Key Highlights from three decades of Singapore-China Cooperation

Interview with Lee Yi Shyan, Chairman of Business China

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By Ren Qi

Singapore’s bilateral relationship with China has always kept pace with changing times, with the areas of cooperation between the two countries gradually making the shift from asset heavy to asset light. In the future, Singapore is also positioned to act as a resource hub for Chinese enterprises going global.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Diplomatic Relations between Singapore and China. Lee Yi Shyan, Chairman of Business China, is a witness as well as a direct participant of the partnership between the two countries. Speaking in an interview, he said that over the course of the development of bilateral relations – from the maiden government level joint venture Suzhou Industrial Park, to the most recent China-Singapore (Chongqing) Connectivity Initiative, each decade of Singapore’s cooperation with China brings a new highlight.

Mr Lee moved from Chicago to take up a role at Suzhou Industrial Park when it was established in 1997. As he recalled, infrastructure in China was still under-developed back then, and the area where the industrial park now stands was an empty piece of land, he said, “It was difficult at that point of time to imagine what it would look like in the future.”

A decade later, building on the success of the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-City project became the second government-to-government project.

The third government-to-government project was launched in 2015, in Chongqing. It was from this venture that the concept of the Southern Transport Corridor linking Singapore with Chongqing originated.

From Suzhou to Chongqing, Mr Lee pointed out that the focus of the partnership between Singapore and China has gradually shifted from asset heavy ventures to intellectual property rights, high-tech manufacturing, and asset light sectors.

“From the 1990s to today, China now can replicate the entire industrial park systems from other countries. Therefore, we would have fallen completely behind the times if we are still talking about industrial parks today.”

Moving forward, Mr Lee believes that the economies of China and ASEAN will become more deeply intertwined, and he is hopeful and optimistic about Singapore’s partnership with China.

Singapore’s industrial structure is very different from that of the other ASEAN nations, Mr Lee noted. As most of Singapore’s manufacturing industry consists of hi-tech products, it is better positioned to work closely with the high-end manufacturing sector in China.

At the same time, Singapore would also be able to serve as a regional centre for Chinese enterprises moving into Southeast Asia, and “help Chinese companies to better understand and adapt to the Southeast Asian markets.”

As China rolls out its Belt and Road Initiative, Singapore can offer support in terms of fund raising for ventures, matchmaking talents, and bringing together different resources and consolidating them, thereby serving as a resource hub.

Nurturing talent who are China-ready and China-savvy is one of Business China’s strategic objectives. Mr Lee noted that for the new generation of Singaporeans, merely being bilingual in Chinese and English no longer holds an advantage. Therefore, mastering an additional Southeast Asian language might be key in order to gain a real edge in the future.

For the younger generation, he had a word of warning: keep holding on to the sense of crisis, do not let our comfortable surroundings impinge your grasp of the global situation. “Your area of focus cannot be limited by this space of 25 by 48 kilometres – you have to focus on global issues, and issues of the future.”