ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
It is muggy in downtown Hanoi but the air is buzzing on the fourth floor of an office block called Pacific Place. Young civil servants stride into a space filled with warm wood and deep hues, some sinking into splayed-leg armchairs and others gravitating towards a tiled bar counter.
They are the first group of participants to be trained in the Vietnam-Singapore Cooperation Centre, which opened last month. It used to be called the Vietnam-Singapore Training Centre until it was revamped under a larger plan to widen the type of aid Singapore offers to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, to help them close the gap with their more developed Asean neighbours.
Singapore, which runs classroom-based training centres for civil servants in Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Yangon, has so far finished renovating and reconfiguring the centres in Hanoi and Phnom Penh.
As these cheery, modular spaces put together by students from the Temasek Polytechnic School of Design come on stream, more room for different types of activities, as well as collaboration with Singapore or international entities, has opened up.
The Singapore Government, for example, is talking to the European Union about jointly building capacity in the region in creating sustainable cities and preparing for climate change. The Singapore Red Cross is looking into how it can conduct training on disaster response and preparedness in these centres.
According to Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Singapore International Foundation is mulling over launching community and volunteer projects there, while Lien Aid has indicated interest in using the Cambodia-Singapore Cooperation Centre as a base for its water projects in the country.
A peek into the Hanoi centre gives an idea of the wealth of new possibilities. Gone are large tables that used to pack the training rooms. Chairs with foldaway tables now occupy a glass-walled classroom, which can be expanded or contracted with a sliding panel.
In the administrators' section, a floor-to-ceiling mural depicts Singapore icons such as Changi Airport, the dragon-motif playground and even the Electronic Road Pricing gantry. Next to it is a room with empty cubicles and chairs that can be used by partner organisations in future projects.
Said Mr Truong Quoc Hung, deputy director-general of the Institute for Legislative Studies at Vietnam's National Assembly Standing Committee, during a visit last month: "It looks very professional, a very good place to learn."
Two years ago, he took a course on public speaking and presentation skills at the former centre, and was impressed with the trainer's effective, straightforward style.
These centres have come a long way. In 2000, then Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI), aimed at marshalling resources within Asean and from Asean's international partners to help the four newer members catch up with their six neighbours in the bloc.
Under the IAI, India has given scholarships to students from these four countries, for example, while Thailand has conducted a training course on post-harvest technology for agricultural commodities.
For its part, Singapore opened training centres in Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Yangon, offering a regular calendar of classroom-style courses for civil servants and tailoring them according to discussions with host governments. As each country developed, its requests evolved.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the upgrade of the centres in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the opening of the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting in August, saying this will expand the range of technical assistance "and offer new modalities for capacity building that go beyond classroom training". Singapore's Ambassador to Vietnam, Ms Catherine Wong, said: "In the early days, a lot of the courses (in Vietnam) were actually English language and that was probably reflective of the fact that it was a time when the Vietnamese economy was just opening up to the world."
Now, the popular courses are those focused on policy. "It tends to be things like how do you run an airport efficiently, for instance, and now, increasingly, even issues like how do you deal with corruption, how do you organise your civil service, how do you train your public servants," said Ms Wong.
Dr Nguyen Vu Tung, president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, says the Hanoi training centre "is one of the few programmes that have been sustained in Vietnam on a regular basis".
"The need for training and retraining is constant," he told The Straits Times, adding that he thought lessons on urban management and environmental protection were increasingly important.
While Singapore tries to meet host countries' requests and needs, there are also limits to what can be translated into a course.
Said Ms Wong: "Certain areas, I don't think are teachable." She added: "For instance, they always ask questions about civil service salaries - how do you structure civil service salaries? And it's very hard for us to tell them this kind of information because it's not really that applicable."
She said: "At the end of the day you need to decide what is your market pay and what are you willing to pay in terms of matching the market to attract good people."
More than 38,000 people in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have attended courses at the training centres so far.
Mr Vu Ho, director-general of the Asean section in Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, recalls his surprise at the lack of an elaborate opening ceremony - as is common in his home country - when he attended a course on English for negotiation in 2003. "My first impression was 'efficiency'... There was no ceremony - we just sat in and joined the class," he said, breaking into laughter.
"Singapore has one of the best courses, I can tell you. In a sense, Singapore understands what we need... And we understand each other more than someone from, let's say, the United States or United Kingdom."
The trainers involved include retired diplomats such as Ms Margaret Liang, who represented Singapore at multilateral trade negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I'm still very passionate about the World Trade Organisation and all of this, having spent umpteen years in negotiations," she said, during a break in her course on trade agreements. "What I do is try to raise their level of understanding and then impart my practical insights that you don't read in textbooks. It's been good. I enjoy this."
One of her course participants, Ms Hoang Ngoc Oanh, a deputy head of department at the Vietnam Industry and Trade Information Centre, is considering applying for a scholarship to study at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. "There is a saying - a relationship is not where you find the happiness, it's where you share the happiness," she said. "And I can see the relationship between Singapore and other countries, including Vietnam."
The sharing takes place on different levels. Mr Benedict Cheong, chief executive of Temasek Foundation International, is looking forward to the cross-fertilisation of ideas when various organisations begin to use the new cooperation centres for their activities.
"It's an opportunity to interact and learn," he said during a recent visit to Bangkok.