SINGAPORE - When senior ministers and officials from 11 Caribbean countries visited Singapore for the first time recently, curiosity levels rose among those who met them.
At an exclusive China Club dinner gathering in Robinson Road, some waitresses asked if they were from India. When told the tanned guests were from the Caribbean, south of America, one woman said: "You mean Africa?"
Not many in Singapore know much about the Caribbean islands, which are more than 30 hours away by air from Singapore.
Members of the high-level ministerial group were guests of Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, spending five days from July 15 in Singapore. They were from countries belonging to a 40-year-old regional body known as the Caribbean Community or Caricom.
Unlike the waitresses, savvy businessmen who know the potential of the region refer to these countries as the Caribbean tigers.
The region, with a population of about 30 million, is loaded with vast natural resources such as gas, oil, diamonds and bauxite.
Trinidad and Tobago is the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas to the United States and the world's top exporter of methanol and ammonia.
Agriculture and tourism are other big draws for investors.
Singapore companies in the Caribbean are currently in projects ranging from energy to communications and technology.
Bilateral trade has grown over the past three years to $3.1 billion from $2.4 billion. Investments from the Caribbean have also been streaming into Singapore - almost $23 billion in 2011.
The Foreign Minister's invitation signalled to the visitors that the Republic values their countries' friendship and wants to ensure that the systems of global governance continue to take note of the voices of smaller states.
On their side, Caricom members want to see more economic and technical cooperation with Singapore, similar to the ties the Republic has with South America.
Caricom members see Singapore's success story as an example of what small states can achieve. It wants to use Singapore as its role model for development.
Relations with the region have grown since 1971 when Trinidad and Tobago established diplomatic ties with Singapore. Almost all Caricom member countries now have similar ties with Singapore.
The growing relationship between Singapore and Caricom is significant for three reasons.
- First, both are united by their small sizes. Anguilla, the smallest island, is about 90 sq km in size and its population is just over 14,000. Singapore also believes in having strength in numbers and being united in international fora.
It has set up two such groups.
Established in 1992, the Forum of Small States discusses the roles played by small states and the issues important to them.
In 2009, it set up the Global Governance Group for participants to exchange views on global governance. These ideas can then be raised in groups like the G-20, which includes the world's largest economies.
Mr Shanmugam said Singapore's engagement with the Caribbean on issues ranging from climate change to maritime issues "has given us a bigger and louder voice collectively, and helped us amplify our own perspectives on global issues".
Caricom secretary-general Irwin LaRocque liked this approach. He had told a Singapore delegation visiting the secretariat last year: "The region's contribution to the effects of climate change is utterly minuscule and immeasurable, yet it is made to pay a disproportionate financial burden for mitigation and adaptation measures."
- Second, both partners are convinced that the way forward is to educate its people. In the Caribbean, the prestigious University of West Indies has produced four Nobel Prize winners from its alumni and faculty.
To help the Caribbean members further build their countries' education capacity, Singapore offered postgraduate scholarships to its officials who qualify to enter Singapore universities.
Singapore will also give priority to these overseas officials in training courses and study visits in the areas of public administration, economic development and civil aviation, among others.
- Third, the visit further strengthened ties built on common traits that Singapore and Caricom members share. They have a common colonial heritage, struggling for independence from the British around the same period. Both are ethnically diverse and have multiracial, multi-lingual and multi- religious communities.
With new avenues of collaboration worked out, the bonds of friendship between Singapore and the Caribbean tigers are set to deepen further.
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