My guest today is Ye-Min Wu, who is the South & Southeast Asia Director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Ye-Min joined HD earlier this year after more than 15 years as a diplomat representing Singapore at the United Nations, World Intellectual Property Organization, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as the World Trade Organisation. She has also chaired UN negotiations and represented the Group of 77 (plus China) in talks on sustainable development issues.
She joins me today to discuss how multilateral negotiations are conducted and explains some of the challenges as well as opportunities inherent in the process. Some of the topics we covered are:
- Ye-Min’s path into diplomacy
- Managing the ‘negotiation theatre’
- Finding the win-win solution
- Building trust and credibility in negotiations
- Connecting to the ‘other’ and the importance of warmth
- How multilateral negotiations are conducted
- The difference between a nation’s bargaining position and its interests
- How to successfully negotiate in Asia
- Challenges of growing militarisation and insecurity in Asia
- How Asian nations are managing China’s rise
- Why peace agreements often fail
- Ye-Min’s greatest fear and hope
If you like what you’ve heard, please consider liking and reviewing the show wherever you get your pods. You can also support the show on our Patreon page here.
Ye-Min Wu – Multilateral Negotiations: On The Trials And Tribulations Of Building Peace
Before we get to my chat with Ye-Min Wu, I wanted to share something with you regarding my last episode with the Russian blogger, Natalia from Russia, and an appeal for your help. This episode was a strange experience for me. If you’ve checked it out, you would have hopefully been left in no doubt about her opinion of Putin or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Equally, anyone who has tuned in to more than five minutes of this episode would know my personal orientation towards this invasion and to war more broadly. Be that as it may, I have received several private messages and have been tagged in a number of posts on social media that seek to portray Natalia as a member of the Russian Intelligence Services, and me as some sort of a naive pawn who has fallen for her trap. Regardless of how insane this might sound to me, it ultimately seems to be what some people out there believe.
What’s worse is that a few of these individuals have taken it upon themselves to write quite denigrating and condescending reviews of the show on various platforms. Naturally, everyone is entitled to their opinions and should be able to write what they want regardless of how inaccurate or misguided their views might be. The fact that the most emotionally involved and the most partisan among us will have the greatest motivation to write, share, and engage with content is nothing new and is simply a sign of the algorithmically supercharged times we’re in.
However, these comments are degrading the reputation and perceived quality of this show to new audiences, which is something I do care about. Therefore, if you’re getting value out of the show and want to support channels that encourage nuanced and diverse discussions, I would appreciate it if you could take a minute out of your day to write a review of the show on whatever platform you use to tune in to the show. All I’m asking for is a fair review. They will give potential audiences a more accurate reflection of the show and its content. Thank you. Let’s get to my conversation with the amazing Ye-Min Wu.
My guest is Ye-Min Wu who is the South and Southeast Asia Director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Ye-Min joined HD earlier in 2022 after more than fifteen years as a diplomat, representing Singapore at the United Nations, World Intellectual Property Organization, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as the World Trade Organization. She has also chaired UN negotiations and represented the Group of 77 in China in talks on sustainable development issues.
Ye-Min is a co-author of Negotiating at the United Nations: A Practitioner’s Guide, a textbook that is used by various global institutions. She also conducts workshops and lectures on negotiation and leadership in diplomacy for governments, universities, and other training programs. She joins me to discuss how multilateral negotiations are conducted and explains some of the challenges, as well as opportunities inherent in the process. Ye-Min, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thanks for having me.
Before we dive into the murky world of negotiations, perhaps you can give us a potted version of your background, and maybe explain what motivated your entry into the world of diplomacy.
I did not grow up thinking I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to be a doctor. I was very much inspired by my family, all of which embodied servant leadership. It was not necessarily by saying so, but in the way that they lived. My grandparents were educators. My father was a doctor who was also active in Rotary International, as well as my mom who was a civil servant. I’ve always wanted a job that was meaningful where I could contribute to others and help make lives better for the community.
The second thing that was important for me in finding my job was passion because I felt that work wasn’t just about work. It was about giving back. It was about putting your time into something that was important to you. Hence, diplomacy was key because I enjoyed the subject. It became a life in that sense. The third was about being open to change. You will see this throughout my career when there was an opportunity. I was open to the fact that maybe it would help me to learn. Maybe this was a place where I could contribute. That’s what drove me towards my journey.
That’s wonderful. What a lovely, colourful, and genuine commitment to a life of peacemaking. Was there a particular path that took you to diplomacy?
When I was in college, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a degree in International Relations. A fellow at a think tank that I was interning with recommended that I join the Foreign Ministry. He had been in the Foreign Ministry as well. I asked him about his experience. He said he enjoyed it, so I took the exam. That’s where I spent one and a half decades of my life.
Talk about being open to change. That was a rather quick pivot. He had a good suggestion, and off you went.
In between that, I was teaching and I enjoyed it as well. There was an opportunity. Who knows what else life will bring you on this journey?
That’s a wonderful way to live. Throughout that career, you’ve been involved in a number of senior-level multilateral negotiations on significant global issues. Is there one in particular that stands out that has been the greatest source of learning for you?
There is one in particular, which was the tenure framework of programs on Sustainable Consumption and Production. It’s a very long name, I know. We call it SCP for short. At that point in time, I was approached by the chair of G-77 in China, asking if I could help to negotiate this on behalf of the Alliance. That group had over 30 countries. It was diverse. You had large countries like South Africa, India, China, Brazil, and small states like Barbados, Maldives, and medium-sized states like Guatemala.
My job was to help forge that position, build consensus among the 130-over seats, and then negotiate with the partners from US, EU, and others in order to reach a consensus agreement that would help society. A lot of time, effort, and goodwill went into it. There were many learning points as well. One of them was that in every negotiation process, you have what we call negotiation theatre. It is the front end of the house where you have formal meetings from 10:00 to 1:00, 3:00 to 6:00, but also the informal space or sometimes what they call the corridor theatre. I learned how to design that space to make it useful rather than them being chance opportunities.
What I mean by that was that at 6:00 PM each evening, I would invite negotiators to come and meet, and talk about topics that we knew would be negotiated in the coming days. At the beginning of that session, people were a bit nervous, doubtful, and sceptical. By the end of the week, people were talking to each other rather than at each other. That was important because they were beginning to see each other beyond the flag or organization they represent.
Another thing that happened during these evening meetings was that there were two countries that don’t usually speak to each other, not just on sustainable development but on anything at all. By the end of the week, they too were speaking to each other. It showed how, as a small state or how if I was observant, we could be mediating or helping others to find a safe space to share. It’s about human-to-human interaction, which is so important for us to find solutions and reach what we call win-win outcomes.Human-to-human interaction is so important to find solutions and reach win-win outcomes. Click To Tweet
Another aspect of that negotiation was learning to also build alliances and also trust. You can’t keep going back to all 130 countries at every moment of the negotiation. You also need to reach a point where the countries trust you to represent them and have their back. They know that you’re not short-changing them, but you are trying to do what is best for that group. Hence, credibility and reputation are very important. We always say that we need to learn how to be self-aware so that even in a heightened moment, we are not being angry or overly emotional. What you have as a negotiator is that reputation and that trust that people have about you. That’s what they’re going to remember.
That’s fascinating. There are so many threads that I’d like to pick out from that. Maybe the first one is you made a very clear mention about the 6:00 PM onwards, and that it’s a different session other than the formal agenda. One of my jobs in the Army is I teach or instruct interpersonal and intercultural communication. One aspect that I touch on is how to break barriers between yourself and the other, whoever that other might be, and whatever differences, overt or otherwise, there might be. This is why this is so interesting to me. What happens after 6:00 PM? What is so different about that session from the formal session that allows you to achieve this connection between people?
When you reach 6:00 PM, that’s when everybody is tired. It’s also when you shed that image, which you have in formal meetings. Usually, if you bring food, that helps because you build a relationship over the buffet table rather than a negotiating table. You start the conversation with, “How did you find the day? How has your family been? I know all of us have been stuck here. We haven’t seen very much light given the fact that we walked in the basement of the UN.” These are things that you can’t begin with when you are in the formal process. At 10:00, that’s not how the chair starts off the meeting at least.
These 6:00 PM spaces are informal and most importantly, also discreet. We’re not going out shouting about it. We’re saying, “This is a space that if you would like to come, please come.” At the same time, respect all of us who are trying to find solutions together. None of us are being weathered or pigeonholed in two things. We can think beyond the box. We’re not also fixed in terms of what our government’s reputation might be or a rigid structural bureaucracy.
I have a funny story here. I had a wonderful ambassador who whenever he chaired meetings, would ask me about the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the beginning, I never quite understood it. The realization was by offering the parties breakfast at the meeting, they would come together and begin a conversation over the buffet table rather than at the negotiating table. By providing lunch, it meant that you didn’t lose the momentum of the negotiation. If everybody leaves and comes back, it’s hard to get started again.
In the evenings, we provided drinks and tidbits so that people could relax, feel like they were human again, and talk about how the day went. It is what you highlighted. It’s so important to teach or at least guide people to show that you can have these interpersonal moments even if you are negotiating something difficult.
I love that. That speaks so much to me. Particularly the image when you said you are at the buffet together. You are standing next to each other as opposed to sitting opposite each other. That image that you presented in my mind makes that perfectly clear. In my teaching, I call it threading. You can thread a story into as many aspects as you want. You can ask about children. You can ask about their previous careers. You can ask about how their day was, what their hotel room is like, and all of these personal questions that people would discuss with an acquaintance. You don’t necessarily get the opportunity to build rapport through those incidental discussions that such an informal session allows you. That’s wonderful.
One of my mentors as a mediator highlighted that at different points of mediation, he’s wearing different hats. At some point, he’s a father. At some point in time, he’s a former civil servant. At some point, he is a mediator. At some point in time, he’s a business owner. Because he wears different hats, that allows him to utilize different narratives to persuade, explain, and connect. That’s something that we have to be aware of also as negotiators or mediators. We are not just one person. We have multiple identities. How do we utilize these identities to connect with the other party?
I know you highlighted the other several times. It brings back that there was a class that I took where they talked about post-colonialism. It was by Edward Said. That idea of the other struck me because growing up, I was the other in the sense of what we call the West. How do you explain yourself? What does this mean for you? How do you connect in that sense? These are all things that have been on my mind through my journey.
Most of my audience will know, and they’ll probably chuckle, how much this will resonate with me because I was the other in many of my past lives. When I say past lives, I mean as a refugee in Germany, and then as a migrant in Australia. There is an entire embodiment of experience that one needs to digest to join your new adopted culture, your new adopted language, and all of these things.
Until you hit certain thresholds, whether it’s through your accent, the colloquialisms that you use, the clothes you wear, or how you look, it’s easy to still remain another. Those who are in privileged positions often say, “I don’t necessarily see that,” because they’ve never been pushed to step outside and become another somewhere else if they haven’t travelled or they haven’t experienced different cultures, or where they’ve been the one that is ever so slightly different.
This is why people like you in these organizations are so important. You are the central node or the living interpreter, not only linguistically but performatively. This is a theatre. You are almost staging and creating the conditions for people to have these little bumps along the way to create these shared experiences that they can build on. It is an admirable job. I wonder if there is a particular personality type for this. This is a question that’s completely come off the top of my head. I wonder if there are particular personality traits that you’ve picked up, whether in yourself or in other negotiators that you’ve met throughout your time.
That’s interesting. A key element is being able to show warmth. There’s a study by Amy Cuddy where she highlights that warmth is more important than competence. If you are warm and competent, people want to help you. Even if you are warm and not competent, and that’s what I call the newbie card, people still want to try to support you. Where you have a problem is when you might be competent but not showing warmth. That results in a more competitive dynamic.
One of the key things that we teach is that in all things, smile. Show warmth. That’s so important in any negotiation you are in, especially when you don’t understand the other party’s language, for example. It may be a situation where English is not their first language, so what they’re looking at is your body cues and how you are representing yourself in that sense. A lot of it is teachable.
One of the things that we were very much inspired by when we wrote our book on negotiations was from Hammarskjöld, the former UN secretary-general. He believed that any negotiator could learn how to speak for the world by balancing interests and global responsibility. There is a quote from him where he says that the UN is a place where it is possible to serve the world by serving your nation and to serve your nation by serving the world.
That struck us because if you can teach negotiators to speak for a better world and for them to learn how to balance these interests, narratives, and the different hats that they have, as well as a global responsibility, maybe we can produce more meaningful and sustainable outcomes. Otherwise, everything becomes that zero-sum game, which is not fruitful to anybody.
We are in it for the long haul. Even if you win the first round, what’s going to happen in the second and third rounds? People should be looking towards the fact that you need a strong relationship in the long run. That means investing in understanding the other party, having empathy, and realizing that at the end of the day, we’re all human beings.
You are preaching to the converted. I know many of my audience will chuckle. It’s true. Before we go any further, maybe it’s useful to explain the process of negotiations or multilateral negotiations. I’m sure there is an actual process. It would help me but I’m sure the audience as well to get an understanding of how that occurs, who leads it, who initiates it, and how it is conducted. Especially when you’re talking 130-plus nations, this is a pretty significant undertaking.
Often, in a multilateral negotiation, you have somebody that tables the first draft. It is why it’s always key. If you are from an NGO or you are an advocate from elsewhere, if you want something to go to the UN, you need to think about who is going to table for that first draft for you. That is going to be a member state. Why is it in their interest for the member state to table it? It takes a lot of effort. It will also mean a lot of goodwill and expected trade-offs for the member state to do it. Hence, that member state will probably consider building an informal alliance to start. Sometimes, they call it friends of the sustainable cities or friends of a country to highlight that there are various member states who are also interested in pursuing this topic.
Through discussions with this informal friend group, they get ideas of what will go into the draft. That is when they start chopping the draft around to various member states to get buy-in and to get input. When they think that it’s somewhat cooked, then that’s when they formally table it to the secretariat so that there can be a formal discussion of that process.
When you discuss it in the formal meeting, then that’s when we talked about why we call it a theatre. It is because you are talking about bargaining positions at that point and not necessarily the interest. Hence, it is important to design your process so that in between all of these formal discussions, you also have informal and safe spaces to have a dialogue to share and maybe amend the text where necessary.
Usually, there’s a timeline for when you might want your resolution to be adopted. Once you hopefully have everybody on board, you then submit it to say it’s closed. We have something called the silence procedure. A silence procedure is when the chair highlights, “It seems that we are somewhat in agreement.” People might still need to check back a little, but if the silence procedure is not broken, that’s when it will go into adoption.
If we were to distil the lessons from this, it is the fact that in many negotiations, there’s a lot of ambiguity. What do you do with ambiguity? There are three things that I usually highlight. The first is you need to know what the personalities of the stakeholders are. If you’re being thrown into any negotiation, whether you are the lead or not the lead, you need to know who might be the champions, who might be the spoilers, and how you’re going to manage the base of various stakeholders.In many negotiations, there's a lot of ambiguity. Click To Tweet
Always remember that, unfortunately, it often only takes one spoiler to bring the house of cards tumbling down. You want to make sure that you don’t miss out on any particular person. At the same time, you want to also help the spoilers realize that it’s not necessarily in their interests because of the fact that there is a global responsibility element as well.
The second thing that I usually highlight is the point of a timeline. In a negotiation process, there are moments when things are being tabled and moments when things are being discussed in the backroom. It is a bit like cooking. You want to go when your chef is going to the market and looking at the ingredients and deciding what to pick and put into the meal. You want to be in the kitchen when they’re deciding what will be cut out of the process. You want to help them put it into the oven. What you don’t want to be is only to show up when it’s put on the dining table and you are forced to eat that dish. The timeline is crucial in helping you to know the moments when you can influence that outcome.
The third element I would highlight is understanding the context of the history. Often, a subject is not completely new. There is some either historical discussion to it or there might be some sensitive words. You know that the words are common, but differentiated responsibilities are loaded. There’s a lot of background to that, and it’s very controversial. Knowing these things helps you to avoid landmines when you are in that ambiguous space. It isn’t too difficult to understand the negotiation process. It’s more of a question of knowing the stakeholders when to move in to influence it, and how to avoid the landmines per se.
That’s wonderful. That’s like interpersonal communication. There’s an art and a science. We know through science what makes humans and animals tick. It is like you said before. When you smile, we are programmed to smile back. It’s quite hard not to smile at someone when they smile at you. You have to consciously attempt to not smile. We also know through scientific research how we can shape people’s perceptions about us or the sixth environment. That is the science.
We have various theories. Uncertainty reduction theories spring to mind, and one that I use all the time. Reducing uncertainty about the other will automatically increase likability. That’s the science. The art is how you apply it and how you bring your experience into the room to make all of that work, and create the necessary opportunities, which speaks so loudly to me. You’ve made a number of times the point about position versus interests. I feel like that’s an important point. What is the difference between the position of a nation’s state and its interests?
The positioning is often what they would articulate and what you would find in megaphone diplomacy, whereas the core interest is what’s fundamentally important for them, which they may not necessarily show their cards on. A small example is with my kids. When my son tells my daughter, “This toy car is not fun. It’s not worth playing with,” that’s his bargaining position. His true interest is for his sister to forsake that car so that she can’t play with it. We find it all in our families. We find it when we are negotiating at a market or in other places. These are certain things or skillsets, which we should be teaching whether to our children or others.
It brings me to this story that I read about Ryan Reynolds, the actor. He said it was important that he took a conflict management class, how that has changed his mindset, and how he uses it in his business and daily living. These are things that we can do more in Asia. Asia is quite discreet in how we manage conflict. Asia also needs to diversify beyond weaponry so that more investments are put towards dialogue and community resilience.Asia needs to diversify beyond weaponry so that more investments are put towards dialogue and community resilience. Click To Tweet
We can talk more about this, but I’m sure you already are hearing that in Asia. There’s increased militarization in the region and data points to this. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute already highlighted that Asian defence spending is up to 53% between 2010 and 2020. How can we help Asian governments to move beyond their traditional approach of investing in security and defence, which is important, certainly, but also diversifying and putting more resources towards what we’ve been talking about, which is dialogue and helping the other party to understand empathy and community resilience? If we can address tensions at the source, then fewer resources might be spent on defence or, more importantly, the costly economic, social, and humanitarian fallout from war and conflict.
I do want to pick up on the point you made about Asian conflict management, which suggests in a way militarized. Can you explore that a little bit more? I do note that you’ve made the point that spending has increased by 53% in a decade, which is significant. What is the source of that? Is that something cultural that’s deeply embedded within Asian communities or Asian nations? How do you explain it?
Asian communities in the past used to go to an elder or clan leader to sort out their problems. Somehow, when there’s less trust, that’s when people start building up more of your security and defence as a reaction to manage that conflict. The question is, how do we go back to our roots like in Asia so that we put some time and effort into investing in peace and justice networks?
There are a few that are upcoming. You have the Southeast Asian Network of Women Peace Negotiators and Mediators that was established by the Indonesians. That should be supported. You also have the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which could also do with a lot more support. How do we help Asia invest in such local resilience and mediation dialogue tools?
I’ll give you a story here. In the Philippines, when they were working on the peace process, there was a realization that if you don’t manage the horizontal conflict, which is the day-to-day violence, it squeezes that base for dialogue between track one negotiators and the community. You are firefighting and managing day-to-day violence rather than focusing on the peace process negotiation.
In Sulu, they established an organization called Tumikang Sama-Sama. In the local language, it means together, we move forward. In this organization, clan leaders or elders are taught how to mediate conflict, especially Rido, which is planned conflict or planned violence. Tumikang Sama-Sama has resolved over 125 cases. They engage various stakeholders to establish these fires. In building these relationships that we talked about, they are able to work with security agencies, the Moro National Liberation Front, local governments, and civil society to find innovative and peaceful ways forward.
Also, by bringing peace to the local community, Tumikang Sama-Sama is able to work on local economic empowerment. Why we say this is because without peace, people cannot go to the market to sell their wares or buy food that’s important to them. Children can’t go to school. Hence, there needs to be more focus on what Asia can do to empower the resilience of society so they can manage such conflict. Also, when conflict is rife, how can those that enjoy peace also become active stewards in promoting harmony for others?
Tumikang Sama-Sama highlighted an example of what Asia could have more of if we are able to build that resilience for communities. We’re going to see more of that with climate change, unfortunately. We have lots of islands. How many sea walls can you build around all the islands? Mitigation certainly is important. Adaptation of infrastructure is also important. We need to talk about adaptation in terms of the resilience of the people.
We’re already seeing this in the Sahel region where pastoral and agricultural communities’ way of life are being threatened because of the increase in scarcity of resources. They fight over water points, land, and whatever they need. This also results in the disruption of established customs and traditions. When strangers arrive in new communities, the fabric of our community can tear. What does this mean for building up resilience in Asia so that when communities have to move, shift, or decide on resource allocation, they’re better able to manage that at that point?
My question to that immediately will be what is preventing the very obvious answers you’ve laid out from being accepted as the go-to resolution in the halls of power across Asia? Why is Asia resorting to such a significant increase in defence spending?
I suppose in Asia, there is more trust that needs to be built between the parties. Over the last couple of years with the rise of majors and competition between parties, you have smaller states feeling like they are being put into camps of the majors. There’s less of this sense of how can we empower our own people to find solutions that are not military-based. What we should also be looking at is the issue of how can what we do be sustainable. I don’t think militarization is sustainable. What I mean by that is how often has an arms race promoted harmony and resolved conflict.
Instead, it increases the risk of miscalculation and misunderstandings, and it magnifies the cost of confrontation. If the focus can be on behavioural change beyond the agreements per se, we might be hitting something here. I’ll give a very simple example. If you have two neighbours that disagree about how loud music should be played and what kind of music should be played at what time of the night, you can have them go to lawyers and forge a written agreement, but that’s not going to help the relationship with the parties.
If we go back to what we were talking about, which is investing in dialogue and helping each other to see the other and one who’s closer to themselves, they might be able to come to a more creative solution that works for both parties. Unfortunately, in Asia, all of this is being exacerbated by social media. Unfortunately, social media magnifies the divisions between the various groups in societies. My mom is going to be upset with me for saying this. Sometimes I tell her to stop forwarding me fake news. She says this was sent from her friends and it should be trusted. That’s when we have to highlight that information that is sent is not necessarily true. We should be asking if this is reliable. We should be fact-checking because misinformation doesn’t help the tensions in our society.Misinformation doesn't help the tensions in our society. Click To Tweet
It’s a very familiar topic of mine and one that I address a lot, which is the dangers of particularly social media. Information finds you in your pocket. You don’t need to go looking for it.
There are many things that we can be working on in Asia. For example, one would be looking at different phases of the conflict curve. In an early stage of a conflict, it is about allowing either a neutral institution or maybe even the parties themselves to work with trust-building activities. It’s then helping the contending parties to force positive agendas to balance the dynamics of that relationship. This is the preventive diplomacy that is important.
At the same time, it’s also looking at how when conflict is rife, doing discrete back channelling to strengthen the communication channel. Also, maybe a third party could bring parties to the table and act as either a mediator or offer safe-saving options for the conflicting parties. Even when a ceasefire agreement is in place, there are many things that still need to be done, which include providing resources to encourage buy-in and holistic implementation of the agreement, as well as identifying gaps and solutions so that the gains that have been achieved will not be eroded due to lack of resources. This is one element that Asia could be looking more at.
The second one would be building stronger connections between what we call the suits and the boot. The suits are your track for negotiators. Being there, I realized that often, our KPI was to close the deal. I understand that’s important and a lot of effort goes into it. How can we connect better with the communities that are going to be impacted by that agreement? Is there a way where we can strengthen that channel so that we understand what the community needs and what’s being put into the agreements that we negotiate? It is so that once you’ve formulated that understanding or agreement, you bring it back to the community or work very closely with the community to foster ownership. That’s where you can produce more implementer outcomes.
Going back to what you were talking about in terms of UN negotiations, we often ask ourselves that we produce so many agreements, but how many of them stick? How many of them impact the people on the ground? That’s the second element. I would encourage negotiators to look into CCHN, which is the Center for Competence and Humanitarian Negotiations because these are communities of practice. They have different focuses, whether it’s in Afghanistan or other parts of the world. You get to hear what negotiators on the ground are facing. You, as a negotiator, and the host of New York or Geneva could bring in that input to ensure that whatever is agreed to in these big hosts is helpful to those on the ground.
A third element of what we can do in Asia is about helping these negotiators to speak for a better world by balancing their interests and their global responsibility. There are a lot of people in Asia that are benefiting from a peaceful environment. How do we encourage them to feel that they too can become active stewards in promoting harmony for others? Everybody, as an individual, has the power and responsibility to be a peacemaker.
As the South and Southeast Asia director at HD, I’m only imagining that you have a number of conflicts or potential conflicts that you are keeping a close eye on. What are some of those principal challenges in your portfolio that are keeping you awake at night?
There are still conflicts within the state. There’s also interstate conflict, as well as what is to come that is behind climate change. I won’t draw too much into this here, but certainly, Myanmar is key. We need to be supporting existing tracks, whether it’s the ASEAN special envoy, as well as the US National Envoy, or many other actors who are working in this space. It’s also about focusing on humanitarian assistance because there is a real need for that. Many people are suffering. How can we support CSOs and others who are trying to provide humanitarian assistance?
The third is going back to that idea of how can we, in the longer run, empower local communities. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who live there. Whatever approach we need or want to pursue needs to be sustainable. What we don’t want is to say, “Sorry. They need to figure themselves out. When they’re done, then we can talk peace.” It is about finding ways, being creative, and looking for solutions.
Where do these negotiations or mediations most often fail? You highlighted the point that they need to be sustainable. What is it that prevents them from being sustainable?
One of which is megaphone diplomacy, unfortunately. It is because of social media but there are more leaks and more information going out before it’s rife. This is not to say that transparency is not important. It is to say that sometimes, discretion is also key if you want to build trust between the parties. If it’s between you and a best friend, you might want to work it out yourself before you put it out on Facebook.
This is something that hurts negotiations, especially when something good might be on track. You have other parties who spoil it sometimes who decide, “I’m going to use this opportunity to put it out there and to spoil the process.” Another thing is about sequencing. It is realizing that it’s not just important to put the parties in the room. You need to know if the time is right to discuss various elements. It’s important to put them in the room so that they can better understand each other, but it may not be the timing to cut that deal.
This is why we go back to the point of the relationship. If I have a good relationship with you and I know that if I cut a deal with you today and it goes out, it’s probably not going to be implemented because the ground is not ready. I can let you know this very honestly. I can say, “Let’s hold off. Let’s find out solutions here. That agreement will come in time.” You could trust that with me. If we don’t have that trust, understanding, and relationship building between us two, then things are going to go out before they are ready. Hence, instead of saying that magic is going to happen when people are in the room, we should be thinking about how to sequence and how you design a process. A lot of thought goes into it.
The third element in ensuring that peace is sustainable is you need for local ownership. It cannot just be about a negotiator who goes out and his KPI is getting you that agreement. That’s what negotiators are good at. If they don’t have that understanding of what the communities need, then no matter how pretty or glitzy the planning ceremony is, you’re not going to get much implementation carried out because the local communities don’t buy into whatever was agreed.
This speaks to another point that I’ve stressed quite a lot, and that’s that peace is built in pieces. As we have a path to war, there’s a path to peace. I had a negotiator who worked in Ukraine, not on the current war, but was there previously. One of the points he made about the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia is that despite the fact that there are combat operations going on at the moment, Ukraine should retain its full right to defend itself as it sees fit, notwithstanding that in parallel, talks need to continue to set the conditions for the return of peace at some point.
That’s the important aspect of this commitment to building it in bits and pieces along the way. That’s perhaps why they need to be discreet so that they don’t lose their potency by being exposed. If you are exposed and there’s an active war going on, it’s very feasible that you’ll be declared a traitor or that some political domestic actors will seek to exploit your position, etc. That will undermine the entire effort. What is the role of organizations like HD? I’m not asking you to talk about your operations, but what is the role of these types of organizations in setting the conditions for these bigger, more long-term, more enduring, and perhaps more public negotiations to take place?
I was looking for a new job. I was looking to leave the foreign service, which I was quite happy about. One of the things was in coming back to Singapore and realizing in many of these multilateral negotiations that we were in, I had this question about to what extent? Was it truthful for local communities? Therefore, HD’s model of suits and boots was very attractive to me because it builds on that connection. By having people on the ground, them knowing what is needed, and empowering them to be able to find those solutions, then we can also work at the track one level, whether it is meeting with ministers or other high-level people to forge and get that political will to move where things are needed. That’s one approach, which is the suits and boots model.
The second one is about discretion. I cannot highlight this strongly enough. For HD, you don’t see what we do out in the news because we respect the parties. It’s about realizing that the parties have a choice of how they want to convey these, but that’s not for us to do. What we want to do is support the parties who are in negotiations.
The third element is building communities that believe in and can support the process in the longer run. I was inspired by the fact that the heads in my region, Myanmar, Philippines, and Thailand are all led by local women who want to find solutions for their own communities out there, have the networks, and build it up over time. I believe that is what makes it sustainable, and that’s how we value-add at the end of the day. We’re not looking to compete in that space. For me, it’s always about how we can support the process. If there’s someone else already working there, then it’s about supporting them or putting our time elsewhere.
Given the elephant in the room or the dragon in the room, a topic that is very difficult to bypass when one talks about any part of Asia is the rise of China. How China interprets its rise is one thing, but how other nations are interpreting its rise is another. I’m guessing South and Southeast Asia hold the key in many ways for how China’s rise is to be negotiated with the rest of the world. What is your view on that? How do you see this unfolding both in your work professionally, but also more broadly in South and Southeast Asia?
We’re seeing more of a US-China dynamic in much of our work. As I highlighted earlier, small states don’t like feeling that they have to choose between the majors. Hence, there are more calls for non-alignment or multi-alignment. The truth also is that if you are a large state, you have the luxury to talk about strategic autonomy and non-alignment. If you are a small state, how do you manage that?
It is why ASEAN is key. If ASEAN can be more cohesive and come together, then it’s a lot easier for states to say, “We welcome all parties to engage ASEAN,” rather than being pulled into directions, especially for small states. You would see this more in Southeast Asia but in the Pacific, as well as in South Asia as well. How can we also empower small states to realize that in this asymmetric power, you have certain strengths if I might say so?
One of the things that we used to talk about in the UN was that you have the gorilla at the end, the 800-pound gorilla, and then what we call the fearless ant. The fearless ant has its own strengths. The reason why is that it often has a less rigid structure. Maybe fewer layers of bureaucracy have to do with it. Chances are there is also less scrutiny of the media because the fearless ant does not seem to be newsworthy. It also might have less of a fixed reputation.
What this means then is that the fearless ant can perhaps think outside the script or the box. It can offer up solutions without worrying that this will go out too much into the news or that they will be stuck or labelled by it, or people analyze too much into what they might mean. They can also be more adaptable. They can move a lot quicker because they probably don’t have that many chains or layers of bureaucracy they have to go through. You can also play a bridging role. Hence, how can we encourage more of these small and medium-sized states to step up in utilizing the strengths that they have?
At the same time, as some of my friends used to joke, the gorilla can also learn how to play its cards right. That could be as simple as respecting that small and medium-sized states have their own interests, and spending time listening to what those interests are. Another part of it would be how you display a willingness to show you are willing to find neutral solutions that could benefit both sides rather than it being a top down-thing. That is what we should be doing.
The third would be for the gorilla to also buy your time or choose your battles. Not everything needs to be a battle. From the multilateral negotiations that we used to work in, it gave us lessons about how every state can leverage on its strengths to contribute, whether it’s to de-escalating tensions or to building bridges so that the environment is a little bit more peaceful for everyone.
What I’m hearing you say as well is there is potential for South and Southeast Asia to perhaps even play a mediator role in many ways going forward between US and China. There’s no point denying it. That is the obvious contest affecting global affairs everywhere, not just in South and Southeast Asia, but certainly is felt there.
Is that a path you see for the organizations like the ASEAN or any other different groupings before building alliances between some of these smaller nations? They then have perhaps a little bit more bargaining power or a little bit more strength as they’re standing together that they could potentially mediate between these two superpowers or one still the hegemon and an emerging superpower.
If ASEAN can stand together strongly, then it could establish various trust-building activities so that the majors have a common interest in the region. That becomes a more positive dynamic or positive balance in that relationship rather than being focused on the tensions that we already know are existing. ASEAN could be that safe space to foster dialogue. It can talk about how there might be SOPs for de-escalation. These are all elements that if the ASEAN member states are willing to invest in, it could play a very fruitful role going forward.
As long as megaphone diplomacy doesn’t spoil those attempts. Perhaps this is my last question to you. What is your greatest fear, as well as your greatest hope given everything we’ve talked about?
My greatest fear is that with the increase in militarization, there might be a misunderstanding, something that was not foreseen. You see a clash, which nobody wants. At this point in time, it’s fair to say nobody wants to clash. We are dealing with human nature. Mistakes happen and sometimes, things are misconstrued. If you don’t have clear channels of communication, it becomes a real risk. Through your show, I’m sure you hear of this very often. The cost of war is terrible, whether it’s about economic costs, social costs, or the humanitarian fallout of it. We should be working towards avoiding that by investing in more dialogue and more community resistance.
What gives me hope is that in the negotiations that I’ve experienced, I have seen people say, “I want to support you, but my HQ hasn’t given approval, but because this is important, I’m going ahead to support this cause.” I have seen other parties say, “This is going to be very difficult for my government or whoever party to accept. Let me work with you so that it would also work with them, but be something that you can still pursue.” This showed me the fact that humanity exists. It’s strong and it’s there.
How do we help people to see that they can help the other by not seeing the other party as exactly what we were talking about, which is the other, but by building empathy and helping them see each other beyond that organization or institution that they represent so that each person speaks up? They have the responsibility to do so. When you have an opportunity, you should be utilizing that in a good way to contribute to what society needs. Hence, the hope is in the fact that as humans, we ultimately want to help each other in some form or fashion. Sometimes, we don’t necessarily know the best way to do so, but through more dialogue and community resilience, we will be able to get there.
This is why I like individualizing it or the interpersonal aspect. When you take people out of their performance or out of the role that they’re adopting on behalf of a nation-state or an ethnic group, when they have all of that on their shoulders and they’re carrying all of that, it’s a lot harder to move against it. If it’s on an individual level or a one-on-one where you can start being human, people will potentially go the extra mile and say, “I see you. I hear you. I trust you. I will make inquiries. I will move mountains for you because I see that your intention is pure.” Oftentimes, when we come as a group, that is not heard. Rather, our groupishness instinct kicks in and it’s us versus them rather than you and me, which is a very different angle.
The summary is to be human and help the other party to see that you’re a human being too.
That’s wonderful. I knew this would be fascinating to have a conversation with an actual real negotiator, somebody who’s been there on the ground, living and breathing diplomacy mediation, both public overt and also in a more discreet fashion. It was always going to be exciting and certainly, it was. Thank you very much for taking the time. I know your schedule is busy with so many challenges across South and Southeast Asia. I do appreciate you making the time to speak.
Thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure.