Edited Transcript of Welcome Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Opening Ceremony of the 2nd Sub-Saharan Africa High-Level Ministerial Exchange Visit, 22 August 2016

Your Excellencies

Distinguished Guests, Colleagues

Ladies and Gentlemen


                It is a pleasure to welcome all of you to the 2nd Sub-Saharan African High-Level Ministerial Exchange.  I say “Second” because the First was in 2014.  I’m glad to see that some have returned, so obviously we are doing something right.  I know that many of you have travelled a long way, 15 to 20 hours to arrive here, and some of you have arrived as recently as one hour ago.  Thank you for making that enormous effort to join us.  If you measure from Singapore, the furthest point in Africa is Cabo Verde, and the nearest point of Africa to Singapore is Mauritius. We have covered, I think, the breadth and depth of Africa.  I am deeply grateful for your presence and for the honour that you have paid to us by making that long journey.

              As I said just now, we first hosted this event in 2014.  At that time we were joined by six African Ministers.  Since then, our engagement has expanded rapidly and I am glad that today we have ten countries participating.

               I hope that over the course of the next three days, we will be able to exchange ideas on how to move our partnership forward, and to share our experiences, confronting the common issues that both Africa and Asia will have to deal with. 

               Speaking from an Asian perspective, quite honestly I think we do not know enough about Africa.  We don’t engage enough, we don’t visit each other enough, we don’t have enough people-to-people levels of exchanges.  But I hope that we will change this trajectory, and that in the decades to come we will see much deeper engagement between our two regions. 

              Actually, the relationship between Singapore and Africa is a longstanding one.  As early as the first century, Southeast Asian sailors were travelling, navigating, and in fact some even settled along the coast of East Africa, and this led to the establishment of some of the earliest maritime trade routes and trading stations, where spices originating in Southeast Asia were traded north towards Ethiopia and Europe. 

               In 1964, when Singapore was still a part of Malaysia, our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew embarked on a tour of 17 African cities to explain the concept of Malaysia.  His trip took 35 days. I say this with great humility because I have not yet done a trip at this hectic pace of 17 cities in 35 days, and bear in mind that this was done 50 years ago, when travel was even more challenging.  This just reflects the importance which he placed on engaging Africa.    

               In the process, Mr Lee Kuan Yew became close friends with many of the founding African leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam of Mauritius, as well as Sir Seretse Khama of Botswana and Milton Obote of Uganda.  I say this again because it underlines the longstanding relationships.

               After Singapore gained independence in 1965, we sent missions to Africa to explore new trade and business opportunities, and although these were perhaps slow to take off, I think this just reflects that it was still early and it just means we have to continue to invest in planting these seeds.  Even if it takes a bit longer to grow, we might be able to grow big, sturdy trees out of these early seeds that we have planted.

               I am glad in recent years, the globalised world has brought our regions closer together.  The friendship between Singapore and Africa has continued to grow, alongside our increasing political, economic, and people-to-people ties.

               Today, over 50 Singapore-based companies are present in Africa, and they range from sectors such as agriculture, commodities, food and beverage, oil and gas, ICT, transport and logistics.  Since 2005, total trade between Singapore and Africa has grown at a rate of 5.2 per cent annually and today it has reached US$ 8.5 billion.  In 2014, direct investments by Singapore companies into Africa amounted to US$ 16.4 billion.  These are encouraging signs. 

               On Wednesday, Singapore will be hosting the biennial 4th Africa Singapore Business Forum, which since 2010, has brought together more than 2,000 business and government leaders from over 30 countries to explore opportunities and partnerships between Singapore and Africa.  We have arranged for all of you to attend the Business Forum, and I hope you will find these sessions useful. 

               More Singaporeans have also become regular visitors to Africa.  We know about your rich and varied culture, as well as the innumerable unique tourist attractions.  In addition, an increasing number of Singaporeans and Africans are choosing to live, work and study in each other’s countries. 

               From our relations since those early days over half a century ago when Mr Lee Kuan Yew first visited Africa, I think it is now an opportune moment for us to look forward and to explore how we can further strengthen this relationship and deepen the engagement further. 

               At the Asian-African Summit last year in Jakarta, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted the inter-dependency between our regions and the opportunity for us to jointly tackle common challenges, including how we can implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were launched last year. 

               In this respect, the theme for this Exchange Visit “Singapore and Africa: Partnering for Sustainable Development” is apt, and we will focus on three of the seventeen SDGs, namely, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Quality Education, and Clean Water and Sanitation.  This is a progression from the theme of the inaugural visit, where the focus was mainly on economic growth. 

               Africa and Asia are urbanising at historically unprecedented rates.  The UNDP has predicted that between today and 2050, an additional 2.1 billion people will be living in cities across Africa and Asia.  Just within Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 55 per cent of the population is expected to be urbanised. Similarly, in this part of the world, Singapore in fact has one of the world’s highest population densities.  But at the same time, for those of you who have flown in and taken a look out of your airplane, you would see that there is still a significant amount of greenery that covers this precious tiny island of ours.

               Urbanisation presents both opportunities and challenges to both our regions.  Of note, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda noted that cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost.  Singapore, as a tiny city-state, is among the countries which will feel the impact of these challenges most keenly.  Another way of looking at it is to say that for us, urbanisation is an existential issue, precisely because we are so small.

               Now, high levels of urbanisation do not necessarily by default or automatically lead to better developmental outcomes.  We have seen in the past that rapid urbanisation can be accompanied by severe environmental degradation and rising social challenges, if it is not managed properly. 

               But on the other hand, urbanisation, when managed, planned, implemented, executed, can foster economic and social development, increase employment opportunities for young people, improve access to basic services, while preserving and protecting our natural heritage.

               Over the course of the next two days, we have arranged for site visits to a Singapore public housing project, the Institute of Technical Education, the Singapore Aviation Academy, and the Singapore Sustainability Gallery.  I hope these visits will enable us to start a conversation to tap into these opportunities and to address in a sustainable way, the challenges of urbanisation. 

               For Singapore, sustainable development has been at the core of our development philosophy.  Perhaps because of our constraints, the lack of natural resources, our tiny land mass, we have had no choice but to pursue sustainable development in a practical, realistic way, whilst balancing the need for economic development and social justice.

               It is my hope that this programme will allow us to share and exchange ideas on three points:

                               i.  First, how we can make our cities resilient and sustainable;

                               ii.  Second, how we can develop human capital and provide quality education for our young people in order to equip them for future jobs; and

                              iii.            Third, how we can ensure the sustainable management of water resources and protection of our common living environment. 

               As a fledging nation 50 years ago, Singapore was a beneficiary of technical assistance from countries and international organisations which helped to train Singaporeans and helped us on those first few steps towards economic development.  Now that Singapore has made a small measure of progress, we are glad to do likewise for other countries and in a sense, to pay it forward. 

              In this regard, we started the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) in 1992.  Since its inception, over 108,000 officials from 170 countries, including 8,600 from Africa, have participated in these SCP programmes.  I shared with some of you just now when we met bilaterally that no country, no single country has all the answers to the challenges that we face, nor is there a single model of development that is applicable to all.  All of us have our own stories, our own geography, our own unique societies and our own challenges.  And every one of us has to forge our own way forward, in our own authentic and sustainable way.  The reason for getting together is to exchange views, ideas, perspectives, to take these ideas, and synthesise them in an eclectic way to come up with something that works in your own respective countries. 

               So to that end, Singapore has also partnered other countries such as Japan and Turkey in joint technical cooperation in Africa.  It is our firm belief and experience that capacity building, investment in human resources is the best way of investing in sustainable development.

               Last year at the UN Sustainable Development Summit 2015, I announced Singapore’s Sustainable Development Package, which will help other developing countries work towards achieving these sustainable development goals.

               As part of this focus, we will partner UN-Habitat to organise capacity building programmes on urban issues such as public housing, water and sanitation, smart nation planning and transport – these are topics which I know you are all interested in and I think these are areas where Singapore has relevant and interesting stories to share.  We are in discussions with UN-Habitat and hope to announce more details during the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito.

               To conclude, over the coming days, our Ministers and policymakers from a wide range of agencies are keen to meet with all of you and we have arranged for you to visit various sites of cultural interest to give you a glimpse of our historical and cultural diversity and to offer some context to our development story. 

               Let me thank you all for making this long journey and let’s commit to building this future together.  A future replete with challenges, but one, if we address it right, will have great opportunities for the young people in Africa and in Asia.  Thank you all very much.


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