SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the UK-Singapore Business Summit

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 13 June 2019

Opening address by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, at the UK-Singapore Business Summit on 13 June 2019.


Right Honourable Alderman Peter Estlin, Lord Mayor of the City of London,

Ms Catherine McGuinness, Chair of Policy and Resources Committee, City of London Corporation,

The Right Honourable Mark Field, Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,


Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the Lord Mayor for taking the initiative to organise this significant event this year, as Singapore commemorates its Bicentennial, and as Singapore and the UK are working on new and deeper partnerships as we move into the future.The Bicentennial is an important milestone for us in Singapore, an occasion to reflect on how far we have come as a nation. This is not an occasion to delve into history. But I do want to underline the importance of what Singapore inherited from Britain, and its continuing relevance for our future. I will highlight three aspects of this heritage - three aspects that remain assets for the future.

First, a tradition of looking outward as a way to make a living and to assure our future.

When the British East India Company arrived in the region, the Dutch were the kingpins of trade in the Southeast Asian archipelago. The Dutch controlled the lucrative spice trade. But whereas the Dutch imposed punitive tariffs and strict controls at their ports to preserve their monopoly, Sir Stamford Raffles decided soon after he arrived that he would set up a free port in Singapore. He asked Major William Farquhar to build a simple fortification, and to inform all passing ships that there were to be no duties on trade at the new settlement.

It was an unconventional idea for the time, and not an obviously profitable endeavour. It worked. Immigrants from China, India, the Malay Archipelago and beyond soon flocked to Singapore. Within a year the population grew five-fold, from the estimated 1000 or so who were on the island when Raffles and Farquhar arrived. The British encouraged an inflow of entrepreneurial skills and talent – even to a point where they competed with their own wholesale and retail trade. Singapore grew in economic and strategic importance and very quickly overtook Penang and Dutch-controlled Batavia (now Jakarta) as the centre of trade and commerce in Southeast Asia. The belief in free and open trade therefore has deep roots in Singapore’s history. 200 years on from 1819, Singapore is still a free port. And we will always remain one.

Second, Singapore inherited its key institutional traditions from the British - not just the English language, but its legal and administrative systems, and its system of parliamentary governance. These institutions provided important foundations for nation-building when Singapore became independent in 1965. They were not static. We evolved our institutions as we progressed, introducing new features to suit our changing domestic context and coming into our own. But we cannot downplay the profound implications of what we inherited from Britain.

The British built a strong system of administration during colonial rule. It gave us an advantage when we became independent and the Government of the day had to undertake urgent and major social and housing reforms. Our Administrative Service was modelled after the Administrative Class in the British Home Civil Service. The British had in fact facilitated the transition, by inducting local civil servants into the higher schemes of service during the latter years of the colonial bureaucracy. We have built on this legacy since we became independent, and evolved it, for instance, by expanding the diversity of talent at the senior ranks of the civil service, through the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP). We also kept the Public Service Commission, set up by the British in 1951, to ensure fairness and impartiality in recruiting and promoting civil servants. The PSC upheld integrity in a meritocratic Public Service. Indeed, the strong anti-corruption stance taken by our founding leaders would not have succeeded without a strong Public Service to back them up.

The rule of law is another fundamental feature of governance in Singapore. We inherited a legal system from the British, and their common law. It remains the foundation of our system today. From the outset, we had to be credible as an investment destination, and businesses would not come if they could not trust that contracts would be enforced, and property rights protected. Having a legal system that investors and partners understood, in terms of laws and legal processes, and the system of applying the law were a plus for us. These are amongst the steps that have enabled us to develop our own Singapore law and jurisprudence that are sound, respected, and increasingly used.

Our IP legislation has its roots in the UK IP laws. Until 1994, the only way to obtain patent protection in Singapore was through the Registration of UK Patents Act 1937.For designs, it was only two decades ago that Singapore enacted our own Registered Designs Act. Until 2000, Singapore innovators had relied on the UK Designs (Protection) Act to obtain protection for designs, including designs for production or manufacturing of articles. Today, Singapore’s IP rights regime is consistently recognised as one of the best in the world in international surveys. We built on the foundation left by the British.

Third, education, another key area where the British left us an important legacy. The British founded a number of English-medium schools. These include Raffles Institution (Raffles himself founded the Singapore Institution in 1823, which was subsequently renamed after him); and some of our Mission Schools. Most of these schools are still present today and thriving. The King Edward VII College of Medicine was set up in 1905, and Raffles College in 1929. Following the recommendations of the Carr-Saunders Commission on Tertiary Education, the British conferred university status on the newly established University of Malaya in 1949. It was the forerunner of today’s National University of Singapore (NUS). In the 1950s, the colonial government also approved the setting up of Singapore Polytechnic, our first polytechnic focused on an applied education for people in their late teens. The roots of our National Institute of Education (NIE) can be traced back to the Teachers’ Training College that was established during the colonial era, in 1950 - to formally train teachers and meet the pressing demand for teachers in Singapore. We have evolved our education system considerably since our independence. Most importantly, we established a national system of education - from one that was segregated along language lines to one that is integrated and unified. We kept and expanded our polytechnic sector, which now admits about 45% of our students after they graduate from our secondary schools, even as the UK converted its polytechnics to universities. And we expanded and created diversity in our university sector – we now have six autonomous universities, each with a different focus and course offerings. They are complemented by our Institute of Technical Education (ITE), well-regarded internationally for its ability to equip its graduates with industry-relevant technical knowledge and skills. Today, we have an education system known around the world for strong educational outcomes. But the work is never finished.

Our shared heritage and commonwealth has been the basis of a special and longstanding relationship between our two countries. In fact, many of our Founding Cabinet members (six out of nine) –were educated in British universities, and enjoyed close ties with their Labour and Conservative peers. They drew lessons from developments in the UK.

Future Collaborations

As a friend, I would not want to understate the challenges Britain may face in the coming years. But I do believe that Britain’s core strengths will continue to give it advantage in the long term. You are an open and enterprising economy. The UK ranks highly when it comes to ease of doing business. Your top universities and research institutions are among the best in the world. Together with your leading enterprises and emerging start-ups, they give you strong competitive advantage in the business of innovation. Besides the capabilities and the quintessential resolve of the British people, you are a beacon for talent. Many people, including many Singaporeans, still continue to come here to study or work.

Singapore and Britain are close friends with intertwined histories and a shared orientation towards the world. It is a strong base for our future partnership.

Our finance sectors are bright lights in each of our economies, and financial sector cooperation is a natural area of partnership.

London is one of the world’s great cities –vibrant, dynamic, steeped in talent, innovation, and culture. Singapore has in fact drawn many lessons from London, especially its rise to become the pre-eminent global financial centre it is today.

We are strengthening our collaborations in finance in many areas, such as in FinTech, RegTech, SupTech, and asset management. We are also cooperating on skills development in order to raise the competencies of our finance professionals. This is something that both Singapore and the UK, through the Financial Services Skills Taskforce chaired by Mr Mark Hoban, are actively working on.

There continues to be significant British investments in Singapore in the real economy. In manufacturing for example, British firms like Rolls-Royce, GSK and Dyson, have anchored manufacturing plants and R&D facilities in Singapore.

And the UK is also Singapore’s 5th largest investment destination globally, and our largest in the EU. Our investments in the UK are wide-ranging, spanning real estate and hospitality, urban solutions and infrastructure, technology, services, and consumer-related sectors.

Our legal services sectors are also closely connected, with room for deeper collaboration to better support businesses. British law firms and lawyers are well represented in Singapore and are active participants of our legal sector. We also have a significant number of Singaporean students studying law in the UK, some of whom continue to work in British firms after graduation, both in the UK and Singapore.

So when you fill up the picture, we are cooperating today across a wide range of areas – in industry, finance and accounting, defence, R&D, education, healthcare, and the arts. We are working on new opportunities, including trusted data corridors, new solutions in green finance, and in developing digital skills.

And there are two traits which will be especially important in our future relationship and collaborations: we are both advocates of free markets and multilateralism. And increasingly, we are each making our mark in innovation. Singapore and the UK are ranked the fifth and fourth most innovative economies in the 2018 Global innovation Index. My colleague Minister Ong Ye Kung will be talking later this morning about how we are now deepening this partnership between our two countries. I look forward to productive discussions this morning. There is much more our two countries can do together.