SINGAPORE - Singapore and Brunei, the two smallest countries in Asean, share similar views on the world and are bound by deep ties of friendship, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam on Wednesday (July 5).
And in a world made uncertain by rapid change, such as the evolving bilateral relationship between the United States and China, Singapore and Brunei can count on the strong bonds between their countries to remain a constant.
Dr Tan paid tribute to the special relationship between the two nations at a state banquet he was hosting in honour of Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who is in town on a two-day state visit.
These bonds hark back to the warm friendship between founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, the late father of the current Sultan, both Dr Tan and Sultan Bolkiah noted in their toast speeches.
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It is such bonds of friendship, said the Sultan, that over time develop into robust forms of cooperation,
Dr Tan, meanwhile, shared an anecdote from the late Mr Lee, who recounted how the two leaders had met in Singapore in 1965, after the country had been ejected from Malaysia.
The late Sultan, with a wide smile, had then told Mr Lee: "You are now like Brunei. It is better for you."
After all, the former Sultan had decided not to join the proposed Federation of Malaysia, despite facing immense pressure from the British, who had hinted they would be leaving the region soon.
The story, said Dr Tan, encapsulates two key aspects of the relationship that have brought Brunei and Singapore closer.
Firstly their similarities, being the two smallest countries in Asean, he said.
"We therefore view our region and the world through the same lens of our geographical and physical constraints. Our two countries understand each other's priorities in an innate way that larger countries cannot," said Dr Tan.
They have worked together well in groupings such as Asean, and share mutual interests such as free and open trade, among other things, he said.
He added: "Our two countries have always readily assisted each other to overcome our common challenges".
The relationship between the countries is also rooted in strong ties between their people, dating back to the close friendship between their pioneer leaders, said Dr Tan.
The friendship between the late Sultan and the late Mr Lee set a firm foundation for such relationships to flourish at all levels.
He added that he was happy that the special Singapore-Brunei friendship is shared by the younger generation of leaders, noting that the Brunei Crown Prince was in Singapore last year as part of the fourth Young Leaders' Programme.
Later this year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will lead a delagation of Singapore's young leaders to brunei for the fifth run of this programme. And, added Dr Tan, at Wednesday's banquet were 13 Sultan's Scholars - among the best and brightest young talents in Brunei - who are in town on a study visit.
"I am confident that such exchanges will continue to strengthen the bilateral ties between Brunei and Singapore in the decades to come," he said.
Dr Tan cited the currency interchangeability agreement between Brunei and Singapore as an important symbol of trust.
Sultan Bolkiah's state visit comes on the golden jubilee of this agreement, which was inked in 1967 to allow both countries to accept the currency issued by the other, and exchange them at par and without charge, into their own.
The pact "has stabilised the monetary systems of our two countries, and facilitated the mutually-beneficial flow of investments, people, goods, and services," said Dr Tan, citing Singaporean company Apollo Acquaculture Group - which earlier this year set up a joint-venture to build Brunei's first vertical land-based aquaculture farm - as one of its beneficiaries.
He then turned to the close defence relationship between the two countries.
This, he said, has contributed not just to the mutual security of both countries, but to the security of the region.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of their defence cooperation, said Dr Tan.
"Our two armed forces have trained closely and developed strong bonds over many generations of soldiers. Singapore is deeply grateful for the help and assistance that Brunei has extended to the Singapore Armed Forces and our soldiers from our very early years," he said.
Sultan Bolkiah noted that defence remains an integral part of the cooperation between the countries, and thanked Singapore for its assistance in training his country's healthcare professionals and providing healthcare to Bruneians.
He identified the agribusiness industry as a potential sector for further cooperation, adding that he welcomed efforts to collaborate in this area.
The Sultan also wished Singapore the best in its bid to become a smart nation, adding: "We are inspired by your drive to prosper through innovation... and we wish you every success."
This is Sultan Bolkiah's fourth state visit. Dr Tan noted that when he made the first in 1990, the world was in flux. The Berlin wall had just fallen, and the Cold War was drawing to a close.
Today, new geopolitical uncertainties have emerged. Brand new challenges and opportunities are on the horizon for Southeast Asian countries, especially small ones like Singapore and Brunei, as the bilateral relationship between superpowers US and China evolves.
"Amidst the rapid changes taking place around us, I am certain of one constant, which is the strong bonds of friendship and the positive trajectory of Brunei-Singapore relations," said Dr Tan. "I am confident that with Your Majesty's leadership and steadfast support, the relations between our two countries will continue to grow in the decades to come."
Agreeing, Sultan Bolkiah pointed out how Singapore had helped Brunei settle into Asean when it joined the regional grouping in 1984.
Singapore will assume the rotating chairmanship of Asean next year, the Sultan noted, adding: "Brunei will extend its full support."