PM: Room for greater Singapore-Russia ties

PM Lee speaking to the Singapore media on May 20, 2016.
PM Lee speaking to the Singapore media on May 20, 2016.PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

He sees business potential for S'pore firms as Russia redevelops and upgrades its capital city

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is cautiously optimistic that a free trade agreement (FTA) between Singapore and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) can be completed in the next two years.

He is also positive about Russia's business potential, saying many opportunities exist for Singapore companies. These can be found in Moscow as the country redevelops and upgrades its capital city, transforming outdated industrial estates into modern business parks, cultural centres or education centres.

The changes, in turn, create opportunities in urban masterplanning and transport. But to pursue them, businesses need to invest time and energy to understand the country, how its business networks are linked and government decisions made in order to fit in, Mr Lee told Singapore reporters in an interview on Friday, at the end of his four-day working visit.

In the short term, Russia faces such challenges as shrinking growth, low energy prices and the impact of Western sanctions. But in the long term, it is "the place (where) we ought to be", he said.

"Russia is a country with a long history, with deep roots and powerful science and technology capabilities, determined to be an influence in the world - somebody we can cooperate with in many areas."

Mr Lee noted that bilateral trade, though modest, has grown quite rapidly in the last decade and two-way investments have risen noticeably over the years. Both countries also cooperate in science and technology, education and culture.

"It is an account which we would like to develop and grow," he said.

On its part, Russia shows a keenness to build economic ties with Asean countries like Singapore.

At the Asean-Russia summit on Friday to commemorate their 20 years of dialogue, President Vladimir Putin stressed to Asean leaders that his country wants stronger business links with the regional grouping.

He presented to them a road map with 57 projects to build technology and innovation alliances, offered Russian assistance for any development initiative in Asean, and invited Asean businesses to take part in priority development programmes.

He also highlighted the potential of the EAEU, with its market of 180 million people and a combined gross domestic product of US$4.2 trillion (S$5.8 trillion).

Similarly, he was supportive of the proposed EAEU-Singapore FTA.

"We have been working to create the most attractive conditions for doing business - cutting red tape, lowering the tax burden and monitoring the investment climate in Russia's constituent entities," Mr Putin said.

In Mr Lee's view, however, companies have to be in Russia for the long haul to see success.

"If you make a quick trip in-and- out, you meet some people and you shake hands, drink some vodka - maybe that's helpful, but that will not cause you to have a deep understanding and be able to have your company sink roots and grow vibrantly," he said.

But he stressed this does not mean only companies with large resources can succeed in Russia.

Mr Lee cited Educare, a cooperative set up by the Singapore Teachers' Union, which has had good demand for its services to modernise the teaching methods in Russian schools. "They have a very established project with the Tatarstan government and they're looking at opportunities elsewhere," he said.

"It's not a huge company. If they can do it, so can other companies.''

Mr Lee also said it was possible to sign the FTA by 2018 - the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties with Russia - as Singapore had negotiated other FTAs in two years. The EAEU has also done an FTA with Vietnam.

"I made the pitch here in Russia to Mr Putin as well as (Prime Minister Dmitry) Medvedev, and Mr Putin expressed support and talked about it," he said, adding negotiations can begin when the five countries in EAEU agree to conduct a feasibility study.

"If there's a will, it can be done," he said of the 2018 timeframe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'PM: Room for greater Singapore-Russia ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe