Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has appointed Professor Shih Choon Fong, a Singaporean, to head the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST). The appointment of a Singaporean academic is a tribute to his country, where the literacy rate is 96 percent, average life expectancy is 82 years, and the unemployment rate at the end of 2011 was just 2 percent, Singapore’s Ambassador to the Kingdom Wong Kwok Pun said in an exclusive interview with Arab News.
Wong said his country’s economic success reflects the fact that people of different backgrounds can come together and create a viable nation. They are assured of equal opportunities even though the vast majority of them are of Chinese origin. Wong said Singapore’s strength lies in its multiculturalism and social harmony, language and faith, which together constitute an integral part of the Singaporean character.
The following is the text of the interview:
Arab News: How do you evaluate the current Saudi diplomatic relations with your country?
Wong Kwok Pun: Relations between Singapore and the Kingdom are healthy and friendly. Singapore values this relationship. It has grown rapidly since Saudi Arabia adopted a policy of active engagement with Asia. This shift coincided with Singapore’s enhanced engagement with the GCC countries and the Middle East. The friendship between our leaders as well as our peoples is warm and the momentum has been sustained through regular high-level exchanges.
Singapore had the honor of hosting the late Crown Prince Sultan in 2006. Since then, we have welcomed many Saudi ministers and eminent personalities. There has also been a steady stream of high-level Singapore visitors to the Kingdom. Then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong visited the Kingdom in 2005 to speak at the Jeddah Economic Forum. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited the Kingdom in 2006 during his introductory tour of the Middle East. Then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew visited the Kingdom twice in 2008. He spoke at the Global Competitiveness Forum and later at the Riyadh Economic Forum. Then-Foreign Minister George Yeo visited in 2010. This year, Goh made another official visit to Riyadh and Jeddah. Minister Yaacob Ibrahim came in March to meet with Minister Mohammad Jamil Mulla. These exchanges have also been useful in promoting bilateral cooperation as well as better understanding of developments in the Middle East and East Asia. Our two countries share common views on many global issues and have cooperated closely on matters of mutual interests.
AN: What is your country’s strategy in strengthening bilateral relations? In economic and trade relations between two countries, what are the latest figures available?
Wong: Our economic relationship is strong and diverse. Both sides firmly believe there is good potential for further growth and growing this relationship is one of Singapore’s priorities. Singapore takes a long-term perspective in building its ties with Saudi Arabia. A firm foundation has been laid with the two countries having signed bilateral agreements to help promote trade and investments. An Investment Guarantee Agreement was signed in 2006, the GCC-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in 2009 and the Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement in 2010. The Saudi-Singapore Business Council was formed in 2006. Saudi Arabia is already Singapore’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. Bilateral trade increased by over 40 percent from SR 49.5 billion in 2010 to SR 69.9 billion in 2011. The trade balance has been in Saudi Arabia’s favor. I am confident that economic relations will expand at an even faster pace once the Free Trade Agreement comes into force. It will encourage and facilitate two-way trade and investments as new business opportunities in our respective regions are opening up.
The areas of bilateral cooperation include economic planning, aviation, education and skills training, and environmental management. It is a great honor for us that Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques chose a Singaporean to head the King Abdullah University for Science & Technology (KAUST). Professor Shih Choon Fong brings to KAUST his experience in developing the R&D capability when he served as President of the National University of Singapore. Another Singaporean, President Emeritus of Nanyang Technological University Professor Su Guaning, served on the International Advisory Board of King Abdulaziz University. Philip Yeo, who had been instrumental in Singapore’s industrialization drive, is sharing his experience in industrial diversification with the Kingdom. Our Ministry for the Environment had worked with its Saudi counterparts in water quality management and in containing previous dengue outbreak in Jeddah. Singapore companies are also contributing to Saudi Arabia’s drive in skills development. Rotary Engineering Ltd signed an MOU with the Technical Vocational Training Center in May 2010 for the setting up of a technical training institute in Saudi Arabia.
AN: Tell us more about the Saudi-Singapore Business Council.
Wong: The Saudi-Singapore Business Council was established in April 2006 between the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Singapore Business Federation. It is co-chaired by Saudi businessman Sheikh Abdullah Zaid Al-Meleihi and the President of Sembcorp Industries, Tang Kin Fei. The Business Council provides a useful platform for businessmen from both countries to get to know each other and network. This process of regular meetings and interaction helps to promote mutual understanding and a good level of comfort. Without familiarity and trust, it would be difficult to build business partnerships and joint-ventures. The business council has held several meetings and the venue alternates between Singapore and Saudi Arabia. It would be Singapore’s turn to host the next meeting.
AN: Saudi Arabia is looking at some Asian countries as potential partners in many fields, including agriculture, technology and others. What does Singapore have to offer?
Wong: Singapore is located at the crossroads of commerce and transport between East Asia and the Middle East. We are one of the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). All ASEAN economies have huge potential and many are experiencing strong growth. Singapore has one of the world’s most business-friendly economies, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2012. More than 7,000 multinational companies are located in Singapore designing, developing, manufacturing or marketing cutting-edge products. Singapore serves as a good springboard for Saudi businessmen to tap into the ASEAN and Asian markets. Singapore’s economic strengths include its large pool of talent and skilled workforce, a transparent and credible legal and arbitration system and wide usage of the English language. Owing to Singapore’s multiethnic make-up, its citizens are effectively bilingual enabling them to have better cross-cultural understanding. We are proud that Saudi ARAMCO, SABIC and SAGIA have picked Singapore as a base to plug into the fast-growing Asian market.
In terms of expertise and know-how, Singapore’s strengths are in urban planning and industrial township development, public housing, water solutions, information and communications technology, ports and airport management, ship building and aerospace industry. This expertise was built up out of sheer necessity, as described appropriately in the Arabic proverb: “Al-Haja Um Al-Ikhtiraá”. The constant challenge for us is how to provide housing, schooling, health care, public transport, jobs, parks and recreation and security for a growing population living in a limited land area the size of Bahrain. With careful planning and implementation, we were able to overcome many of the challenges. For instance, home ownership is almost 90 percent. Literacy rate is 96 percent. Average life expectancy is 82 years. Unemployment rate at the end of 2011 was 2 percent.
AN: I understand that one Singaporean company is involved in a major airport project of the Kingdom. What is the latest news in this regard?
Wong: Changi Airport International, a Singapore company, is currently managing the operations of the King Fahd International Airport (KFIA) in Dammam. I have received good feedback on the company’s performance from the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and other eminent Saudis. Nevertheless, the Singaporean officials at KFIA have assured me that they would continue to work hard to make the airport even more passenger-friendly. The official KFIA website contains the latest news.
AN: The general perception of Saudi people on Singapore is very positive in terms of development, science and technology. Can you brief us about your educational system?
Wong: Education and learning is an integral part of Singapore’s economic development strategy. Our education system is rigorous but rewarding. Our people are our only natural resource and building human capital is a national priority. It is mandatory for all Singaporean children to undergo at least ten years of schooling. Formal schooling is usually six years of primary learning, four years of secondary, two years of junior college and four years of undergraduate studies. Those more inclined to certain vocations can go to the Institute of Technical Education or a Polytechnic. In recent years, our education system has become more flexible, incorporating alternative learning paths like the sports school and school of the arts. We have six madrasas offering primary and secondary education. The one common requirement for all our schools is that English, mathematics and science must be part of their core curriculum and students must pass national tests. I am proud to say that a few students who came through the madrasa system have earned or are pursuing doctorate degrees in world-class universities, including the National University of Singapore. Our aim in education is to cultivate learning, thinking and other life skills, instead of focusing only on content acquisition. “Teach Less, Learn More” has been the catchphrase since we introduced education reforms after 1995 to support our shift towards a knowledge-based economy.
AN: How does your country’s rank among the Asian tigers?
Wong: The term “Asian tigers” was used previously to describe the four mid-sized Asian economies that experienced rapid growth since the 1970s – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. They shared a similar development strategy of manufacturing for exports while investing heavily in human capital, technology and innovation. All of them are extensively connected to the global economy and they compete as well as cooperate with one another. However, it is no longer meaningful to rank one against the other as the world is experiencing fundamental change and these economies are responding to the shifts in different ways. For instance, Singapore views the change as a challenge as well as an opportunity. We had to re-invent ourselves and find news way of making a living as many of our manufacturers have relocated to lower cost countries. We are developing our service sectors in tourism, finance, insurance, education, healthcare and logistics. Our manufacturing has moved up the value chain into industrial design, R&D, petrochemicals, electronics, pharmaceuticals, precision tools and marine & offshore engineering. The Singapore economy is extensively connected to the globalized world and we will accordingly adjust ourselves to global trends. We were able to ride out the economic shocks of 1997 and 2008 in part by riding on the growth of Asia.
AN: Many countries would learn from your country’s good governance and transparency policy experience. Can you tell us more in this regard?
Wong: Singapore is a young country. We gained independence in 1965. We believe that for Singapore to survive and prosper there must be the Rule of Law, stability, security and a high quality public service. Singapore is based on an ideal that people of different backgrounds can come together and create a viable nation assured of equal opportunities even though the vast majority are of Chinese origin. That ideal could only be achieved through the Rule of Law and the laws could only be upheld if we have a public service that is corruption-free, transparent and working in the interest of the people regardless of race, language or religion. It has taken us many years of continuous effort to build a society based on equality and communal harmony. But, the work to maintain the high standards of integrity, impartiality and efficiency in public service will not end. Salaries of our ministers and public servants will undergo regular review to ensure fair compensation in line with private sector pay as well as to minimize temptation. The stiff competition from the private sector and elsewhere for Singapore’s talents will no doubt continue. At the same time, public servants will find themselves coming under greater scrutiny from a more educated and vocal citizenry, savvy in the use of social media. The Singapore public service has undergone a major transformation since the colonial government. One of the more significant changes is to get the various agencies to work together as One Government. Our citizens and businesses do not have to deal with many different public agencies just to get one transaction done. Our public service has a “No Wrong Door” policy. The role of the Singapore public service is not only to implement policies, regulate and to protect but also to facilitate.
AN: Which are the major ethnic groups in your country? What about Muslims?
Wong: Singapore celebrates its ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. The three largest ethnic groups are the Chinese, Malays and Indians. There is also an Arab community in Singapore. We are not so much a melting pot as a multi-cultural society. In a globalized world, our multiculturalism is our strength. Mutual respect of one another’s culture, language and faith is an integral part of the Singaporean character. The principle of tolerance and nondiscrimination is enshrined in our constitution but we are mindful that the communal conflicts that we have experienced in the past could return if we let our guard down. We will continue to strive for equality and communal harmony.
Close to 14 percent of our population are Muslims. The majority of our Muslims are of Southeast Asian origin while the others have South Asian or Arab or Chinese background. We are keenly aware of the need to guard against communal politics and to prevent majority rule from sliding into the oppression of minorities. As many as 75 percent of Singaporeans are of Chinese origin. The rights of our Muslim minority are protected and they enjoy special dispensation in our education and housing policies. Our electoral rules seek to ensure that minorities will always have a voice in Parliament. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme was implemented in 1988 to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Members of Parliament in GRCs are voted into Parliament as a group with at least one member from an ethnic minority. Under this scheme, the views and concerns of minorities on proposed legislations can be given a hearing in Parliament. Muslims also have a separate Registry of Muslim Marriages.