Singaporean professionals will find it easier to work in Australia and Singapore businesses will be able to bid for government procurement contracts there, after both countries yesterday expanded a free trade pact in the "most substantial upgrade" to bilateral ties.
The extension of the Singapore- Australia Free Trade Agreement was one of four key agreements signed yesterday in Canberra's Parliament House under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). They will not just strengthen economic links but also boost cooperation in military training, innovation and science, and combating transnational drug crime.
"Together, the agreements signed this week represent the most substantial upgrade in the Australia-Singapore relationship in a generation," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull in a joint statement. At a joint press conference after the signing ceremony, Mr Lee said the "landmark, transformative agreement" will take cooperation "to unprecedented levels that only close partners can achieve".
Benefits in four key areas
Of the four Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreements signed yesterday, one will see trade ties being deepened while the other three will see Singapore and Australia collaborate more closely in the areas of defence, scientific research and anti-drug trafficking. The upgraded Free Trade Agreement will come into force next year and planning for the expansion of new military training areas in Australia will start early next year.
These are some of the benefits under the agreements:
• More flexible rules of origin, which are standards used to determine the origin of goods, will make it easier for Singapore exports to qualify for tariff-free treatment in Australia.
• Reduction in regulatory barriers, such as onerous labelling requirements, will facilitate trade in goods like wine, cosmetics and medical devices.
• Opportunities for companies from both sides to bid for government procurement contracts.
• Easier mobility and longer stays for business people.
• New A$2.25 billion (S$2.35 billion) programme will allow the Singapore Armed Forces to conduct unilateral training in Australia for 18 weeks, in areas 10 times the size of Singapore, for up to 14,000 troops per year over 25 years.
• Joint development of military training areas and advanced facilities in Australia.
Science research and innovation
• The Singapore and Australian governments will provide about S$50 million worth of support for collaboration in science and innovation.
• More cooperation between research institutions, such as between Singapore universities and Australia's Data61 to look into big data and smart cities.
• Shared use of research infrastructure - like supercomputing centres in both countries - to realise a greater return on investments, spread expenses, allow for maintenance of infrastructure, and let researchers improve their research by accessing a wider range of facilities and intellectual cultures.
• Establishing Australia's fifth landing pad in Singapore to facilitate the foray of high-tech Australian start-ups into Asia.
International drug crime
• Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau and the Australian Federal Police will conduct joint training, learning and development programmes and officer exchanges to combat the proliferation of drugs, especially new psychoactive substances.
Mr Turnbull said it was made possible because both countries are strategically aligned. The two leaders also acknowledged that there were trade-offs in the negotiation process. But they added that it was also a matter of understanding the other side's needs and considerations.
Said Mr Lee: "People can be sure that just as our people get advantages in Australia, so too will Australians correspondingly get advantages in Singapore...You bargain hard, but you bargain to win together."
The leaders were also asked about the message the CSP is sending out, especially at a time when some governments are pushing for protectionist measures or are reluctant to turn to innovation or automation.
Said Mr Lee: "The signal to the world is that... we found opportunities to cooperate together, we are very happy we are making progress, and we hope that you too will find it possible to make similar progress with us or with each other." There will be problems, but it's "far better we cooperate together than (closing) ourselves off in our own little corner, because that way leads to impoverishment, leads to misunderstanding, leads to trouble", he said.
Mr Turnbull said it was critical for leaders to reassure their community and explain that "turning your back on change is only a road back to impoverishment".
On whether Singapore could be assured that Australia's bipartisan system can sustain the CSP through the years, Mr Turnbull quipped: "So profound was the spirit of bipartisanship yesterday that the Leader of the Opposition (Bill Shorten) and I attended the events wearing the same orange ties. It shows it was almost subliminal - the spirit of harmony."
Mr Lee thanked the leaders of Australia's main parties for their support. The two prime ministers also commended the sustained efforts of officials to realise the benefits of closer cooperation.
Yesterday, Mr Lee also met Mr Shorten. He and Mrs Lee also called on Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial before leaving for Singapore.