PM Lee Hsien Loong's address to the Senate of the Republic of Mexico

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 20 November 2019

PM Lee Hsien Loong's address to the Senate of the Republic of Mexico on 19 November 2019.

Your Excellency Mónica Fernández Balboa, President of the Board of Directors of the Senate, Honourable Senators, Ladies and Gentlemen. Buenos días.

Thank you for the very warm welcome. First, let me congratulate the Mexican people on your Revolution Day celebrations today. I witnessed the parade on the way here and was impressed by its vibrancy and spirit!

It is a great honour for me to address the Senate of the Republic of Mexico. However, I am not the first Singaporean here. In 2017, our then-Speaker of Parliament, Madam Halimah Yacob, had the honour of addressing the Senate. Madam Halimah is now the President of Singapore. In 2016, her predecessor, President Dr Tony Tan, also made a State Visit to Mexico. He had several members in his parliamentary delegation who met some of the Senators too.

Therefore, we have had several exchanges between our leaders in recent years. This is perhaps a little surprising, considering how far apart our countries are. Geographically, Singapore and Mexico are separated by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In terms of size and population, Singapore is much smaller than Mexico. Our population is less than 5% of yours. Our total land area is only about half the size of Mexico City. We speak different languages, and we have different cultures too.

Perhaps one reason for our growing relations is our similar histories and dispositions. We are both former colonies. Singapore was a British settlement, while Mexico was colonised by the Spanish for 300 years. Both were the centres of trade for our respective regions, Asia and the Americas. So our natural instinct is to be outward-looking and to connect to others in the world.

In fact, historically, trade between Asia and the Americas first flourished from Mexico. In 1565, Andrés de Urdaneta, a Spanish explorer, successfully sailed from Manila in the Philippines to the great port of Acapulco. This unprecedented eastward crossing of the Pacific Ocean opened up "Urdaneta's route", which was the world's first transoceanic shipping route. "Manila Galleons" would carry porcelain, silk, cotton, dyestuffs, spices and other goods from Asia to the Americas, and return to Asia with polished Mexican silver. This was a highly profitable venture. Fortunes were made on both sides of the Pacific. One could argue that that was the first era of globalisation.

Interestingly, Mexican-minted silver played a small but significant role in Singapore’s own history. 200 years ago this year, Sir Stamford Raffles, an Englishman, set up a trading post in Singapore. Singapore was then part of the Johor Sultanate. Raffles signed an agreement with a local Malay ruler, whom he recognised as the Sultan of Johor, in order to set-up this trading post. In exchange, as part of the agreement, he paid the Sultan an allowance. The allowance was not in British pounds, but in Spanish dollars, which were none other than Mexican silver. Spanish dollars circulated widely in our part of the world as a customary currency, and was one of the world’s first globalised currencies.

Today, trade is no longer a seasonal endeavour, but round the year and round the clock. Ships are no longer reliant on the trade winds. Large container vessels, carrying thousands of containers, have replaced the Manila Galleons. Financial transactions now traverse land and sea over optical fibres, at the click of a mouse, with photons and electrons replacing precious metals.

In this globalised and integrated world, countries cooperate extensively with one another. Economies are especially closely linked with their neighbours in the same region. In the Americas, you have the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and also Mercosur in South America. NAFTA, which will soon become the USMCFTA, was one of the earliest multilateral FTAs. It created one of the world’s largest trading blocs by GDP. Equally significant, it ushered in a new era of regional and bilateral trade agreements. In Asia, Singapore is one of ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN members have formed an economic community among ourselves, and our combined population is slightly larger than NAFTA’s. Recently, ASEAN made significant progress towards forming a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This will be a broader FTA that brings ASEAN together with other major Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Trans-Pacific trade has grown significantly too. The Americas form a very important part of Asia’s economic universe. Singapore’s biggest market in the Americas is the US, but we have substantial trade with Mexico and other North and South American economies too. In the other direction, Mexico’s biggest trading partner in Asia is China (not surprisingly), but there are many other trading and investment opportunities in other Asian countries waiting to be developed by Mexican businesses. Mexico and Singapore are both strategically located near the centres of our respective regions. As gateways to the countries around us, we can be pathfinders for trade and commerce. A more integrated Asia Pacific, with strong links between the two sides of the Pacific Ocean, gives countries an interest in each other’s economic success. This fosters peace and prosperity, and benefits all countries.

That is why, I am glad that both Mexico and Singapore are founding members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP brings Asia and the Americas closer together, including both developed and developing countries. It had emerged from the earlier TPP negotiations, which included the same countries, plus the US. I am glad that Mexico stayed with the rest of the partners, after the US withdrew from the TPP, and the TPP became the CPTPP.

The CPTPP is effectively the first Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Singapore and Mexico. It signals to our companies that our governments encourage and support their ventures in each others’ countries. There is significant interest among Singapore companies to collaborate with your private sector, including what President López Obrador calls artisanal microbusinesses, or small and medium enterprises. I have brought a business delegation with me on my trip, and they cover various sectors including infrastructure, logistics, and technology. Singapore investments in Mexico have in fact increased every year for the past five years. I am confident that with the CPTPP in effect, our economic ties can only grow further.

Singapore is now negotiating an FTA with the Pacific Alliance (PA). The PA comprises some of the most dynamic economies in South America and Central America, including Mexico. Singapore was honoured to join as an Observer State five years ago. We look forward to being an Associate State of the PA, via this PA in Singapore FTA. Concluding this FTA will not only help us deepen our relationship with you in Mexico, but it will also enable Mexico and the PA countries to build deeper links with Asia, including Singapore. The last round of FTA negotiations in Bogota went well. More than two-thirds of the FTA have now been resolved. The next and hopefully final round of negotiations will take place here in Mexico City next month. I am optimistic that with Mexico’s leadership and support, we will be able to conclude the agreement then.

Senators and Deputies, Singapore’s engagement with Latin America and Mexico is robust. Yet there is much more potential waiting to be developed. Beyond an alignment of economic interest, our two countries and our leaders enjoy good relations, because of our compatible outlooks and approaches to the world. In foreign relations, countries cannot choose our neighbours, but we can certainly choose our friends and partners, however far away they may be. And I am happy that despite our geographical separation, Singapore and Mexico have chosen to be friends and partners with each other. Long may our friendship grow and prosper!

Muchas gracias.