Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be the first Singapore PM to address Australia's Parliament tomorrow, in an invitation Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan regards as a special honour "reserved only for Australia's major and closest partners and stakeholders".
Mr Lee's three-day visit to Canberra starting today underlines a strong friendship going back to when Australian soldiers defended Singapore during World War II and the communist insurgency, Dr Balakrishnan told The Straits Times in an interview last week.
Australia was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with independent Singapore in 1965. And when the Five Power Defence Arrangements were set up in 1971 as Britain withdrew its military forces, Australia was a key player, he noted.
Today, Australia remains a key defence partner, and the warm, deep relationship is much broader, underpinned by strong people-to-people and economic ties, he said.
Over 50,000 Singaporeans live in Australia, some 100,000 have studied there and Singapore is Australia's fifth-largest trading partner.
And deals to be signed this week are set to see those figures grow.
We are both democracies, we both believe in free and open trade, in trying to achieve regional peace and security, in building a large network of friends and partners. We have a strong stand against terrorism, against drugs.
FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, on how Singapore and Australia look at the world in "pretty similar terms".
If all these plans bear fruit, trading volumes will increase. I don't think we should contend to just be the fifth-largest trading partner... For Singaporeans, having access to a continental-sized economy is a big plus.
DR BALAKRISHNAN, on the Singapore-Australia FTA having been reviewed to increase trade and investment flows.
Economically, both countries complement rather than compete against each other. Australia's vast land has natural resources which Singapore lacks, while Singapore helps plug Australian companies into the rest of South-east Asia, Dr Balakrishnan said.
Strategically, both look at the world "in pretty similar terms", he said. "We are both democracies, we both believe in free and open trade, in trying to achieve regional peace and security, in building a large network of friends and partners. We have a strong stand against terrorism, against drugs."
This combination saw then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott moot a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in 2014 to elevate bilateral relations substantially. The pact was signed during Mr Abbott's visit to Singapore last year.
Current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is "equally enthusiastic" about the partnership, and in May this year both sides announced a package of initiatives to give effect to the CSP.
This week, Mr Lee and Mr Turnbull will witness the signing of four agreements arising from the May package: a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to let more Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) troops train in a bigger area in Australia; a deal to upgrade the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA); an MOU on cooperation in innovation and science; and an MOU to combat transnational drug crime.
The new defence deal, lasting 25 years, will grant access to up to 14,000 Singapore soldiers, up from 6,000 soldiers now, to train for up to 18 weeks, up from six weeks now. The SAF has been training in Australia since 1990.
The FTA, signed in 2003, has been reviewed to increase trade and investment flows. Bilateral trade hit $20.2 billion last year. "It is a significant and, more importantly, a growing account," said Dr Balakrishnan. "If all these plans bear fruit, trading volumes will increase. I don't think we should contend to just be the fifth-largest trading partner."
Start-ups and firms in both countries can tap a $50 million matching fund over five years to boost science and innovation. "For Singaporeans, having access to a continental-sized economy is a big plus," Dr Balakrishnan said, adding that the package enjoys bipartisan support in Australia.
Also on the way is a visa allowing Singaporeans under 30 to work and holiday in Australia for a year. "You wonder whether Australia is too attractive a place for young Singaporeans," said Dr Balakrishnan. "But I think that is a risk worth taking because we want to give Singaporeans this sense of adventure and space and opportunities... In a sense, it is the hinterland that we didn't have."
Overall, the initiatives "exponentially increase space and opportunities for Singaporeans" and "help plug Australia directly into Asia".
The Australians are "looking at a relationship which ultimately becomes as close as the one they have with New Zealand", he said.
The CSP package is one Dr Balakrishnan firmly believes in, having made two trips to negotiate it in March while his father was very ill.
Accompanying Mr Lee on his visit are Mrs Lee, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Dr Balakrishnan and MPs Lily Neo and Zaqy Mohamad.
While in Australia, Mr Lee will meet Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and political leaders. He will also lay a wreath at the Australian War Memorial and meet Singaporeans at a reception.
The Prime Minister's Office said in a statement yesterday that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will be acting Prime Minister during Mr Lee's absence.