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103 Meridian East » Diplomacy »  The Soft Side ofthe Diplomat Wins thePushkin Medal
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On 16 June 2011, Michael Tay, Singapore's former ambassador to Russia, was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Medal as decreed by the Russian President. Ambassador Tay is the first Singaporean to be conferred the award, and he was honoured for his contributions towards developing cultural and humanitarian ties between Russia and Singapore during his time as Singaporean Ambassador. 103rd Meridian East cordially congratulates Ambassador Tay for the award and talks to him about his appreciation of Russia's soft side and the upcoming Russia-Singapore Business Forum (RSBF).

For a person whose job requires enormous amounts of publicity, Ambassador Tay strikes us as a very humble person. Even speaking about receiving the Pushkin Medal, he uses the word "unexpected" several times and genuinely shares his joy.
"It was quite unexpected because I am not the kind of person who works for an award. I prefer to see the result, but it was nice to get the news that you are receiving something so prestigious. A lot of my friends started to write to me after they had looked up the award and could not believe that I was getting it, and that I was the first Singaporean. In Russia, this is a very important award as it's through culture that one can be accepted as a fellow Russian, as a person who understands the country and does good to it," says the diplomat with a shy smile.
Then he seamlessly switches to his favourite topic: Russia and its potential. An experienced diplomat and businessman, he, nevertheless, recounts that the true power of Russia lies in its soft side, its cultural heritage and the role of art in everyday life.
"Russia is very unique. In many countries, art is divorced from business and politics but, in Russia, you really cannot make any distinction between the artist, the businessman and the politician because it is woven into your soul… A politician when young can play the violin, read Pushkin and become a kind of artist in his own heart. Even Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, I think, have gone through this.
"I see Russia as a potential holistic superpower in some way like America because American soft power is huge with music, movies and so on. I don't see why Russia is not because in terms of culture and civilisation, it is far deeper and far more profound, as this is part of the cultural fabric. So, when I started the RSBF, it was also to promote the soft side of Russia because the hard news, business or political, always described Russia as a nasty country in a way: the mafia, the KGB, bureaucrats everywhere. But if you were to see the real Russia, when you live there, you know how good the people are," shares the Ambassador.
With a passion for both music and Russia, Ambas­sador Tay commissioned Russian composer Vladimir Martynov to create a musical piece connected to Singapore. The magnificent outcome, a symphony titled Singapore. A Geopolitical Utopia, now greets visitors of the National Museum of Singapore, being the background of a stunning 360-degree view of one day in the life of Singapore. But Tay sees the symphony not as a result but as the beginning of "ripples" that continue going on inspiring people and business organisations to hold forums focused on Russia in Singapore.

"And for me, the great ripple is that we were able to bring a lot of Asia to Singapore for the Russia-Singapore Business Forum. It's important that the Forum evolves. It started by being about Russia and Singapore and, for the first two to three years, had been focused on the two countries because there was still a big gap in understanding, but now is the time to think of Russia and Singapore not just as countries but as icons of their regions. Russia is a part of Europe because this is where its destiny has always been. Now it's looking at Asia. Singapore, again, is not just an island city-state; its reach is global. So Russia and Singapore can act as emblems of the world, from Eastern Europe to Asia-Pacific, and so we basically have the whole world for the Forum. The Americans are also participating. For example, during the RSBF 2010, a joint USD120 million fund was launched by Rusnano, the Economic Development Board and 360ip (a US venture capital firm). So, it's becoming a truly global Forum," divulges Tay.
But for Tay, it is never just about business, as now he is thinking about developing a vehicle to promote culture and art, probably a foundation.
"The cultural scene is completely open so, in the coming years, we will start organising different things to try to bring the soft side of Russia to the rest of the world. There are many Russians who are keen to do this, who are prepared to invest their money with no material returns, when the returns are the idea that Russia moves up in status in the world of culture and global art," he enthusiastically exclaims.
In these materialistic times, the idea of raising funds to promote culture may seem utopian, but Tay's immense optimism and solid business connections in Russia make it seem workable.

Text and photos Natalia Makarova


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