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Taking bilateral ties to a new high

The already strong bilateral relations between Singapore and Switzerland will be elevated to a new, higher level as Johann N Schneider-Ammann, President of the Swiss Confederation, makes the first-ever Swiss state visit to the Republic. He brings with him a top-level business delegation to promote even-stronger commercial ties. In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with NARENDRA AGGARWAL, President Schneider-Ammann shares his views on strengthening political bilateral relations, business ties, vocational education and R&D cooperation.

Johann N Schneider-Ammann
"The strength of the Swiss innovation system can be attributed in part to the broad range of themes (diversification), multilayer competencies, world-class infrastructure and a commitment to quality and excellence," says President Schneider-Ammann.


Question: Switzerland and Singapore have long-standing strong bilateral relations. Could you share with us the key objectives of your first state visit to Singapore?

President Schneider-Ammann: Next year, it will be 50 years since Singapore and Switzerland took up official bilateral relations. Throughout these years we have had a very fruitful relationship. Our countries share many similarities. Given that we have few natural resources, we both have to rely on our people and their spirit of innovation and hard work to create prosperity. So my main aim is to foster the existing relationship with Singapore in areas such as trade, investment, education and innovation, and to identify new avenues for collaboration within these areas.

Q: What do you hope to achieve from the visit?

President Schneider-Ammann: Our visit aims to strengthen this mutually beneficial relationship. We will discuss ways in which we can develop the framework for our companies so that they find the best conditions for trade and investment. Our commercial links also translate into an increasing number of institutional agreements between our education and research institutions, and I would also like to support the work that they do.

In 2014 Singapore and Switzerland signed a Declaration of Enhanced Partnership. In this declaration we underscored the mutual desire to work together on issues of common interest, by holding regular foreign policy consultations or a regular finance dialogue, for example. Economic exchange is of particular importance. Our economic ties are strong and they have greatly benefited from the free trade agreement concluded between Singapore and the EFTA (European Free Trade Association, an intergovernmental trade organisation and free trade area consisting of four European states: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) in 2003.

Q: In your view, overall what more can be done to take Swiss-Singapore relations to a new, higher level?

President Schneider-Ammann: One possibility to take our relations to a higher level is to identify new areas where we could join forces. I already mentioned education and innovation as one area where we could work together more closely. Another possible area is environmental protection, particularly in the field of climate change, where Switzerland has committed itself to significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As a small country we can only make a small contribution, but even small countries can contribute their fair share to the global effort to combat climate change.

Then there is cooperation in international and multilateral institutions, where we have already cooperated in the past and where we intend to strengthen our cooperation still further, for example within Asean. And then we need to explore cooperation within new regional and international mechanisms such as the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank).


Q:Singapore hosts more than 400 Swiss companies. What draws them to Singapore?

President Schneider-Ammann: When it comes to business, Singapore and Switzerland are often compared. Singapore offers similar standards of living, has a well-developed infrastructure and a very business-friendly regulatory framework. The ideal geographical location makes Singapore a great springboard to other Asian markets.

It also helps that Switzerland and Singapore have concluded bilateral agreements on investment protection, double taxation avoidance and free trade.

Q: What similarities do the two countries share to attract such a large number of companies?

President Schneider-Ammann: As knowledge-based economies we have a great interest in supporting research and innovation. Both our countries try to offer the best framework conditions for science, technology and innovation.

Q: What can Switzerland and Singapore work on for better results in the field of business? What are their common challenges?

President Schneider-Ammann: Both Singapore and Switzerland are small, open and trade-oriented economies with a strong service sector. We therefore rely on a multilateral rules-based trading system.

It is important that we continue our constructive engagements within the WTO (World Trade Organization) and continue to expand our network of free trade agreements.

Singapore is facing similar challenges when it comes to foreign labour, and Singaporeans have similar concerns about the implications of immigration on infrastructure and job security in the country.

On the other hand, we both rely on foreign labour to keep our highly developed economies prospering. Ultimately, though, we need to ensure that our own citizens have jobs and prospects for the future.

Q: What more can Singapore and Swiss business leaders do to grow their collaboration?

President Schneider-Ammann: Singapore and Switzerland can be proud of the economic and commercial links that have been forged, as well as the growing number of institutional agreements, scientific exchanges and joint programmes which bring the two countries closer together.

Economic missions such as this serve as a door-opener for further bottom-up initiatives between businesses.


Q: The apprenticeship model of vocational education has proven to be very successful in the sustainability of the Swiss economy. Could you explain to us why and share your experience?

President Schneider-Ammann: I used to head a plant construction company myself and was also on the board of a number of Swiss firms, so I experienced first-hand the advantages of our dual-track vocational education and training (VET) system.

Young people learn the practical aspects on the job and are taught the theoretical side of their work at vocational schools.

The main strength of this system is that it is tailored to the needs of the economy. Apprentices learn exactly what is needed in the labour market and therefore have excellent employment and career prospects.

Firms understand this and are therefore willing to invest in the system voluntarily because they can reap both short-term and long-term benefits.

Q: A number of official study trips from Singapore to Switzerland have been organised in the last couples of years in this area. How would you share this experience to your Singaporean counterparts to their best advantage?

President Schneider-Ammann: Delegation visits can give a first glimpse into how the Swiss VET system works.

But it's not possible to simply "copy and paste" the Swiss model to Singapore; you would need to adapt it to your own environment. It is particularly important to visit the different stakeholders involved and see how apprentices are trained in companies and at vocational schools.

In general, the companies and their professional associations are the best and most credible advocates for the Swiss VET system.

But positive effects cannot be expected overnight. It is also a matter of changing the education culture. Patience and perseverance are, therefore, key.

Q: Could you elaborate on how Swiss companies based in Singapore could contribute to promoting this training?

President Schneider-Ammann: In general, Swiss companies are familiar with dual-track VET and the requirements for a successful apprenticeship programme. If it is in their long-term interest to train young people, they are likely to be willing to engage in projects aimed at testing dual-track approaches.

It would probably be advisable to aim to include several companies at once and also involve Singaporean companies in order to transfer experience and know-how. It is crucial for any such involvement to be voluntary; there must be a bottom-up interest on the part of the companies concerned (Swiss and Singaporean).


Q: Switzerland is consistently ranked among the world's most competitive countries in the field of research and innovation. Can you share with us how a small nation with limited natural resources achieved such success?

President Schneider-Ammann: Switzerland has no federal policy on innovation in the strict sense. Nevertheless, all activities follow defined and established principles: competitiveness, collaboration, efficiency.

The state strives to ensure that there is a sound framework in place for the key stakeholders active in innovation (economy, education, research). There is a large degree of scope in the system for stakeholders to act autonomously, organise themselves, and hence adaptability.

Most R&D and innovation in Switzerland is financed and undertaken by the private sector (greater than 60 per cent of R&D financing and greater than 70 per cent of implementation in 2012).

R&D expenditure amounts to 3 per cent of Switzerland's gross domestic product, which is one of the highest rates in the world. The strength of the Swiss innovation system can be attributed in part to the broad range of themes (diversification), multilayer competencies, world-class infrastructure and a commitment to quality and excellence.

Q: Why is international research cooperation important for Switzerland?

President Schneider-Ammann: Research is international by nature; the best ideas and the best minds have to connect. In order to facilitate cooperation, Switzerland has developed specific instruments to boost cooperation with countries with strong potential.

We are a small, open country at the heart of Europe. Being international is part of the mindset of our companies, our universities and the people who live here. Switzerland has a very close cooperation with the European Union and takes part in many European research programmes.

Q: The Singapore ETH-Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability is a great example of international cooperation. Could you share your views on their research programmes and what other Swiss expertise could also be exported to Singapore and South-east Asia?

President Schneider-Ammann: The SEC is indeed a great example of international cooperation, not only between Switzerland and Singapore, but also as part of the CREATE campus, a research centre bringing together the best technology institutes worldwide.

The SEC is effectively conducting research programmes to that end. Its initial programme, the Future Cities Lab, was extended for a further period and a new project, focusing on Future Resilient Systems, began last year.

The presence of Swiss academic stakeholders in Singapore has increased in recent years bringing expertise in other fields.

The University of St Gallen, for example, has opened its own Institute of Management in Asia, and last year the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, which represents Swiss excellence in tourism education, also opened a hub in Singapore.

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