ROME – While the concept of “multilateralism,” or cooperation among states in global affairs, may pack appeal as an ideal to virtually anybody, it’s doubtless especially attractive to smaller countries that otherwise wouldn’t really stand much of a chance of influencing the international agenda.
Perhaps that’s why Ambassador Barry Desker of Singapore seemed particularly enthusiastic about Pope Francis’s annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on Monday, in which the pontiff delivered a paean to multilateralism.
“What I think was significant in discussing this aspect is that Pope Francis made a critique of populism and nationalist demands, which were undermining the multilateral system,” he said.
“He highlighted that there were demands being made which were a recollection of the period in between the two world wars, which I think was a reflection of some concern to him,” Desker said.
Now at the end of his career, Desker was among the first generation of Singaporean diplomats in the mid-1960s after independence from Malaysia. He said that although the Vatican is a unique assignment, diplomatic relations with it make sense because “around the world, including my part of the world, Southeast Asia, the Vatican and its diplomatic corps are seen as very capable diplomats with an understanding of what is going on in the countries that they are based in.”
Desker also said that Singapore’s experience of transforming itself from a financial pariah to a global pacesetter in transparency could offer lessons for the Vatican’s own process of economic reform.
“We didn’t see ourselves as a model, but what we thought would be useful for him to do was to look at best practices elsewhere, and then the Vatican could select what it thought would be the appropriate systems for its own case,” he said.
Finally, Desker expressed hope that Francis may one day visit Singapore, a nation of 5.6 million people with about 300,000 Catholics, representing under 6 percent of the total population.
Desker said an invitation was delivered to the pope in 2015, but so far there are no concrete steps towards a visit.
The following is a transcript of Crux’s conversation with Desker, which came just ahead of a dinner for the diplomatic corps joined by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
Crux: You participated in the pope’s speech to diplomats earlier today. Why do countries around the world bother having diplomatic relations with the Vatican in the first place?
Desker: Because the Vatican does have a reach globally. Around the world, including my part of the world, Southeast Asia, the Vatican and its diplomatic corps are seen as very capable diplomats with an understanding of what is going on in the countries that they are based in, whether it is Myanmar, Indonesia, East Timor or Vietnam. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that they are all single men and they can afford to devote 24-hours a day to the job, unlike the rest of us!
The pope’s speech to diplomats every year is a sort of 360-degree review of the Vatican’s diplomatic, social, political priorities. Did you hear anything in the speech that struck you as new or different or significant?
It is an annual tour of the horizon, but I think what’s significant is that this year, as in previous years, because he was addressing the diplomatic corps his focus was on international affairs, and in this case two things, maybe because I come from Asia, stood out immediately: first was the statement that in Vietnam there would be an appointment of a resident papal representative soon, and secondly the reference to the provisional agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which will result in the agreement on the appointment of bishops. This took place in September 2018.
The result is that all bishops in China are now in full communion with the Vatican. The point was also made that there was also the participation of two Chinese bishops in the recent synod. There was also a much larger overview which discussed the fact that it was the 100th year of the establishment of the League of Nations, which introduced the notion of multilateral diplomacy.
But what I think was significant in discussing this aspect is that Pope Francis made a critique of populism and nationalist demands, which were undermining the multilateral system, and he highlighted that there were demands being made which were a recollection of the period in between the two world wars, which I think was a reflection of some concern to him.
The pope has a global horizon, so he’s speaking to the whole world, but those of us who come from specific parts of the world sometimes want to hear what he’s saying as a reference to our own situation. As an American, it was hard not to hear that language about the importance of multilateralism and the dangers of populism and nationalism as a direct rebuke of the Trump administration, which has an explicitly America-first policy. Did you hear this as a critique of any specific government or regime, or a more generic exhortation?
I think there might have been particular governments that were at the back of the pope’s mind, but because he didn’t make the specific reference, it would be unfair for me to draw the conclusion, because it could easily be applied to other governments in Europe, for example, or even in Asia. So I would say that what would happen is the reader or the listener would have heard it, and the reference would be made in terms of how the reader’s own perspective would view such a statement.
Following up on what you mentioned with the Vatican’s deal with China on the appointment of bishops, what response was there in Asia to this decision? It was a very controversial decision when it was announced, and many feared it would be giving the Chinese communist government too much power. What reaction was there in Asia and are there concerns for how this could play out?
What this does is it sort of brings together, you could say, the two branches of the Church in China under one system of leadership. You’ve got the official community and also the unofficial community, as some would call it, the underground church, and from an Asian perspective this has not been an issue.
The Asian Catholic communities have actually interacted with the Chinese. In fact, if you look at a place like Singapore, you will find there are quite a lot of missionaries since we have Chinese-speaking priests and nuns, quite a number of missionaries who have gone in to serve in China. One example I can give is the former head of Vatican Radio’s Chinese programs, who was a Jesuit from Singapore. On finishing his assignment here (in Rome), he went to China as a missionary.
We had the pleasure of having lunch with you the other day, and we talked about the Singapore contribution to the global Church. You mentioned that Singaporeans often serve as financial and IT people within religious congregations and other Church entities, because those are areas for which Singapore is known around the world.
That’s correct. If you look at some of the committees which have been formed, on the pope’s economic committee George Yeo, the former trade and industry minister, sits on it. On the five-member committee looking at the reform of the Institute for Religious Works, the “Vatican bank,” one of them is a Singaporean, J.Y. Pillay, who used to be the equivalent of the head of our central bank, the monetary authority of Singapore.
The head of the St. Vincent de Paul Society is a Singaporean. Similarly, if you look at the various religious orders which are present here … the number two among the Canossian nuns, the number two is a Singaporean. Heading the finance and IT operations are Singaporeans, in what is after all a global operation. In the same way with the Schuett missionaries, the auditor general is a Singaporean. This bears out the point.
In other words, there are Singaporeans everywhere …
But not in the curia itself.
Maybe that’s the next frontier. In the meantime, you mentioned finances … Singapore has gone through a process of reform when it comes to financial transparency and accountability. Are there lessons in Singapore’s experience for the Vatican’s own efforts at financial reform?
I would presume so, because Danny Casey, who served as the chief of staff for Cardinal [George] Pell [tapped by Pope Francis in 2014 as the Secretary for the Economy] when he was here, made a visit to Singapore in order to learn from us.
What my colleagues and I did was to expose hm to the operations of various key Singapore institutions … the monetary authority, which is the central bank, the economic development board, the government investment corporation that basically serves as a sovereign fund, so he could get an idea of how financial management takes place in Singapore.
We didn’t see ourselves as a model, but what we thought would be useful for him to do was to look at best practices elsewhere, and then the Vatican could select what it thought would be the appropriate systems for its own case.
You’ve been active in international diplomacy your entire life. Do you find this gig at the Vatican to be fun?
Well, I should say that I do this out of interest.
Because you’re not actually getting paid for this, right?
I’m not getting paid for it. To be fair, the Singapore government does meet all my expenses, and if my wife accompanies me, they foot the bill. I would say that as an appointment, it’s actually engaging and interesting. I’m also the envy of some of my colleagues, because coming to Rome is not something that may people would turn down.
The pope will likely be going to Asia this year, to Japan.
He’s also going to the UAE, which is also part of Asia.
What does this pope’s emphasis on Asia mean to you? What’s the possible significance of these visits?
I think what Pope Francis is trying to do … I mean, he’s been going to Europe, which popes have traditionally done. But you can see also a conscious effort to go beyond Europe, with a visit to Panama, a visit to Morocco, Abu Dhabi, and possibly Japan. I’m hopeful that at some point he will think of a visit to Singapore.
Have you delivered an invitation?
When the President of Singapore was here in 2015, an invitation was delivered.
Do you have any indication a trip may be in the works?
No, not at this point in time.