SINGAPORE - Trade between Singapore and Russia is below what it should be, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong , who is looking to boost it with the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the Republic and the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Russia is a member.
Similarly, there is "a lot more potential for growth" between Russia and the Asean countries, he added.
Mr Lee made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with Russian news agency Tass at the Istana, ahead of his first working visit to the country. The agency published the interview on Tuesday (May 17).
He will meet government officials in Moscow from Tuesday (May 17) to Thursday, and attend the Asean-Russia Commemorative Summit on Thursday and Friday in Sochi city along the Black Sea coast.
Mr Lee also disclosed there are advanced plans to build a Russian Cultural Centre in Singapore.
"We have found a site and it is a good location'' he said. "I look forward to the day when we see a Russian Orthodox onion-dome appearing in Singapore," he added, referring to the architecture of Russian churches.
But boosting trade appears paramount.
Mr Lee noted the high level Russia-Singapore Inter-Governmental Commission was set up in 2009 to beef up cooperation in such areas as trade, investment, and education.
"There is active participation on both sides - government as well as business. But our trade is not in proportion to the potential," he said.
Though bilateral trade has about quadrupled in the last 10 years Russia is still "just our 21st largest trading partner,'' he added.
In the same way, he said, "the economic ties between Asean countries and Russia have been growing but (it is not) commensurate with the importance of Russia in the world. This is gradually changing," he said.
The proposed FTA between Singapore and the Eurasian Economic Union will boost Russia's ties with individual Asean countries, which will "strengthen the ties between Russia and Southeast Asia, and the Asean region as a whole," he added.
Mr Lee's agenda includes meeting Russian businessmen and executives to "get them interested in Singapore a bit".
The last Singapore prime minister to go on such a mission to the Russian Federation was the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990.
As Singapore and Russia marked 50 years of diplomatic relations, Mr Lee took stock of bilateral ties in economy, culture and healthcare, among others.
In business, he cited two major Russian companies in Singapore: oil giant Lukoil and energy behemoth Gazprom.
Russia also hosts agri-business Olam International, which is headquartered in Singapore. A number of airports in Russia are also co-managed by Singapore's Changi Airports International.
Russians also travel here for medical treatment and Singapore needs Russian-speaking doctors to tend to them, he said.
As for the Asia-Pacific region, Mr Lee is optimistic of its future "because we believe peace and stability can be maintained in the region".
He added that the North Korea and South China Sea issues need to be managed peacefully, and Russia "plays a particularly significant role in the Korean issue".
"I do not say 'solve' because that is very difficult, and will take a very long time.
"But manage and prevent it from escalating, and becoming dangerous," he said. "Then we have the potential to build inter-dependence, partnerships and prosperity in the region."