TOKYO - Singapore and Japan enjoy a close and enduring friendship, visiting President Tony Tan Keng Yam said on Wednesday (Nov 30) as he offered a toast to Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at a state banquet to mark half a century of bilateral ties.
The ties have been forged through frequent exchanges between leaders starting from late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose contributions have been recognised by Japan with the posthumous conferment of its top honour for a foreign dignitary, the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers.
Dr Tan, in his toast address, recalled how the Emperor and Empress had, as Crown Prince and Princess in 1970, visited Singapore and planted a pair of King Sago palms in Singapore's Japanese Garden.
The two palms, which "have grown beautifully", are a metaphor of bilateral ties, Dr Tan and Emperor Akihito said on Wednesday in their respective toast speeches.
"Much like the palm trees, Singapore-Japan relations have blossomed and strengthened over the past 50 years," said Dr Tan, who is on a state visit to Japan at the end of a year christened SJ50, or Singapore-Japan 50.
The Emperor, too, noted how the trees are now "firm and strong", just like bilateral ties.
Dr Tan and his wife, Mrs Mary Tan, had an audience with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace on Wednesday morning.
Later the same evening, the royal couple also hosted Dr and Mrs Tan to a state banquet dinner - a six-course French menu - at the Imperial Palace. About 140 people, including envoys, businessmen and politicians from both countries, attended the event.
Emperor Akihito, in his speech, also recalled the royal couple's first visit to Singapore in 1970. Their next visits as state guests were in 1981 and 2006.
"Every time we visited Singapore since then, we witnessed the dramatic progress that you had made in the intervening years," said the Emperor. "Now, more than half a century since Singapore's independence, you have succeeded in creating a beautiful, affluent nation."
Emperor Akihito offered his deepest condolences over the deaths of Mr Lee in March 2015, as well as former President S R Nathan this August, referring to them as "two figures who led Singapore in its early years soon after its independence and greatly contributed to the fostering of friendly and cooperative ties with Japan".
He said that even as ties grow, what "must never be forgotten" are the lives that were lost in Singapore during World War II and the many hardships suffered by its people.
Dr Tan noted how the two countries, whose governments have a "high level of familiarity and trust", share common interests and work closely together not only in regional and international fora, but also in providing technical assistance to third countries through the Japan-Singapore Partnership Programme for the 21st Century.
To date, more than 6,000 people from over 90 countries have benefited from the programme, Emperor Akihito noted.
Economic ties, too, are multifaceted, with the Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement that came into force in 2002, he said. The pact, currently in its third review, is Japan's first bilateral free trade agreement as well as Singapore's first with a major trading partner.
There are now about 5,000 Japanese companies registered in Singapore, Dr Tan said, adding that he was "pleasantly surprised" to learn that the annual Orchard Road Christmas Light-Up has, for the last 26 years, been sponsored by Japanese technological company Hitachi.
"It is no surprise that Japan is Singapore's second largest foreign investor (behind the United States) while Singapore is Japan's largest Asian investor," he said.
Meanwhile, people-to-people ties are robust and growing, with ever-increasing tourism numbers. Emperor Akihito noted the 40,000 Japanese citizens who call Singapore their home, while Dr Tan stressed how the bond between the two peoples was "most evident" after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster.
On this state visit, Dr Tan will visit the Shichigahama Toyama Nursery School in north-eastern Miyagi prefecture, one of four reconstruction projects funded by the Singapore Red Cross with donations from the Singapore government and public. The $5 million project was completed on March 26, 2013, and now enrols 90 children aged below six.
The school - known as Lion Park to recognise Singapore's contributions - is built on elevated ground, and can serve as an evacuation centre.
Singapore's total relief efforts had raised $35.7 million - one of the Republic's largest disaster relief contributions to a single country.
Dr Tan said at the state dinner on Wednesday: "We hope that these projects contribute to the region's capacity to respond to future incidents."
Referring to an earthquake on Nov 22 that resulted in tsunami warnings, Dr Tan added: "Last week's earthquake, which thankfully did minimal damage, was a stark reminder of the importance of being prepared."