From Bata to beer: Leaders hail the long history of Czech-Singapore ties

The national anthem being played by the military band before President Tony Tan inspected the guard of honour.ST VIDEO: RACHEL AU-YONG
President Tony Tan, together with his wife and his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman, at the Prague castle.
President Tony Tan, together with his wife and his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman, at the Prague castle. PHOTO: RACHEL AU-YONG
PHOTO: RACHEL AU-YONG
President Tony Town walking down inspecting the guard of honour at the Prague castle.

PRAGUE - For generations of Singaporeans, the name Bata is almost synonymous with schooling.

Many probably started school with the advertising jingle "First to Bata, then to school'' ringing in their head and white Bata shoes on their feet.

But few know it is named after a Czech: Mr Tomas Bata.

On Wednesday(May 24), President Tony Tan Keng Yam cited the famed maker of footwear to underline the long years of ties between Singapore and the Czech Republic, where he is on a state visit.

They go back at least 80 years, when Mr Bata left home for Singapore to set up Bata Shoe company.

Today, Singapore is home to Bata Asia Pacific and Africa, which manages 3,000 shops in the region, he said at a lunch hosted by his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman.

Dr Tan quipped: "Many Singaporeans even think that Bata is a Singapore company!"

Economic cooperation between Singapore and the Czech Republic has grown in the last two decades, and bilateral trade tripled to $851.5 million last year from a decade ago, he added.

Dr Tan, the second Singapore president to visit the Czech Republic after Mr Ong Teng Cheong in 1998, is on a four-day state visit to the central European nation.

It began on Wednesday, with a ceremonial welcome at Prague Castle, as he walked alongside Mr Zeman on a red carpet to inspect a guard of honour.

The castle, which dates back to the 9th century, is the official residence of the Czech President.

The two leaders also presided over the signing of three agreements, two of which seek to deepen economic cooperation between their nations.

International Enterprise Singapore and the Singapore Business Federation each signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with their Czech counterparts to create business opportunities in the manufacture of health devices, wholesale trade of food and logistics, among other things.

The third MOU is between Nanyang Technological University and Charles University, the oldest university in the Czech Republic.

Dr Tan said he hoped to see more student and faculty exchanges between the institutions: "For small countries like Singapore and the Czech Republic, where human capital is a key resource, nurturing human talent is vital to our survival."

In his lunchtime speech as well as private talks with President Zeman, the subject of increasing economic cooperation was a main topic of discussion.

The potential to deepen links exist, both leaders agree, and Dr Tan said they will be further bolstered when the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement is ratified.

The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1993 and yesterday President Zeman told reporters his country plans to re-establish an embassy in Singapore.

The Czech Embassy in Singapore was closed in 2008 owing to cost constraints, he added.

Dr Tan in his lunchtime speech, also called for greater cultural exchanges and people-to-people links, through exchange programmes and tourism.

He said enterprising Czech bartenders had recently brought unique Czech beverages, such as Pilsner Urquell and Moravian red wines, to Singapore: "Hopefully in the near future, we can also find Singapore cuisine in Prague!"

Later on Wednesday, he will be hosted to dinner by Mr Milan Stech, the president of the upper chamber of Parliament.

On Thursday, Dr Tan will meet the head of the lower chamber of Parliament, Mr Jan Hamacek, and be hosted to lunch by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.