SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has brought Singapore and New Zealand closer together, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (April 19).
He and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had called each other regularly to exchange notes on their experiences, Mr Lee said, adding that both countries' ministers and officials also regularly exchange information about the virus.
Mr Lee was giving a toast speech at the official lunch he hosted for Ms Ardern, who arrived in Singapore on Monday for a three-day visit.
In the early days of the pandemic when many flights were cancelled, both countries helped to bring each other's citizens home, said Mr Lee.
When borders were shut and supply chains disrupted, both sides formed an air freight connectivity partnership to keep food and medical supplies flowing between the two countries.
"In fact, the first such Singapore to New Zealand flight in April 2020 also carried nine New Zealanders back home, including a baby," said Mr Lee.
In May 2020, Singapore and New Zealand also jointly launched a repatriation flight to bring their citizens home from Myanmar.
Mr Lee said the strong bilateral cooperation between the countries is anchored on longstanding friendship and trust that has been built up over decades.
"With similar outlooks on trade liberalisation and economic integration, we joined hands on many path-finding economic initiatives," he said.
Singapore's first bilateral free trade agreement was with New Zealand, while Singapore was New Zealand's second bilateral free trade agreement partner after Australia.
Singapore and New Zealand also started a trade agreement together with Chile and Brunei, which grew to become today's 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But Singapore and New Zealand's close ties go back even further, said Mr Lee.
Noting that 2022 is the 80th anniversary of the fall of Singapore during World War II, Mr Lee added: "We remember and honour the New Zealand soldiers who fought bravely to defend Singapore during the war, especially those who, in the words of (British poet) Laurence Binyon's poem, 'shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old'."
Mr Lee also noted the strong people-to-people ties that both countries share.
Before the pandemic, some 60,000 Singaporeans visited New Zealand every year to explore its scenery and experience the Maori culture, or to "step into 'Middle Earth' and peep into Bilbo Baggins' house", he said.
New Zealand provided the setting for Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings.
"Therefore, (I am) happy that we are reopening borders to each other," said Mr Lee.
Vaccinated Singaporeans will be able to visit New Zealand without the need for quarantine from May 1. Instead, they have to take a self-test on arrival.
Ms Ardern will be visiting Gardens by the Bay on Tuesday evening to unveil a Kuwaha Maori carving at the Cloud Forest Dome.
Mr Lee said: "I understand that the Kuwaha represents a symbolic doorway celebrating cultures, beliefs and identities.
"And I thank you for this wonderful addition to the Gardens, which vividly symbolises the special connection between Singapore and New Zealand."
During her toast speech, Ms Ardern noted that it was her first time overseas in two years.
She said: "But now the time has come to reconnect New Zealand with the world and we of course look forward to continuing to welcome Singapore to New Zealand for business, education and tourism."
There probably would have been many that would have predicted that the first visit would have been from New Zealand to Australia, said Ms Ardern.
"But in a continually competitive environment between New Zealand and Australia, this is one way I can get my own back," she said, drawing laughs from the lunch audience.
Ms Ardern also recalled fondly a phone call between her and Mr Lee during March or April 2020, when both discussed supply chain issues.
For New Zealand, it was a concern about disruptions to the supply chain and that medical equipment and pharmaceutical products may not reach its shores. For Singapore, it was food supply issues or the prospect of it, said Ms Ardern.
She said: "In the course of the conversation you raised that you were in need of eggs. I had a surplus of pork and, so together, I think we almost conjured up a way as to provide breakfast for Singapore between us.
"As I say, a pragmatic approach in our relationship, and one I've always appreciated."
Ms Ardern also noted that many Singaporeans go to New Zealand for honeymoons and other important occasions and, on Tuesday morning, she met with some in Singapore who had participated in the working holiday scheme between the two countries.
The scheme allows young people from either country to take on short-term work while on holiday in the other country.
Ms Ardern said: "Around that table. I heard stories of adventure, of learning, of growth, but also of cultural understanding and connection.
"And this is the immeasurable importance of the exchanges that we have as two nations. May they continue to grow and stand us in good stead."