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There's room for Singapore-Russia trade to grow: PM Lee

Trade between the two has grown in the last 10 years, but Russia is only S'pore's 21st largest trade partner

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) being interviewed by Russian news agency Tass's first deputy director-general Mikhail Gusman at the Istana last Saturday, ahead of his four-day working trip to Russia that began on Tuesday.

Singapore

THE level of trade between Singapore and Russia is disproportionate to its potential, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes his visit to Russia this week will give the economic links a much-needed boost.

While trade has risen rapidly in the last 10 years, Russia is still only the Republic's 21st-largest trading partner, he told Russian news agency Tass.

"It should not be like that. If you ask me, in terms of potential, what we can do, I would say we need to do more in trade," he said in an interview done ahead of his four-day working visit to Russia that started on Tuesday.

According to latest figures, bilateral trade between Singapore and Russia amounted to S$7.66 billion in 2015. This was up from S$4.68 billion in 2011.

Mr Lee is now in Moscow for the start of his first bilateral visit to Russia. He will fly to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Thursday for the Asean-Russia commemorative summit.

He made the same observation about the state of economic ties between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and Russia - that trade has grown but is "not really commensurate" with the importance of Russia in the world, although this is gradually changing.

During the interview, he pointed out the work of the High-Level Russia-Singapore Inter-Governmental Commission, set up in 2009 to strengthen cooperation in areas such as trade, investment, technology and education.

Singapore is planning to negotiate a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), of which Russia is a part. There are four other members in the union - Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The proposed pact could give Singapore access to a combined market of about 180 million people with a total gross domestic product of US$4.2 trillion.

Mr Lee, noting that the EAEU already has an FTA with Vietnam, said such agreements would strengthen Russia's ties with individual Asean countries and Asean as a whole.

While in the Russian capital, the prime minister said he hoped to meet the country's business leaders and pique their interest about investing in Singapore.

Top Russian companies such as Lukoil and Gazprom are already operating in Singapore, while Singapore firms such as agri-business Olam International and Changi Airports International are active in Russia.

Singapore and Russia are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic ties this year, and Mr Lee described it as a "major milestone" in the bilateral relationship.

The people-to-people relationships are growing and Singapore is a popular destination for Russians who visit for leisure and business.

Russians also visit the Republic for medical treatment; Mr Lee said there was a need for Russian-speaking doctors who can take care of them.

He disclosed that Singapore is working with the Russian government to build a Russian Cultural Centre in Singapore.

"We have found a site and it is a good location. I think the plans are advanced. I look forward to the day when we see a Russian Orthodox onion dome appearing in Singapore," he said.

As for the Asia-Pacific as a whole, he expressed optimism about the opportunities because of the belief that peace and stability can be maintained in the region. Much will depend on the relationships between the United States and China, although Russia also has a significant role to play in the Korea issue.

There are also other concerns, including the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and whether these can be managed peacefully.

"I do not say 'solve', because that is very difficult and will take a very long time, but 'manage and prevent it from escalating', and becoming dangerous. Then, we have the potential to build inter-dependence, partnerships and prosperity in the region," he said.

Mr Lee spent Tuesday, the first day of the Moscow leg of his trip, by taking a tour of the Kremlin and meeting the Singapore community at a reception. He also had lunch with a business delegation from the Singapore Business Federation.