Singapore is a thriving island city-state located in Southeast Asia next to Indonesia and Malaysia. A bit fewer than 6 million people live in the country, which is small in terms of area but the size of its GDP is comparable to prosperous European countries like Belgium or Switzerland. Singapore has always maintained friendly trade and economic ties with its neighbors in the region, and over the past decade its foreign policy has been aimed at forging close ties with the small island countries across the South Pacific that lie in the largest region of the world, which has been dubbed Oceania.
In Oceania, Singapore cooperates the most intensively with Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and is becoming the chief fuel exporter for them. These four island states are located in a subregion called Melanesia and, unlike other countries in Oceania, they have mineral resources. Back in 1986, they created an intergovernmental organization that is called the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) nowadays. More intensive interaction between Singapore and MSG countries began in August 2012 when, at the invitation of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, foreign ministers from 11 countries in Oceania arrived in the country for a study visit (the Singapore-Pacific Ministerial Study Visit 2012). The purpose of the event was to show what the best practices in Singapore are in the areas of economic development, land development, water resource management, healthcare, education, etc. During the event, the heads of Oceania’s foreign ministries talked with the Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, with whom they discussed the current situation in Oceania and the possibilities for further cooperation between them.
The next meeting was held in a similar format in Singapore in 2017, but with participation on the part of 14 heads of foreign ministries of small island states across Oceania.
Fiji expressed a direct interest in developing relations with Singapore. This state, the largest out of all the small-sized island states in Oceania with a population of about 900,000 people, was looking to expand economic ties with all the world’s countries in the 2010s, and Singapore’s proposal for cooperation across many areas, including on the issue of global warming, elicited a positive response from Fijian leadership.
Both Fiji and Singapore belong to the Alliance of Small Island States, AOSIS, which started to operate in 1990; AOSIS is an intergovernmental organization of low-lying coastal and small island states, whose primary purpose is to unite the voices of small island developing countries in their fight against global warming. Fiji and Singapore have always followed the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and then its add-on treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005.
Diplomatic relations between Fiji and the Republic of Singapore were established on November 30th, 1971, and since then the two island states have maintained friendly relations at all levels. The Ambassador of Fiji to Indonesia was accredited in Singapore.
Even back in the 1960s, the two countries’ rulers developed personal relationships marked by trust. Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore and the creator of the so-called Singaporean “economic miracle”, visited Fiji in 1986 and delivered commitments of friendship when addressing Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the “founding father” of the independent state of Fiji who was the country’s prime minister and then became its president.
Given the long tradition of strong ties between the two island states, Fiji and Singapore rapidly expanded their bilateral cooperation in the 2010s.
One landmark event was in April 2016, when Fiji Airways, the country’s flag carrier, opened up direct flights on a regular basis between Fiji and Singapore. Making a direct flight over a distance of 8,500 kilometers (this is 1,000 kilometers more than between New York and Moscow), one which takes just over ten hours, turned out to be three hours shorter than the previous route involving a layover in Australia and, of course, much more convenient. Improved transportation services facilitated the increase in trade flows and tourism in both directions, and by the end of 2016 the number of tourists visiting from Singapore grew by 120%. As an aside, tourism brings in more than 30% of the tax revenue for the Fijian budget each year.
At the same time, from 2010-2015 Fiji managed to attract 12 investment projects backed by Singapore valued at 250 million Fijian dollars (about 116 million USD at the exchange rate for September 2020).
Bilateral trade has also developed rapidly: since the mid-2010s Fiji has purchased 90% of its fuel each year from Singapore, which has become a major import partner that way, while Fiji exports precious metals and mineral water to Singapore.
It is interesting to note that the Fijian government sees Singapore as an example to emulate. For example, the Housing Authority of Fiji is structured around the Housing and Development Board of Singapore (HDB); and in 2012, Singaporean consultants were involved in reforming Fiji’s National Reserve Fund, modeling it after Singapore’s Central Reserve Fund.
In 2019, Fiji once again turned to Singapore for its experience, but this time in the field of urban planning; specialists from the Singaporean government-run agency Singapore Cooperation Enterprise, which was established in 2006 to exchange experiences with foreign countries about urban planning, developed a master planning project for three Fijian cities – the capital of Suva, Nadi, and Lautoka – designed for 50 years into the future, providing for their further conglomeration. It is expected that by 2075 more than 1 million people will be living on Fiji, and that almost all of them will be city dwellers. “We would like to fully imitate the experience that Singapore has,” the Fijian side once admitted.
In terms of their foreign policy, Fiji and Singapore are also following a common path. For example, in February 2020 they became the first countries in the world to ratify the Singapore Convention on Mediation, which will enter into force 6 months after it is ratified by any third country. Since the time it was opened for signature in August 2019, 52 countries have already signed the Singapore Mediation Convention. This UN convention proposes using mediation (i.e., the services of an intermediary) in international trade and investment, and will facilitate dispute resolution without the need to go through official, and often lengthy and expensive, legal procedures.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the strengthening of friendly ties and productive cooperation between Fiji and Singapore clearly show how the joint efforts of just two small states can provide a significant contribution to sustainable development not only on a regional scale, but throughout the world.
Sofia Pale, PhD in History, Researcher at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.