Singapore and China celebrated their 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations last year, though bilateral interactions could be traced back to the 1970s. The decades long journey of bilateral cooperation can be described as an embodiment of Modernisation, Innovation and Digitalisation.
Modernisation is the dream and ambition of all countries. It promises better lives for citizens. Singapore embarked on its modernisation drive in the 1960s. Singapore’s vision towards modernization could be epitomised by what Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1965, shortly after our Independence, “10 years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!”
Singapore’s pioneer leaders and pioneer generation of Singaporeans worked hard to achieve this goal. A combination of economic and social strategies, and a strong social compact, saw Singapore through the nation building years, rising from mudflats to the metropolis we have seen since the 1970s.
China too was interested in modernization. The Communist Party of China envisioned and was determined to become a “great modern socialist country”. The two countries dreamt of modernization. Today, both are in a very good position. As we took separate paths to realise our visions, our paths also crossed many times over the past 40 over years.
When then China paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore for the second time in November 1978, a special relationship of mutual admiration, respect and trust developed between him and then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. That saw the beginning of strong bilateral interactions and connections, starting with Chinese officials visiting Singapore and then culminating in various collaborations, frequent high-level visits, and economic and people-people links. Singapore and China cooperated in many fields. In 1994, construction began on the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), which was to become a model for industrialisation in China. Indeed, the SIP was not only a model of industrialisation but also a symbol of innovation – the creation of a “software transfer” (软件移) was a new way of demonstrating cooperation and growth. Today, the SIP remains one of the top industrial parks in China while it continues to be a shining symbol of bilateral cooperation.
As relations grew and collaboration deepened, the two countries cooperated closely on “innovation”.
In 2007, the foundation for the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City was laid, and a joint exploration on balancing economic development with ecological protection commenced. Conventional wisdom was that economic prosperity comes at the expense of nature. But contrary to expectations, this collaboration proved otherwise and saw instead a firm response to climate change. For example, leveraging Singapore’s innovation on water management, a vibrant ecocity was born out of a once barren and fragile ecosystem. Building on the Eco-city’s success, the Binhai New Area implemented a two-prong development strategy of “Upgraded Eco-city ” and “Smart City Innovation”.
In 2015, the third government-to-government project – the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative – was launched with the aim of boosting economic development in China’s western region and fostering greater connectivity between the region and the world, through modern services and smart industry. It was also from this venture that the concept of the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor (formerly the Southern Transport Corridor) linking Chongqing with South East Asia through Singapore originated. The Corridor connected the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road and helped businesses save significant shipping time and reduce overall business costs. It was an innovative approach, and a further step up in our cooperation.
It is evident that Singapore and China’s partnership has never been static, upgrading from asset-heavy ventures to intellectual property rights, high-tech manufacturing, and asset-light “smart” sectors.
Apart from government level projects, Singapore enterprises work closely with different Chinese provinces. Some notable joint developments include the Guangzhou Knowledge City, Nanjing Eco Hi-Tech Island, and Chengdu Innovation Park.
As Singapore Ambassador-at-large Prof Tommy Koh noted in his commentary for NUS Tembusu College in 2018, our “two countries have prospered together in the past 40 years” and “the relationship has become multi-faceted and multi-layered.”
Building on this high-level cooperation embodying modernisation and innovation, we are now moving into the age of digitalization.
A good example is the Singapore-China (Shenzhen) Smart City Initiative (SCI) created in 2019. Aimed at connecting business ecosystems and strengthening links between Singapore and China’s tech capital, it allowed both peoples to tap the opportunities available in the Greater Bay Area and South East Asia. Under the SCI, the OneSME went live in July 2020. This cross-border digital trade platform enables simpler and faster trade for SMEs and access to wider markets.
Forging Ahead from Position of Strength
Singapore and China are constantly developing our respective technology and innovation capabilities and adapting how we collaborate. Coming from a position of strength, how could our countries continue to strengthen our collaboration? China is now in a new development phase focusing on resilient, high-quality and sustainable economic growth that embraces “social fairness” under its “Dual Circulation” strategy and “Common Prosperity” pursuit. There are common interests and opportunities that Singapore and China could continue collaborating on, including digital economy and green and sustainable development.
Indeed, as the digital revolution continues to take the world, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this will lead to a proliferation of key technologies such as AI, Data, 5G, Cloud, and Internet of Things across the economy, and create millions of new job roles. Yet, with new opportunities come new risks such as cyber-attacks. Singapore and China could collaborate as we embrace these new opportunities and tackle the risks.
China’s endeavour to strengthen its digital capabilities is evident. According to official statistics, its R&D spending climbed 10.3% to 2.44 trillion Chinese yuan and accounted for 2.4% of GDP in 2020. China’s R&D spending is also expected to increase by over 7% per year between 2021 and 2025 (CNBC). It is therefore unsurprising that China is the biggest source of international patent applications in the world in 2019 and 2020, with a total of 68,720 fillings. China is also a world leader in areas such as 5G, AI and blockchain. Furthermore, China has a large talent pool, market and natural resources to draw on.
In Singapore, our value offerings can be summarised into 3Gs and 3Is:
i) Geography – Singapore is well-placed as a hub in and entry-point to Southeast Asia, where it is one of the fastest-growing region in the world, with a burgeoning internet population and middle class.
ii) Governance – Singapore’s governance principles and approach gave us a competitive advantage in many spheres. As digitalisation heightens sensitivity towards the trustworthiness of autonomous technologies, closer public-private partnership to advocate the responsible use of technology is imperative. Singapore’s Model AI Governance Framework, first in Asia, therefore plays a key role, as it provides detailed and practical guidance to companies in developing trusted AI.
iii) Geopolitics – Maintaining a neutral space where people, businesses and innovations can work together safely and flourish amidst tensions between the world’s major powers is invaluable.
iv) Infrastructure – Singapore continues to build a pervasive, secure and resilient digital infrastructure to enable and future-proof our digital economy. Our 5G nationwide rollout is progressing well, with Singapore set to attain nationwide coverage by end 2025. We are also building digital utilities and connectivity to facilitate trusted digital transactions within Singapore and across borders, enlarging Singapore’s trade space and market. Singapore also pioneered the Digital Economy Agreements – akin to Free Trade Agreements for the digital era – to facilitate seamless end-to-end digital trade, digital markets connection, and trust-building in digital systems.
ii) Industry transformations – Singapore companies are transforming existing business models and creating more meaningful jobs using emerging technology to stay competitive and reach further. Our fintech ecosystem and industry are growing, through initiatives such as API Exchange to support financial innovation and inclusion in ASEAN and around the world. The Monetary Authority of Singapore is also actively exploring with the industry in the use of blockchain technology under “Project Ubin” and a Central Bank Digital Currency to clear and settle payments and securities more efficiently.
iii) Innovation – Innovation and progress move in tandem. To stay ahead, Singapore invests ahead in next-bound foundational technologies. These include cybersecurity, blockchain to bolster digital trust capabilities, and AI. Singapore’s significant and continued investments into R&D will not only boost economic growth but add resilience to it.
The bilateral relations and cooperation between China and Singapore have grown in scale, scope and sophistication across four decades. Both countries have gained from this cooperation. As we look to the future, opportunities for bilateral collaboration remain aplenty.
One immediate suggestion for consideration, is that China and Singapore which enjoy strong trade ties with a Free Trade Agreement first signed in 2009 and later upgraded in 2019, should embrace the age of digitalization. As China continues to push for a healthy digital economy that is vital to her “modern economic system”, it is most opportune now to consider a new agreement to support digital trade. This would certainly complement the existing China-Singapore FTA.
Underpinned by mutual trust and shared belief in multilateral cooperation, free trade, investments, and talent development, we can be confident that collaboration between China and Singapore will continue to flourish and be marked by digitalization, innovation and development.
Ms Tin Pei Ling
Ms Tin Pei Ling is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Business China. Pei Ling is also an elected Member of Parliament in Singapore since 2011. She concurrently serves as the Chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Communications & Information. Prior to joining Business China, Pei Ling was the Group Director of Corporate Strategy of Jing King (JK) Technology Group (now known as Adera Global) and a business and management consultant in Ernst & Young Advisory.
 Adapted from Singapore Minister of State Tan Kiat How’s speech at a Business China event in 2021.