SINGAPORE - Italy and Singapore have a long history of trading that dates as far back as the Renaissance period, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Thursday (Dec 19).
The then city-state of Venice traded rich textiles for spices and flourished on the spice trade, he said.
And Singapore was an important connecting point in the region for trade in spices, rubber and tin, commodities which passed through Singapore's port from South-east Asia to Europe.
In the 13th century, Italian explorer Marco Polo was also said to have passed through the Straits of Singapore on his long voyage home to Europe, he added.
Recounting these historical linkages, Dr Balakrishnan said both countries need to take advantage of them on a global and regional level.
He was addressing Italian officials, academics and students at the Italy-Asean Association in Rome on the third and final day of his first official visit to Italy and the Vatican City.
In his speech, the minister said Italy has been a longstanding friend and reliable partner, as well as part of Singapore's development story.
Italy was one of the first few countries to recognise Singapore's independence in 1965, he noted.
In 1970, Italian semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics set up its first assembly plant in Singapore.
The company - one of more than 600 Italian companies that have established themselves in Singapore - now has its Asia-Pacific headquarters in the Republic, Dr Balakrishnan said.
Another company, the Ferrero Group, has tapped Singapore's educated workforce and opened an Asian Innovation Centre here in 2017. Ferrero continues to grow and invest in Singapore, he said.
In turn, Singapore has made significant investments in Italy.
Singapore's sovereign wealth fund GIC owns the Roma Est shopping centre and PSA International operates port terminals in Genoa and Venice, Dr Balakrishnan said.
He added: "Even a local small medium enterprise from Singapore, called Skin Inc, has expanded into Italy and opened its first store in Milan in 2015."
Singapore, he said, is a "ready gateway" for Italy to engage, trade, and interact with South-east Asia, which is experiencing an "exciting period of growth".
Dr Balakrishnan noted that an early map of South-east Asia known as the India Tercera Nuova Tavola, drawn by Italian cartographer Girolamo Ruscelli in 1561, makes reference to a place called C. Cinca Pula.
"Scholars believe this refers to the town of Singapore. Our presence on this old map suggests an active role in pre-colonial trade in the region even before Sir Stamford Raffles' arrival in Singapore 200 years ago," he said.
"It is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of early Italians who were already interested in this part of the world, so far removed from theirs. I hope this will encourage Italy to be part of the current growth opportunity for South-east Asia."
He added that the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA), which came into effect on Nov 21, promises to further expand the relationship between Singapore and Italy.
Some of the benefits include the elimination of tariffs on products exported to Singapore such as Italian beer and stout from Peroni and Moretti.
Geographical indications like Prosciutto di Parma and Fontina and Asiago cheeses will also be given greater protection.
The EUSFTA, the first FTA between the EU and an Asean country, could also lead to a larger region-to-region FTA between Asean and the EU, Dr Balakrishnan said.
He added: "Given the current global pushback against multilateralism, this would be especially significant."
Dr Balakrishnan met Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Pope Francis during his visit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.