Deep Aussie-Singapore friendship based on shared outlook

Australian lawmakers listening as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a historic address to the Australian Parliament yesterday.
Australian lawmakers listening as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a historic address to the Australian Parliament yesterday.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Australian lawmakers listening as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a historic address to the Australian Parliament yesterday.
Australian lawmakers listening as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a historic address to the Australian Parliament yesterday.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Fundamentally, both have similar strategic interests and perspectives, says PM Lee

Australia is over 10,000 times the size of Singapore, with abundant natural resources where Singapore has none. Their societies are also quite different, Australia mostly Anglo-Saxon and Singapore Asian.

But in spite of these differences, both countries' shared history, outlook and ethos have enabled a "deep, longstanding friendship", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a historic address to the Australian Parliament yesterday.

"We are good friends, because fundamentally, we have similar strategic interests and perspectives," Mr Lee added, in a speech that outlined what both countries had in common and how a milestone Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) is set to take ties forward.

Speaking before him, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull thanked Mr Lee for his role in transforming this relationship into a "partnership fit for the challenges and the opportunities of the 21st century".

He also paid tribute to founding PM Lee Kuan Yew, who he said was instrumental in forging the strong relationship between the two nations.

He added that ties had flourished: "We are, after all, quite natural partners - highly sophisticated, educated and multicultural societies with open economies. Both our countries have embraced the opportunities presented by our steadfast commitment to rules-based trade to deliver more jobs and higher incomes for our people."

  • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared anecdotes of the candour and commitment that he said underline strong ties between Singapore and Australia:

    "WE CAN HANG LOOSE"

    Our societies are both egalitarian. We do not stand on ceremony, and we frown on rigid social hierarchies. We are informal, and can hang loose. Thus when (then) Prime Minister (Tony) Abbott visited Singapore last year, I could invite him to join my constituents for an Aussie-style BBQ at a public park, only to discover that he was much better at BBQ-ing than I was. Afterwards, we went for dinner nearby. I made sure to choose some good Australian wine, but alas neglected to check the steak. After dinner, PM Abbott asked where the beef was from, and the chef, with Singaporean directness and candour, replied: "From the US, Sir!" I will have to do better when PM Turnbull visits us next year!


    "TAKE THAT TIE OFF!"

    I first came to Australia in 1967, as a teenager on an exchange visit. I stayed with a family in Melbourne - the Blanch family. Their son Graeme was about my age, and we quickly became friends. The Blanches took me to their holiday home at Mount Martha, on the Mornington Peninsula. The first night for dinner, not knowing what to expect, I put on a tie. Graeme stared at me and said: "You're crazy. Take it off!" He taught me something about Australian informality that I have not forgotten. I have stayed in touch with the Blanch family for nearly half a century now. I am very glad that Graeme, his siblings Balfour and Heather, and their spouses are here today to share this special occasion.


    CONSTRUCTING SAFTI MILITARY INSTITUTE

    Thirty years ago, Singapore planned to build a new tri-service military institute (MI) for the SAF and searched for a suitable architect to do the project. We found Mr Romaldo Giurgola, who built this Parliament House. (In 1989) Mr Giurgola gave me a guided tour and explained his architectural vision... (the building) is impressive without being imposing, and reflected the spirit of the Australian Parliament - open and integrated with the community.

    Our Safti MI is on a much more modest scale, but it too has an open concept, symbolising the close ties between our national service force and our society. Over the years, many Australian officers have trained at Safti MI, and formed bonds of friendship and understanding with their Singaporean classmates, which will serve our two countries well.

In his speech, PM Lee noted that Australian troops fought bravely to defend Malaya and Singapore in World War II: "Singapore will never forget their sacrifice."

Australia was also one of the first countries to recognise Singapore's independence in 1965, and the first to establish diplomatic ties, he said.

Underpinning these relations are the similar strategic interests and perspectives that both countries share fundamentally, he said.

SHARED OUTLOOK, ETHOS

First, Singapore and Australia are both open economies that rely heavily on international trade and "need a stable and orderly world, in which countries big and small can prosper in peace", said PM Lee.

"We both see the United States as a benign force, playing a major role in fostering peace and stability in Asia. At the same time, we both have substantial ties with other major powers," he added.

"For both of us, China is our largest trading partner. We wish to strengthen our cooperation with China, and welcome China engaging constructively in the region. We both participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an initiative proposed by China," he said.

Second, Singapore and Australia want to deepen ties between Australia and South-east Asia. "Australia has decided its future lies in Asia. Singapore believes that strengthening Australia's links with Asia will help to keep the region open."

 

PM Lee pledged Singapore's continued support for Australia's engagement with Asean.

In his remarks, Mr Turnbull said both countries sought a future for the region "governed by shared norms of behaviour and respect for international law, and one marked by stable relations among the major powers".

"Singapore and Australia are at one in defending the rule of law and rejecting the proposition that might is right," he added.

Both also stand in solidarity in the battle against extremism and the terrorism it spawns, he said.

And he was delighted that Singapore will chair Asean when Australia hosts a historic summit for the grouping's leaders in 2018.

PM Lee said the people of Singapore and Australia also have similar outlooks: They value ethnic and religious diversity, both societies are inclusive and multicultural, they are also pragmatic, open and direct. "We think and talk in clear practical terms, and connect on the same wavelength. It does not mean that we agree on everything, but when we have different views we do not beat around the bush," he said.

Both societies are also egalitarian, and frown upon rigid social hierarchies. "We are informal, and can hang loose," he added.

DOING MORE TOGETHER

These similarities in strategic outlook and social ethos have helped foster cooperation in areas spanning defence, trade and education.

Both work closely together on humanitarian missions and security issues, including to fight terrorism.

Some 400,000 Singaporeans visited Australia and one million Australians came to Singapore last year. "We feel quite at home in each other's countries. Singaporeans may not quaff as much beer as Australians, but I have it on good authority that Victoria Bitter goes well with chilli crabs!" said Mr Lee.

The CSP will take these ties to another level, he added, thanking Australian MPs for their support from all sides of the political spectrum.

Under the CSP, both sides will jointly develop state-of-the-art military training facilities, and upgrade the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement, among other things.

Said Mr Turnbull: "Our bright future is not just about complementary interests and strengths, it's about common human qualities... our relationship with Singapore springs from the heart, as much as it does from the head."

PM Lee said it was fitting to celebrate it in Parliament House, whose architect designed Singapore's Safti Military Institute.

"In all these diverse and profound ways, our two countries are linked together: by our shared history, by strategic alignment, by shared ethos, by what we do together, and even by architecture," he added.

"Our partnership is greater than the sum of its parts."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'Deep Aussie-S'pore friendship based on shared outlook'. Print Edition | Subscribe