COLOMBO: While Sri Lanka is in the process of negotiating free trade agreements (FTA) with several partners, Singapore is the first to complete one with them and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he is “very glad” that negotiations went smoothly.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday (Jan 23) towards the end of his official visit to Sri Lanka, Mr Lee noted that the Sri Lankan government is liberalising the economy, and wants to promote investments. In particular, he said they are looking to encourage tourism and develop more trade.
Mr Lee had earlier witnessed the signing of the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in Colombo, along with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. The FTA is the first trade agreement that Sri Lanka is signing in more than 10 years.
“I think our trade is not so complicated with them," he said. “Secondly, I think they hope to set an example for their other trading partners," Mr Lee told reporters.
Credit should be given to the officials on both sides who worked very hard, he said. Negotiations had commenced in July 2016 and ended in Dec last year.
In response to a question on Singapore not having to face domestic opposition or protectionist pressures in signing the FTA, Mr Lee said he is happy that the Singapore Business Federation and other federations are open-minded, and "take competition in their stride”.
“The SBF is very happy because they are hoping to get access into Sri Lanka and in a way which the Sri Lankan government will welcome,” he said. "Exports, but also investments, and there are major investments which are being planned."
Some of these investments, he added, are by established players already in Sri Lanka such as Prima. Others are new players, like Hyflux or SembCorp.
“Even our not-so-big Singapore companies like Food Republic are thinking of coming to Sri Lanka and setting up things,” he said. “I think these are all positive results from the FTA."
“On the Singapore side, our market has been more open, and I think our people and companies are much more conscious that they always have to meet international competition,” Mr Lee added.
“Because if you can’t even hold your own in Singapore, you really have no hope."
When asked if there were any other FTAs in the pipeline, Mr Lee said there are different schemes coming along, noting that Singapore has “a good number” of bilateral FTAs. He also brought up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in the Asia-Pacific region.
Earlier on Tuesday (Jan 23), MTI had said that eleven countries had officially concluded negotiations on a new trade pact, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, after the US dropped out of the TPP last year.
“I read the report that they’ve come to some sort of agreement in Tokyo, minus the US, but we have to see how that develops because it’s politically sensitive for some countries,” he said.
He added that “ASEAN alone is not enough” for the Southeast Asian region, “so we have ASEAN plus other countries, and Singapore plus other countries".
“So it’s very untidy, but we have to live with its untidiness. You have to make a judgement in each case, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
SRI LANKA AND SINGAPORE HAVE A ‘WARM FRIENDSHIP’
Describing his first official meeting with President Sirisena as “good”, Mr Lee also pointed out other areas in which both countries can cooperate. He gave the issue of drug trafficking as an example, a serious problem which Sri Lanka grapples with.
“He asked us what we do, what are your policies, and I said our policies are very strict,” Mr Lee said. “We can exchange notes on many things, and we look forward to cooperating together.”
Mr Lee and Mr Sirisena also discussed strengthening bilateral relations and exchanged views on key regional and international developments at their official meeting, Singapore and Sri Lanka authorities said in a joint statement.
The leaders noted the warm friendship between the two countries, including the close historical and cultural ties, and encouraged greater people-to-people linkages.
They also discussed ways to enhance cooperation in the areas of technical and vocational education training, and public sector capacity building. PM Lee encouraged Sri Lanka to enhance its engagements with ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and PM Lee also had fruitful discussions on how Sri Lanka and Singapore can step up cooperation through the promotion of trade, investment as well as the expansion of the existing cooperation in key developmental sectors, the statement added.
Mr Wickremesinghe accepted PM Lee’s invitation to be the keynote speaker for the Singapore International Water Week, World Cities Summit and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore in July.
PM Lee also extended an invitation to President Sirisena to make a state visit to Singapore.