COLD SUCCESS

It was a seat coveted by many, but when Singapore was finally granted permanent observership on the Arctic Council in 2013, The Economist could only respond by noting that, “Sometimes, a small event gives you mental whiplash.” As a tropical city-state, Singapore was hardly an obvious candidate for the Council (an intergovernmental panel that discusses issues related to the Arctic region).

But by gaining permanent observership status, officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) demonstrated an essential quality of diplomacy – the ability to take the long view. Among the officers on MFA’s Arctic Affairs Working Group (AAWG) was Ms Seema Gail Parkash, 32. Now stationed in New York City, she recalls the exacting work that went into Singapore’s bid.

The Arctic Council meets in Kiruna, Sweden, in May 2013.

AAWG was formed in November 2011 to study the Arctic Council’s observership criteria and assess Singapore’s eligibility. In December, the four-person team learnt that countries that were interested in the seat had to submit their applications by the end of the year. According to Ms Parkash, this meant AAWG was barely a month old when it faced its first test.

Overnight, AAWG became operational. We were four young officers with full-time roles in regions other than the Arctic. But the next thing we knew, we were supporting Ambassador Tony Kemal Siddique, the former Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs, to complete Singapore’s application. And we had three weeks to do it.

The team’s first task was to learn – and learn fast. Ms Parkash and her fellow officers dove into research, building up their knowledge of the region as well as the nuts-and-bolts of the application process.But their journey wasn’t a solitary one.

We had excellent leadership, and we had one another. Many public agencies also met our urgent requests for information, providing the substance for Singapore’s application. And we had friends from the international community who guided us.

With this support, AAWG crossed its first hurdle – completing Singapore’s application and submitting it on time. For Ms Parkash, the urgency of their task couldn’t be clearer.

We can’t afford to ignore the Arctic region. Climate change will affect all of us and, as the sea-ice melts, we need to understand its potential impact on Singapore. This will help us to prepare for challenges in the decades to come. On a more personal level, rapid changes in the Arctic have forced indigenous peoples to adapt while trying to maintain their traditions. Singapore can learn much from their efforts.

The team now entered a new phase in its efforts. Working through the New Year celebrations and into Chinese New Year, AAWG began to engage with Member States and Permanent Participants on the Arctic Council, a process that would last one-and a- half years. AAWG’s goal was clear from the start – to make sure Singapore’s case was watertight and that it met the observership criteria comprehensively and compellingly.

As Ambassador Siddique explained, we had to demonstrate the merits of Singapore’s application, and this was what we focused on throughout the engagement process. We were fortunate to work on issues concerning the Arctic because it’s a cause we truly believe in.

AAWG’s painstaking efforts finally bore fruit: meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, the Arctic Council declared on 15 May 2013 that Singapore had been granted observership status. That same day, a concise media release on the appointment appeared on MFA’s website, followed by a tweet on the ministry’s Twitter account. Public response to the breakthrough was also muted, but for Ms Parkash and her fellow officers, the occasion was one to savour:

It was a euphoric moment for all of us.