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Special Report

Singapore and Russia, an Encounter
Look at the age of the new set of leaders in politics and business, grappling with the future of a thousand-year-old civilization.
By H.E. Michael Tay, Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore
Photos by Serge Golovach

Unlike their communist system, the Russians are not a people to be consigned to the dustbin of history” – this was the endnote in the chapter on the Soviet Union penned by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs.

It was a prescient observation. It would have sounded incredulous to anyone studying the decay of the Soviet Union and the turbulence of Russia in the 90s. Today, there is still some of that disquiet about Russia’s future and potential, largely driven by a media determined to interpret Russia in the eyes of the liberal tradition.

But to those who have lived in Russia for the last 3-4 years, as I have, it is a new emergent Russia. The restoration and reinventing of the Bolshoi Theatre is a nice metaphor. It epitomizes a drive to resolve a creative tension existing in a first-world civilization struggling to rebuild its infrastructure.

Marx and Lenin knew that dialectical materialism would find fertile ground in Russia, as Russia seems to breed extreme ideas and ideologies. Thesis and antithesis would lead to a new synthesis. Today, we are witness to a new play of this dialectical tension. Feel the sheer entrepreneurism and energy levels, a far cry from the rigidities of the Soviet system. Note the new policies to create hives of industry in regional SEZs within a country that has had a deep centralizing instinct.

More interesting to me is a similar dialectic between Singapore and Russia. We are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Singapore is small; Russia is an empire. Singapore is only 40 years old; Russians think in centuries. Singapore has no natural resources; Russia is resource-rich. Singapore is a young nation still working towards its identity; the Russian soul is profound. There is no natural impulse for the biggest country in the world to find commonalities with a tiny city-state.

The city never sleeps

Yet, the past two to three years have seen a paradigm shift in Russia-Singapore relations, cutting across a wide swathe. The Singapore brand is now better known. Singapore Airlines began flying into Moscow in 2006. Swissotel Kra snaye Holmy, which opened in 2005, was a 5-star hotel chain managed from Singapore. Singapore’s Changi Airport International has become a joint venture partner with Sheremetyevo Look at the age of the new set of leaders in politics and business, grappling with the future of a thousand-year-old civilization Airport. The memoirs of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who transformed Singapore from a third world country to first world status, has been translated into Russian. Major Singapore companies are making significant investments in Russia, including a joint venture between Temasek Holdings and Troika Dialog to set up the Russia New Growth Fund. From 2004 to 2006, Russians traveling to Singapore have grown by about 40% annually. Trade has boomed, increasing by almost 45% in 2006. Singapore is working with Russia to develop their Special Economic Zones in Tomsk and Tatarstan.

One milestone has been cultural. In 2004, with the support of Russian and Singapore companies, I commissioned one of the foremost modern Russian composers Vladimir Martynov to compose a symphony. He called it SINGAPORE, and it had its World Premiere on 5 October 2005 in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and its Singapore Premiere on 5 March this year. This extraordinary work will live on in the musical annals of both countries, and for Singapore, we have imbibed the greatness of a musical civilization.

Another key initiative is the Russia-Singapore Business Forum. With the support of Minister of Economic Development and Trade Herman Gref and Troika Dialog, the second Forum held in Singapore on 6 March 2007 involved more than 500 businessmen, with over 250 Russians participating (more than 4 times the number of Russians at the first Forum in March 2006). It was a veritable “Who’s Who” from Russia: Tatarstan Prime Minister, Primorski Governor, Vardanian (Troika Dialog), Deripaska (Basic Element), Karachinsky (IBS), Petrov (Rolf ), Vybornov (Alrosa), Korkunov (Korkunov Chocolates), Tchigirinski (Moscow Development Co), Gupta (AMTEL-Vredestein), Semenov (Belaya Dacha), Dergunova (Microsoft), Tinkov (Tinkoff ), Kravchenko (Boeing Russia), Chupina (VTB), and other big real estate companies like Mirax Group and Eurasia. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had a special session that also involved the top industrialists of China, India and Brazil. Most importantly, there have been tangible results.

Expect more next year. One of which will be a Singapore extravaganza event called ‘Spotlight Singapore’. It will be a pastiche of events touching on music and culture, business and food (definitely featuring pepper crabs and chilli crabs, signature Singapore dishes that Russians seem to love!).

1930s’ Russian cabaret singer Vertinsky sang about a ‘banana-lemon’ Singapore, ‘distant and foggy, where the oceans howl and rage’. To many Russians, Singapore is still far away and exotic. Equally, to Singaporeans observing modern Russia, it is the great unknown, a ‘mystery wrapped in an enigma’. Lao Tze, an ancient Chinese philosopher, said that ‘mystery and reality’ emerge from ‘darkness’ and that ‘darkness’ is ‘the beginning of all understanding’. This sense of mystery has seeded the growing ties between a huge country and a young nation, and perhaps, it will also define our common destiny to befuddle those who think they know us.

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