China-Singapore ties will withstand the test of time

Differences of views are to be expected, even between good friends. These can be overcome by nurturing mutual understanding and cooperation, Singapore Press Holdings chairman Lee Boon Yang said in a speech yesterday to thought leaders from both countries at the inaugural Lianhe Zaobao Singapore-China Forum.

Singapore and China officially established diplomatic relations in 1990. But our bilateral relations go back much further. Chinese Singaporeans, most of whom emigrated from various parts of China to Singapore, share common cultural roots with the Chinese people. Although I was born in Singapore, my parents and several siblings were among the waves of immigration more than 70 years ago. Our businessmen and entrepreneurs had long before 1990 established strong trade and other ties with China.

These early links extended into other areas. For example, during colonial days, artists who came from China were intrigued by the visual motifs of South-east Asia. They made Singapore their home and gave us a distinctive style of painting called the "Nanyang style". The works of these pioneer Singapore artists are still much appreciated and can be seen at the National Gallery Singapore.

In the 1980s, popular Singapore television drama series such as The Awakening and Paint A Rainbow were cultural exports which were well received by the Chinese audience.

Even before establishment of diplomatic ties, the then paramount leader of China, the late Deng Xiaoping, visited Singapore in 1978. After diplomatic ties were established in 1990, bilateral cooperation took off to a whole new level. The frequency and level of exchanges and visits by leaders and senior officials of both countries increased exponentially. For example, hundreds of senior Chinese officials have come to Singapore for various forms of training and interaction with their counterparts.

In 1994, both countries agreed to set up the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) which today ranks as one of the most successful world-class industrial parks in China, home to many global multinational companies. SIP was followed in 2007 by another government-to- government (G-to-G) project, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. This project to develop a 30 sq km new city for 350,000 residents has made good progress and will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year.

In 2015, both countries launched the third G-to-G project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative.

Each of these three G-to-G projects was carefully designed to match China's needs at a particular stage of development: Suzhou Industrial Park when China was developing its manufacturing industry, Tianjin Eco-City when China was exploring how to develop eco-friendly sustainable cities, and now Chongqing Connectivity Initiative as China embarks on a bold plan to better connect itself with the rest of the world.

Pupils from Singapore's Beacon Primary School and a Chinese youth arts group performed together at the inaugural Singapore-China Youth Arts Festival over three weekends this month. Cultural collaboration between Singapore and China adds diversity to our engagement and enriches our common cultural roots, says Dr Lee Boon Yang. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

These projects provided multiple opportunities for Singapore to share our experience and expertise in industrial park development, sustainable urbanisation and international connectivity. They also opened up many opportunities for partnership between Chinese and Singapore businesses. They illustrate concretely how the relationship between Singapore and China evolves with the times and remains mutually beneficial even as China takes giant step after step in economic development and technological capabilities.


Cooperation between the two countries also took place in the multilateral arena. When China needed support internationally, Singapore was there. For example while other countries were voicing doubts about China's accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, Singapore spoke up in support. While others adopted a wait-and-see attitude when China proposed setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Singapore was among the first to express interest and took prompt action to join this invaluable initiative.

The ties that bind go beyond cold, hard economics. Our people-to-people ties predate diplomatic ties and have an endearing and enduring quality to them. As President Xi Jinping was reported to have said in Macau last year: "Only relationships coming from the heart can withstand the test of time."

Clearly, we have forged a strong and mutually beneficial relationship. But just as even the best of friends don't always see eye to eye on every issue, Singapore and China may have different opinions on certain matters. This is natural and inevitable. We must recognise that every country will first and foremost safeguard its national interests. Singapore cannot behave differently. Hence, it is unavoidable that there may be occasions when our national interests do not align neatly.

What should then guide our approach on such occasions?

When both countries face differences of opinion, we have to work harder to achieve better understanding of each other's position. Even if we cannot achieve a full consensus or resolution on a specific issue, we must not lose sight of the big picture. Our common interests and mutual benefits clearly outweigh such occasional differences. It would be a pity if we let our differences dominate this valuable relationship.

When there is a difference of opinion, both countries should recognise the longer-term depth and breadth of this fruitful relationship. The fundamentals are strong. We should remain steadfast in building on the strengths despite the occasional differences. We should not allow negativity to set in but focus on the much more significant mutual benefits.

What are the clearly positive aspects to focus on?

Economic cooperation is one obvious area. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties and especially after the signing of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in 2008, bilateral trade and investment grew by leaps and bounds. Since 2013, Singapore has been China's largest source for foreign direct investment, and China has been Singapore's largest trading partner.

As Singapore works with China to implement its Belt and Road initiative, economic and financial ties between both countries will grow. Workers, consumers and businesses of both countries stand to benefit from such closer ties. Important educational institutions in our countries have established partnerships. For example, the Singapore University of Technology and Design has a fruitful partnership with Zhejiang University, a partnership which opens up many opportunities for further collaboration in R&D as well as student exchanges.

The ties that bind go beyond cold, hard economics. Our people-to-people ties predate diplomatic ties and have an endearing and enduring quality to them. As President Xi Jinping was reported to have said in Macau last year: "Only relationships coming from the heart can withstand the test of time." This underlines the importance of continuing to enhance people-to-people ties between our countries.

Earlier, I mentioned an example of how the peoples of the two countries formed cultural connections in the past. Such connections are well worth cherishing and keeping alive.

As Singapore's premier media group, we at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) will do our part. Hence, Lianhe Zaobao is organising this forum to strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation. We hope to create a platform for academics and opinion leaders of both countries to freely exchange views and gain better understanding of each other's thinking on various issues.

The inaugural Singapore-China Youth Arts Festival is another way to forge mutual appreciation and understanding through cultural activities. Youth performing groups from both countries took to the stage for three weekends this month. This festival is jointly organised by SPH's Chinese language student paper, China Cultural Centre and China Children's Art Theatre.

I hope Singapore and China will further strengthen cultural collaboration as a way to promote deeper understanding of each other. Cultural collaboration adds diversity to our engagement and enriches our common cultural roots. They should be a regular feature of our bilateral relationship.

Regional cooperation is another area in which both countries can work together. China is an important dialogue partner of Asean. Next year, Singapore will be both the country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations and Asean chair. This is another opportunity for both countries to work together to bring Asean and China closer. Such regional cooperation will bring about stability, which is critical for the continued development and progress of Asean members and China.

In conclusion, bilateral economic cooperation, cultural collaboration and regional cooperation are important pillars in the Singapore and China relationship. Our common interests and mutual benefits in these areas far outweigh any differences and they will ensure that our relationship can withstand the test of time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2017, with the headline 'China-Singapore ties will withstand the test of time'. Print Edition | Subscribe