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Special Report

People and Words
Lee Kuan Yew, Herman Gref, Euleen Goh and others
By Cheryl-Ann Tan

L-R: Herman Gref, Russian Minister of Economy & Trade, Ms Euleen Goh, Chairman of IE Singapore and Ted Tan, Deputy CEO of IE Singapore

When Herman Gref entered the auditorium, he graciously fell in step with his Singaporean host, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s longest-serving leader, letting his presence stay muted, but he becomes animated with gestures when given the chance to discuss matters with Lee off-the-record. As far as he and Singaporeans are concerned, Lee is a legend and surrounds himself with the same aura in whichever room he is in. After all, he is responsible for the “economic miracle” that Singapore went through within the span of a few decades. The forum was an important networking opportunity where countless business cards, handshakes, ideas exchanged and business deals made between forum participants, up to the highest levels. There was plenty to talk about and learn about each other—Singapore- Russia trade was something that many have not put a great deal of belief in until recently.

Singapore Minister for Trade and Industry Mr Lim Hng Kiang said in his opening speech that bilateral ties were growing, thanks to strong economic growth and economic reforms within Russia. Russia’s efforts in developing Special Economic Zones will help diversify its economy. “In this area,” he said, “Singapore is glad to share with Russia our experience in developing SEZs both locally and in other countries. We hope this will help shorten Russia’s learning curve and help you to quickly build up a strong team of senior managers who under SEZs and how to manage their implementation.’

Euleen Goh, Chairman, IE Singapore, noted in her welcome address that two of the biggest sectors that generated interest from Singapore are real estate and retail. “In the real estate sector, Singapore’s expertise in urban planning, business and industrial park planning, housing and hotel development, logistics parks management and warehousing services, is highly regarded... Singapore companies in Russia are engaged in a variety of retail industries, ranging from manufactured food to consumer electronics and IT products. Renowned for premium quality, high safety standards and state-of-the-art technology, our manufacturers produce high value products which satisfy the demands of discerning consumers in Russia and all over the world,” said Goh.

L-R: Russian Minister Herman Gref with Singapore's Minister for Trade & Industry Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore's Minister of State for Trade & Industry Lee Yi Shyan, and Euleen Goh,
Chairman of IES

The purpose of the forum was not only to attract Singaporeans to Russia—there was also much attention given to attracting Russians to Singapore. There may be a relatively small number of Russian companies in Singapore, but some, who have made it to Singapore have seen tremendous growth. “The success of companies such as Lukoil and GOST Asia re-affirms the attractiveness of Singapore as a place to leverage on the growth of the region – another scope where both countries can work closer economically,” said Lim.

These indicators may be encouraging, but many challenges will face trade relations between Russia and Singapore. As much as Russia is pushing to diversity its economy, it will take awhile. “Russia’s economy is still reliant on traditional sectors,” said RusSEZ chief Mikhail V. Mishutsin. Chow Kok Fong, CEO of Changi Airports International also pointed out that Russia needs to work on making legal issues clearer and simplify administrative procedures. Language barriers can also be discouraging.

Global issues like terrorism, avian flu, globalization and major political changes were also brought up during the special session with Minister Gref and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

“Millions will die, it is like SARS,” Lee said of the threat of avian flu. “It attacks your immune system, and how do you combat that? I would put that very high on the list of threats immediately facing us and I think the whole world.

“Terrorism will be with us for a long time. The problem is connected with fanaticism based on religious beliefs. It’s not that they can conquer you and change your life. But they can make you feel very uncomfortable and insecure.”

On globalization, Gref mentioned that Russia will find its own way around it without following the example of other nations, “The US is isolating itself, closing certain sectors—this is a bad example for Russia... it is difficult for me to explain why we don’t have to follow.”

A couple of questions were asked about political change brought about by historical figures and leadership and whether they will bring about negative changes to the business climate in Russia and Singapore. Both Gref and Lee replied that they are not worried.

“No companies that have started working will stop,” said Gref, confidently. “You can’t break these links... they are independent of the leader. You can break one but you can’t break them all. You belong to the world, not to Singapore.”

Cheryl-Ann Tan is the Founder and Director of The Singapore-Russia Connection, and contributed this article to Passport

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