SUZHOU, CHINA - The China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) has been a pathfinder for bilateral cooperation for the past quarter century, and it must strive to keep playing that role in China's development going forward, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
That SIP is today a hallmark of bilateral cooperation is the result of the strong sense of purpose and commitment shared by both the Singapore and Chinese governments, Mr Teo said in a speech on Friday (April 12) at a ceremony here to mark the project's 25th anniversary.
Started in 1994, SIP received the backing of top leaders from both sides. It was the first government-to-government project between the two countries, meant both for China to learn from Singapore's industrialisation experiences and to be part of Singapore's strategy to develop an external wing to its economy.
"The story of the SIP is also a story of our close bilateral relations, and can be traced back to the friendship and mutual respect between Mr Deng Xiaoping and Mr Lee Kuan Yew," said Mr Teo, referring to China's late paramount leader and the late first prime minister of Singapore.
At the ceremony, Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message on behalf of the central government, in which he lauded the joint project for being ahead of its time.
"It was very bold in pioneering and absorbing internationally advanced technologies and experiences," he said. "The SIP is proactively driving innovation, realising leapfrog development, and also contributed to the reciprocal cooperation between China and Singapore."
Despite some early bumps, SIP is today an unqualified success story. For three consecutive years since 2015, it has been ranked first by China's Commerce Ministry out of more than 200 Economic and Technological Development Zones, and regularly tops developmental indices.
In 2018, Singapore-SIP trade grew 20.2 per cent from the previous year to reach US$2.02 billion, said the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
The 288-sq km zone has also progressed beyond a traditional industrial park and seen steady growth of emerging high-tech industries such as biomedicine and nanotechnology, Mr Teo added, while noting that SIP's model has since been replicated in several Chinese cities from Chuzhou in Anhui to Khorgas in Xinjiang.
"Besides generating good jobs and income, the SIP has been widely acknowledged as an attractive city to live in," he said. "Over the years, many residents from the surrounding areas and beyond have moved to the SIP to enjoy the modern and well-planned facilities and living environment."
The SIP has also provided a platform for the two countries to build mutual trust and understanding. Mr Teo noted that several Singapore officials worked on the project before they became Cabinet ministers, and count many Jiangsu and Suzhou colleagues as old friends.
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Lye Liang Fook said the far-reaching political impact of SIP endures today, as seen in the various institutional mechanisms for bilateral cooperation that came in its wake, such as the annual Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation launched in 2003.
"To drive the SIP project, a high-level bilateral cooperation framework was created, which was subsequently upgraded to oversee all aspects of bilateral cooperation between the two countries," he wrote in a book to mark 50 years of bilateral ties in 2015.
Building on SIP's model, the two countries went on to launch the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City in 2008 and the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity in 2015 to support China's Belt and Road Initiative and other development strategies, noted Mr Teo.
Looking back, the important lessons China learnt were in the software being transferred from Singapore, such as in innovativeness and a "pioneering and spearheading spirit" when it came to reform, said Suzhou party secretary Zhou Naixiang.
These ideas and principles, such as the need to have and stick to a masterplan, were initially difficult to accept and caused a deadlock in the early years of the project, noted Mr Lye.
But officials from both sides soldiered on and achieved consensus after one-and-a-half years of painstaking negotiations, said Business China chairman Lee Yi Shyan.
"We came to a resolution which was acceptable by both governments, and it was a turning point for SIP," he said. "Our relationship changed from being adversarial to one characterised by single-mindedness and teamwork."
For SIP to build on its legacy and successes, the industrial park should stay at the forefront, such as by being a testbed for new policy liberalisation across different sectors and to move up the value chain towards areas like innovation and start-ups, said Mr Teo.
SIP can also serve as the vehicle for both countries to expand cooperation into the region, such as to jointly develop similar high-quality industrial parks in third-party markets, he added. It should also continue to be a key platform to strengthen people-to-people ties, which are the bedrock of bilateral relations, said Mr Teo.
A memorandum of understanding that the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Suzhou Municipal Government signed last September will strengthen bilateral exchanges through the attachment of Singapore government officials to Suzhou, he noted.
"Our people should continue learning from one another and deepen mutual understanding through frequent two-way exchanges," he said.
Jiangsu party secretary Lou Qinjian agreed, and said Beijing supports the SIP as being "the flag for China's modernisation drive".
"As a test-bed for China's reform and opening up, SIP will continue to liberalise minds, work hard to deepen reforms, and conduct pilots and experiments for innovation."