Singapore-China Relations: A Walk Back Into Time
12 November is a significant date for Singapore-China relations.
On this day in 1978, Deng Xiaoping made his historic visit to Singapore, and it became a turning point for Singapore-China relations.
On 12 November 2018, Singapore signed an upgraded free trade agreement (FTA) with China.
I’m hopeful that the implementation of this agreement will be another milestone in strengthening our bilateral relations with China and advancing our mutual interests.
Singapore and China may differ on some issues and will go through a bumpy ride every now and then in our relationship.
However, we share largely similar perspectives on macro issues such as governance, culture, economic development, and growth.
It’s in Singapore interests to see China prosper and remain stable and secure.
That’s why Singapore takes an active interest and involvement in China almost right from the time China opened its door to the world.
1. Hand Of Friendship
Our relationship with China goes all the way back to 1976 when our founding father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew first visited China.
Mr Lee put on record that Singapore wants China’s economy to grow stronger, and that the growth of China would be good for the world.
Two years later in 1978, Mr Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. He had many good words to say about Singapore.
Mr Lee told him that China could do better than Singapore.
During his tour of the southern provinces in 1992, Mr Deng even encouraged his people to learn from Singapore.
In his words, he said, “There is good social order in Singapore. They govern the place with discipline. We should draw from their experience and do even better than them.”
According to Ambassador Tommy Koh, after Mr Deng’s tour, more than 500 Chinese delegations visited Singapore in 1992.
2. Human Resources Development
Zhao Leji, a politburo member affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship” between Singapore and China and that the two countries should cooperate in the area of human resource development.
During his visit to China in 2015, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said that since the 1990s, about 50,000 Chinese officials and cadres had studied subjects such as urban management, social governance and public administration in Singapore.
Two of the most popular training programmes are the master’s degree programmes in public administration and managerial economics at NTU’s Nanyang Centre for Public Administration (NCPA) and the master’s degree programme in public administration at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The NTU’s programme is commonly known as the “Mayors’ Class” due to the high number of Chinese mayors and mayoral contenders enrolled in them.
According to Professor Liu Hong, the NCPA director, about 1,400 Chinese officials had graduated from the “Mayors’ Class”.
The school has also conducted short-term programmes and had trained more than 15,000 government officials from China and Southeast Asian countries. Most of the students are from China.
Although the number of attendees have declined albeit not substantially, the programmes are attracting a more diverse pool of students, including more professionals such as university management and state-owned enterprises.
Over the years, China has regularly sent many study teams to Singapore, including activists from the Communist Party.
After stepping out of politics, our the first Deputy Prime Minister Mr Goh Keng Swee became an advisor to some of the coastal cities in China.
3. Contributions On The Ground
Singapore has been a friend and shared many of its experiences and best practices with China.
In 1994, during the drive towards industrialization, Singapore helped to set up the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park.
In 2007, just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China was facing problems in environmental issues.
There was an idea to jointly develop an eco-city and that idea resulted in the development of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city.
In 2015, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Singapore, both Singapore and China agreed to develop the third government-to-government project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative.
The third project was built to support China’s strategy for developing the Western Region.
The other joint projects include the Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City, Singapore-Chengdu High-Tech Park and the Sino-Singapore Jilin Food Zone.
4. Sociopolitical Development
Singapore stood with and supported China through many challenges.
For example, after the tragic Tiananmen incident in 1989, many countries, especially those from the West condemned China and imposed economic sanctions against It.
Singapore did not join them but instead, continue to invest in China.
When negotiations between China and the US on China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation reached an impasse, Mr Lee Kuan Yew acted as an interlocutor and helped to break the deadlock.
Singapore was also instrumental in facilitating China’s link-up with ASEAN through ASEAN +3.
It is the only country that has set up the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) with China.
5. Economic Development.
When China initiated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which strategically excludes the US, Singapore broke ranks with the US and was actively lobbying countries to join and support the AIIB.
Singapore is one of the largest and few offshore clearing centres for RMB.
Singapore was also one of the early supporters of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative.
The Chinese and Singapore banks are actively financing “Belt and Road” projects, especially in the South-east Asia region.
Singapore is one of China’s largest investors and trading partners.
It is a nett contributor to China since Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy.
History has taught us that there are no permanently friendly or unfriendly parties.
Sometimes, it’s good to go through benign controversies, conflicts and challenges.
As the Chinese would say, 患难见真情.
Loosely translated, it means that in times of trouble, you’ll know who your true friends are.
China will realize that we are consistent in wanting to be a true friend to its country and people, be a plus factor to its government, and be an asset to its economy,
Both of our countries do not have all the friends in the world.
Therefore, we can support one another as a hub and spoke, and a router and connector to the rest of the world so as to promote our mutually-reinforcing interests.
In doing so, we will then have a more stable, secure and sustainable relationship.
In a bigger picture, as a small nation, we are mindful that we need to be friendly with China and for that matter, with all countries.
We have to continue to be relevant and be a vital value-addition to the world.
We must do everything possible to seek peace, prosperity and progress not just for our country but also for the rest of the world, including China.