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Australia: Singapore's future hinterland?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is on an official visit to Australia from today to Thursday at the invitation of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Significant agreements to strengthen ties between the two countries are in the works.

MELBOURNE • Two countries already tied by history and economic linkages, in relatively close geographic proximity, are about to get a lot closer.

Just how close is hard to imagine today, given the 4,000km that separate tiny Singapore from the vast continent of Australia. But within 10 years' time, Singaporeans and Australians will find it easier to live, work, study and intern in each other's countries.

Young Singaporeans will be able to spend "working holidays" in Australia, joining the ranks of those from several European countries, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan who can holiday and work in Australia for up to a year.

Companies from both sides will get access to lucrative government procurement projects. Professional qualifications will be mutually recognised, starting with those for engineers and accountants. This can potentially relieve the labour shortage here, while giving professional services firms here an expanded marketplace in Australia.

And a new launch pad for Australian start-ups is being set up in Singapore, allowing start-ups from both countries to team up to penetrate the Asian market.

Singaporean residents and businesses, already ubiquitous in the metropolitan centres of Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, can seek new opportunities in northern Australia.


Singapore and Australian ministers meeting earlier this year in Sydney.
(From left) Singapore's Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen; Australia's Defence
Minister Marise Payne; Australia's Minister for Trade and Investment Steven
Ciobo; Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang; Ms Bishop; Dr
Balakrishnan; and Australia's special envoy Andrew Robb. With the
Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the hope is that Singapore and
Australia will become as close as Australia is to New Zealand. PHOTO:
EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

This is an area the Australian government is keen to develop, with infrastructure developments and agribusiness such as aquaculture and fisheries; as well as tourism, and health and medical research in tropical medicine.

This is in addition to closer defence cooperation which will see more soldiers train in expanded training areas: up to 14,000 Singapore Armed Forces personnel in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville in Queensland, over an area 10 times the size of Singapore.

Already, bilateral trade totals $20 billion a year. Singapore was Australia's fifth-largest trading partner in 2014. Singapore is the fifth-largest investor in Australia, with stock direct investment reaching $43.5 billion in 2014. About 50,000 Singaporeans live, work or study in Australia, and 20,000 Australians do so in the Republic. About 100,000 Singaporeans are alumni of Australian universities.

This vision of close-knit, economic interdependence will become clearer in the next few days when Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visits Canberra on a three-day trip from today to Thursday.

A packed agenda will see Mr Lee and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hold the inaugural Annual Leaders' Summit. Both men will witness the signing of a series of agreements that underpins a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), a vision and road map agreed to in June last year for closer ties over the next 10 years. Beyond economic and people-to-people ties, the agreements cover defence, intelligence and security cooperation.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Straits Times in an interview ahead of the visit: "We are very much looking forward to PM Lee's visit to Australia. The fact that our leaders have committed to meet annually underscores the importance that we both place on the relationship."

In international relations, words are parsed and degrees of warmth deduced from the minutiae of protocol and programming during leaders' visits. PM Lee gets top honours in Canberra, joining the ranks of Australia's "closest and most important partners", in addressing a joint session of Parliament, said Ms Bishop. In recent years, leaders of the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, Japan and China have done so.

PERSONAL TIES
During the interview with Ms Bishop, she conveyed the impression that it was not just perfunctory courtesy that had got her to set aside 20 precious minutes during a busy trip to Melbourne for a Singapore reporter. She wanted to signal both the importance of PM Lee's forthcoming visit, and the warmth of ties between the two countries. And the warmth in the friendship appears personal for Ms Bishop.

 

"My first overseas trip, when I was 17, was to Singapore. Since then, I've been to Singapore dozens of times... In transit, shopping,

 

holidays, with friends, conferences. When I was a lawyer, I spent a lot of time in Singapore at conferences giving lectures, working with the Singapore office."

She knows Singapore well, she said: "I love Singapore. I can't think of a better place to go for a holiday."

One of her trademark initiatives as foreign minister - a post she assumed in September 2013 - was to start a New Colombo Plan scholarship scheme for Australian students to study, work and intern in one of 38 Asian countries, including Singapore. This is a revival of the Colombo Plan scholarships launched during the Robert Menzies government in 1951 for Asian students to study in Australian universities. Prominent Singaporean Colombo Plan alumni include Minister Khaw Boon Wan, former ministers Mah Bow Tan, Yeo Cheow Tong and Raymond Lim, and current head of civil service Peter Ong.

Ms Bishop sees the New Colombo Plan as part of Australia's forward-looking, Asia-oriented foreign policy. As she explained: "It's not being run out of our Education Department, it's run out of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It's part of our foreign policy that we will provide opportunities for young Australians to become more Asia-literate, to have the opportunity to live and study in our region, understand our place in the world, our connection with our neighbours and gain new skills and new insights, hopefully learn an Asian language and come back to Australia and be a more productive member of our society; but also having networks, connections and friendships that will last a lifetime, as has happened with the original Colombo Plan."

On the direction of Australia's foreign policy, given the perception of a perennial tension between Australia's European cultural roots and its Asian geography, Ms Bishop pointed out that Australia is an Asian country with British institutions, like Singapore.

"It's not a conflict at all. We're proud of our Western heritage and we have systems based on British institutions and yet, we are very much part of Asia," she said.

Australia's top three trading partners are East Asian - China, Japan and South Korea. Singapore is fifth. Its students study in regional universities, and people-to-people links are strong, she stressed, adding: "We are part of the regional architecture as members of the East Asia Summit and the Asean Regional Forum."

Australia was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Singapore after the latter's independence in August 1965. Australian blood has even been shed in Singapore's defence, against the Japanese invasion during World War II. Singapore was the second country to set up a Free Trade Agreement in 2003 with Australia, after a New Zealand equivalent arrangement in 1983.

And with the promise held up by the CSP, the hope is that Singapore and Australia will become as close as Australia is to New Zealand. Said Ms Bishop: "We would like to see our economic integration on a par with New Zealand."

On whether the promised deepening of ties will survive changes of leaders or governments, Ms Bishop noted: "I believe that Australia's commitment to the relationship with Singapore is not a political issue in Australia. It is based on bipartisan support. Various policies may change with different governments but the overall commitment remains strong and I feel confident that should there be a change in government, the CSP would continue to drive a deeper friendship over the next 10 years and beyond."

If the promised economic, cultural and institutional linkages are realised, Australia could become Singapore's economic hinterland, just as Iskandar Malaysia is touted to be one day.

In fact, Australia may be farther away than Johor - over 41/2 hours by plane to Perth, and 71/2 hours to Melbourne - but as a hinterland, its mature economy, stable democracy, skilled workforce and vast landscape might be more appealing to many middle-class Singaporeans.

Already, bilateral trade totals $20 billion a year. Singapore was Australia's fifth-largest trading partner in 2014. Singapore is the fifth-largest investor in Australia, with stock direct investment reaching $43.5 billion in 2014. About 50,000 Singaporeans live, work or study in Australia, and 20,000 Australians do so in the Republic. About 100,000 Singaporeans are alumni of Australian universities.

As Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan put it, the two countries are convergent strategically and complementary economically.

Australia can become the hinterland Singapore lacks, he said. "It will exponentially increase space and opportunities for Singaporeans, and for Australians, it will help plug Australia directly into Asia."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Australia: S'pore's future hinterland?'. Print Edition | Subscribe