Singapore keen to work with Bangladesh to strengthen connectivity and infrastructure
Bangladesh and Singapore share a history of diplomatic relations that dates back to the time when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. Singapore was one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. The two countries established formal diplomatic relations on February 8, 1972.
Singapore is one of Bangladesh's major trading partners and a significant source of foreign direct investment. The two countries have signed several bilateral agreements to enhance economic cooperation and boost trade relations. Singapore has invested in various sectors in Bangladesh, including manufacturing, infrastructure, and information technology.
Ms Sheela Pillai, Singapore Consul in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and Singapore maintain defense ties through bilateral visits, training exchanges, and defense cooperation agreements. Both countries have engaged in military cooperation, including personnel training and joint exercises, aimed at strengthening defense capabilities and promoting regional security.
Development Cooperation: Singapore has been supporting Bangladesh's development efforts through technical assistance, capacity building, and sharing of expertise in areas such as urban planning, public administration, and water resource management. Singapore's experiences in urban development have been particularly valuable to Bangladesh.
Both countries have fostered educational and cultural exchanges to promote people-to-people ties. Singapore has provided scholarships and training opportunities for Bangladeshi students and professionals, while cultural events and festivals have been organized to showcase the rich heritage of both nations.
Bangladesh and Singapore have collaborated closely within regional frameworks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). These platforms have provided avenues for dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest, including trade, connectivity, and regional security.
Overall, the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Singapore have grown stronger over the years, characterized by frequent high-level visits, increased trade, and cooperation in various sectors. Both countries continue to explore new avenues of collaboration to further enhance their ties and promote shared prosperity.
Ms Sheela Pillai is a polished and seasoned diplomat serving as the Head of Mission and Consul at Singapore’s Consulate in Dhaka, Bangladesh since August 2020.
The Singaporean head of mission, in an interview with Rabb Majumder, Editor and Publisher of The Security World, covered a wide range of topics, including Indo-Pacific policy, bilateral relations, trade and investment, and defense cooperation. The following are the interview excerpts:
What is the current status of bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Singapore, and how would you describe the overall relationship?
I would describe Singapore-Bangladesh relations as excellent and expanding. You would have read that from 1 October 2023 that Consulate in Dhaka will be upgraded to a High Commission. This is a significant milestone in our bilateral relations and a reflection of the deepening engagement between the two countries. The warm friendship between the two countries span more than fifty decades with the establishment of diplomatic relations on 16 February 1972. There have been frequent exchanges at the political level, our foreign Ministers have met regularly at international fora. Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina made an Official Visit to Singapore in 2018 marking a high point in bilateral relations. We share a common outlook on many issues of global concern and close cooperation at international fora. Both sides held Foreign Office Consultations in August 2023 where we discussed broadening the scope of cooperation including in areas of trade and commerce, investment, power, energy, connectivity, blue economy, halal trade, tourism and culture, capacity building, education, health, security, agriculture, and ICT.
What are the key areas of cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore, and how have they evolved over the years?
Trade and investment form the cornerstone of Singapore-Bangladesh relations. Economic ties have grown significantly since 2015 with trade increasing over 60% and Singapore’s investments in Bangladesh increasing over nine-fold. Singapore is Bangladesh’s third-largest import partner, while Bangladesh is Singapore second largest trading partner in South Asia. Singapore is among the top investors in Bangladesh with investments in the power, energy, logistics and marine sectors. Both countries signed a Memorandum of Cooperation on Trade and Investment (MCTI) in November 2023. The MCTI provides the framework for both sides to discuss progress on ongoing projects, identify new areas of cooperation as well as discussions on an FTA. People-to people exchanges are another important facet of bilateral relations. Many Bangladeshi businesses have set up offices in Singapore to serve as a hub into the rest of Southeast and East Asia. Singapore is also a tourism destination of choice for many Bangladeshis, including for medical tourism as well as also one of the top destinations for Bangladeshi semi-skilled and unskilled workers who have played a very important role in Singapore’s development story.
How have economic ties between the two countries developed, and what are the major sectors of collaboration in trade and investment?
As Bangladesh continues its upward growth and development trajectory, Singapore can work with Bangladesh to strengthen connectivity and infrastructure. Bangladesh is a strategically located bridge between South and Southeast Asia and by strengthening connectivity with Singapore, Bangladesh can tap on our strong linkages across Southeast Asia to enjoy even greater access to the region. Singapore can also work with Bangladesh in the implementation of digital frameworks for facilitating trade and investments, Bangladesh is a potential market for Singapore companies seeking to secure new growth overseas. DBS Bank became the first Singapore multinational bank to set up a representative office in Singapore. This underscores Bangladesh’s importance as a trading partner to Singapore.
What initiatives have been taken to promote people-to-people exchanges and cultural understanding between Bangladesh and Singapore?
There is a large Bangladesh community in Singapore comprising professionals, academics, students as well as unskilled and semi-skilled workers. They form part of the larger Singapore community and have played an important role in exposing Singaporeans to the rich culture, literature, and culinary delights of Bangladesh. Highly acclaimed Bangladeshi films like ‘The Salt in Our Waters’, ‘Live from Dhaka’ have been screened at Singapore International Film Festival. We will continue to support efforts to promote cultural exchanges between the two countries.
How do you assess the level of security cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore? Are there any specific areas where the two countries have collaborated successfully in addressing security challenges?
Singapore and Bangladesh maintain channels of cooperation on security which includes sharing of information as well as training and capacity building. Bangladesh officials also regularly attend the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the premier inter-governmental security conference for the global defence and security community organised in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Bangladesh and Singapore are both members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an important platform to foster dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern.
What are the major security concerns faced by both countries in the region, and how are they working together to address these challenges?
The global situation has become more complicated in the past few years with the world emerging from the shock of COVID-19 and at the same time grappling with high inflation, food and energy insecurity, conflict and climate change. Heightened contestation between major powers is worrying for lesser powers such as Bangladesh and Singapore. Hence both countries have stressed the importance of maintaining a peaceful, rules-based multilateral order. In addition, the Rohingya refuges crisis has emerged as one the key security challenges, not just for Bangladesh but for the region. Singapore will continue to work closely with ASEAN in bringing a sustainable and permanent solution to the crisis in Myanmar and ensuring the return of Rohingyas to their homeland.
Could you provide an overview of the defense and military cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore? Are there any joint exercises or training programs in place?
Both Bangladesh and Singapore participate in a number of multilateral exercises, most recently the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) in Aug 2023. We have also hosted delegation from the Bangladesh National Defence College Armed Forces War College.
What role does Singapore play in supporting Bangladesh’s development efforts, particularly in areas such as infrastructure, urban planning, and technology transfer?
Singapore is keen to work with Bangladesh to strengthen connectivity and infrastructure. This includes modalities for infrastructure financing. Singapore Government-linked companies such as Sembcorp, PSA and Surbana Jurong has invested in infrastructure development in Bangladesh. Infrastructure Asia (IA), established by Enterprise Singapore to support infrastructure financing and development in the region, including Bangladesh. In Bangladesh IA is involved in wastewater plant development. IA has worked with World Bank on capacity building programmes and Bangladesh has participated IA’s course on ‘Growing Infrastructure – Enabling &Structuring for Private Sector Participation in Finance and Innovation. Singapore Centre for Liveable Cities have also worked with Bangladesh in capacity building in areas such as urban planning. Bangladeshi City Corporation Mayors are also regularly invited to the World Cities Summit, an international conference series on public governance and the sustainable development of cities. In addition, through the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP), the Singapore Government’s flagship platform for technical cooperation, we offer a number of training programmes in a multitude of areas to share Singapore’s development experience with Bangladesh.
Are there any plans to expand the scope of cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore in other areas, such as education, healthcare, or tourism?
In healthcare, Singapore’s two major government health care service providers National University Hospital Services (NUHS) and Singhealth (which runs Singapore General Hospital) have worked with Bangladesh government hospitals in providing fellowships for Bangladeshi doctors and training opportunities. I understand that NUHS and Singhealth are working closely with major Bangladesh government health institutions to enhance their cooperation further. Looking ahead, some other new areas that Singapore of cooperation that both countries can work together include digital transformation, renewable energy, climate change and food security
How do you envision the future of bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Singapore? Are there any specific goals or milestones that both countries are aiming to achieve?
In July 2023, Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) a government agency that promotes outward trade renewed an MOU on expanding trade and investment in Bangladesh. The Public Private Partnership Authority has also renewed its MOU with Enterprise Singapore to facilitate Singapore companies direct access to PPPA infrastructure projects. This underscores the potential that both sides countries see in expanding economic cooperation. Bangladesh has undertaken massive infrastructure development projects, it has a young vibrant workforce and a strategic location. It is emerging as a choice location for investors from Singapore and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is a fast-growing market with economic growth averaging 6%-7% between 2011 and 2021. It is expected to be among the 30 largest economies in the world by 2023. Both Singapore and Bangladesh have taken similar initiatives such as ‘Smart Nation’ and ‘Digital Bangladesh’ to deliver tech-enabled solutions to the citizens. They will be opportunities for both countries to foster deeper collaboration in the field of ICT, digitalisation, fintech and startup development. Bangladesh is due to graduate from LDC status by 2026 and overall Singapore remains upbeat about Bangladesh’s economic potential.
What challenges or obstacles do you foresee in further deepening and broadening the bilateral relationship between the two countries?
We have seen how COVID-19 pandemic impacted countries around the world, we faced disruptions to our economic supply chains, connectivity networks, border management, critical health infrastructure and tourism. Now the war in Ukraine has caused major disruptions to trade and deep uncertainty about the future of multilateral institutions. We are also all grappling with the existential threat of climate change and the profound implications of AI. These challenges will affect all of us, including in the conduct of bilateral relations.
How can the respective governments and stakeholders from both countries collaborate to overcome these challenges and further strengthen the bilateral ties?
Challenges provide an opportunity for countries to work together in both traditional and non-traditional areas, uphold rules-based multilateral trading systems. Multilateralism and collective efforts are critical to address some of these challenges. Therefore even as we strengthen bilateral relations, it important to ensure that the multilateral system is resilient and we avoid turning competition into a zero sum game.