken

A campaign booth for the “No” camp is set up beside the “Yes” booth.

If we are talking how adverts reflect the demographic they target, this Nike ad (riding on the coattails of feminism) shows that there is a significant part of the population who are more progressive, possibly due to their level of education and exposure to such discourse on the internet. This is the demographic that will vote “no” to the President gaining more power – a president who has called childless women “incomplete” and women who work “half persons”.

The electorate is split down the middle and contradicting opinion polls are really unhelpful in providing numbers. Pro-government polls reflect a 52% “yes” result while anti-government polls say it is 51% “no”. It is really hard to tell which camp will prevail (we all remember the American elections last year) but Erdogan’s government seems to have an edge – by suppressing the voices of the “no” campaign.

Scores of journalists and academics have been arrested for speaking out against him and most of the other media companies remain fearful and docile. People’s Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş – aka ‘Kurdish Obama’ because of his oratorical prowess – has been jailed along with other MPs after the coup last year.

As a Singaporean living in Istanbul, these raised to me the issue about freedom in governance and of democracy, as well as how these could be relevant to our Republic back home.

With PM Lee’s recent BBC interview, we are in the spotlight for our lack of freedom of speech and press.

But Singapore does not take the moral high ground when dealing with foreign forces. We need to do business with the world, after all, especially since we have virtually no natural resources except manpower.

Singapore’s Resident Ambassador to Turkey, Mr A Selverajah spoke to about 150 students from Koc University in Istanbul recently and his key message was striving to create our value and relevance in the world. He expressed pride that the Turkey-Singapore free trade agreement had passed parliament without contest and was awaiting the President’s signature to become officially valid.

The Singapore-Turkey partnership is almost firmed up and the next few years look optimistic. But one cannot overlook the fact that diplomatic relations can sour overnight, and it would really suck if it happens when most of us are looking to enter the workforce in the next couple of years.


Featured photo by Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs: call on Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan by Singapore’s Honorary Consul-General in Istanbul Murat Özyeğin, 30 March 2017

All other photos by Candy Choo

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