'Strength in unity' for small states: Law and Foreign Minister

SINGAPORE - Small countries should stick together and find "strength in numbers", Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said as he welcomed ministers from 11 Caribbean nations at the start of their inaugural exchange visit to Singapore.

Mr Shanmugam added that if small states support one another, it will make them less vulnerable to global forces over which they have little say.

"We are small... We have to be able to adapt to global shifts, which are often beyond our control and frequently not fair," he said at the opening ceremony of the Caribbean community (Caricom) high- level ministerial exchange visit. "That fact has led us to work together and find strength in numbers."

He added that Caribbean states and Singapore have found "common ground" on issues such as climate change, and have cooperated with one another during United Nations forums.

Ministers from countries including Barbados, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, and Antigua and Barbuda will be briefed by Singapore's government agencies this week on how they handle issues such as economic development and urban development.

The ministers are also due to meet Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong on Friday, the last day of their trip.

Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, secretary-general of Caricom, said problems like the global economic downturn and climate change were not created by small states, yet these countries feel the brunt of the negative consequences.

"The economic fallout which took place in 2008... started in the developed world (but) the biggest impact has been on the smaller economies," Mr LaRocque, who hails from Dominica, said. "So we need a voice to put forward our own peculiar circumstances and challenges."

He described the work that Singapore and Caricom had been doing to push for a stronger voice in discussions of the Group of 20 major economies as a good example of small states working together.

Many of the Caribbean islands, in south-east North America, are tourist hot spots and home to a diverse ethnic mix of people. They have played a more prominent role on the world stage recently.

In May, Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Trinidad and Tobago to meet eight Caribbean leaders. They discussed energy and trade issues, Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

The visit came days after United States Vice- President Joe Biden's trip to the oil-rich nation, underscoring the important appeal the Caribbean holds for the world's two largest economies.

Mr LaRocque said he welcomed the new links being forged with Asian countries. "The geopolitics is changing (and) we recognise it," he said. "We are not cutting ties with old friends but making new friends and forging alliances with countries which maybe know a bit better what we are going through as developing countries."

Trade between Singapore and Caricom nations surged by 30 per cent over the past three years to $3.1 billion, Mr Shanmugam said.

Mr Shanmugam on Monday signed an Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement with Barbados' Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Maxine McClean. The agreement will help to boost trade and investment opportunities between the two nations, he said.

He also unveiled a three-year plan to increase the number of senior Caribbean officials who are admitted to training courses here to learn about areas such as public administration and civil aviation.

More than 1,300 Caribbean officials have attended these courses but Mr Shanmugam wants to boost that number and give Caricom members priority slots. Singapore will also award a limited number of postgraduate scholarships to Caribbean officials who gain admission to local universities.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.