SINGAPORE - Singapore and Australia have inked what has been hailed as a "landmark" pact that will boost ties, allowing both sides to cooperate more closely in security, trade, and the arts and culture.
Among the series of new agreements is a defence cooperation deal that will give Singapore troops access to more military areas to train Down Under for 25 years.
Both sides have also taken another look at their free trade agreement, signed in 2003, to increase trade and investment flows, strengthening Singapore's position as a trade partner as it becomes a hub for Australian businesses and service providers to tap on opportunities in Asia.
Companies in both countries will also be able to tap on a S$50million matching fund over five years to develop as part of efforts on both sides to boost science and innovation cooperation.
In addition, Singaporeans will also find it less of a chore to visit Australia as they will no longer have to apply for visas that are valid for only 12 months. Under the agreement, Australian authorities will grant multi-year visas.
Both governments announced the agreement on Friday (May 6), ahead of a scheduled visit to Australia by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the end of this month. But the trip has been postponed in view of a July 2 election that his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull is expected to call within the next week.
Mr Lee said in the press release: "I am delighted that we have concluded this landmark agreement with Australia. It is a win-win deal that will cement relations and benefit Australians and Singaporeans for years to come. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) is an ambitious package covering many aspects of our relationship. We will move quickly to implement the various measures, although some will take time to bear fruit.
"Our two countries are politically like-minded, strategically-aligned and economically complementary. We have much to gain by working closely together. The CSP will draw our two countries closer, economically, politically and at the people-to-people level.
"Our economies will become more integrated and intertwined. Defence cooperation will be stepped up. The Singapore Armed Forces will be able to do more military training in Australia.
"We have also agreed to work together in new promising areas, like innovation, research and development, entrepreneurship, youth exchanges and the arts and culture. I am happy that Australia will establish one of its five 'Landing Pads' in Singapore. This creates new possibilities for our creative talent to work together, and harness our energy and capital for mutual benefit.”
The agreement comes a year after Mr Lee and Mr Turnbull's predecessor Tony Abbott signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement.
On the defence deal, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the expanded military training areas will be in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville. This will also allow Singapore to send up to 14,000 troops Down Under for training, up from the 6,000 a year now. The report also said that the troops will stay for up to 18 weeks, longer than the 60 days that they currently stay.
Australian reports had earlier said that Singapore would spend up to A$2.25 billion (S$2.26 billion) under the defence deal that will give Singapore troops access to more military areas for 25 years.
Asked about this, a Singapore Defence Ministry spokesman said on Friday: “The amount is indicative and sets a cap on the life-cycle costs over 25 years for advance training facilities to be jointly developed and used by both militaries.”
Among other moves in the new agreement:
- Up to 500 young Singaporeans will be able to work or study in Australia for up to 12 months under a new "Work and Holiday Maker Programme",
- Singaporean artists, art groups and performers can tap into a S$5 million fund over five years to stage their works in Australia
- Australian start-ups can get greater access to Asia to showcase their products and services with the help of Singapore as an innovation "landing pad"
- More mutual recognition of professional qualifications with priority for engineers and accountants
In a Facebook post on Friday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen hailed the agreement, saying that more training areas for Singapore troops “will sharpen the SAF to one of the most well-trained and proficient militaries in the region, to keep Singapore and Singaporeans well protected”.
Calling the new agreement "landmark" and "worthwhile", Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters that it sets Singapore-Australia's economic, defence and people-to-people ties "on a completely new trajectory for the next generation".
"Singapore and Australia have very good strategic alignment, meaning the way we view the world, the way we view strategic interests, our defence interests very well aligned. Singapore has been a staunch, reliable advocate for Australia's integration into Asia as a whole," said Dr Balakrishnan.
"In addition to that, on the economic side, we view ourselves as complimentary," he added.
Trade cooperation is also set to go beyond the current Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Singapore was Australia's fifth largest trading partner with bilateral trade amounting to S$20.2 billion last year. Singapore is also the fifth largest foreign investor in Australia, with total investments amounting to A$80.2 billion. Australian investments in Singapore were worth A$50.7 billion 2014.
There are about 50,000 Singaporeans living in Australia and about 20,000 Australians living in Singapore.
Every year, about 400,000 Singaporeans visit Australia, while about a million Australians visit Singapore.