MOSCOW: Trade between Singapore and Russia has quadrupled over the last decade, but the ties between the two countries extend beyond the economic sphere, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday (May 19).
Mr Lee was speaking at a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on the last day of his visit to the Russian capital. He is on a four-day working visit to the country that started on Tuesday.
During the meeting, both leaders took stock of Singapore-Russia relations and discussed how to do more together. Mr Lee said that despite the rapid growth of trade between the two countries, in absolute size, it is still small and "far from its full potential".
"Last year, the volume was about US$5.5 billion (S$7.6 billion), making Russia our 21st largest trading partner. (This is) not in proportion to the significance of Russia or the importance of bilateral cooperation," Mr Lee said, adding that one of the reasons for his trip was to find out how to grow trade between the two countries.
On Wednesday, Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding with the Eurasian Economic Commission, which comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Mr Lee has expressed the hope that this will pave the way for a free trade agreement between Singapore and the Eurasian Economic Union to be signed by 2018.
In addition to economic ties, Mr Lee said cultural ties between the two countries are also growing.
One instance of this is the planned Russian Cultural Centre in Singapore, which the two governments are in talks to develop together. This will not just service the Russian community in Singapore and Russian visitors, but also showcase Russian culture, Mr Lee said, adding that he hopes the Centre will be open by 2018, the 50th anniversary of Singapore-Russia diplomatic relations.
"We have found a good site; it's at a good place and I look forward to the day when we see at least one golden Russian-Orthodox dome on the skyline of Singapore," said Mr Lee.
RUSSIA HAS AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN REGION: PM LEE
Overall, Mr Lee said he is encouraged by the strong interest and commitment by Singapore and Russia to boost ties, adding that both sides should build on this momentum to do even more.
He also invited Mr Medvedev to visit Singapore again, noting that on his last visit in 2009, Singapore-Russia relations were taken up a notch with the establishment of a high-level Intergovernmental Commission. This steered cooperation in many areas like culture, healthcare and education, and continues to expand into governance and counter-terrorism.
Speaking in Russian, Mr Medvedev said both countries have a good, regular relationship, even though Russia's trade is currently not in its best shape, with the country's main exports like oil and hydrocarbons hit by low oil prices.
Aside from bilateral relations, both prime ministers also discussed Russia’s role in the region, with Mr Lee noting that Russia has an important role to play. This includes in Northeast Asia, where Russia can be involved in the issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and in Southeast Asia, where ASEAN has welcomed Russia as a dialogue partner.
"My father, (founding) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, believed that Russia would play a major role in world affairs," Mr Lee said. "So when I was a teenager, he encouraged me to study Russian, which I did. And in 1970, he made his first visit to Russia ... Even after he retired as Prime Minister, he kept the links up. I am very happy to build on this foundation."
PM LEE MEETS PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN
Besides meeting with the Russian Prime Minister, Mr Lee also met with President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Russia Commemorative Summit in Sochi.
Both leaders affirmed the deepening relations and growing economic partnership between the two countries, and also welcomed the strong progress made by the High-Level Russia-Singapore Intergovernmental Commission.
President Putin expressed support for the possibility of a FTA between Singapore and the Eurasian Economic Union, which comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The countries have a combined population of 180 million people and a total GDP of S$6 trillion.