Vietnam's success story in spotlight ahead of Asean Summit

S'pore envoy tells of Vietnam's business opportunities, efforts with handling virus

Motorists during rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's economy has consistently turned in a strong performance in the past decade, growing by 5 to 7 per cent each year. Foreign investors are especially drawn by its expanding middle class, vibrant private sector and young population. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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 Wednesday to Sunday, Vietnam's economic success story, too, has been the subject of much attention.

Its economy has consistently turned in a strong performance in the past decade, growing by 5 per cent to 7 per cent each year. Foreign investors are especially drawn 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 female Ambassador to Vietnam Catherine Wong.

Speaking to The Straits Times last Wednesday 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. "We hope to diversify our sources of food supply by bringing more Vietnamese agricultural products and seafood into Singapore."

Besides supporting Singapore's economic interests, keeping in touch with Singaporeans living in Vietnam and providing consular services are an important part of the embassy's work. They took on a renewed focus amid the 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.


When the National Day reception and regular meet-ups with Singaporeans in the city were cancelled this year, Ms Wong found 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 dishes such as chicken rice and rendang.

To promote better understanding of Singapore and showcase its multiculturalism, the first Singapore Festival in Hanoi was held in March last year, featuring art installations and fashion shows.


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."

Vietnam experienced two waves of infections - 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 its visitors from Oct 8, she said.

Vietnam's borders, however, remain closed. The next step is to see how two-way travel can be eased with health and safety precautions in place, she added.


Ms Wong, who is single and has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for 25 years, said she "never got bored enough to leave".

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 United States in the final year of the Obama administration.

Do women in the foreign service face particular challenges? One challenge facing single women officers, she said, is that they have to play multiple roles in overseas 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 seeing to the arrangements for hosting diplomatic events, or taking part in representational activities that spouses usually attend.

But a foreign service career offers unique exposure, she said.

The trick is to be adaptable. "You can plan until the cows come home, but the reality is 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."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2020, with the headline Vietnam's success story in spotlight ahead of Asean Summit. Subscribe