Australia's economic displomacy and Singapore

Australia's economic displomacy and Singapore

Australia and Singapore have great new opportunities to deepen their relationship on the basis of a broad commercial compatibility between the two nations.

Singaporean investors have long recognised Australia as a good place to invest, especially in tourism infrastructure, the high-quality resorts needed to handle more visitors from Asia.

Over the last 18 months, Australia has witnessed major property investments from Singaporean companies in tourism and hospitality, and visitor numbers from Singapore increased by 16 per cent in 2013-14.

That is why the launch this week in Sydney of Australia's economic diplomacy initiative is important. About 65 per cent of Australia's exports head to Asia every year and Singapore is Australia's fifth-largest overall trading partner and one of our biggest sources of foreign direct investment.

Australia's bold new initiative to engage the global economy more through trade, investment, pro-growth policies and greater support for business will no doubt strengthen our commercial ties.

Since winning office last year, the Australian government's consistent message has been that Australia is "open for business".

Private sector energies, not public debt, are the best way to buttress prosperity, so the government has taken steps to improve competitiveness and productivity by reducing debt, cutting red and green tape, removing the damaging carbon tax and backing our commercial strengths. In other words, the new initiative of the Australian government, with its emphasis on trade and investment, clearly reflects the fact that Australia is open for business.

Already I am told there is widespread interest in Singapore to help develop the vast and asset rich tracts of Northern Australia, where new roads, rail and ports, as well as the facilities for growing urban centres and mining projects, will be needed.

The Australian government is closely examining how to develop Australia's "top end", as Australians call it, through a White Paper process, due later this year.

With one of the world's largest privately managed pools of wealth (estimated at $1.8 trillion), as well as two internationally active sovereign wealth funds, GIC and Temasek Holdings, Singapore is capable of even bigger investments in Australia. In the years ahead, the Australian government expects Singapore's pattern of foreign investment to shift to a broader class of Australian assets that encompass major infrastructure, agribusiness, oil, health and the aerospace sector. And Canberra can help Singaporean investors diversify more effectively because we in Australia have identified our priorities, or what we are good at as a nation.

Australia's national strengths encompass resources and energy, food and agribusiness, major infrastructure, tourism and education. They include all the advanced services and logistics that cluster around them, as well as strengths in health and medical research.

Trade is another area heading in new directions, spurred on by the recognition of Singapore as a hub for thousands of major companies, an entrepot that allows firms to internationalise their operations. The current mix of trade between Australia and Singapore centres on petroleum, gold, food, computers and ships, as well as a healthy range of services in transport and travel.

But Singapore is focused on lifting its productivity and shifting its firms up the global and regional supply chains that run through the rest of Asia, Australia and the world.

Driven by technological and demographic change, this changing landscape of trade creates a space for international business in areas such as prefabrication in construction, industry-specific solutions to productivity challenges and high-value services for Asia's growing middle class.

Singapore's embrace of "disruptive technologies", such as robotics and 3D printing, will have a big influence on the aviation and aerospace sector, and also in biomedical sciences, electronics and precision engineering.

And importantly, developing these opportunities will require much stronger levels of cooperation between our businesses, our research institutes, as well as a greater role for our educational institutions.

Tomorrow in Singapore, for instance, I will witness the signing of an R&D collaboration on 3D printing between Singapore's A*Star/SIMTech and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, CSIRO.

The complexity of new technologies such as 3D printing also highlights the ongoing role of Australia in international education and training. Australia remains a favoured destination for Singapore students, and 18 of Australia's universities and colleges have set up shop in Singapore.

I can think of no better place than Singapore to bring news of Australia's renewed focus on economic diplomacy, which will continue to provide energy to our trade, investment and educational ties in the years ahead.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Andrew Robb

The writer is Australia's Trade and Investment Minister, in Singapore for a three-day visit which ends tomorrow.

This article was published on Aug 21 in The Straits Times.


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