Sunday, 8 May 2016

Singapore, Australia ink pact taking ties to new heights

Landmark agreement will deepen economic links, military cooperation and cultural ties
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 May 2016

Singapore and Australia have inked a "landmark" agreement to raise bilateral cooperation to "unprecedented levels" in security, trade and the arts and culture.

A key area is a defence cooperation deal that will give Singapore troops, who have been training in Australia since 1990, access to more military areas for 25 years.

Under the deal, which both governments announced yesterday, Singapore will reportedly spend up to A$2.25 billion (S$2.25 billion) to expand the military facilities in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville in Queensland.

Both sides also reviewed their 2003 free trade agreement to hammer out a deal to deepen integration of their economies and strengthen Singapore's position as the go-to hub for Australian businesses and service providers to tap growing opportunities in Asia.

This includes easing trade restrictions to allow more trade flows between both sides; making it easier for businesses to bid for government contracts; and increasing the limits on acquisition by Singapore investors in Australia.

Singapore was Australia's fifth- largest trading partner last year, with bilateral trade amounting to S$20.2 billion. Australian investments in Singapore were worth A$50.7 billion in 2014.

There is also good news for Singaporean visitors, whose Australian visas are valid for only 12 months. Under the pact, Australia will issue multi-year visas, a move that will benefit the 400,000 Singaporeans who visit Australia every year.

The agreement comes a year after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Australia's then Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreement. Other initiatives in the new agreement include:

• More mutual recognition of professional qualifications, with priority for engineers and accountants.

• Australian start-ups will get greater access to Asia to showcase their products and services with the help of Singapore as an innovation "landing pad".

• Up to 500 young Singaporeans will be able to work or study in Australia for up to 12 months under a new "Work and Holiday Maker Programme".

• Singaporean artists, art groups and performers can tap into a S$5 million fund over five years to stage their works in Australia.

Yesterday, the leaders of both countries welcomed the "landmark" pact.

In Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull likened his country's new level of relationship with Singapore to that with its neighbour and closest ally, New Zealand.

PM Lee called it a "win-win deal" that will benefit both sides and pledged to move quickly to implement the various measures. He said in a statement that the two countries are "politically like-minded, strategically aligned and economically complementary".

"We have much to gain by working closely together. The CSP will draw our two countries closer, economically, politically and at the people-to-people level," he added.

Mr Lee was scheduled to visit Australia at the end of the month but the trip has been postponed as Mr Turnbull is expected to call an election, likely on July 2.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that even if there were a change of government after the July elections, he was confident that a new government would be committed to honouring the pact.

"We know that the Australians are good for their word. They have always complied with agreements that they've signed," he said.

SAF to get expanded training areas in Australia
Facilities will allow more troops to train there, and for longer periods
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 May 2016

The A$2.25 billion (S$2.25 billion) Singapore will spend under a new defence deal to build facilities and expand military training areas in Australia is an "indicative" figure, says the Ministry of Defence.

The sum will last through the 25 years that Singapore troops will get to train in Australia, under the deal announced yesterday, a Mindef spokesman added.

Built on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed last year, the new deal will allow Singapore soldiers training in Australia more access to military areas.

Australian media reports had said Singapore will pick up the tab to build new training facilities in the north-eastern state of Queensland. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the expanded military training areas will be in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville. The expansion will allow Singapore to send up to 14,000 troops for training, up from the 6,000 a year now. The paper also said the troops will stay for up to 18 weeks, up from 60 days currently.

Asked about the A$2.25 billion bill, the Mindef spokesman would only say: "The amount is indicative and sets a cap on the life-cycle costs over 25 years for advanced training facilities to be jointly developed and used by both militaries."

Among the other new initiatives, the profile of a joint combat training drill, codenamed Trident, will be raised. Both countries' security agencies will also enhance the sharing of intelligence and information in areas such as counter-terrorism.

Singapore ministers hailed the strengthening of defence ties.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in a Facebook post that more training areas for Singapore troops "will sharpen the SAF to (become) one of the most well-trained and proficient militaries in the region".

Referring to his visit last year to the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, where he expressed hope for more troops to train there, Dr Ng said "that wish has come true".

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the boosting of defence ties attests to the level of strategic trust between both countries, which are building on their history of good cooperation. It also shows "alignment" in the way both countries view the world and the need for security, peace and stability in South-east Asia, he told reporters.

He said the new agreement will "catalyse, encourage and facilitate" the ongoing cooperation and collaboration between both countries' security agencies in how they tackle terrorism and extremism.

Singapore troops have been training in Australia since 1990. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) conducts its largest unilateral exercise in Shoalwater Bay every year. The 65-day exercise last year saw more than 4,000 personnel and 400 different platforms put through their paces. The Shoalwater Bay area is three times the size of Singapore and its terrain includes the rugged outback, bushland and mountains.

SAF personnel also train in Western Australia and New South Wales. Besides Australia, they also train in countries such as the United States, Germany, Brunei and New Zealand.

While Singapore builds up its defences and does its best "to be strong individually", it also has to build a network of friends and good, reliable partners, said Dr Balakrishnan, adding: "Australia fulfils all that criteria."

Defence analyst William Choong said the new defence deal should not come as a surprise. "This is just a rational, gradual and understandable evolution of what have been longstanding bilateral relations between the two countries," said Mr Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Malcolm Turnbull hails 'massive upgrade' in bilateral ties with Singapore
By Jonathan Pearlman, The Straits Times,  In Sydney, 7 May 2016

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has welcomed a pact with Singapore which he described as a "massive upgrade" in ties.

Heralding the partnership as a "landmark deal", Mr Turnbull said yesterday that it would boost the economy and help to open trade doors for Australia across the region.

"This is a great day… this is a massive upgrading of our relationship with Singapore," he told reporters.

Noting the benefits of Australia's 33-year-old economic pact with New Zealand, he said: "We've seen similar growth in trade with Singapore, but this (partnership) will accelerate it, and right through the region."

Mr Turnbull, who is believed to be close to calling an early election on July 2, was quick to highlight the benefits of the pact for jobs and trade, especially in Queensland where Singapore will invest in military training facilities and train some 14,000 troops a year.

"This is going to create thousands of jobs in construction, in tourism, in investment," he said. "It is a very, very significant commitment to investment in north Queensland."

Analysts in Australia said the closer defence and economic ties with Singapore came against the backdrop of China's rise and the growing potential for regional turbulence.

"The context is in large part the rise of China, but it's not just about China," Professor Rory Medcalf, from the Australian National University, told Fairfax Media.

"Singapore is famously pragmatic and recognises the need for smaller and middle powers to work together on security, because of uncertainties about Indo-Pacific power balance more generally, including the future United States posture."

A Lowy Institute expert on international security, Dr Euan Graham, who has authored a forthcoming report on the Australia-Singapore security partnership, told The Straits Times that Singapore was possibly the only state in the region that "sees an equal or greater strategic value to the relationship".

"Singapore and Australia are both 'odd men out' in the region, albeit in different ways, and thus feel insecure in their strategic environments," he said.

"While Australia and Singapore do not have identical threat perceptions, they share a 'common strategic outlook', on concerns from Islamist terrorism and cyber vulnerability, to managing great-power competition in Asia."

Asked whether China may be concerned about the deepening ties, Mr Turnbull said the pact was part of a push by Canberra to expand relations with countries across the region, which in turn would help to bolster regional stability.

The ruling coalition has signed free trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea since winning the 2013 election.

An Australian MP who helped to forge the deal, former trade minister Andrew Robb, said that the expanded economic and defence ties will "lock in a deep friendship in a most powerful way".

More Aussie degrees and qualifications to be recognised
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 7 May 2016

Singapore has agreed to recognise postgraduate medical degrees from the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

This is in addition to recognising 15 more allied health qualifications in occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy from a number of Australian universities.

The Republic will also recognise the Juris Doctor (JD) degrees awarded by 10 Australian universities, including the universities of Western Australia and Sydney, whose law degrees are already approved. There were an estimated 10 to 20 Singaporeans pursuing JD degrees in those universities last year, according to the Ministry of Law.

Under a new agreement - announced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement yesterday - to strengthen the ties between the two countries, Australia will reciprocate. It will recognise the law and JD degrees of Singapore universities, subject to applicable conditions in the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The JD programme is a postgraduate course for students who have a bachelor's degree in another discipline.

The agreement, which will allow both countries to cooperate more closely in other areas such as security and trade, also includes a pilot programme that aims to give 100 Singaporeans studying in Australia more opportunities to work with leading Australian companies.

A new "Work and Holiday Maker Programme" will allow up to 500 young people on each side to work and study for up to 12 months.

The initiative is meant to promote cultural exchange by allowing young people to experience each other's country and take on short-term work to fund their stay.

Ms Christabel Tan, 22, a childcare teacher, said of the scheme: "It's important to see the world, be exposed to what other people are like and also grow connections."

Nanyang Technological University business student Jesmine Tan, 23, who went on a six-week volunteer trip to Brazil last year, said: "I helped out with marketing for an NGO and worked and lived like a local... It broke stereotypes I had of the country. I think it will be quite a cost-effective way to travel while gaining some work experience."

Dr K. Thomas Abraham, chief executive of Sata CommHealth, said that Singapore's recognition of more overseas allied health qualifications will address the acute shortage of staff in the field.

"We really need to recruit more allied health professionals, especially as Singapore is expanding its healthcare sector."

Both countries will also deepen cooperation among their universities that have overseas campuses.

In addition, based on its prevailing policy, Singapore will allow Queensland-based James Cook University to refer to its Singapore campus as "the Singapore Campus of James Cook University" by July.

Ms Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, which represents the university sector there, welcomed the growth in the number of Australian qualifications recognised by Singapore.

"We look forward to continuing to expand this list, in recognition of the depth and breadth of excellence in all Australia's universities."

Singapore and Australia: More than the sum of our parts
By Philip Green, Published The Straits Times, 9 May 2016

Last year, we Australians celebrated with Singapore.

We marvelled at your achievements in 50 years and joined in your celebrations. We admired your National Gallery, supported your World Heritage Botanic Gardens and cheered at your outsized National Day.

We made our own contribution to your special year with a loan of koalas to the Singapore Zoo and with our "50 Bridges" showcase.

Our prime ministers cooked steaks together in one of the "50 BBQs" held across the heartland of your nation.

Beyond the celebration, it was a turning point.

Our governments decided that the time had come for our nations to share in a new and closer partnership - a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Ministers and officials were set the task of putting flesh on the bones of that new partnership within a year.

And so, last week, after deep and wide-ranging discussions, prime ministers Lee Hsien Loong and Malcolm Turnbull were able to announce initiatives that represent a major upgrading of our bilateral relations. Freer movement for business people between our countries; mutual recognition of more of our universities' qualifications; a renewed Free Trade Agreement with 21st-century rules; major new opportunities for the Singapore Armed Forces to train in Australia; new intelligence cooperation; a new innovation partnership with a "Landing Pad" in Singapore; fresh opportunities for our young people to study together online, and to have working holidays on each other's territories; and much more.

It is always good for nations to find new ways to cooperate. But actually, this announcement represents more than the usual bundle of activities that governments find to cooperate on. Not only is it a major package, it is also a key step on a road that will lead to increasingly close connections between us, increasing economic integration and increasing strategic convergence.

Two fundamental drivers are taking us down that road. First, we are in many ways alike: with similar standards of living, similarly practical mindsets, similar laws and institutions, and similar approaches to the security of our region.

Second, we are very different: Australia is a continent, with all the strengths that come from masses of land - strengths in resources, agriculture and tourist potential. Singapore is not that, but it has taken full advantage of its strategic location and has developed a deep understanding and affinity with the region that defines both our futures.

That is a powerful combination. The similarities between us make it easier for us to work together. The differences mean that we bring complementary assets to the partnership. Because the assets that we each bring to the table are so different, what we can achieve together is much more than we can do separately. We are more than the sum of our parts.

Consider for a moment the strengths that Australia has as a food producer in an increasingly populous and prosperous region, and the complementary strengths that Singapore has in logistics, marketing and understanding of the tastes of Asia. Consider the potential of a partnership between the creative streak in Australia's culture and the strengths in commercialisation of Singapore's innovation ecosystem. Consider the synergy between Australia's strengths in construction and public-private partnerships, and Singapore's deep enmeshment with the infrastructure opportunities in South-east Asia.

So, to me, the partnership agreed by our prime ministers has underlying impetus. The engine of our engagement has taken us far in 50 years, and it has two fundamental drivers to propel it further forward.

It also has a way further to travel. A year ago, we foresaw a 10-year "road map" to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. After just 12 months, the vision and determination of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Mr Andrew Robb, Australia's Special Envoy for Trade, have yielded an impressive set of initiatives.

That is a strong start. But there is more territory in our road map that we have not yet traversed. There is more that we can do.

And there is even more reason now, in 2016, to press on; more reasons why we need a stronger partnership.

Why? Because not everything about our individual futures is prospective. Our region has great promise, but it is also home to increasing uncertainties. And the global economy is blowing headwinds in both our directions. As we face this new set of challenges, we need to take advantage, more than ever, of the underlying complementarities between us.

That is why, while celebrating what we have settled, we should reflect on how this partnership still has more to deliver, and how much more we are going to need it in the years to come.

The writer is Australian High Commissioner to Singapore.

SAF's extended facilities in Australia critical: Ng Eng Hen
Space is 10 times Singapore's size, and will house mock city for urban warfare training and live-firing range for big guns
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2016

Singapore's A$2.25 billion (S$2.25 billion) plan to expand military facilities in north-eastern Australia will more than triple the training area that its troops currently use Down Under.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed that the Republic will build a brand-new range where its big guns, such as long-range artillery guns and Apache attack helicopters, can fire live rounds. It is also planning a mock city with multi-storey buildings for soldiers to hone their urban warfare skills.

All in, the training space in Queensland's Shoalwater Bay and Townsville will allow up to 14,000 men and their machines to train in an area 10 times the size of Singapore. Currently, some 4,000 troops conduct their field training every year in Shoalwater Bay, which is about thrice the size of Singapore.

The expansion plan was announced last Friday as the two countries bolstered their ties. Built on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that was signed last year, the new defence deal will allow Singapore soldiers to train in Australia for 25 years.

Dr Ng said expansion will give the quality of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training a "quantum jump".

"You are talking about three to four times in troop numbers... Shoalwater Bay plus the new training facilities we have in Australia in essence will allow two brigades or more... in terms of troops and in terms of their full complement of vehicles, to be able to exercise."

He said there were very few places where this could be done.

He was speaking to reporters after witnessing special forces troops from Singapore, Australia and South Korea, among other countries, storm and seize control of a "terrorist hideout" in a mock village near Lim Chu Kang.

The show of force is part of an 11-day drill involving 18 countries of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus grouping.

Dr Ng said the investment in Australia is critical for the SAF to conduct realistic training.

"In Singapore, you just don't have the land to do it," he said.

Even if the land were available, such moves would cause disamenities, he added. He reiterated that the total investment amount is indicative and will be spent over the next 25 years. It included maintenance and midlife upgrades.

"The more important thing is that this presents to Singapore a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity for that kind of assured training for 25 years."

Singapore troops have been training in Australia since 1990. Besides Australia, they also train in countries such as the United States, Germany, Brunei and New Zealand.

Australian leaders, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, have hailed the "landmark deal", touting the jobs that will be created from the upgrading of military facilities in Queensland.

Defence analyst Richard Bitzinger told The Straits Times that the closer defence ties between Singapore and Australia show that the Republic is "increasingly concerned about an increasingly aggressive China", especially in the South China Sea.

But Dr Ng said the move will hopefully send the "right signals that Singapore is willing to work with like-minded partners".

Singapore-Aussie deal a win-win
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 12 May 2016

The recently concluded deal between Singapore and Australia looks set to boost existing ties by upgrading trade, educational and defence links.

The deal, which both governments announced last week, is the result of the groundwork laid since the signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in June last year.

But what caught the eye of many was Singapore's bigger military footprint Down Under.

Singapore troops, who have already been training in Queensland's Shoalwater Bay since 1990, will be allowed to continue training in Australia for 25 years. In return, Singapore will spend A$2.25 billion (S$2.27 billion) over the same period on building new military facilities, such as a live-firing range for big guns and an expanded training space.

This will allow more than 14,000 Singapore Armed Forces troops to test their skills and war machines in a "battlefield" more than 10 times the size of Singapore, and give combat training, as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen calls it, a "quantum leap".

What has surprised some commentators is how Singapore was willing to pick up the tab, while the United States and Australia - both staunch allies - are still disputing who should foot the bill to increase the presence of the US Marine Corps in northern Australia.

But the Singapore-Australia deal is logical for the Republic as it is hamstrung by limited land and air space. To allow troops to do what they are unable to do in Singapore, it has to look elsewhere.

That is why the Republic has struck deals with a dozen countries, including the United States, Germany and Brunei, to conduct overseas training.

Australians have benefited from the economic spin-offs, with the annual Wallaby war games estimated to plough A$35 million back into the local economy.The same quid pro quo applies to the other partners that Singapore has training arrangements with. The closer friendship with Australia does not come at the expense of the strong links it has with other countries.

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