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A grand state dinner buoyed by friendship and humour

Prime Minister Lee (centre) with his host US President Obama (right) and the First Lady Michelle (left) at the state dinner, a black-tie affair held in the White House on Tuesday evening.

Washington, DC

IT was an exceptional night that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and all of Singapore won't forget in a hurry.

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle laid out the red carpet as they welcomed Mr Lee and his wife Ho Ching to the White House for a state dinner, a lavish black-tie affair held in the East Room of the presidential mansion.

Close to 200 people attended the dinner on Tuesday (Wednesday morning, Singapore time); just the 12th such function in Mr Obama's eight years in office and the first for a South-east Asian nation, it was held as part of the festivities to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and the US.

It was very likely Mr Obama's final state dinner before he vacates the White House in January.

The guest list was a Who's Who of the political, entertainment, business and diplomatic fields, and included best-selling author Amy Tan, Golden Globe winner Keri Russell, former US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and AOL chief executive Timothy Armstrong.

Among the Singaporeans present were Cabinet ministers Vivian Balakrishnan (Foreign Affairs), S Iswaran (Industry), Chan Chun Sing (Prime Minister's Office) and Ong Ye Kung (Education).

Others on the invite list were Singapore Airlines chairman Stephen Lee, Singapore ambassador to the US Ashok Mirpuri, Keppel Corporation chief executive Loh Chin Hua and Monk Hill Ventures founding partner Ong Peng Tsin.

They were all dressed for the occasion; the men were in tuxedos, and the women were decked in their evening finery.

Ms Ho Ching wore a deep red and gold kebaya that was accessorised with a scarlet wrap and a gold clutch. Mrs Obama opted for a strapless, unadorned ivory gown by American designer Brandon Maxwell, a long-time stylist to singer Lady Gaga.

The food that was served at the dinner boasted a mix of Asian and Western flavours: Maryland blue crab salad, American wagyu beef tenderloin, heirloom tomatoes and lime basil from the White House Kitchen Garden, and peach sangria cake for dessert.

Susie Morrison, the White House's executive pastry chef, also prepared an edible footed tray fashioned from caramelised almond nougat. On it sat bite-sized pastries and a bowl of sugar roses and orchids.

In his toast speech, Mr Obama began by noting how Singaporeans take their food "seriously", quipping that even the hawker stalls in the Lion City can earn coveted Michelin stars.

"(This) created some pressure this evening. We were tempted to offer each of you a Singapore Sling or some chilli crab. However, for those of you who know its unmistakable scent that never seems to go away, you will understand why we will not serve any fruit known as durian," he said, to much laughter.

When it was his turn to speak, Mr Lee also had the audience in stitches after he announced that Singapore had named an orchid hybrid, called the Dendrobium Barack and Michelle Obama, after the President and First Lady.

"This is a hybrid of breeds native to Singapore and Hawaii, where the president was born - most of us believe," he said, alluding to the much talked-about theory that Mr Obama was not born in the US.

Expressing joy at seeing so many of Singapore's "old friends" at the dinner, Mr Lee singled out former US ambassador to Singapore Steve Green, who played a crucial role in teeing up the famous midnight golf game between then-President Bill Clinton and then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in Brunei some 16 years ago.

That particular round of golf, played on a rainy night during the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, eventually led to the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, a gold-standard deal that is going on strong to this day.

"(This) shows what can be done even during 'lame duck' periods," said Mr Lee to laughter from the audience. The so-called lame duck session is the brief window after a US presidential election but before the new President and members of Congress are sworn in.

Mr Obama is facing mounting pressure to make use of this window to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mega-free trade agreement that faces the possibility of going into limbo if it is not pushed through by his administration.

Mr Lee also devoted much of his speech to praising the attributes of the US, adding that Singapore admires America's dynamism, vibrancy and capacity for self-renewal.

"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. You seek to build a world where countries can prosper together," he said.

Mr Obama, meanwhile, described the Singapore leader as a "patriot, a brilliant political leader and a statesman of a rising, thriving Asia-Pacific", who is both respected around the world and a trusted partner to the US.

Raising his wine glass to propose a toast, Mr Obama called on Singapore and the US to continue to build something special together for the next 50 years and beyond.

He said: "Onward, Singapore! Majulah Singapura! Onward, America! Cheers. Yam seng (Cantonese for 'drink to success')."