Singapore, Australia ink pact taking ties to new heights

Troops from Singapore and Australia landing on a beach in Rockhampton, Queensland, as part of Exercise Trident, a seven-day military exercise, in 2014.
Troops from Singapore and Australia landing on a beach in Rockhampton, Queensland, as part of Exercise Trident, a seven-day military exercise, in 2014. PHOTO: ST FILE

Landmark agreement will deepen economic links, military cooperation and cultural ties

Singapore and Australia have inked a "landmark" agreement to raise bilateral cooperation to "unprecedented levels" in security, trade and the arts and culture.

A key area is a defence cooperation deal that will give Singapore troops, who have been training in Australia since 1990, access to more military areas for 25 years.

Under the deal, which both governments announced yesterday, Singapore will reportedly spend up to A$2.25 billion (S$2.25 billion) to expand the military facilities in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville in Queensland.

Both sides also reviewed their 2003 free trade agreement to hammer out a deal to deepen integration of their economies and strengthen Singapore's position as the go-to hub for Australian businesses and service providers to tap growing opportunities in Asia.

This includes easing trade restrictions to allow more trade flows between both sides; making it easier for businesses to bid for government contracts; and increasing the limits on acquisition by Singapore investors in Australia.

Singapore was Australia's fifth- largest trading partner last year, with bilateral trade amounting to S$20.2 billion. Australian investments in Singapore were worth A$50.7 billion in 2014.

There is also good news for Singaporean visitors, whose Australian visas are valid for only 12 months. Under the pact, Australia will issue multi-year visas, a move that will benefit the 400,000 Singaporeans who visit Australia every year.

The agreement comes a year after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Australia's then Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreement. Other initiatives in the new agreement include:

• More mutual recognition of professional qualifications, with priority for engineers and accountants.

• Australian start-ups will get greater access to Asia to showcase their products and services with the help of Singapore as an innovation "landing pad".

• Up to 500 young Singaporeans will be able to work or study in Australia for up to 12 months under a new "Work and Holiday Maker Programme".

• Singaporean artists, art groups and performers can tap into a S$5 million fund over five years to stage their works in Australia.

Yesterday, the leaders of both countries welcomed the "landmark" pact.

In Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull likened his country's new level of relationship with Singapore to that with its neighbour and closest ally, New Zealand.

PM Lee called it a "win-win deal" that will benefit both sides and pledged to move quickly to implement the various measures. He said in a statement that the two countries are "politically like-minded, strategically aligned and economically complementary".

"We have much to gain by working closely together. The CSP will draw our two countries closer, economically, politically and at the people-to-people level," he added.

Mr Lee was scheduled to visit Australia at the end of the month but the trip has been postponed as Mr Turnbull is expected to call an election, likely on July 2.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that even if there were a change of government after the July elections, he was confident that a new government would be committed to honouring the pact.

"We know that the Australians are good for their word. They have always complied with agreements that they've signed," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore, Australia ink pact taking ties to new heights'. Print Edition | Subscribe