SINGAPORE: It was a nail-biting morning that had finally arrived. Would there be a new American president? Or would it be four more years of Trump?
Inside a brightly-lit ballroom at the Conrad Centennial Singapore hotel on Wednesday (Nov 4), 120 people gathered to find out the results of the US elections - in a year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic and a resulting economic fallout - and its impact on the Asia-Pacific region.
Results were broadcast on CNN and FOX News on giant screens as American business and community leaders heard from panellists including former US ambassador to Singapore Frank Lavin and former US embassy deputy chief of missions in Singapore Blair Hall.
The US embassy's Chargé d'Affaires Rafik Mansour said in his opening speech that no matter the outcome, America would remain a "key player in the Indo-Pacific and Singapore", especially as it continues to build on its "indispensable economic, political and security cooperation".
He called the economic relationship between Singapore and the US "dynamic", noting there were more than 4,500 American companies operating here employing 200,000 people.
The US-Singapore free-trade agreement signed in 2003 remains one of the "gold standards" for trade agreements, he said in his opening speech at the watch party organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.
"That unshakable economic relationship is strongly rooted in our many shared values, and a common desire for stability, progress and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific," Mr Mansour added.
According to the US Embassy website, as of 2017, there were more than 30,000 Americans living in Singapore.
The other observers agreed there would be little change in US-Singapore relations under either presidency, which they say has been good so far.
"I think that close relationship with Singapore has transcended politics. It’s viewed as a good partner, good friend, good counterpart in the region (with) rule of law, open markets," said Mr Lavin, the former US ambassador to Singapore. He predicted that former vice-president Joe Biden would win by five to seven percentage points.
"And there’s such a strong anchorage of US investment in economic participation here … there’s enormous educational connectivity, there’s good military connectivity, so it’s multifaceted," said Mr Lavin, who is now the chief executive of Export Now and is based in Singapore.
"In general, these two countries look at the world in very much the same way. So there’s no burning bilateral crisis."
But as for ties with Asia, he said: "I think there’s a growing concern about US role in Asia … whether it’s Trump re-elected or Biden wins, I think you see greater emphasis on Asia."
Mr Hall, who is now the managing director of consultancy Westminster Minato, said Singapore is going to remain an important US partner whichever party comes to power.
"I think that the US will continue to look to Singapore as a leader in ASEAN, as a trusted adviser and friend, as a place where we are able to forward deploy forces here for resupply, and to also pay attention to Singapore’s security interests."
Both Biden and Trump have visited Singapore before - Biden during his term as vice-president in 2013, and Trump in 2018 during the US summit with North Korea.
According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Singapore is the US' 17th largest goods trading partner.
Goods and services trade between the two countries was an estimated US$91.6 billion in 2019, with a US$18.3 billion trade surplus for the US.
TRADE WITH ASIA
On the issue of trade policies, Mr Lavin said that remains an open question.
While Biden has some "parentage" on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - a key foreign policy during the Obama administration when Biden was vice-president - Trump has been so vocal against trade that it has shifted the debate on it.
However, he said Biden is a much stronger believer in multilateralism than Trump and Singapore would see more interaction with the US administration than the current situation.
Mr Hall also said that it would be unlikely that a Biden administration would immediately agree to join the new version of the TPP, which is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.
"What did happen was the remaining countries went forward agree on the CPTPP, but it didn’t have the kind of labour and environmental and other things that were very important to the US," he said.
"So it’s impossible to think of Biden in the current environment with the support that he would have from his party, in Congress, going into an agreement that doesn’t have labour or environmental guarantees to it."
"I think that the discussion on trade and globalisation, the politics of it in the US have changed," he added.
It is also unlikely that the entire agreement would be renegotiated for the US to join the pact again, but Biden could look at other multilateral or bilateral trade agreements.
Trade with Asia and Southeast Asia is going to be an important part of the way US engages the region, he said. But at the same time, foreign affairs has only played a small part in either candidate's campaign this year.
"The question is not about bilateral US-Singapore, but more about US and the world - how much time would either president have to think about international relations, and of all of international relations, how much about Southeast Asia compared to Iran or China," he said.
SMALLER CELEBRATIONS FOR AMERICANS IN SINGAPORE
Apart from the AmCham event - which was parred down this year due to safety protocols - it was a much quieter affair for the rest of the American community as well. Instead of gathering shoulder-to-shoulder at restaurants and parties, they huddled at home, watching the coverage alone or in small groups of up to five people.
Ross Knudson and his son were up since 4am, following the results at home.
“There’s been lots of coffee,” he joked. The 56-year-old, who has been living in Singapore for 20 years, voted for Biden through an absentee ballot. He is registered to vote in California.
He said the day has been “very exciting”, and he is “optimistic” that the Democratic leader will win, especially since many votes in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have not been counted due to the surge in mail-in votes, which are tipped to favour Biden.
“Trump’s America (is) not the country I want to be from. It has to change,” the co-owner of concert organiser LAMC Productions said.
Four years ago, Kanika Kohli was at a bar watching the results with friends back home. This year, she is alone in Singapore and has been messaging friends and family who are in the US.
"I think it's too early to say and I'm just really anxious," said Ms Kohli, a marketing executive who is in her 30s. She is also registered to vote in California, and mailed in her ballot about three weeks ago.
“I think it’s a lot closer than what most of us wanted,” said Ms Patricia Reed. But the chair of the Democrats Abroad Lion City Committee said she is still “keeping the faith” and hopeful in what the mail-in ballots will show.
Usually, its members would meet at a bar at the end of the event, but this year, they joined in on a global watch party held by the organisation on Zoom and some gathered in groups of five instead.
“It’s kind of frustrating to not be able to celebrate a little more freely, but on the other hand, we all appreciate being somewhere where COVID is being well-managed,” she said.
Tina Datta, the chairwoman of the Republican Overseas Singapore, said she is “fairly confident” of a Trump win, but added: “I think everybody’s just done the best that they can do”.
“Let’s get through with smiles.”