PM Lee Hsien Loong addressed the joint sitting of parliament at the House of Representatives Chamber, Parliament House in Canberra, Australia Capital Territories on 12 October 2016.
Australia and Singapore: Old Friends, New Partnership
Mr Speaker, The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister, The Honourable Stephen Parry, President of the Senate, The Honourable Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition, Senators and Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for your warm welcome. I am honoured to address you in this Parliament House today. I am also very happy that with the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), Singapore’s relationship with Australia has reached another significant milestone.
A longstanding relationship
Singapore’s ties with Australia go back into history. During the Second World War, Australian troops fought bravely to defend Malaya and Singapore. Many gave their lives. After Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, some 15,000 Australians became prisoners of war at Changi. They built the Changi Chapel, which was re-erected after the War at the Royal Military College in Duntroon. Singapore will never forget their sacrifice.
During the Malayan Emergency, Australian soldiers fought Communist guerrillas in the Malayan jungles. When Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963, President Sukarno of Indonesia launched Konfrontasi, a low-intensity conflict to undermine the new Federation. Australian forces defended Malaysia in Malaya and Borneo. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent republic. You were one of the first countries to recognise our independence, and the first to establish diplomatic relations with us. You played a key role in establishing the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) in 1971. The FPDA provided critical security to a new and vulnerable country, and remains relevant to this day.
Through these momentous events, our leaders worked closely together, got to know each other well, and established warm personal friendships. When Sir Robert Menzies passed away in 1978, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister, wrote a condolence letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, which was read out in the Australian Parliament. When Mr Lee passed away in March last year, the Australian Parliament moved a motion to honour his contributions to bilateral relations, and Mr Tony Abbott attended Mr Lee’s State Funeral Service as Prime Minister. The people of Singapore were deeply touched by these gestures of sympathy and friendship.
…underpinned by shared outlook and ethos
How is it that Australia and Singapore, two very different countries, as Prime Minister Turnbull said, “a wide brown land and a little red dot”, can forge such a deep bond? In land area, Australia is more than 10,000 times the size of Singapore. We are smaller than many sheep farms. The Australian Capital Territory alone is three times the size of Singapore. Australia has abundant natural resources, while Singapore has none. We even have to import water from Malaysia. We are both Commonwealth countries, but historically Australia has been Anglo-Saxon in composition and identity; while Singapore is an Asian society, even though we speak English and have the cosmopolitan outlook of a port city. Yet we are good friends, because fundamentally, we have similar strategic interests and perspectives. First, we are both open economies that rely heavily on international trade, on global markets. We both need a stable and orderly world, in which countries big and small can prosper in peace. This requires an open and inclusive regional order, where all the major powers can participate. We both see the US as a benign force, playing a major role in fostering peace and stability in Asia. At the same time, we both have substantial ties with other major powers. For both of us, China is our largest trading partner. We wish to strengthen our cooperation with China, and welcome China in engaging constructively in the region. For instance, we both participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an initiative proposed by China. Secondly, we both want to deepen ties between Australia and Southeast Asia. Australia has decided that its future lies in Asia. Singapore believes that strengthening Australia’s links with Asia will help to keep the region open. Australia took the first step by becoming ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974. Singapore and Australia also worked closely to launch the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) where countries regularly discuss political and security issues. I am glad that Prime Minister Turnbull has invited ASEAN to a Summit in Australia in 2018, two years from now. Singapore will be the ASEAN Chair then, and will continue to support Australia’s engagement with ASEAN.
These key priorities were reflected in Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s strategic move to launch the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in 1989. At that time, the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations was deadlocked. APEC aimed to liberalise trade in the Asia Pacific, and to give a push to global free trade. Singapore was happy to support Australia. I participated in the first APEC meeting here in Canberra as Minister for Trade and Industry. I am very pleased that APEC has since grown, and become an active platform where the leaders discuss global economic challenges.
Singapore and Australia not only share similar strategic interests; our two peoples have similar outlooks. Our societies are open, inclusive and multicultural. We value our ethnic and religious diversity, and appreciate the different races and cultures in our midst. We accept change as the way forward, and look outwards to the world for inspiration, ideas and opportunities.
Our people are open and direct. We are pragmatic and focussed on solving problems. We think and talk in clear practical terms, and therefore connect on the same wavelength. It does not mean that we agree on everything, but when we have different views we do not beat around the bush. We express ourselves candidly, address our differences, and can narrow or at least define the gap because we know where each other stands.
Our societies are both egalitarian. We do not stand on ceremony, and we frown on rigid social hierarchies. We are informal, and can hang loose. Thus when Prime Minister Abbott visited Singapore last year, I could invite him to join my constituents for an Aussie-style BBQ at a public park, only to discover that he was much better at barbequing than I was. Afterwards, we went for dinner nearby. I made sure to choose some good Australian wine, but alas neglected to check the steak. After dinner, PM Abbott asked the chef where the beef was from, and the chef, with Singaporean directness and candour, replied: “From the US, Sir!” I will have to do better when PM Turnbull visits us next year!
I have often personally experienced Australian warmth and hospitality. I first came to Australia nearly 50 years ago, in 1967, as a teenager on an exchange visit. I stayed with a family in Melbourne – the Blanch family. Their son Graeme was about my age, and we quickly became friends. The Blanches took me to their holiday home at Mount Martha, on the Mornington Peninsula. The first night for dinner, not knowing what to expect, I put on a tie. Graeme stared at me and said, “You’re crazy. Take it off!” He taught me something about Australian informality that I have not forgotten. I have stayed in touch with the Blanch family for all this half a century. So I am very glad that Graeme, his siblings Balfour and Heather, and their spouses are here today to share this special occasion. I am sure many other Singaporean and Australian families enjoy similar close personal ties and lifelong friendships.
That is why we are doing many things together
This shared strategic outlook and social ethos is why Singapore and Australia have done so many things together. Many Singapore entrepreneurs have invested in Australia. They are confident of Australia’s future, and comfortable with the business culture. More than 20,000 Australians live and work in Singapore, in all sorts of professions. The Singapore-Australia Free Agreement (SAFTA) signed in 2003 was Australia’s first FTA outside of New Zealand. It has helped make little Singapore your 5th largest trading partner and investor. We have also worked together on regional economic integration, first with APEC, and now with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Our two countries cooperate closely on security issues and humanitarian missions. Our security agencies work closely and quietly together to fight terrorism – sharing intelligence and information, carrying out counter-terrorism operations, and exchanging notes on religious rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes. It is important always, and it is especially worth mentioning today, on the anniversary of the Bali bombings. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Australian Defence Force train and operate together. They conduct joint bilateral and multilateral exercises, and attend each other’s military courses. We are grateful that you have for many years welcomed our troops to train in Australia, particularly at Oakey and Shoalwater Bay in Queensland and the RAAF Base Pearce in Western Australia. I hope we have been good guests. Our forces have operated alongside each other in Uruzgan in Afghanistan, worn blue berets in East Timor and Cambodia, and cooperated in anti-piracy operations in the North Arabian Gulf. In Iraq and Syria, we are fighting ISIS together, as part of the counter-ISIS coalition. Our tankers have refuelled your F-18 fighters regularly. These deployments reflect our shared strategic priorities, and have built camaraderie and a sense of common purpose among our troops. I know these not just as abstract principles, but through personal experience. Years ago, in 1983, we had a cable car accident in Singapore. Thirteen people were trapped in the cable cars to Sentosa, after an oil rig snagged the cable. I was then serving in the SAF and directed the rescue operations. We despatched two helicopters with winchmen to rescue the trapped passengers. One of the pilots was a young Royal Australian Navy officer, Lieutenant Geoff Ledger. He was on exchange with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, helping to build up its search and rescue (SAR) capability. He did not have to fly this mission, but he did, piloting one of the helicopters. It was a risky operation, at night under windy conditions, but fortunately the rescue succeeded. Geoff Ledger has since retired from active duty as a Commodore, and I am glad he is here too to share this special occasion with us.
In education, through the generosity of your Colombo Plan scholarships, hundreds of Singaporeans received university education in Australia, and went on to contribute in our society and government. They include two Presidents, several Cabinet Ministers, two Heads of Civil Service and many senior public servants, some of whom are here today. Beyond the Colombo Plan, Australia has welcomed and educated over 100,000 Singapore students. In the other direction, many Australian students come to Singapore on exchange programmes. I am glad that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had the vision to champion the New Colombo Plan. By the end of this year, Singapore universities will have welcomed some 800 Australian New Colombo Plan students. They will continue the spirit of exchange and build renew the connections and goodwill between our peoples into the next generation.
Our people also visit each other frequently. Last year, some 400,000 Singaporeans visited Australia, and 1,000,000 Australians visited Singapore. Some come for education or business; more come for holidays or to visit family and friends. We feel quite at home in each other’s countries. Singaporeans may not quaff as much beer as Australians, but I have it on good authority that Victoria Bitter goes well with chilli crabs!
Indeed many of us have families living in both countries, including PM Turnbull. I was very glad to learn last year that the Prime Minister had a new grand-daughter, Isla, born in Singapore during our Golden Jubilee, our SG50 year. In Singapore, we would call her an SG50 baby. But because it was also the 50th anniversary of Singapore-Australia diplomatic relations, she is also an SA50 baby!
CSP will take our relationship one step forward
For these compelling reasons, I am happy that PM Turnbull and I have concluded the CSP, an ambitious package that enhances core aspects of our cooperation, and brings together our complementary strengths. I thank PM Turnbull for his strong backing for the CSP; and indeed the whole Coalition team, and colleagues from Labour and the cross-benches for your continued support. In defence, the SAF will have more training space and opportunities in Australia. With a 25 year horizon, we will jointly develop state-of-the-art facilities in Australia. This will improve the quality of our training, and help to overcome Singapore’s size constraints. Our two armed forces will have more opportunities to train together and enhance interoperability. More Singaporean servicemen will go home with sheep skins and little koala bears. In trade liberalisation, an upgraded SAFTA will make it easier for our professionals and entrepreneurs to work in each other’s countries. The CSP also covers innovation and science. Australia has, in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a very well-developed institute for scientific research. Singapore also emphasises the importance of R&D to our economy. We have A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) to lead our efforts. We have identified some key challenges to tackle, including basic urban problems such as water supply and energy conservation. We have much scope to cooperate more in R&D. Arts and culture will also get a boost, building on the rich exchanges we have had. A new Australia-Singapore Arts Group will steer the deepening of exchanges between our museums, arts festivals, visual and performing arts. Through these exchanges, the CSP will cement our partnership for many years to come.
Mr Speaker, the CSP will enable Singapore and Australia to do much together. It is fitting to celebrate this milestone in our friendship in this Parliament House. It has a special link with Singapore, which honourable members may or may not know about. 30 years ago, Singapore planned to build a new tri-service military institute for the SAF. We studied military academies in other countries, including the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and searched for a suitable architect to do the project. We eventually found Mr Romaldo Giurgola, who had built this Parliament House.
My first visit to this Parliament House was in 1989, when I was in Canberra for the inaugural APEC meeting. Mr Giurgola gave me a guided tour and explained his architectural vision. He showed how he had made it open and accessible to the public, how the building emerges from the landscape, and how people can walk around it as well as on the grass ramps covering the building. It is impressive without being imposing, and reflected the spirit of the Australian Parliament – open and integrated with the community.
Mr Giurgola’s design reflected how he saw the architect’s duty – to reflect the spirit of the institution in the building, and not to impose his own view. After seeing this Parliament House, I felt much reassured that we had found the right architect for our SAFTI Military institute (SAFTI MI), who would understand our needs, and express intangible but crucial values in bricks and mortar. And indeed we are happy with what Mr Giurgola built for us. Our SAFTI MI is on a much more modest scale than your Parliament House, but it too has an open concept, symbolising the close ties between our national service force, our citizenry and our society. We are also happy that over the years, many Australian officers have trained at SAFTI MI, and formed bonds of friendship and understanding with their Singaporean classmates, which will serve our two countries well.
In all these diverse and profound ways, our two countries are linked together: by our shared history, by strategic alignment, by shared ethos, by personal friendships, by what we do together, and even by architecture. Our partnership is greater than the sum of its parts. I look forward to Singapore and Australia working together to deepen and strengthen it, and enabling our peoples to prosper in peace and friendship for many, many more years to come.
Thank you very much.
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