Singapore and Australia: More than the sum of our parts

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (centre) talking with a member of the public as she stands with with her Singapore counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan (second, right) after they disembarked a ferry on Sydney Harbour on March 18, 2016.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (centre) talking with a member of the public as she stands with with her Singapore counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan (second, right) after they disembarked a ferry on Sydney Harbour on March 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Last year, we Australians celebrated with Singapore.

We marvelled at your achievements in 50 years and joined in your celebrations. We admired your National Gallery, supported your World Heritage Botanic Gardens and cheered at your outsized National Day.

We made our own contribution to your special year with a loan of koalas to the Singapore Zoo and with our "50 Bridges" showcase.

Our prime ministers cooked steaks together in one of the "50 BBQs" held across the heartland of your nation.

Beyond the celebration, it was a turning point.

Our governments decided that the time had come for our nations to share in a new and closer partnership - a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Ministers and officials were set the task of putting flesh on the bones of that new partnership within a year.

And so, last week, after deep and wide-ranging discussions, prime ministers Lee Hsien Loong and Malcolm Turnbull were able to announce initiatives that represent a major upgrading of our bilateral relations. Freer movement for business people between our countries; mutual recognition of more of our universities' qualifications; a renewed Free Trade Agreement with 21st-century rules; major new opportunities for the Singapore Armed Forces to train in Australia; new intelligence cooperation; a new innovation partnership with a "Landing Pad" in Singapore; fresh opportunities for our young people to study together online, and to have working holidays on each other's territories; and much more.

The similarities between us make it easier for us to work together. The differences mean that we bring complementary assets to the partnership. Because the assets that we each bring to the table are so different, what we can achieve together is much more than we can do separately. We are more than the sum of our parts.

It is always good for nations to find new ways to cooperate. But actually, this announcement represents more than the usual bundle of activities that governments find to cooperate on. Not only is it a major package, it is also a key step on a road that will lead to increasingly close connections between us, increasing economic integration and increasing strategic convergence.

Two fundamental drivers are taking us down that road. First, we are in many ways alike: with similar standards of living, similarly practical mindsets, similar laws and institutions, and similar approaches to the security of our region.

Second, we are very different: Australia is a continent, with all the strengths that come from masses of land - strengths in resources, agriculture and tourist potential. Singapore is not that, but it has taken full advantage of its strategic location and has developed a deep understanding and affinity with the region that defines both our futures.

That is a powerful combination. The similarities between us make it easier for us to work together. The differences mean that we bring complementary assets to the partnership. Because the assets that we each bring to the table are so different, what we can achieve together is much more than we can do separately. We are more than the sum of our parts.

Consider for a moment the strengths that Australia has as a food producer in an increasingly populous and prosperous region, and the complementary strengths that Singapore has in logistics, marketing and understanding of the tastes of Asia. Consider the potential of a partnership between the creative streak in Australia's culture and the strengths in commercialisation of Singapore's innovation ecosystem. Consider the synergy between Australia's strengths in construction and public-private partnerships, and Singapore's deep enmeshment with the infrastructure opportunities in South-east Asia.

So, to me, the partnership agreed by our prime ministers has underlying impetus. The engine of our engagement has taken us far in 50 years, and it has two fundamental drivers to propel it further forward.

It also has a way further to travel. A year ago, we foresaw a 10-year "road map" to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. After just 12 months, the vision and determination of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Mr Andrew Robb, Australia's Special Envoy for Trade, have yielded an impressive set of initiatives.

That is a strong start. But there is more territory in our road map that we have not yet traversed. There is more that we can do.

And there is even more reason now, in 2016, to press on; more reasons why we need a stronger partnership.

Why? Because not everything about our individual futures is prospective. Our region has great promise, but it is also home to increasing uncertainties. And the global economy is blowing headwinds in both our directions. As we face this new set of challenges, we need to take advantage, more than ever, of the underlying complementarities between us.

That is why, while celebrating what we have settled, we should reflect on how this partnership still has more to deliver, and how much more we are going to need it in the years to come.

• The writer is Australian High Commissioner to Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore and Australia: More than the sum of our parts'. Print Edition | Subscribe