Britain can learn from Singapore's independence as it heads for Brexit: British foreign secretary

Britain's foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt noted that Singapore's real gross domestic product per capita has multiplied 15 times since its independence. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - As Britain prepares to leave the European Union in three months, its foreign secretary said it can draw encouragement from Singapore - how gaining independence in 1965 did not make the Republic more insular, but more open.

A post-Brexit Britain hopes to deepen its ties with South-east Asia, through measures such as a partnership with Singapore to be launched this week, and the opening of a new mission to Asean in the British Embassy in Jakarta later this year, said Mr Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday (Jan 2).

With the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles' and William Farquhar's landing in Singapore just over three weeks away, Mr Hunt said that the people of Singapore have built on the British legacy of the rule of law, clean administration, independent courts and the English language.

"The United Kingdom will always be ready to work alongside like-minded countries - and few in Asia are more like-minded than Singapore," he said at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' 34th Fullerton Lecture at the Fullerton Hotel.

Mr Hunt, speaking on his first of a three-day visit to Asia - the first to Singapore by a British Foreign Secretary since 2015 - said what was right for Singapore will not always be right for Britain.

"But there is much we can learn from Singapore, not least the excellence of its education system, the long-term investment in infrastructure and a strategic approach to how a nation sustains competitive advantage in the world," he said.

He noted that Singapore's real gross domestic product per capita has multiplied 15 times since its independence to reach US$58,000 (S$78,710), making it the eighth-richest country in the world by this measure, and surpassing even the United Kingdom.

Quoting founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he said 1965 marked the year when Singapore "plugged into the international economic grid".

Britain is set to leave the European Union on March 29 this year, following a referendum in 2016.

British lawmakers are due to debate the Brexit deal next Wednesday, before voting the following week.

In a speech on Britain's role in a post-Brexit world, Mr Hunt said the international order that has broadly existed since 1945 is under threat.

"What is wonkishly called the rules-based international system is under greater strain than for many decades - and the evidence is all around us," he said, citing examples such as Russia's annexation of Ukraine, the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime, and the expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

However, while Britain is not a superpower, nor does it have an empire, it has its strengths, as the fifth-biggest economy in the world, home to some of the world's top universities, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

"Most importantly, in a world where it is rarely possible for one country to achieve its ambitions alone, the UK has some of the best connections of any country - whether through the Commonwealth, our alliance with the United States and our friendship with our neighbours in Europe," he said.

He said he would be launching the new UK-Singapore Partnership for the Future with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday.

The partnership was agreed by the prime ministers of both countries in April last year at the Commonwealth Summit, with education, innovation, security and defence, culture and youth some of the areas that will be covered.

Mr Hunt said Britain is the biggest European investor in South-east Asia, with Asean trade of nearly £37 billion (S$63.8 billion), and over 4,000 British companies employing more than 50,000 people in Singapore.

"Those connections are why Britain's post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world, those countries which share our values and support our belief in free trade, the rule of law and open societies."

Correction note: The story has been updated for accuracy.

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