BEIJING - At a time when Singapore-Sino relations are undergoing intense scrutiny, Singapore's Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Grace Fu said enhancing cultural ties between the two countries will offer "a different platform" for engagement and add "an important facet" to the bilateral relationship.
Ms Fu was speaking to the Singapore media in Beijing on Friday (June 16), the last day of her trip to China to discuss areas for cultural, sports and youth co-operation.
Representatives from Singapore's National Heritage Board (NHB) and China's Palace Museum will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Friday evening (June 16) for collaboration. More details will be made public later.
Asked what effect this trip might have on bilateral ties with China, she said: "It adds an important facet to very wide-ranging collaborations that we have with China. We are in a special position of having wide-ranging strategic relations that evolve with time. Culture is an important part: it allows us to have a deeper understanding of each other.
"Also, it allows us to have... a different platform for engaging each other. The issues we are facing in both countries are complex and intertwined. For example, in Singapore, community building is very much related to sport and also very much intertwined with issues of health."
Ms Fu's trip to China comes in the wake of a cooling of ties last year over issues such as the South China Sea, even as leaders on both sides stress that the relationship is back on track.
The minister's trip began in Xi'an on Monday (June 12). There, she met Mr Jiang Feng, Vice-Governor of Shaanxi Province, and Mr Shangguan Ji Qing, Mayor of Xi'an.
She also visited several famous cultural and heritage institutions, such as Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum and the Shaanxi Institute of Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which is discussing plans to sign an MOU with the National Heritage Board's Heritage Conservation Centre.
In Beijing on Friday, she will meet her Chinese counterpart Minister of Culture Luo Shugang.
The Chinese officials who received her in Xi'an and Beijing were "warm" and had "positive responses to Singapore", said Ms Fu, who last visited Beijing in February with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as part of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation delegation.
Ms Fu was asked how cultural collaboration between Singapore and China might foster closer ties on a person-to-person level, and allow citizens - who might not know much about art - to understand people from the other country better.
In response, she said that cultural exchanges, and the new Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, could serve as avenues for Singaporeans to learn how to better appreciate China's art and culture.
Community art also plays a role, she said, and is one area where both countries and both ministries are thinking of connecting culture and heritage to the ground.
She cited as an example Thursday's (June 15) visit to the Dongsi Olympic Community Sports Culture Centre in Beijing, which contains heritage displays and information panels to tell visitors about the history of the Dongsi area. "That helps us to understand the psyche, and the attitudes and values of the people much better," she added.
She said Singapore could learn to be better at art conservation from China.
For instance, while visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi'an, Ms Fu said she gained an insight into the heightened attention the Chinese are paying to conserving their artefacts by investing in technology.
"They are developing know-how on lots of material - from stones, to bronzes, to clay, much wider than what we have in Singapore."
Ms Fu also called on Minister Gou Zhongwen of the General Administration of Sport in Beijing on Thursday.
During the meeting, they "reaffirmed the warm and longstanding bilateral sports relations between China and Singapore", and welcomed the stepping up of sports exchanges under the current MOU between the All-China Sports Federation and Sport Singapore, said MCCY in a statement.
On Friday, Ms Fu will meet Mr He Junke, the Executive Secretary of Communist Youth League and Chairman of All China Youth Federation.
The meeting will explore future collaborations and exchanges with China in youth volunteerism, leadership exchanges and internship opportunities.
In the evening, Ms Fu will meet Mr Luo. They will discuss deepening and broadening cooperation through the 8th Singapore-China Executive Programme (EP), "to see how we can broaden and deepen collaboration across wide-ranging art forms as well as institutions".
The 7th EP was signed in 2015 under the Memorandum of Understanding on Cultural Cooperation signed between Singapore and China in 1996.
Ms Fu remained tight-lipped when asked about the current publicly-aired dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings over the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley house, which is thought to have historical and heritage significance.
Under the Preservation of Monuments Act, the National Heritage Board can ask the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth to gazette the more than 100-year-old bungalow.
This is provided it fulfils criteria such as having historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance, and being of national importance.
Ms Fu declined to give details on the new ministerial committee that will be studying options for the house. Its existence was disclosed on Wednesday (June 14) by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, PM Lee's younger siblings.
During her visit, Minister Fu also attended the concert We Soar by young musicians from the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra at the China Conservatory of Music Affiliated High School on Thursday night.Said Ms Fu: "They did very well, they displayed high standards of musical ability, and most importantly, they brought Singapore music to China - played with Chinese instruments, but reflecting (a) South-east Asian culture and feel."