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Ambassador: Building on close ties

By AlexisHooi (China Daily) Updated: 2015-09-29 11:04

Editor's note: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Singapore. Singaporean Ambassador to China Stanley Loh talks to China Daily senior editor Alexis Hooi about the developments and strengths that will drive the relationship forward.

When Singaporean Ambassador to China Stanley Loh first arrived in the country three and a half years ago, one of the most touching moments was when he visited Wenchuan, Sichuan province, the epicenter of an 8.0-magnitude earthquake that struck in 2008.

Officials there told him that Singapore was the third-largest foreign donor for relief and rebuilding efforts following the disaster.

"I was touched but I was also surprised, because we're such a small country," the ambassador said. "There are so many countries that are bigger and wealthier than Singapore.

"I asked myself, 'Why did Singaporeans donate so generously?' The only conclusion I could draw was, because they felt very close to China and the Chinese people. When they heard that something bad had happened in China, they wanted to help."

For the ambassador, the help from Singaporeans reflected one of the most important aspects of ties between the two peoples - the sentiments, or gan qing, between them.

These feelings helped form the strong foundation of bilateral relations, which were formally established 25 years ago but actually go way back, he said.

"The relationship between the peoples in China and Singapore goes back almost 200 years, even before Singapore became independent. Even though we only established formal relations 25 years ago, we have achieved a lot," he said.

Bilateral achievements are impressive on many counts. China is Singapore's top trading partner, with two-way trade volume hitting almost $80 billion last year. Since 2013, Singapore has also been the largest source of foreign direct investment in China. The two countries inked a Free Trade Agreement in 2008 - the first bilateral one that China signed with an Asian country. Singapore has also become the largest offshore renminbi center outside China.

"It shows how much we value each other's relationship, how much each other's prosperity matters to us," Loh said.

A unique characteristic of the China-Singapore relationship is also how "we've always been very innovative and creative in doing new things that meet the needs of each other".

From the Suzhou Industrial Park, rolled out at a time when China was gearing up to attract more foreign investment, to the Tianjin Eco-city, when the country focused more on sustainable development, and the Guangzhou Knowledge City, which is in line with the economic shift from manufacturing to higher-end knowledge-based industries, Singapore is constantly looking at new areas of cooperation that are "mutually beneficial for both countries, but also relevant to our interests and capabilities at that particular point in time".

To that effect, major new initiatives involve the upgrading of economic cooperation that includes a shift to services, in line with China's stated aims to boost the role of the sector and increase more consumption.

"We are also working on the upgrading of our bilateral Free Trade Agreement."

A new government-level bilateral project is also targeting the development of China's western region, the ambassador said.

"Preliminarily, the two sides have reached a consensus on the theme of the project, which will be 'Modern Connectivity and Modern Services'. This is an innovative approach, because the earlier projects were based on a fixed geographical area, whether it was developing an eco-city, an industrial park or a knowledge city. It was based on one piece of land and you built it up," he said.

"But now we're going to do it thematically, based on modern connectivity and modern services. So this is a different model, a different concept, something new for both of us."

The project should tie in well with the Belt and Road Initiative - a reference to the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives, transport infrastructure projects linking Asia and Europe proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013 - as well as other western development plans, Loh said.

"We all know the western part of China is the starting point of the new Silk Road Economic Belt, and Singapore is an important hub in the Maritime Silk Road. Since we are cooperating on connectivity, we're helping to connect 'One Belt' with 'One Road'.

"Preliminarily, we are looking at four broad areas: financial connectivity, logistics connectivity, aviation and infocomms technology connectivity."

While discussions are ongoing, three places have been shortlisted to be the project's "core city" - Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an, Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu, and Chongqing municipality.

"This project should help to promote economic development in the whole of China's western region, ideally by lowering the cost of logistics and the cost of doing business."

The initiative is aimed at raising Singapore's cooperation with China "to a new level at least for the next five, 10 years", Loh said.

Another area that is "rather unconventional" in Singapore's cooperation with China is that of social governance, the ambassador said.

The Chinese leadership has been focusing on social governance issues such as "promoting the rule of law, maintaining social harmony, providing better social services to its people, like healthcare, housing and education".

A platform has been set up "to have a conversation with our Chinese friends, to share each other's experiences", and the learning is certainly not one-way, he said.

"A lot of it involves new areas. For example, we inevitably must talk about governance in the age of new media or social media. We are both facing this together. Nobody knows what it will be like in a few years from now. So we have a conversation, we share experiences.

"We also have another platform on leadership, what we call the Leadership Forum, which also discusses some of the challenges the two sides face in governance. Such as ensuring a clean government, or selecting and grooming people for leadership succession.

"These are fairly new areas of cooperation that we have embarked on. It's also influenced how we conduct training for Chinese officials and cadres in Singapore."

All these help build on the achievements of the past decades and take the strong bilateral ties forward.

The ambassador described the future of these ties in three words: more good years.

The strength of people-to-people relations will also continue to be a driving force for the years ahead, he said.

Advantages include the many Singaporeans who can speak fluent Mandarin because of the bilingual education system in their multiracial country.

"I've even come across some Singaporeans who are Malays or Indians who are working in China, because they have also learned Mandarin in our primary and secondary schools. So that is quite impressive. Increasingly, more and more of our Chinese friends also speak English. And we understand each other's culture. That is one great advantage in the relationship between Singapore and China."

To help mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties, the ambassador also held discussions with members of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China to do something that could "touch lives more closely".

They raised more than 3 million yuan ($470,000) and are working with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation to build three hostels for students hit by last year's earthquake in Ludian, Yunnan province. The project is expected to be completed in about one year.

"The children have to walk several hours to go to school. With these three hostels, more of them can get better access to a good education early in life," Loh said.

"It is these kinds of exchanges that help form the foundation of our relationship. I hope that our peoples will continue to engage in such activities, to reach out to one another and to build a lasting friendship that will touch the lives of each other."

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