Ravi Velloor, Foreign Editor

When the Merlion sups with the British lion

President Tony Tan Keng Yam is in London this week for the first state visit to Britain accorded a Singapore leader. The official part of the visit, which begins tomorrow with a formal welcome by Queen Elizabeth II on Horse Guards Parade, promises to be a memorable spectacle. British and Singaporean flags, separate carriages for the President, riding with the Queen and Mrs Mary Tan, escorted by the Duke of Edinburgh. With their love for horses, carriages and the monarchy, the British know something about pomp and ceremony.

But Dr Tan's mission is more than about pageantry and show. It is to celebrate the ever-evolving dynamics of an old relationship that started with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 and the founding of Singapore as a British colony five years later. Today, even as Singapore has moved away from its British moorings, so much of the island still speaks of that past, from heritage buildings like the Singapore Cricket Club to names such as York and Balmoral on hotels and housing estates.

Remarkably for newly independent societies that tend to sweep away vestiges of foreign rule, Singapore remains angst- free about its colonial past. The 31,000 and more British nationals resident on the island are neither an object of curiosity nor special irritation.

But every child has to grow into adulthood and move out of the parental home. Singapore's coming of age came early in its independence years when it had to deal with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson's shock decision in 1967 to reduce Britain's presence East of Suez. It sent the Lee Kuan Yew government scrambling to shore up Singapore's military sinews, and build up strategic ties with the United States and other nations. Today, the Republic is anchored firmly in Asean, even as it confidently engages wider Asia and beyond.

Still, the trip is filled with meaning and the honour to Singapore is indeed a big one. As the Tans are bound to discover, the Queen regards state visitors as her house guests, practically, in the intense way she prepares for them.

"Her Majesty welcomes and hosts only two countries a year," notes Mr Antony Phillipson, the British High Commissioner to Singapore. "State visits are the highest level of reaching out to a country we can do. The run-up to Singapore's 50th anniversary is a very strong theme to the visit."

London's move to be early in the game as the Republic prepares for its golden jubilee is a smart one. But, as seasoned observers of the relationship are only too aware, it is also a mite overdue and corrects an optical imbalance.

The Queen has visited Singapore three times, arriving at 17- year intervals, the last in 2006. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge came in 2012.

Meanwhile, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have all been accorded state visits to Britain.

It is heartening to note, therefore, that Britain has realised the importance of not taking a relationship for granted even if Singapore is confident enough of itself to not always demand reciprocity.

Beyond the shared heritage is a wider canvas worth examining.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron, who understands business better than many of his peers and predecessors, Britain, as Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Singapore last year, is "looking East as never before". More British ministers have thus toured the region in the last four years than in the previous decade, fully aware that their island nation needs Asia to escape the economic malaise in Europe.

In the 1970s, Britain had turned overly towards Europe. Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, can be a jealous mistress, consuming way too much time and attention. Interest in Asia waned consequently. But it no longer makes sense to expend so much energy and time on Europe when the economic weight of the world has rapidly shifted towards Asia with its big emerging markets in China, India, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Britain knows that Singapore has always been a hospitable home and such sentiments have been reinforced since it handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Many of its top companies - Shell, HSBC, Rolls-Royce, Unilever - have huge operations on the island, their intellectual property protected, their businesses enhanced by a wide talent pool and a competitive tax regime. Besides, the English language rules, even if, these days, it is spoken increasingly with an American accent on radio and television.

There have been plenty of movements in the other direction as well. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was in London in March and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam followed in July. More than 3,000 Singapore students head to Britain every year to study, and the numbers have been only rising.

Britain takes fully three quarters of Singapore's investments in the European Union. They range from big-ticket investments such as the Frasers Serviced Apartments chain, Millennium & Copthorne Hotels and ComfortDelGro, which owns a third of London's bus fleet, to smaller investments. Among the most significant would also be Keppel's Greater Manchester Energy- from-Waste Plant which uses frontier technology to produce steam and electricity from waste.

Such investments could increase, now that some key political uncertainties have ebbed. Scotland's decision to stay in the United Kingdom should be a confidence booster, and, unless the British decide to exit the European Union, London is still the best hub to tap the European market.

Other issues sit in the background. Britain, which has a substantial Muslim minority, has been keenly watching the Republic's management of race and communal relations. Earlier this year, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the British Minister for Faith and Communities, visited Singapore. "She came away really impressed with the approach here," Mr Phillipson said. "Singapore's approach to inter-faith harmony and de-radicalisation have been part of the conversation for some years."

Aside from the carriage ride down the Mall and the majestic state banquet at Buckingham Palace for 160 guests - some Singapore invitees are flying there next week specially for the dinner, tail coats and white ties packed in their suitcases - the state visit will give an opportunity for both sides to reflect on their long relationship.

That's the day President Tan visits The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, a Unesco world heritage site. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the first scientific director of Singapore's Botanic Gardens was Nicholas "Mad" Ridley, a former Kew hand who established the rubber industry in the Malay peninsula.

Today, of course, the conversation is about urban redevelopment, collaboration in financial services and sharing in science and technology. As the Keppel project shows, a lot of it is flowing the other way.

Talk about a long road travelled!

velloor@sph.com.sg