Japan, S'pore and 50 years of post-war friendship

On April 26, 1966, newly independent Singapore established diplomatic relations with Japan. Today is therefore the 50th anniversary of that happy occasion. We have many reasons to celebrate the anniversary because, over the past 50 years, our relations have blossomed economically, politically, culturally and between our two peoples.

The first issue I wish to discuss is how the two countries succeeded in forging such a strong relationship in spite of the unhappy memories of the 31/2 years when Singapore was occupied and ruled by Japan. After World War II, the public sentiment in Singapore was understandably not friendly to Japan.

It was decided in 1963 to build a Civilian War Memorial in Beach Road to honour the memories of the civilians killed during World War II.

The memorial looks like four chopsticks.

Every year on Feb 15, which is the day on which the British had surrendered to the Japanese, an observance ceremony would be held at the memorial.

Speaking at the unveiling of the memorial in 1967, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said: "We meet not to rekindle old fires of hatred nor to seek settlements for blood debts. We meet to remember the men and women who are the hapless victims of one of the fires of history. We suffered together. It told us that we shared one destiny."

The Singapore Government's attitude was to remember the past but not to be imprisoned by it. Instead, it sought to forge a new and positive relationship with post-war Japan. Japan helped Singapore's economic development and industrialisation in many ways. For example, it established the Japan Singapore Training Centre and the Computer Training Centre, to train our workers.

The Japanese private sector also played a major role in the early years of Singapore's economic development. Seiko opened a factory in 1976 to make watches, precision instruments, industrial robotics and automation systems. Sumitomo Chemical Corporation established Singapore's first petrochemical project. The Japan Productivity Centre helped Singapore to start its own National Productivity Council and Productivity Movement.

The situation today is that Japan is Singapore's second-largest foreign investor. In 2014, Japan's cumulative investments in Singapore amounted to US$80 billion (S$108 billion). Readers will be surprised to read that, in return, Singapore has become Japan's second-largest foreign investor with cumulative investments of US$18 billion.

Another milestone in our relationship was the conclusion, in 2002, of the Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement (JSEPA). Singapore was the first Asian country with which Japan concluded a free trade agreement. Japan is Singapore's eighth-largest trading partner with bilateral trade amounting to US$35 billion. The two countries are currently undertaking the third review of JSEPA.

This is necessary and desirable because of structural changes taking place in the two economies and in order to reflect the agreements contained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Japan and Singapore are two of the 12 countries which concluded the TPP.

Politically, Japan and Singapore enjoy excellent relations.

There are frequent contacts and exchanges between our political leaders. They enjoy a high comfort level based on goodwill and mutual trust. The two countries also share a common world view and strategic vision. They want an Asia-Pacific which is peaceful and prosperous. They want to uphold a regional and global order which is based on the rule of law. They believe that when disputes arise, they should be settled peacefully, through negotiations if possible, and if not, through international diplomatic and legal processes. As island nations and trading nations, both Japan and Singapore attach great importance to the freedom of navigation and overflight.

Finally, they both believe that the continued presence of the United States is essential to the peace and stability of the region. The close political relationship between Japan and Singapore is therefore based upon these commonalities.

I am happy to report that the cultural pillar and the people pillar are as strong as the economic and political pillars.

Japan has a very attractive soft power. We see Japan as a peaceful and beautiful country. It is immaculately clean and the environment is kept in a pristine condition. Japan has a long and rich history and its heritage in arts and crafts has been carefully preserved.

Japanese design, fashion and architecture are much admired in Singapore. Various aspects of Japanese popular culture, such as its cuisine, ikebana, judo, manga, anime and J-pop, have been embraced by many Singaporeans.

The Japan Creative Centre is doing a very good job in projecting Japan's soft power in Singapore.


The people pillar is also very strong. The people of Japan and Singapore like and admire each other. Last year, 800,000 Japanese visited Singapore and 300,000 Singaporeans visited Japan. Singaporeans admire the Japanese who are cultured and civic-minded.

Singaporeans admire the Japanese for their discipline, resilience and courage in adversity. These qualities of the Japanese people were manifested in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. There were no scenes of looting. Instead, the Japanese people behaved with quiet stoicism, discipline and consideration for one another.

The positive attitude of the people of Singapore towards Japan and the Japanese was amply displayed in 2011, following the triple disasters.

Singaporeans of all races and ages spontaneously raised money to help the victims in Japan. Over $35 million was raised in a ground-up, people-driven campaign to help Japan. I think my friends in the Japanese Embassy were taken by surprise by the warmth and goodwill shown by the people of Singapore.

On the happy occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Singapore, we can truly say that the relationship between the two countries is trouble-free. We enjoy excellent relations politically, economically, culturally and between our two peoples.

Let us work together to raise our relationship to an even higher peak.

This article was first published on April 26, 2016.
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