Article was first published in Straits Times on 8 August 2014
Preparing for my posting to Singapore as British High Commissioner in early 2011, I was struck by a sense that it was an important time for both our countries and that, more importantly, there was an opportunity to enhance and deepen the relationship.
The UK had a government that was unabashed in its commitment to “commercial diplomacy”, supporting UK companies overseas and ensuring that we could continue to attract high quality investment. In short, we were “open for business”. Meanwhile, Singapore was approaching its 50th anniversary of independence, a moment to reflect on what had been achieved whilst thinking about where you were going. The key question in my mind was how the UK, with its unique part in Singapore’s history could also establish itself as a committed partner for the future.
Three years on, much has been done to enhance the contacts between us. The British Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign and Defence Secretaries have all come to Singapore, along with a host of other Ministers and senior officials covering the prosperity and security agendas. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Finance Minister and many others have all gone the other way. Indeed, Mr Shanmugam was amongst the very first to meet the new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, last month in London.
But these interactions are a means, not an end. More significant are the people to people exchanges, such as a dramatic increase in the number of Singaporean students studying in the UK, with greater than 10 per cent increases year-on-year. In Singapore, around 50,000 students from many countries study to obtain UK qualifications, supporting Singapore’s aspirations to be an education hub. Imperial College’s partnership with NTU on a new medical school is part of this story.
The commercial links are also strengthening. UK financial and professional services companies; energy giants like BG, Shell and BP; and other world leaders like GSK, Rolls-Royce and Unilever, all have a significant presence here. Some have been here for many decades, seeing Singapore as a source of talent and expertise, a base from which to tap into the growth markets of Asia.
Again, this is not one way. The UK continues to attract three quarters of Singapore’s investment in the EU through some of your best known entities like GIC, Temasek, Keppel and Sembcorp. Earlier this year, one of the iconic new London buses was in Singapore supporting our GREAT campaign to boost trade and investment; the sharp-eyed might have spotted it came from ComfortDelgro.
The deepening of our ties also goes beyond the commercial. The UK makes a strong contribution to Singapore’s burgeoning arts scene, with the British Council leading the way.
On the security front, British Defence Secretaries have made a point of attending the Shangri-La Dialogue, and emphasising our enduring commitment to the Five Power Defence Arrangements. We have had ships visits, and air and land contributions to exercises. On the broader agenda, there is much for us to do together, to understand the challenges we face and to work together to mitigate and manage them.
So, what of the coming years? I see three areas.
First, we both need to deliver prosperity for our people. The UK’s industrial strategy covers 11 sectors that will be the drivers of economic growth. They are knowledge intensive, prioritising innovation and the exploitation of our world class education and research base. I see much commonality between this and Singapore’s own plans for economic development. There is an opportunity for us to work together, not least through the Economic and Business Partnership signed in Singapore in October 2011.
Second, we can work together in international organisations. The UK is a member of the UN Security Council, the EU, the OECD, G7 and G20. Singapore is a member of Asean and its related groupings, including the East Asia Summit, and APEC, amongst others. One forum we have in common is the Commonwealth. It’s more than just the Games, although we were delighted that President Tony Tan was able to attend the opening ceremony in Glasgow.
We should think harder about how to work together in, and through, these groups to mutual benefit, especially when it come to trade and economic development, but also other matters that shape the world we live in, like climate change.
Third, we should celebrate our friendship, and the links that have evolved over many years. We will have a chance to do that when President Tan and Mrs Tan visit the UK in October for the first ever State Visit by a Singaporean President. In 2012, Singapore delivered a wonderful welcome to Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. We aim to reciprocate in London in October.
We will also be using the visit to offer our own congratulations to Singapore on its upcoming golden anniversary. This year’s National Day feels, to me, like the moment to start looking forward to that, as well as so much more besides for the UK/Singapore partnership.
The writer is the British High Commissioner to Singapore.