WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations with Singapore Tuesday with a state dinner for a leader Obama praised as respected around the world and a trusted partner.
Obama reserved the 12th state dinner of his presidency to honor Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife, Ho Ching. Obama said the nation's ties go back nearly two centuries when Singapore was still a colony, and the U.S. had recently emerged as an independent nation. He said the alliance is about more than shared strategic interests in a rising Asia Pacific.
"We're bound together by history, by family and by friendship," Obama said.
The state dinner included a mix of Washington officials and celebrities. Among those at the head table with the Obamas and Lees were actors Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, author Amy Tan, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, Sam's Club President and CEO Rosalind Brewer, and Caterpillar Inc., chairman and CEO Douglas Oberhelman.
The allies share close economic and security ties, with more than 3,500 U.S. companies having a presence in Singapore. Singapore was the first Southeast Asian country to join in the fight against the Islamic State group. Both countries also signed onto last year's Paris climate agreement.
"Let's continue to build something special together," Obama said during his toast to the Lees.
Earlier in the day, the two leaders held a joint press conference in which Lee ensured that Singapore would continue to work closely with the United States regardless of who wins this year's tumultuous presidential election. After elections, "positions are re-thought, strategies are nuanced and a certain balance is kept in the direction of the ship of state. It doesn't turn completely upside down," Lee observed.
"The Americans take pride in having a system with checks and balances so that it is not so easy to do things, but it is not so easy to completely mess things up," Lee said, prompting reporters to laugh and Obama to smile. "And we admire that and sometimes we depend upon that."
Lee said he first met the president in 2007 and was struck by the then-presidential candidate's focus and interest in Asia. He said that Obama's decision to place greater emphasis on building ties with Asia has "won America new friends and strengthened old partnerships, including in Singapore."
The two nations are part of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Lee noted a previous trade agreement between the two nations was forged by a midnight golf outing featuring then outgoing President Bill Clinton and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, "showing what can be done even in lame-duck periods." The comments prompted applause and laughs from an audience acutely aware of the difficulty of passing the agreement this year in the U.S.
Lee praised the U.S. as a country trying to build a world where countries can prosper together.
"America is a great nation, not just because of your power and your wealth, but because of your high ideals, openness and generosity of spirit," Lee said.
Dinner opened with Maryland blue crab salad tossed in an Asian citrus curd and rimmed with slivered baby cucumbers. The salad course showcased heirloom tomatoes from Ohio paired with lime basil from Michelle Obama's garden, as well as mangoes, cucumbers, green papayas and soursop sorbet.
American Wagyu beef dressed with roasted yams, wilted kale and heirloom carrots anchored the main course for some 200 guests seated at round tables in the East Room.
Dessert was peach sangria cake accented with coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves, a citrus fruit native to Asia, and dressed with White House honey. Pastry chef Susie Morrison prepared handmade, spun-sugar orchids and roses for each table.
California and New York red, white and sparkling wines were served.
Floral arrangements for the dinner consist of yellow orchids, yellow roses and other yellow flowers. The color symbolizes the friendship between the two countries.
After dinner, R&B and soul singer-songwriter Chrisette Michele entertained the guests.
The last state dinner at the White House for Singapore occurred in October 1985, during Ronald Reagan's presidency, for Lee's late father, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.