Time: October 31, 2018
Working toward stronger cooperation and collaboration: Shanmugam
Kingdom has shown will to transform in line with Vision 2030
Bilateral relations are moving on an upward trajectory
Two countries moving to adapt to the fast changing global economic landscape
Singapore’s Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of Law K. Shanmugam visited Saudi Arabia last year as part of an official trip to the Middle East to understand how countries in the region were dealing with extremist ideology and to continue the high level of engagement with the Kingdom. He said Singapore and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia share common concerns over the threat of terrorism and remain committed to fighting it. The purpose of his visit was to reaffirm the strong ties between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior (MOI), and for the two ministries to work towards stronger security cooperation and collaboration. Here are the excerpts:
Q: Your Excellency, you visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in November last year, please share with us the agenda of your visit. Also, what are the current engagements between the two countries in terms of training, security cooperation, etc? The world is facing challenges like radicalism. How can the two countries work together towards addressing this issue?
A: Singapore and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia share common concerns over the threat of terrorism and remain committed to fighting it. The purpose of my visit to Saudi Arabia in November 2017 was to reaffirm the strong ties between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior (MOI), and for the two ministries to work towards stronger security cooperation and collaboration. The trip allowed me to better understand how Saudi Arabia has been working to tackle the issue of violent extremism.
During the visit, I met with my counterpart, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Saud Bin Naif. We agreed on the importance of greater bilateral cooperation between MHA and MOI to combat terrorism. MHA also learnt much from the counter-terrorism initiatives that Saudi Arabia has implemented. What happens in the Middle East affects many other regions of the world. Saudi Arabia’s measures to counter the threat of terrorism are therefore vital to the stability of the Gulf region, and beyond.
There is a high level of engagement between MHA and MOI. Our officials have met to exchange their respective experiences and best practices. Saudi officials have participated in training programs in Singapore, and vice-versa. I also greatly appreciated the visit by Prince Abdulaziz to Singapore in March 2018, which further strengthened bilateral security cooperation between our two countries. I look forward to even greater opportunities for cooperation between Singapore and Saudi Arabia in the near future.
The spread of radicalism and violent extremism in one region can have a huge impact in another region. Despite our small size and limited resources, Singapore has contributed towards tackling the issue of terrorism in different parts of the world. Like Saudi Arabia, we are members of the Global Coalition to Defeat the Daesh ( so called Islamic State), and have been deploying military assets in support of the coalition’s operations since 2014.
Our two countries also share best practices when it comes to religious rehabilitation. In January 2018, a delegation of Islamic religious leaders from Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group, led by Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin, made a study visit to Saudi Arabia. The delegation visited Saudi agencies such as Ministry of Interior, the Mohammad Bin Naif Center for Counselling and Care, and met with members of the Sakinah initiative to learn about Saudi Arabia’s counter-ideology, rehabilitation and successful community engagement programs.
Q: What impression of Saudi Arabia did you carry and would like to share with our readers? And what would you say was the highlight of your visit?
A: My visit to Saudi Arabia left me with a clear impression of the strong determination of the Kingdom to transform itself through its ambitious reform agenda, Vision 2030. I also had the opportunity to experience Saudi Arabia’s rich cultural heritage through visits to the historic Masmak Fort, as well as traditional souks and shops in Riyadh. The preservation of these historical landmarks underscored the importance that Saudi Arabia attaches to its longstanding traditions even as it pursues the path of socio-economic reform. Saudi Arabia is a beautiful country, and it was an honour for me to be able to visit the country.
Q: Singapore and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, share long historical ties, especially as a seat of Islam. How can the two countries build on this relationship to further enhance collaboration?
A: Singapore enjoys warm and friendly relations with all Middle East countries, including Saudi Arabia. In particular, bilateral relations between Singapore and Saudi Arabia are moving on an upward trajectory. Our multifaceted relationship has grown from strength to strength, and is driven by a desire on both sides to expand bilateral engagement for mutual benefit.
Every year, Saudi Arabia receives Singaporean students and pilgrims who travel to the Kingdom to pursue their religious studies and perform the Haj/Umrah pilgrimages, respectively. Saudi Arabia has generously extended its warm hospitality to welcome these visitors. Additionally, over 9,000 Saudi tourists visited Singapore in 2017. Singapore welcomes more Saudi visitors, not only for business, but also to enjoy our entertainment and leisure facilities.
At the political level, there has been a good exchange of visits by leaders and government officials. In 2017, there were a total of six outgoing visits to Saudi Arabia by Singapore Cabinet ministers in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of bilateral relations.
Singapore also welcomed visits by Saudi Minister of Health Dr Tawfiq Al Rabiah in November 2017, and Prince Abdulaziz in March 2018. Most recently, Chairman of the Shoura Council Dr Abdullah Mohammed Ibrahim Al Sheikh visited Singapore in July 2018 with a delegation of parliamentarians. Dr Abdullah called on President Madam Halimah Yacob, and met with the Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin. Singapore also welcomes the future visit of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, who has accepted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s invitation to visit Singapore.
Our Government-to-Government engagements are strong. Singapore is happy to have shared our developmental experience with many visiting delegations from the various Saudi ministries and agencies to assist in strengthening their technical capacities. We welcome more Saudi officials to consider Singapore as a destination for training and development.
Economically, Saudi Arabia is Singapore’s second largest trading partner in the Middle East, and 19th largest in the world. In 2017, bilateral trade reached over S$12.3 billion, and Singaporean companies secured Saudi projects in the transport, oil and gas, urban solutions and info-communication technologies (ICT) sectors.
Many big Singapore corporate brand names are active in Saudi Arabia. SATS became the first foreign cargo handler to be awarded a cargo handling license in Saudi Arabia in 2016. Singapore hospitality service provider, The Ascott Limited, opened the Ascott Rafal Olaya in April 2017 — the fourth of five serviced residences it plans to launch in Saudi Arabia, with 234 service apartments and other facilities targeted at global executives and other business travellers visiting Riyadh. In the Eastern Province, PSA Singapore and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund partnered to form Saudi Global Ports to manage one of the terminals at the King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam, raising its container throughput and attracting transhipment traffic. Wilmar International is part of a joint venture to develop a new sugar refinery in Yanbu. In return, prominent Saudi companies, including Saudi Aramco, SABIC, Al Zamil Group, Tasnee and Kingdom Group, amongst others, have set up business operations in Singapore. Singapore companies are always on the lookout for opportunities to strengthen economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, particularly under the umbrella of Vision 2030.
Singapore appreciates the efforts of the Council of Saudi Chambers and the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, which have been helpful partners in facilitating bilateral business links.
Q: The Kingdom has opened-up new opportunities as it diversifies beyond oil. What areas do you see opportunities for Singapore?
A: There are many opportunities for Singapore to cooperate and share our own developmental experiences, as part of Vision 2030. For example, Singapore’s expertise in city and urban development, infrastructure and environmental solutions, as well as tourism and medical services, are all possible sectors where our companies could contribute to the Kingdom’s overall push towards economic reform.
A crucial ingredient for Vision 2030’s success is the upgrading of Saudi Arabia’s local workforce. Singapore believes in lifelong learning and the development of a skilled workforce which can contribute to the future economy. In this regard, Singapore has developed a strong vocational educational system in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), whose private international arm, ITE Education Services, has provided training and consultancy services in Technical and Vocational Education and Training to its Saudi clients.
There is much that Singapore and Saudi Arabia can learn from each other on preparing our people for the challenges of the future economy. For example, a private education college from Singapore, the Raffles Design Institute, has been running a campus in Riyadh since 2013. It is the first international design institute in the Middle East, and is an all-ladies campus offering courses in areas such as fashion, jewelry and accessories. The Institute aims to prepare young ladies to play a role in the Saudi economy in-line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goal to empower women.
Saudi Arabia and Singapore will have to adapt to the fast changing global economic landscape, which has experienced rapid technological advances. Singapore’s plans to prepare for the future economy are similar to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 development goals. For example, Singapore’s ‘Smart Nation’ road map aims to transform the country by harnessing the power of networks, data and ICT, to improve living conditions and generate new economic opportunities. Singapore welcomes greater bilateral cooperation and study visit exchanges in this area. Singapore will do what we can to work with Saudi Arabia to support its vision.
Q: Singapore has seen much success as a multi-racial society, multi religious country. Would you like to share the best practices and policies that have helped Singapore in achieving this?
A: Singapore’s approach to preserve our multi-racial and multi-religious harmony over the past 50 years centers around three core principles — equality and equality of opportunities; accepting and celebrating our diversity while building a common Singaporean identity; and keeping as large a common space as possible in our interactions.
In Singapore, we take an active approach to ethnic relations. For example, we introduced an ethnic integration policy for our public housing to ensure that there are no ethnic enclaves. Our schools are racially-mixed, and our compulsory education system ensures that our children learn to interact with and respect those from other races, from young. We also inculcated a common identity in our schools by making all students, regardless of their background, wear standard uniforms. In addition, we have a tough legal framework on race and religion, and there are clear rules on what you can and cannot say or do concerning race and religion.
Without such active state intervention, we run the risk of having segregated communities, a shrinking of our common space, and reduced opportunities for the minorities. However, we do not assume that Singapore is immune from several trends that might affect our social cohesion — rising religious extremism and polarization in the region, as well as rising xenophobia, racism and tribalism in the West. Therefore, the Singapore government, together with our community partners, continue to focus our national efforts on ensuring that racial and religious harmony is maintained in all aspects of our society.
Q: This year, Singapore holds the ASEAN chairmanship. As a successful regional grouping, how can you work with Saudi Arabia collectively and in which areas?
A: Singapore is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and continues to be a strong advocate for ASEAN unity and centrality. Although each of the 10 member states have unique and distinct histories, cultures, and politics, through ASEAN we are able to work together towards common goals and the betterment of all our people.
Singapore’s 2018 ASEAN Chairmanship themes of “Resilience” and “Innovation” encapsulate what ASEAN has to be, to better tackle challenges ahead. This was summed up in the ASEAN Leaders’ Vision Statement, adopted at the 32nd ASEAN Summit in April, which reaffirms key principles anchoring ASEAN’s regional cooperation, and articulates a common vision for ASEAN’s future.
Singapore’s broad chairmanship themes feed into more specific initiatives. First, preserving ASEAN’s strategic security objectives. Facing a complex geopolitical landscape, with challenges such as terrorism, cyber threats, and natural disasters, it is crucial for ASEAN to remain resilient. Our security initiatives this year included a Cybersecurity Statement, that aimed to secure political agreement on the importance of cybersecurity cooperation in ASEAN, and an ASEAN counter-terrorism symposium that we will host in October 2018. Second, leveraging technology to remain relevant, and to ensure that we create opportunities for all ASEAN citizens. We will focus on innovation to keep ASEAN forward-looking and adaptable to the digital revolution, including through advancing e-commerce and developing a network of smart cities in ASEAN. We launched the ASEAN Smart Cities Network this year, envisioned as an inclusive and collaborative platform for cities across ASEAN to work together on sustainable urbanisation, with 26 pioneer cities. To enhance our regional connectivity, we also adopted an ASEAN Declaration on Cruise Tourism in January. Third, with a focus on economic integration, we hope to improve trade facilitation for ASEAN and beyond. The economic ministers overseeing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have expressed a shared goal of substantially concluding negotiations by the end of 2018. ASEAN is also working on an E-Commerce Agreement and the ASEAN Single Window, which will facilitate the digitalisation of trade procedures and boost intra-ASEAN trade.
ASEAN and Saudi Arabia currently cooperate closely as members of the ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dialogue, an ongoing process which works to strengthen cooperation between the two regional blocs and also foster closer cooperation between all the countries involved. ASEAN and the GCC’s foreign ministers have met previously in Bahrain, Singapore, and New York for high level discussions. There is scope for both sides to bolster cooperation — areas in which Saudi Arabia could explore further cooperation with ASEAN include strengthening ASEAN-GCC economic ties, and the sharing of experiences and best practices on technology, security, and urbanisation. This would allow Saudi Arabia to leverage on ASEAN’s strengths — collectively, ASEAN is a $2.55 trillion market with over 630 million people, strategically positioned near the fast developing markets of India and China. By 2030, ASEAN will also form the world’s fourth largest economy, behind the EU, the US, and China. We hope that Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries can leverage their relationship with Singapore to establish good relations with ASEAN member states, so as to explore opportunities for investment and trade in the greater Asian region.