Hands-on diplomat bids sayonara

SINGAPORE - Dapper in a pinstripe suit, Mr Yoichi Suzuki looks at The Straits Times photographer's first shot of him and promptly says no to it.

"I mustn't look so happy to be leaving Singapore," says the Japanese envoy, adding immediately that he was jesting, with a booming laugh that echoed in the drawing room of his lush home near the Botanic Gardens.

But Mr Suzuki does have much to laugh about, as he is finishing his three-year stint here on a high note. Make that several highs - in bilateral ties and trade as well as people and business exchanges.

Most noteworthy is a resurgence of the Japanese presence in Singapore as Japan refocuses on South-east Asia as a growth partner. There has been an increase in "the number of my compatriots coming to reside in Singapore as well as a bigger presence of Japanese businesses here", Mr Suzuki, who leaves his post this week, says in an interview with The Straits Times.

There are now some 28,000 Japanese living in Singapore, up from 24,000 in 2010, a telling statistic showing Japan's renewed interest in the region and its recognition of the need to reach out to the world as an ageing, decreasing population crimps its domestic market. Mr Suzuki, 62, notes that there has been a broadening in the profile of Japanese businesses coming to Singapore, with more IT start-ups and service-related firms in the mix.

Key to this is Singapore being the most important economic hub in the region, and this is also the reason that some 1,000 established Japanese companies have branches here, with many using these as their regional bases.

"They come here... because of (Singapore's) unmatched value as a hub," he says, citing the ease of doing business here and the Republic's position as a regional information centre and, increasingly, as an important marketplace where firms can easily meet buyers and sellers from around the region.

He also praises the strong support of the Singapore Government for the firms' regional functions.

The renewed interest shows in the economic numbers too. From 2010 to last year, Japan's investments in Singapore amounted to some US$9.9 billion (S$12.7 billion), a more than 50 per cent rise over the previous three-year stretch.

The flow is two-way - Mr Suzuki notes that Singapore is Asia's biggest investor in Japan.

Last year, according to Japanese figures, Singapore's investments there stood at US$978 million, and totalled some US$2.4 billion in the two years before that.

Japan's first ever free trade agreement was signed with Singapore, in 2002.

The envoy also highlights Mr Shinzo Abe's visit to Singapore in July as the first by a Japanese prime minister in a bilateral context in 11 years.

A keen golfer with a mean handicap, Mr Suzuki is a sharp observer of what goes on around him, including an attempt by an aide to record this interview.

"Whose recorder is this? Shut it down," he tells the aide with a wave of his hand, showing his trust in this reporter and putting him at ease.

This personable quality stands him in good stead with the many Japanese, including entrepreneurs, who make a beeline to his office.

They come to talk to a hands-on ambassador who makes time for them and takes pains to understand their business and what motivates them to come to Singapore.

Mr Suzuki says his tour of duty here is made all the more memorable for the watershed 2011 General Election, which left a deep impression on him.

"I was fortunate... to witness what is a very important moment in the history and the evolution of Singapore society," he says.

While the rapid expansion of Singapore as an economic hub and the rise in immigration numbers have given rise to strains in society and an ensuing debate over foreigners here, he stresses that Singapore will have to remain an open society to retain its edge over other cities as the hub of the region.

"Don't change the very favourable climate to make things difficult... Don't close what is open," he said, referring to Singapore's successful tradition of attracting talent from around the world.

He also pays tribute to Singapore - government officials, religious and aid organisations and people from all walks of life - for the "very strong support and demonstration of solidarity" they displayed during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in eastern Japan.

Among his varied postings, Mr Suzuki has served as a political counsellor in Malaysia and France.

The second-generation diplomat and father to a third-generation one - one of his three sons has joined the service as well - is heading to familiar grounds for his next assignment, as Japan's next ambassador to France.


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