How would you describe the historic background of Singapore – Turkey relations?

Turkey-Singapore relations date back to the Ottoman Empire. There were trade, cultural and diplomatic links between Southeast Asia and the Ottoman Empire. Given Singapore’s strategic location, the Ottoman Empire established a diplomatic presence in 1865, when it appointed the first Honorary Consul Syed Abdullah bin Omer al Junied. In 1901, interactions were further strengthened when the first Ottoman Resident Consul General Ahmed Ataullah Efendi was appointed in Singapore. These interactions demonstrate the importance the Ottoman Empire placed in Singapore and Southeast Asia.

Muslims in the region performing the Haj became familiar with the Ottoman Empire as the Sultan oversaw the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. In turn, the Ottomans had their own interests to learn and understand local concerns and developments in the region. A notable event in November 1889 was the arrival of the Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul, which docked in Singapore en route to Japan, which created much interest in the Ottoman Empire.

But the history of our longstanding friendship with the Ottoman Empire is still evolving. There is ongoing archival research conducted by the National Archives Singapore and Presidency of the State Archives of Turkey to uncover this.

As for the modern historical background, Singapore and Turkey established diplomatic relations on 12 February 1969. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. In 2012, Singapore established an Embassy in Ankara.

Where do you think Singapore-Turkey relations stand?

Relations with Turkey are warm and excellent. We signed two significant agreements that form the basis of our relations: the Joint Declaration on a Strategic Partnership (SP) (signed in 2014) and the Turkey-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (TRSFTA) (ratified in 2017).

The SP provides the framework for bilateral collaboration in areas such as political exchanges, cultural and finance cooperation, as well as aviation and economic links. The TRSFTA is Turkey’s most comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that includes quality areas such as government procurement, goods and services, investments, intellectual property rights and e-Commerce. It offers significant opportunities for companies in both countries to expand trade in goods and services, and for Turkish companies to take advantage of other FTAs Singapore has, especially in Asia-Pacific.

When we commemorated the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties in 2019, senior Singapore leaders visited Turkey, including the Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S Iswaran. During these visits, Singapore reaffirmed the importance of our relations with Turkey and signaled our desire to deepen ties, especially in trade and investment.

Although Singapore is relatively far away from Turkey and a small country, we have good economic ties with Turkey. We have several important investments. For example, PSA International manages Mersin International Port, one of Turkey’s largest ports and an important gateway to the Southeast Turkey and trade routes to Central Asia/Middle East. Olam International, a global agri-business company, is Turkey’s second largest producer of hazelnuts with Olam-Progıda factories in Samsun, Giresun and Ordu. DP Architects, a design company, is responsible for the master plan for the historic Haliç Shipyard in İstanbul, while Ascott Holdings, a global hospitality brand, manages serviced apartments in İstanbul and recently won the award for “Best Serviced Residences” in Turkey. Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds have also invested in various Turkish companies and financial instruments. Together, these investments not only create local jobs but demonstrate the confidence Singapore has in the long-term development of the country. While bilateral trade is about US$1.1 billion (in Turkey’s favour), we are taking steps to increase this figure through the TRSFTA.

Culturally, more Singapore tourists are also visiting Turkey to explore and experience the rich culture. Flights between İstanbul and Singapore are doing well, with plans to increase weekly flight frequency. The small but steady growth in people-to-people connections certainly helps foster better understanding between the two countries.

As for Turkey, there is increased engagement of Asia. In August 2019, Turkey unveiled the “Asia Anew” initiative to guide its engagement and strengthen business and cultural links. Turkey also became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017. These proactive engagements contribute towards better understanding from both sides.

What challenges and benefits lie ahead in our bilateral relations?

Faced with global economic headwinds, we need to be nimble and able to navigate the challenges, such as slowing economies and a weakening of the multilateral, rules-based trading system.

For both Singapore and Turkey, we can explore opportunities to collaborate beyond our traditional markets. This could mean Singapore serving as a trade and investment platform for Turkey in Asia, and Turkey for Singapore in Central Asia and the region. We need to leverage on our strategic locations, especially as regional hubs. To strengthen this, we need to enhance familiarity with each other. We can consider increased interaction among the political and business leaders, such as through study visits and exchanges from both sides.

What would you wish for Singapore – Turkey relations in the short and mid-term?

I have four wishes that we can pursue in the short- to mid-term. Perhaps we can call them “connectivity” wishes.

First, I wish to enhance business connectivity. We have an excellent TRSFTA but need to do more with key business chambers to familiarise Turkish and Singapore companies of the benefits of the FTA. The government has played its part by creating as conducive an environment as possible. It is now for the businesses to take advantage.

Second, I wish to explore digital connectivity. We both have strengths in innovation and R&D, such as in start-ups and FinTech. There is much potential to collaborate. For instance, Turkish start-ups could tap into Singapore’s innovation and tech ecosystem to connect and grow their businesses in Asia. Turkish technologies could use Singapore as a springboard into Asia. “Smart Cities” development, where Singapore has extensive experience, could benefit Turkish cities too.

Third, I wish to see aviation connectivity take-off. Like İstanbul, Singapore is a major logistics, transportation and aviation hub. Singapore’s Changi Airport handles over 65 million passengers and serves 100 airlines flying to 400 cities. With the new İstanbul airport slated to be one of the biggest in the world, there are excellent synergies and opportunities for both sides to collaborate in the passenger and cargo sectors.

Fourth, I wish for maritime connectivity to deepen through our existing investment. Given that Singapore is the world’s busiest transshipment port with links to over 600 ports across 120 countries, Mersin International Port (MIP) managed by PSA International can grow stronger to the mutual benefit of Singapore and Turkey.

What is your personal experience in Turkey?

My experience is positive and happy. People in Turkey have been warm and welcoming, always hospitable. Learning some basic Turkish has helped to connect, and there is appreciation when one tries to speak in Turkish.

There is so much to learn and discover in terms of history and culture. Turkey is truly a living museum, with knowledge and history in abundance. This has been most enriching for my family.

Do you have any recommendations for Turkish people wishing to do business in or travel to Singapore?

For Turkish businesses, in the area of trade and investment, it is important to study the TRSFTA to find out the benefits available. As for using Singapore as a business destination, it is one of the best and easiest places to do business in the world. For example, in 2019, Singapore ranked #1 in the “Global Competitiveness Report” (WEF) and #2 in the “Ease of Doing Business” (World Bank). Turkish business will find Singapore a compelling destination either to set up companies or representative offices in Singapore.

To help businesses, there are various schemes for investors, and our trade agencies, Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and Economic Development Board (EDB), provide advice and assistance, based on the size and sector of investment. Businesses can also obtain relevant information from the Turkey Investment office in Singapore and the ESG trade office in Istanbul. It is notable that Singapore can serve as a hub for Turkish businesses keen to enter the Asian market, especially in Southeast Asia and China, as Singapore already does for so many other international partners.

For tourists, Singapore offers a wide-ranging and authentic cultural adventure in a modern and compact environment. As one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world (Pew Research Centre), Singapore celebrates numerous festivals and cultural traditions. We have Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, Eurasian and numerous dialect and regional groups living in Singapore. The result of our diversity is a second-to-none cuisine scene! You can taste all of Asia – and actually most of the world – in Singapore, from tasty traditional street food to top-rated modern Michelin Star restaurants and bars. There are several excellent unique attractions such as the Night Safari, Gardens by the Bay, and the annual Singapore F1 Grand Prix (the only night race in the world). We have world-class theme parks, like Universal Studios, and even tropical nature trails, and we are renowned for our beautiful orchids, just to name a few.

It is easy to reach Singapore, with no visa required for Turkish nationals. All you need to do is take the daily direct flight from Istanbul to Changi Airport, which was voted the “World’s Best Airport” (Skytrax 2019). The flight time is about 10 hours. English is an official language and the city is safe, efficient and easy to navigate, with many friendly locals.

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