Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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  S.E.M. Chew Tai Soo

After 40 years of Independence, the Lion City Rejuvenates Itself
Leading global trade hub of Southeast Asia, Singapore celebrates the 40th anniversary of its indepedance. One year after Lee Hsien Loong took over as Prime Minister on August 2004, the Ambassador of Singapore to France, H.E. Chew Tai Soo, describes how the Lion City is retooling its development model and adresses successfully the reshaping of its geopolitical landscape.

The Diplomatic Letter: Mister Ambassador, succeeding Mr Goh Chok Tong on 14 August 2004, the election of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong marked the arrival in office of a new generation of leaders in Singapore. What are the directions that the Prime Minister has defined in order to give a new impetus to your country?


H.E. Chew Tai Soo:   Prime Minister Lee recently spoke to the nation on the occasion of our 40th National Day, spelling out the future direction for the country. He noted that as a small country, we have always paid close attention to making friends abroad, and to ensuring Singapore’s security. We have good relations with all the important countries in the region, with our immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia and within ASEAN. We also have good ties with China, India, Japan and Australia; Singapore has expanded its links with the Middle East; we have good relations with the US and EU countries. This is a comfortable state of affairs.

But the world is changing rapidly, and Singapore must change with it, or risk being left behind. Terrorism remains a security issue. As a country, we must take all the precautions to prevent an incident, yet be psychologically prepared for the worst. If there is a terrorist attack, we have to ensure that the social fabric and racial harmony built over four decades will not be destroyed.

Prime Minister Lee in his National Day speech also identified two new growth engines for Singapore. These are innovation and enterprise, and research and development. While acknowledging there are risks in the two approaches, Prime Minister Lee pointed out that: « But we have to do this and if we succeed, we will gain a competitive edge which will put us ahead for 15 or 20 years to come. » In this respect, Prime Minister Lee has set up a Research, Innovation and Enter-prise Council, which he will chair, to advise the Government on national research, innovation and enterprise strategies. A National Research Foundation, which will fund long term research in strategic areas, has also been established.

Prime Minister Lee also described how we must remake Singapore. We must address the economy, education and our mindsets. Singaporeans, young and old, will all have to be better trained, to enjoy continued employ-ment and affordable healthcare, and to make improvements to the city they live in. So a major aspect of remaking Singapore is to turn the city into a vibrant global metropolis where people come from all over the world to enjoy it. This is a very big challenge for us as a nation.


T.D.L.: Singapore was strongly affected by the 1997-1998 Asian crisis, and then in 2003 by the SARs crisis. Since then Singapore has implemented a policy of economic and social reorganisation. In addition to biotechnologies, what are the other sectors in which the Singapore Government wants to encourage the development of small and medium entreprises that the Singapore economy is still lacking? What are the next developments regarding the major public companies?


H.E.C.T.S.: The Asian Financial Crisis and SARS were tough challenges for Singapore. For the first time since the 1980s, we faced a recession (-0.8%) in 1998, and a peak of 4.8% unemployment in 2003. However, we were able to weather both crises, thanks to strong economic fundamentals and the resilience of our people. Today, Singapore’s economy has made a sturdy recovery. It grew by 8.4% in 2004, and preliminary figures for 2005 are strong. Employment is also back on the rise since 2004.

To secure its position as a hub in the new Asian and global economic networks, Singapore’s goal is to expand its web of international trade ties, while nurturing an entrepreneurial and diversified domestic economy. For this, it is crucial for us to have a competitive private sector, underpinned by vibrant SMEs. Other than the traditional sectors of F&B and retail, we are encouraging the development of local industry clusters in precision engineering, logistics and food manufacturing. These will help to support the operations of large companies and MNCs in Singapore, and enhance the attractiveness of Singapore as a regional manufacturing and service hub. As for Government-linked Companies (GLCs), they have played an important role in the development of Singapore’s economy, especially in the early years of our independence. Now, their role is being cut down to critical areas. The Government’s policy is not to intervene in the day-to-day operations of the remaining GLCs, who compete on the same terms as all private companies.


T.D.L.: Despite a marked economic recovery, with growth at 8.1% in 2004, your country faces a progressive increase of unemployment. What are the measures considered to stimulate the adaptation of the labour market? What are the results of the « foreign talents » policy? Beyond this, how will the Singapore Government proceed in order to stimulate its economic model which is more and more based on an external economy?


H.E.C.T.S.: As the Singapore economy matures and evolves, we will face the problem of trying to help a sector of our workers adapt their skills to the changing market. Nonetheless, unemployment fell to 3.4% as of the second quarter of 2005, as workers accepted greater flexibility in wage systems as well as the need to acquire new skills. Since 2003, the Singapore Workforce Development Agency has encouraged workers to retrain and remain in the workforce for longer, and assisted job seekers in identifying employment opportunities. To ensure the right match of labour for the demands of a dynamic economy, Singapore continues to welcome global talent. There are currently about 80 000 foreign professionals of diverse backgrounds working in Singapore, whose expertise has contributed to our rapid economic progress, and helped to enlarge the economic pie for Singaporeans.

To survive in a global economy, it is important for Singapore to remain a competitive and flexible player. We are doing our best to provide an attractive and cost-effective business environment for entrepreneurs looking to expand their networks or seeking to penetrate Asian markets. We are also helping our key high-value-added industries to grow, namely electronics, chemicals, biomedical sciences, and engineering, as well as our service sector industries of education, tourism, healthcare and logistics.


T.D.L.: With more than 25% of foreigners within a population of more than 4 million people, your country   has experienced important immigration waves over the last few years, notably originating from China. According to you, what is the impact of this increasing demographic imbalance on Singapore society?


H.E.C.T.S.: Singapore is an immigrant society, built and developed by the energy and vibrancy of immigrants from diverse backgrounds. We have always been open to foreigners and immigrants who can contribute to our society. Today, non-resident foreigners comprise 18% of our population. As a small country faced with a fertility rate that is below replacement, it is important to open our doors to foreigners and immigrants who can contribute to Singapore.  


T.D.L.: Singapore is a founding member of ASEAN. The Association is as a priority at your country’s foreign policy agenda. ASEAN acquired a new dimension with the entry into effect of the free trade area with China on 1st July 2005 . The Association comprises economies as different as those of Singapore and Laos. How can ASEAN economic integration overcome the challenge posed by this heterogeneity? How do you perceive China’s rise, at the economic and military levels. What is its impact on the region?

H.E.C.T.S.: At the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali in October 2003, the ASEAN Leaders recognised that while we set about integrating ASEAN economy, we also have to look at other aspects of integration, especially in view of the developmental gaps between member countries. One such framework is the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) which is focussed on bridging the developmental gap between the older and newer members. On Singapore’s part, we have pledged a total of US$52.7 million over a period of eight years (2000-2008) to aid Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in the development of their human resources.   ASEAN also has a vision of forming an ASEAN Community by 2020 comprising the three pillars of the ASEAN Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-cultural Community. As ASEAN embarks on its own integration efforts, we hope to be able to learn from the EU experience.  

The emergence of China (and also India) has reshaped the political and economic landscape of the region and the world. All countries in Asia want to further grow their economic ties with China, and to strengthen their relations with China. For its part, China realises that it needs to engage other nations and help them to benefit from its growth, and hence it has been doing so actively and intelligently. China is aware of the potential disruptions its growth may create, and has affirmed its determination to develop peacefully. The rise of China brings tremendous opportunities to all but also causes major changes to the status quo. The challenge is to integrate China within the evolving regional architecture, while maintaining the balance and stability of the region.


T.D.L.: Under the pressure of the United States and Europe who condemned the human rights situation in Myanmar, Myanmar recently announced that it would not chair ASEAN in 2006. What is your point of view on the question of Myanmar? As is the case in the European integration process, should democracy and human rights be given more importance within ASEAN?


H.E.C.T.S.: Myanmar’s stated decision to give up its ASEAN Chairmanship was aimed at decoupling its domestic reconciliation and democratisation process from the affairs of ASEAN. As a friend and fellow ASEAN member, Singapore appreciates and respects Myanmar’s decision, and hopes that progress will be made on the national reconciliation front.

Our position on domestic affairs in Myanmar is clear. We have no intention of interfering as Myanmar is an independent country that will continue to make decisions based on its own interests. We join other ASEAN countries in calling for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. While Singapore respects the different approaches by the international community towards Myanmar, our view is that a hard-line approach driven by pressure and sanctions will not work. A patient and long-term approach promoting longer term economic and social changes would eventually lay the groundwork for an internally driven, comprehensive and sustainable reform process in Myanmar.

However, ASEAN will develop our own norms on democracy and human rights. These issues are already important to ASEAN – they are evident in the ASEAN Security Community’s Plan of Action that forms one of the three pillars of the envisaged ASEAN Community.


T.D.L.: The Singapore Port is the world’s biggest in terms of shipping tonnage handled. Singapore is a hub of the Strait of Malacca and a highly strategic location where 33% of world trade transits. In light of joint patrol operations, between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, what are the other initiatives that could be taken in order to secure this area ranked among the most dangerous of the world? How did you react to the offers of support on the ground formulated by Japan and the United States?


H.E.C.T.S.: I would not agree that the Straits of Malacca rates among the most dangerous areas in the world – there are many far more dangerous places. However, it is also a fact that piracy is a real and serious problem. The littoral states of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia see maritime security in the Straits as a priority, and recognise the importance of cooperation. Coordinated sea patrols have been conducted since 1992. Recent initiatives to improve the situation include maritime aerial patrols, the formation of a Tripartite Technical Experts Group, the hosting of an IMO Conference in Jakarta in September 2005, and information sharing arrangements such as the planned Information Sharing Centre to be established in Singapore under the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (ReCAAP). While the littoral states have the primary responsibility of maintaining security in the Straits, many key user states like Japan, China and the US, and international organisations like the IMO have a legitimate interest in the safety and security of navigation in the Straits. We welcome their willingness to contribute, and look forward to deepening cooperation in accordance with international law.  


T.D.L.: As with Europe following the London’s attacks, the region was marked by the multiplication of terrorist attacks, most recently in Bali on October 1st. As far as you are concerned, what has been made progress by these countries to enhance their co-operation in order to dismantle terrorist organisations such as the Jemaah Islamiyah? What is your analysis of Islamic fanaticism in the region? In light of the new measures adopted in your country last Spring, what are the challenges posed by Islamic fanaticism to South East Asian countries and, more generally, to the international community?


H.E.C.T.S.: The nature of today’s terrorism threat -based on a shared ideology of creating an Islamic state throughout the world, and not confined to the borders of any one country – requires cooperative partnerships and exchanges among all governments. ASEAN governments are fully cognisant of the need for security cooperation on this issue, and are working towards further enhancing our cooperation with one another. As for Singapore, we continue to have fruitful intelligence exchanges and security cooperation with our neighbours as well as other countries.  

The security operations in the region over the past few years have disrupted the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist network, a home-grown outfit with links to an external terrorist organisation, the Al Qaeda. However, several senior JI operatives remain at large and many more members remain unidentified. The threat from the JI is by no means over.

This development poses several challenges for a multi-ethnic and religious country like Singapore. Like other countries in the region confronted by the threat of terrorism, Singapore needs to further boost our physical security so that terrorists will find it hard to target our assets and infrastructure. Beyond this, we need to preserve and enhance the social harmony existing between our different peoples. In fighting terrorism, we must and do make it clear that the battle is against terrorists, and not people of a particular religion.  


T.D.L.: One year after the signature of a Free Trade Agreement between Singapore and the United States, the two countries have concluded a Strategic Framework Agreement for Closer Cooperation in Defence and Security. It is mainly focussed on the fight against terrorism. What are the main areas of military co-operation between Singapore and the United States? Does this agreement announce the re-engagement of the United States in South East Asia? In light of tension last spring between the United States and China, what is your vision of the fragile balance maintained by these two powers over the question of Taiwan?


H.E.C.T.S.: The Strategic Framework Agreement for a Closer Cooperation Partnership in Defence and Security (SFA) serves as a formal framework to bring together the many existing and future areas of bilateral defence and security cooperation between Singapore and the US. It is a natural step in the expansion of bilateral ties, opening a new chapter in the bilateral defence and security relationship. The SFA expands the scope of current cooperation in areas such as counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, joint military exercises and training, policy dialogues and defence technology. The SFA recognises Singapore as a Major Security Cooperation Partner of the United States.

The SFA not only strengthens the two countries’ security; it also enhances regional stability. It builds upon the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding Regarding United States’ Use of Facilities in Singapore (1990 MOU) by supporting the continued security presence of the United States in Southeast Asia. This presence has promoted the peace and stability crucial for regional cooperation and economic development.

Both the US and China do not want a clash over the Taiwan issue. The cross-strait situation is delicate and difficult, but conflict is not inevitable. We are glad to note that the tension has eased and the situation has stabilised since the US made clear its position on Taiwanese independence.


T.D.L.: Last January, your country had hosted the United Nations for the co-ordination of relief operations for Indonesia and other South East Asian countries affected by the Tsunami. What are the initiatives that Singapore can propose to enhance the preventive and post-crisis measures to respond to natural disasters in the region? What are the new synergies that have resulted in the region from the international co-operation organised on this occasion?


H.E.C.T.S.: The Special ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting on the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami held in Jakarta, Indonesia, last January brought together ASEAN Leaders, the UN Secretary General, high-level representatives of other countries affected by the tsunami, key donor countries, high-level representatives of the World Bank and other international financial institutions.

This meeting gave the world a much-needed forum for exchange of information and coordination of relief and reconstruction efforts. The UN Secretary General’s Flash Appeal in Jakarta raised close to US$5 billion in pledges. On Singapore’s part, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced a US$10 million fund to help reconstruction efforts in affected countries, and S$27 million for Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Beyond pledges, Singapore also developed a number of reconstruction projects in these countries: building a pier, refurbishing a hospital, and training of healthcare workers in Meulaboh, Aceh; building schools, and teacher and healthcare worker training in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.


T.D.L.: In addition to your capacity as Ambassador of Singapore in France, you also are Ambassador of Singapore in Israel. In light of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, what is your perception of the peace process in the region? What perspectives does the resolution of the conflict open to the development of the relationships between Singapore and the Middle East? What opportunities did the inauguration of the Asia-Middle Dialogue (AMED) in June 2005 bring for the development of the exchanges between the two regions?


H.E.C.T.S.: Israel and the Palestinians now have an opportunity to move the peace process forward. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas have put in place a series of confidence building measures. These have improved the prospect for achieving a lasting peace.

The international community has a key role in facilitating dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, and in assisting the economic and social development of the Palestinians. But the process will take time.

There are many more opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation between Middle East countries, and Singapore as well as other Asian countries. Among these, the Asia-Middle East Dialogue (AMED) is a good step towards further cooper-ation – a unique process involving both governments and civil society in an inter-regional dialogue. Its inaugural meeting, held in Singapore, brought together 39 countries (and the Palestinian National Authority) from Asia and the Middle East. For a first time meeting between people of two diverse regions, the discussions were encouragingly substantive, candid and positive. The meeting established a greater level of comfort and generated some proposals. Three working groups will be meeting in between the AMED meetings to explore how these proposals can be implemented.


T.D.L.: Singapore defends the strengthening of the relations between Asia and the European Union.   What can your country do to encourage this process, notably in the frame work of ASEM, which you initiated together with France? What could be Europe’s place in South East Asia?  


H.E.C.T.S.: It was Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, who first mooted the idea of starting an Asia-Europe dialogue mechanism with former French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur. The primary reason was that Europe and Southeast Asia share a long history and the European influence continues to make its presence felt within the region. It is in both our interests for Asia and Europe to engage each other on a multitude of levels. Today, ASEM is the only mechanism for Europe to engage Asia on a regional basis.

Singapore recently worked with France to co-sponsor the ASEM DUO and the ASEM Cultures and Civilisations Conference. We would encourage Europe to continue to increase its engagement with Asia, in areas like trade, culture, and counter-terrorism cooperation. East Asia is the most dynamic region in the world today. It would be a pity if France and other European countries were to stand back from the momentous developments taking place – not least of all, the rise of China and India. ASEAN has taken a very active role in regional efforts to shape the future security architecture for this part of the world, including the first East Asia Summit that will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of this year. Given the strong economic presence of European companies throughout Asia, we would like to see Europe as actively involved in political and security spheres.


T.D.L: After the signing of the France-Singapore Declaration on an Enhanced Partnership in March 1999, Singapore and France have developed close relations. Your country is France’s third trading partner in Asia. What are the priorities in terms of trade development between the two countries? What are the main sectors of bilateral scientific co-operation? In view of the establishment of French schools (such as ESSEC and INSEAD) in Singapore and of the importance given to the technopôle of French, how do you explain the rise of strong academic and cultural co-operation betterave France and Singapore?


H.E.C.T.S.: France is one of our most important European trading partners. Our companies are keen to engage French companies that are interested in outsourcing and joint ventures for manufacturing in low-cost Asian countries.

To date, we have excellent cooperation in the biomedical sectors of pharmaceuticals, medical technology, healthcare services and delivery, and biotechnology, as well as electronics, infocomms, chemicals and engineering. We hope to build on this strong base to encourage French companies to carry out R&D activities in Singapore.

In academic cooperation, France is renowned for the quality of its strong academic tradition of rigour and excellence. We are privileged to be home to the first Asia-based programmes of the elite business schools INSEAD and ESSEC, and to benefit from the numerous linkages between French and Singaporean educational institutions at various levels.    In the field of culture, there is also much that Singapore would like to learn from France’s rich and multifaceted cultural heritage. The agreement on Cultural, Scientific and Technical Cooperation in 1982 and the Memorandum of Understanding for Cultural Cooperation in 2000 between France and Singapore have helped to enhance such academic and cultural cooperation between our two countries.
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