MANILA/DAVAO: Singapore and the Philippines can collaborate in many areas, Singapore President Halimah Yacob said as she concluded on Thursday (Sep 12) a five-day state visit to the Philippines, during which she met Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila and headed to his home city of Davao in Mindanao.
Madam Halimah said that as founding members of ASEAN, the two countries' close ties, resulting in public and private collaboration, is ultimately about raising the quality of life for people in the region.
Singapore and the Philippines can collaborate in human capital development, innovation and infrastructure, not just in the megacities but also in the provinces, she added.
"I think that our businesses which have niche core capabilities in the areas of sustainable town development, urban development will find opportunities, particularly in the areas of smart city, waste management, water supply and other areas related to urban town development," she said.
In his opening remarks during a meeting between Singapore and Philippines officials, Mr Duterte admitted there is much to learn from Singapore.
"The Singapore story dating back to its beginning as a trading port in 1819 is truly remarkable. It is by itself an inspiration for many nations around the world," said Mr Duterte.
STOP IN DAVAO
Among the highlights of Madam Halimah's trip was a stop in Davao, Mr Duterte's hometown.
The southern Philippine islands of Mindanao are home to dozens of tribes and to most of the Muslim population in the Philippines, a country where 80 per cent are Roman Catholics.
Madam Halimah and her spouse, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, were welcomed at the Davao airport by performers dancing to tribal rhythms that she said showcased the diversity of the country's south, where not many heads of state have set foot. The southern part of the Philippines houses the country's poorest provinces.
"Diversity is also something that teaches us tolerance, teaches us magnanimity, teaches us understanding ... It makes you a better human being. And it makes the whole society better," she said.
She is the third head of state to visit Mindanao since Mr Duterte took power, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in 2017.
In a dialogue with Mindanaoan youth of different religious backgrounds, Madam Halimah emphasised the need for engagement to counter ignorance and prejudice.
"A society is fragile if one group views another as a threat. It is important to overcome the forces of division, and build bridges instead of walls," she said.
Prejudice against the Philippines' Muslim minority is a flashpoint in Mindanao, which saw an armed Muslim rebellion half a century ago after decades of land-grabbing, marginalisation and even massacre of their kin.
Bangsamoros, Muslim natives in the country's south, now have greater autonomy after a law resulting from a peace deal with the country's largest Muslim rebel group was ratified.
In their meeting, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told Madam Halimah about the ratification of this law that is seen to help end decades-long conflict and open up the region to outside investments.
"It was my pleasure to share with President Yacob our gains in peace and development in Mindanao, particularly our progress in establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao,” said Mr Duterte in a joint press conference with Madam Halimah after their meeting.
“We discussed ways by which our cooperation could help contribute in bringing just and lasting peace and meaningful progress and development in Mindanao."
At Davao City, Madame Halimah also visited an eagle centre where she saw up close the critically endangered bird of prey known as the Philippine Eagle.
The rare biological heritage can only be found in the Philippines and only lays a single egg every two years. Its numbers are dwindling due to the clearing of forests that destroy their habitat.
A pair of Philippines Eagles are on a 10-year loan to Singapore. or conservation and breeding.
SINGAPORE BUSINESSES IN THE PHILIPPINES
High on the agenda of President Halimah's visit was for Singapore corporations as well as its small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to venture and expand in the Philippines.
Eight memoranda of understanding between the Philippines and Singapore were exchanged during Madam Halimah's state visit, ranging from agri-tech, water management and electricity supply in rural areas, to arts and culture, data protection, and training people for the next industrial revolution.
Madam Halimah also graced the opening of The Podium, an office and retail complex in Metro Manila developed by Singapore and Philippine firms Keppel Land and BDO Unibank.
“We also like to see more integrated mixed use development happening in Philippines. This is applying the concept that we learned in our Singapore Marina Bay financial centres where we incorporate office, residences and retail together so that's fulfilling the live, work, play scenarios," Keppel Land CEO Tan Swee Yiow told CNA.
Madam Halimah cited the Philippines' young, tech-savvy population as a reason to venture into the country.
"There is a strong consumer demand for goods and services. Our Singapore brand - in terms of our products and services - do have a reputation, largely also because we have a large Filipino community in Singapore. They have had opportunities to try out our Singapore brand, and they like it," she told Singapore media.
Singapore was the Philippines’ largest foreign investor among Southeast Asian countries and the second largest worldwide last year. Bilateral trade between the two countries grew by 18.6 per cent compared with the previous year.
Moving forward, Madam Halimah says she hopes to see progress in two particular areas - updating an existing agreement to avoid double taxation, as well as expanding a bilateral air transport deal.
APEX OF 50 YEARS OF DIPLOMATIC TIES
Prior to her meeting with Mr Duterte, Madam Halimah also paid her respects to the late Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, the novelist who believed in the power of words to help liberate the Southeast Asian nation from colonial powers.
It is customary for visiting heads of state to the Philippines to offer flowers at the monument of Rizal.
The Philippines foreign ministry described Madam Halimah's state visit to the Philippines as an apex in the two countries’ celebration of 50 years of diplomatic ties this year.