ASTANA – President of Singapore Halimah Yacob gave an exclusive interview to The Astana Times on the eve of the state visit to Kazakhstan.
Halimah Yacob spoke about the strategic partnership, trade connections, and other areas of cooperation between the two countries during the interview.
2023 marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and Singapore. How would you describe the nature of our interaction over the past three decades? Looking ahead, how can we enhance the Kazakh-Singapore cooperation?
The 30th anniversary is a major milestone. I am happy to be the first Singaporean President to make a state visit to Kazakhstan to mark this important bilateral milestone. Singapore values our warm and longstanding friendship with Kazakhstan, which is built on a strong foundation of trust, good faith, and mutual respect over the years. There have been regular visits between both countries. I visited Astana in 2017 when I was Speaker of Parliament for the opening ceremony of the Astana Expo and met President Tokayev who was then Chairman of the Senate. We had met a year earlier when he visited Singapore.
Kazakhstan has been a good partner for Singapore in Central Asia, and our cooperation has expanded across a multitude of areas from public administration to smart city planning. Singapore and Kazakhstan have also worked closely together in multilateral fora, as we share a common interest in maintaining peace and stability, upholding the rule of law, and protecting the multilateral system. I am delighted that engagements between our governments, businesses, and peoples have steadily increased over the years, and the momentum of interactions has remained healthy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the key areas of cooperation is education. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore has a longstanding partnership with the Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Public Policy. I am happy that many Kazakh students were able to visit Singapore as part of their programme. Such exchanges have helped to deepen mutual understanding and strengthen the friendship between our countries and peoples.
I am confident that the Singapore–Kazakhstan relations will progress and move to even greater heights. Despite our obvious differences in size, Singapore and Kazakhstan are forward-looking nations with a strong commitment to human capital development and sustainable growth. We also seek to take advantage of our strategic locations in our respective regions. I look forward to closer connectivity between our two countries and regions in the years to come.
In 2022, the volume of mutual trade between Kazakhstan and Singapore showed a significant increase, amounting to $1.9 billion, nearly double that of the previous year. What factors contributed to such dynamic growth and what are the long-term goals set by the countries to increase trade and economic cooperation?
We enjoy good economic ties with Kazakhstan, which is Singapore’s largest trading partner in Central Asia. There are a number of Singapore companies in Kazakhstan involved in sectors ranging from transport and logistics, education, food and beverage, to digital technologies. I am also pleased that the number of Kazakh companies in Singapore has grown over the years. One of the major deliverables during my visit to Kazakhstan is the signing of the Services and Investment Agreement under the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union–Singapore Free Trade Agreement. This Agreement will support efforts to enhance our economic engagement and create more favorable conditions for our businesses through the easing of regulations and lowering the barriers for entry. It will also provide access to contractual service suppliers, increase the global exposure for our talents, and provide stability and predictability for our investors via investment protection disciplines. This is a reflection of the deep reservoir of trust that exists between our governments, businesses, and peoples.
The strategic locations of Singapore and Kazakhstan will be a major advantage that we can tap into to strengthen the resilience of our supply chains and transport routes. I am happy that several Singapore companies are involved or have expressed interest in major projects in Kazakhstan to develop critical infrastructure such as dry ports and logistics. We welcome more Kazakh companies to expand into Singapore and Southeast Asia, and we will similarly encourage Singapore companies to seek opportunities in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
During the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit last year, President Tokayev expressed his strong commitment to combating climate change, which has severely impacted several Asian countries. To strengthen collaborative efforts in this area, Kazakhstan proposes to host a high-level Conference on Environmental Issues in CICA countries in Astana in 2024. What is Singapore’s perspective on this initiative and the importance of tackling climate change and adapting to its impacts in the bilateral relations with Kazakhstan?
Singapore views climate change as a serious global challenge that requires urgent collective action. As a small island nation that is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events, we have a strong commitment to address this issue, including supporting global and regional efforts and investing in innovative solutions. We welcome Kazakhstan’s active efforts at addressing environmental issues and promoting sustainable development through constructive dialogues.
I am confident that the Conference on Environmental Issues will be a valuable platform for CICA member countries to come together to discuss possible solutions and concerns. Although Singapore is not part of CICA, there is certainly potential for closer cooperation between Singapore and Kazakhstan in the sharing of expertise and experience in combating climate change. The global nature of climate change demands the close cooperation of the international community, and the collaboration between our countries in this area will no doubt be a positive force in the world.
Singapore is widely recognized as having one of the world’s most effective public administration systems. Currently, Kazakhstan is undergoing large-scale modernization efforts that aim to enhance public administration efficiency, eliminate corruption, and strike a balance between the market and the state. In this context, how can Kazakhstan benefit from Singapore’s experience?
Singapore is always happy to share our experience in areas which may be relevant to our friends around the world. Singapore’s public service is built on the core values of integrity, service, and excellence. As a small country with no natural resources, Singapore must strive to be relevant and differentiate ourselves so that we are competitive and attractive to foreign investors. One key ingredient of our strategy is good governance. In the 2023 Chandler Good Governance Index released in April, Singapore was ranked first, up from third in 2022. While such international rankings are good to have, I believe a far more important test is whether governments are able to retain the trust of its people. This was evident in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not to say that Singapore did everything right but there was a high level of trust in the Singapore Government’s actions and we were able to pull through together. However, we should also bear in mind that the circumstances facing Kazakhstan and Singapore are different. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, and Singapore is a small city-state, about the same size as Astana. The needs and complexity of public administration would therefore be different.
The Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) celebrated its 30th anniversary last year and is the key technical assistance programme for Singapore to share our experience in a diverse range of areas, including public administration, civil aviation, and sustainability with other countries. We welcome more Kazakh officials to participate in the SCP to learn from our experience including mistakes to avoid.
Singapore ranks among the top countries in terms of ease of doing business. Can we consider this as the most crucial recipe for successful development, and how can our economies be similar in various aspects?
There is no one single recipe for successful development and much depends on the unique circumstance of each country. For Singapore, our small size and the lack of natural resources have provided a major impetus for us to diversify our economy through attracting foreign businesses and investments. It is therefore crucial for Singapore to create an open, stable, and welcoming environment for businesses, local and foreign alike, to thrive. The Singapore Government pays close attention to long-term planning and making careful considerations before any policy changes. At the same time, we invest heavily in human capital development to prepare Singaporeans for the jobs of the future. The challenge now is to promote life-long learning and skills training as technology shifts rapidly. The nature of jobs will change and our people must be willing and ready to acquire knowledge and learn new skills.