[Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Pope Francis delivered his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, in what’s generally considered his most important foreign policy speech of the year. It was a typically wide-ranging overview of the global scene, from nuclear disarmament and the dangers of anti-immigrant rhetoric to the pro-life cause and “ideological colonization.”
Crux spoke with Ambassador Barry Desker of Singapore, who was part of the first generation of diplomats from his country after it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, and who today serves as one of the “non-residential” ambassadors to the Vatican, meaning he does not live full-time in Rome.]
Crux: What was your take-away from the pope’s speech this morning?
I think it came across as previous speeches have done, as a “state of the world” address. It wasn’t on just one particular item. While he might use one theme, that theme covered a whole range of issues of interest to the Vatican. This year, for example, the focus was on human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. That formed the prop which was the basis upon which the entire speech was spun.
Among the various things the pope talked about, was there anything that resonated in terms of Singapore’s interests and the challenges happening there now?
One thing that would attract attention from any observer from Singapore was the direct reference to the Rohingya in the speech. You’ll recall that one of the criticisms made of the pope’s visit to Myanmar, to Burma, is that there was no direct reference to the Rohingya issue.
In fact, when Francis delivered his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi message, which is also a review of the global situation, he spoke about his trip to Myanmar and mentioned “minority groups present in the region,” but not specifically the Rohingya. That’s what made today’s reference striking, right?
Yes, it is. I think that’s one facet that will attract attention in Singapore.
The second factor which will have drawn attention is the reference to a “demographic winter,” meaning the decline in birthrates. In Asia, this is something that’s of concern to countries around the region, including Singapore. For example, many have said that China is likely to grow old before it grows rich because of the one-child policy.
[Note: In the speech, Pope Francis said declining fertility rates in some parts of the world represent a “demographic winter,” adding: “This is a sign of societies that struggle to face the challenges of the present, and thus become ever more fearful of the future, with the result that they close in on themselves.”]
In other words, the pope wasn’t just talking about Europe?
No, I think there was an attempt to move clearly beyond Europe. He did at the very end come to the question of migrants, refugees, and what has been done in dealing with the issue, praising countries such as Italy, Germany and Greece for their handling of it – and, by implication, criticizing those which, from the very beginning, have placed barriers on the entry of such migrants.
As Americans, we constantly ask ourselves if Pope Francis is a liberal or a conservative, and listening to him today, his message seemed to cut in both directions at once depending on the subject. If your Foreign Ministry asked you to answer that question, “is Francis a liberal or a conservative?”, what would you say?
My answer to that would be, it’s a question Singapore would never ask!
Fair enough. Let’s ask a question that probably does occur in Singapore, just like everywhere else: What’s the Vatican’s role in international affairs, and why is it important for Singapore to be in diplomatic relations with it?
If you look at the speech, and even if you didn’t go beyond the speech, what immediately comes through is how knowledgeable the Vatican is on multi-lateral and international issues. That’s because it’s served by a diplomatic corps, the papal nuncios, who are actually very well informed.
In the countries I’ve been posted to, one of the first things I learned was how well informed the papal nuncio was, and how useful it would be to have him as one of your contacts.
What from today’s speech do you think the typical person in Singapore might find interesting?
They’d be interested in the perspectives of Pope Francis, both as the leader of the Catholic Church and as a global leader whose views are listened to beyond the limited arena of those who are professed Catholics. There are plenty of people who profess other faiths, or perhaps no religion, who also listen to the voice that he has and the views he puts forward.
He also addresses issues of direct concern to our part of the world, as well as other parts of the world with which we interact. The message is being delivered at one level to a global audience, but it also has meaning at the local level too.
Today you also had the opportunity to meet with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Richard Gallagher, in effect the Vatican’s Foreign Minister. How did those meetings go?
Again, what definitely comes across is how well informed they are. It’s not the first time I’ve interacted with each of them. In fact, Cardinal Parolin was our guest in Singapore in 2015, and we had an opportunity for very intensive exchanges with him during that visit. We’ve also had visits by Singapore leaders to the Holy See – the President of Singapore was here in 2016, and the last two foreign ministers have visited the Vatican.
Also, George Yeo, who was the foreign minister in the last part of the 2000s, is now one of the eight lay members of the Council for the Economy that’s advising Pope Francis.