SINGAPORE - It is Vietnam's turn to chair the 10-member Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year. While all eyes are on the Asean Summit to be held in Hanoi from November 11 to 15, Vietnam's economic success story, too, has been the subject of much attention.
Its economy has consistently turned in a strong performance in the last decade, growing by 5 to 7 per cent each year. Foreign investors are especially lured by its expanding middle class, vibrant private sector and young population. About 70 per cent of its 95 million people are younger than 35.
For Singapore, economic ties are a "mainstay" of its relationship with Vietnam, said its first woman Ambassador to Vietnam Catherine Wong.
Speaking to The Straits Times last Wednesday (Nov 4) from Hanoi, where she is based, Ms Wong said Singapore is the third largest foreign direct investor in the country.
"This is very significant because the top two investors are South Korea and Japan, which are far larger economies than us."
Longstanding symbols of cooperation include a 24-year-old Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park joint venture plus a connectivity framework agreement since 2006 to boost collaboration in sectors such as finance, information technology and transport.
But there are new opportunities, and she has set her sights on Vietnam's rapidly growing infrastructure, urban solutions, innovation and start-ups, and e-commerce.
Another growth area is agricultural trade, she said. "We hope to diversify our sources of food supply by bringing more Vietnamese agricultural products and seafood into Singapore."
Apart from supporting Singapore's economic interests in Vietnam, keeping in touch with overseas Singaporeans in Vietnam and providing consular services are an important part of the embassy's work. They took on a renewed focus amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Vietnam announced the closure of its borders in March and international flights were about to be suspended, the embassy had to work fast with the relevant agencies to ensure Singaporeans in Vietnam who wanted to return home could do so.
Food and cultural outreach
When the National Day reception and regular meet-ups with Singaporeans living in the city were cancelled this year, Ms Wongfound other ways to reach out to them.
Her team put together care packages of Irvin's salted egg fish skin snacks, Ya Kun Pocky biscuit sticks, reusable face masks and hand sanitisers for Singaporeans in Hanoi. The Singapore consulate-general in Ho Chi Minh City dispatched Prima Taste laksa instant noodle packs and ready-to-cook packet sauces to prepare such dishes as chicken rice and rendang so that Singaporeans could have a taste of home.
To promote better understanding of Singapore by the Vietnamese, she also worked with the Singapore Tourism Board to hold the first Singapore Festival in Hanoi in March last year. Featuring art installations and fashion shows, it showcased Singapore's multicultural fabric.
Vietnam's handling of Covid-19
Ms Wong had this to say of Vietnam's low Covid-19 death rate.
"They took some very tough measures, reacted quickly, and prepared early for possible local infections after the first cases in China emerged. They also developed their own test kits and ventilators, and are working on developing a vaccine."
She also said it was remarkable that with a population of95 million, it was able to control the spread of the virus and keep the overall number of infections low.
Vietnam experienced two waves of infections this year - one in March and April, and a more localised outbreak in Danang city in July and August. But the authorities' swift response and comprehensive lockdown measures put a lid on local transmissions.
For this reason, Singapore was confident in unilaterally lifting border restrictions to visitors from Vietnam from Oct 8, she said. Vietnam's borders, however, remain closed, and the next step is to see how two-way travel can be facilitated with health and safety precautions in place, she added.
Women in diplomacy
Ms Wong, who is single and has worked in the Foreign Affairs Ministry for 25 years, said she "never got bored enough to leave".
"I was lured by the overseas travel and saw it as a chance to see the world," she added.
The job took her to Hong Kong, where she witnessed the handover of Hong Kong and Macau to China in 1997; and to Washington DC in 2016, when she headed MFA's Americas Directorate and organised Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's official visit to the US during the final year of the Obama Administration.
Do women in the foreign service face particular challenges, given the demands of the job?
She does not think the challenges are unique to MFA. But she acknowledged that overseas postings and regular travel can take a toll on family life. The nature of the work can be unpredictable, too.
"Women have always had to show themselves to be hungrier, more hardworking, move faster, and even be more efficient than their male counterparts," she added.
"There can be no hint of weakness just because you're a woman and a working mother."
The challenges also extend to single women officers, she said, as they have to play multiple roles in oversea postings.
"I'm expected to be the Ambassador in terms of substantive matters. But because I don't have a husband, and I'm a woman, I also have to play the role of a diplomatic spouse."
This could mean being in charge of decorating one's diplomatic residence, seeing to the arrangements for hosting diplomatic events and functions, or participating in representational activities that spouses usually attend.
But a foreign service career offers unique exposure and rewarding experiences, she said. The trick is to be adaptable and resilient.
"You can plan until the cows come home, but the reality is that something will happen tomorrow that will mess up all your plans.
"The foreign service is not just a career choice - it really is a lifestyle choice."