On May 25, 1961, a massive fire in the squatter settlement of Bukit Ho Swee -- in the relatively newly independent state of Singapore -- destroyed more than 2,800 houses, and left around 16,000 people homeless. The number of deaths from the fire might have been only four; the incident, nevertheless, was a pivotal point in Singapore's contemporary history.
The recovery, resettlement, and reconstruction process was a manifestation the small island nation’s strong determination, under the stewardship of the dynamic Lee Kwan Yew as Prime Minister, to rise from the ashes and, in a time spanning less than fifty years, reach a status that has become the envy of many.
Just about a decade later, another country, Bangladesh, located not too far from Singapore, was coming out of the debris of a blood-soaked Liberation War under the leadership of the indomitable Sheikh Mujibur Rahman -- a war that saw massive deaths and wanton destruction, and trying to provide basic succour to a population of 75 million people.
50 years since its bloody birth, Bangladesh has emerged as a role model for socio-economic and sustainable development, even though its population has more than doubled in the intervening period. Although the magnitude of the two events differ vastly, the simile underlines the fact that both the countries have risen to where they are today through sheer hard work, steely determination, and conviction of their respective people.
The two countries formally established diplomatic relations on February 16, 1972, exactly 50 years to the day. Singapore’s recognition of Bangladesh as an independent state and the establishment of diplomatic relations, in just over a month of Bangabandhu’s triumphant return from incarceration to the land he founded, was a manifestation of the wisdom and pragmatism that has characterized the country’s external relations.
Five decades on, the relationship between the two has grown in depth and dimension, and holds promises for a better future. Even when short on natural resources, both have achieved seemingly unachievable socio-economic growth and development in the face of what one believed to be insurmountable challenges. Bangladeshis have, for long, looked at Singapore with awe and deep admiration as an economic miracle. Singaporeans, in turn, continue to visualize Bangladesh as a land with huge potentials and opportunities.
Over the 50 years of establishment of formal relationship, contacts between the two countries -- contacts at all levels -- have been frequent, multi-faceted, and sustained. There is also a meeting of the minds and convergence of goals on the regional and international arena on issues that pose challenges, and offer opportunities, to both. These include climate change, a rule-based global trade order, threats from terrorism and extremism, and finding common grounds in the larger Asia-Pacific region.
A mutually beneficial partnership
It is in the fields of economic cooperation and business that the relationship between Bangladesh and Singapore has been most visible. In 2020, Bangladesh’s total trade with Singapore amounted to Singaporean $3.49 billion, making Bangladesh Singapore’s 33rd largest trading partner and 25th largest export destination. Major imports from Bangladesh are ready-made garments and textiles, while principal exports to Bangladesh include fuel oils, jewelry, precious metal, sewing machines, and reactive dyes. Singapore is also Bangladesh’s fourth largest source of Foreign Direct Investment as of December 2020, with FDI stock amounting to Singaporean $2.4bn.
Well-known Singaporean energy and urban development firm, Sembcorp Industries, established its presence in Bangladesh in 2015, and completed construction of the Sirajganj Unit 4 combined-cycle gas turbine power plant in 2019. The project was Bangladesh’s first public-private partnership power plant backed by foreign investment. The list of Singaporean business groups setting up shop in Bangladesh is a long one, and it is growing. This covers both the manufacturing and service sectors.
This is reflective of the high quality of Singapore’s service industry, which has served as the backbone of the country’s magical economic growth. Likewise, taking advantage of the business-friendly environment, many Bangladesh companies have set up their operations in Singapore, which has served them well for gaining access to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Importantly, over the last couple of decades, Singapore has emerged as one of the top destinations for Bangladesh migrant workers. An estimated 150,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers are engaged in the construction, process, and marine shipyard sectors in Singapore. Remittances from Singapore reached US $344.532m in 2021.
Assuming that the current trend of business and economic cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore continues -- and there is every reason to believe it will -- the future looks promising. The same can be said about the prospects of Bangladeshi workers gaining employment in Singapore.
Mutually beneficial business and economic cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore now stands on a firm footing, and can only grow stronger. Looking forward, however, one must explore the potentials of giving the relationship a wider strategic and political content. Time has come to deepen the ties in the diplomatic front, keeping an eye on the fast-shifting global and regional geo-politics, and the emergence of a multi-polar Asia.
It is in this area that both the countries need to focus on enhanced and upgraded diplomatic and political contacts, exchange ideas and take the relations beyond the bilateral frame. They need to work closely and examine the challenges and the best options open. Here, military contacts are also relevant.
Today, Bangladesh and Singapore, in their own ways, have reached a stage where both are recognized as responsible and consequential players in the larger regional theatre. It is also no secret that South East Asia is central in the broader Asia-Pacific canvas. Any foreign policy initiative that Bangladesh intends to take, like becoming a dialogue partner with ASEAN, deepening its diplomatic and strategic contacts with countries like Singapore will be vitally important.
This need not be limited to conventional government to government channels. Famed civil society institutes in Singapore, like the Rajaratnam School International Studies (RSIS) under the Nanyang University, and the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore, provide useful platforms for public diplomacy, and for airing of thoughts and ideas on issues ranging from security to those of greater geo-strategic importance.
Discourse at these institutes can serve as input providers to foreign and regional policy making for countries like Bangladesh. These can be a useful addition to the Shangrila dialogue, where Bangladesh is a regular participant. The Singapore initiated ASEM is yet another such forum.
For a relationship that started its journey from the debris of a war and in the midst of a belligerent bipolar world, Bangladesh and Singapore have guided their ties forward with maturity and foresight to a position of stability, with the future looking even brighter. The 50th anniversary of this relationship is, therefore, a milestone that both can celebrate with shared joy and optimism.
Shamsher M Chowdhury is a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.
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