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48TH ANNIVERSARY OF INDEPENDENCE

Bangladesh, Singapore share good ties

As Bangladesh's economy improves, Singapore businesses have much to gain from these robust diplomatic relations.

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Bangladesh High Commissioner in Singapore, Md Mustafizur Rahman: "Bangladesh can be a good destination for Singapore investment."

BANGLADESH and Singapore enjoy good bilateral relations and are working together to make them even stronger, says Bangladesh High Commissioner in Singapore, Md Mustafizur Rahman. The close cooperation between the two countries is evidenced by the fact that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid her first official visit to Singapore earlier last year. Also noteworthy is the fact that Singapore's Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, visited Bangladesh in November 2018.

"Bangladesh and Singapore enjoy a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship ever since diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1972. Bangladesh views Singapore as a key development model to emulate and is keen to develop its relationship with this important Asean member further," says Mr Rahman in an interview with The Business Times on the occasion of the 48th anniversary of independence and national day of the People's Republic of Bangladesh today.

"The importance of March 26th - which is the independence and National Day of Bangladesh, is paramount in the history of Bangladesh. On this day in 1971, Bangladesh proudly became an independent nation having successfully fought under the leadership of the Father of our Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, after defeating the Pakistani regime," says the High Commissioner.

The achievements of Bangladesh in recent years have been impressive. Over the last 10 years the country's economy has steadily registered an average annual growth rate of 6.2 per cent. The economy expanded by a robust 7.86 per cent in the financial year 2017-18, up from the 7.28 per cent growth recorded in the previous year, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The size of Bangladesh's economy has nearly tripled from US$91 billion in 2008 to US$274 billion in 2017.

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"The sound and sustained economic growth has been undergirded by remarkable export performances. Exports have scaled up from US$15 billion in 2008 to US$36.67 billion in 2018. Value-added textiles remain the backbone of Bangladesh's economy. In 2018, garment exports alone fetched US$30.61 billion, steeply up from US$12 billion in 2008, making Bangladesh the second largest global apparel exporter after China," says Mr Rahman.

Ambitious target

"Export earnings are on track to meet the government's goal of US$39 billion this year, while the ambitious target to hit US$50 billion worth of exports by 2021 to mark the country's 50th anniversary of independence no longer looks like a pipe dream."

Mr Rahman added that a vast community of expatriate Bangladeshis overseas meanwhile continues to buoy the economy with remittances that surged to a record high of US$15.53 billion last year.

From mass starvation in 1974, the country has also achieved near self-sufficiency in food production for its more than 167 million population. Per capita income has risen nearly threefold since 2009, reaching US$1,751 in 2018. And the number of people living in extreme poverty - classified as under US$1.25 per day - has shrunk from about 19 per cent of the population to less than 9 per cent over the same period, according to the World Bank. A highlight of Bangladesh's relations with the Republic is the presence of about 120,000 Bangladeshi workers in Singapore. Further, there are regular visits by a large number of Bangladeshis, including government officials and high-level political office-holders, to Singapore for tourism and medical purposes. Mr Rahman also mentioned that his country imports a huge quantity of goods and services from Singapore.

The Bangladeshi workers here are mostly employed in the construction, marine and shipyard sectors. Many are also working in the conservancy sector as cleaners in town councils and as landscapers.

Apart from the workers, a few thousand Bangladeshis are working in various professions as mariners, engineers and businessmen. Many of them are Singapore permanent residents, while some have taken up Singapore citizenship.

"Singapore's relations with Bangladesh are sustained by an increasing interest by Singapore companies to invest in and do business with Bangladesh. While Bangladesh may not be a priority country for Singapore to push for stronger bilateral relations with, the visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to Singapore in March 2018 appears to have infused enthusiasm in Singapore's political leadership to explore the opportunities presented by an economically rising Bangladesh for Singapore companies to do business in Bangladesh," says Mr Rahman.

While there is potential for cooperation, Bangladesh and Singapore presently do not have significant collaboration in the education sector, he points out.

Although Singapore boasts a world-class educational system, Bangladeshi students are not generally attracted to Singapore partly because of high tuition fees and living expenses, lack of scholarships, absence of work permits during study and lack of employment and settlement opportunities at the end of their study. Only about 25 students, are now studying in various educational institutions in Singapore. "In the realm of culture, institutional cooperation is minimal. To enhance cultural cooperation between Bangladesh and Singapore, the government of Bangladesh has recently proposed a Memorandum of Understanding between the cultural ministries of both countries. Singapore's response is awaited," he says.

As for upcoming bilateral activities, he said the High Commission is planning to organise a Bangladesh seminar in Singapore in partnership with the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) in April/May 2019.

Meanwhile, Enterprise Singapore is interested in organising a business event on Bangladesh, and the High Commission is in talks with it on the matter. There are also plans to organise a Bangladeshi Food Festival to showcase the richness of Bangladeshi cuisines to food lovers here. "For some time, we have also been planning to hold a Bangladeshi artefact and painting exhibition in Singapore which hopefully would happen this year," he adds.

Mr Rahman highlighted that in July last year, the High Commission helped to arrange a visit of a Singapore business delegation to Bangladesh. The delegation, which was led by the chairman of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), undertook the visit to explore the investment and business potential in Bangladesh.

Good prospects

The visit facilitated interaction between the business communities as well as greater cooperation between the trade promotion organisations of the two countries. During the visit, the Singapore delegation met Bangladesh business leaders in a "Bangladesh-Singapore Business Forum" and called on the Prime Minister and the Commerce Minister of Bangladesh. When the Singapore business delegation called on the Bangladesh Prime Minister, she offered 500 acres of land for an exclusive Special Economic Zone for Singaporean investors.

Looking ahead, the High Commissioner says there are good prospects for furthering the existing mutually beneficial relationship between Bangladesh and Singapore. "Bangladesh can be a good destination for Singapore investment. We are a fast growing economy offering investment opportunities in areas such as infrastructure development, port management, electronics, real estate, technical education, healthcare and other service and technical sectors.

"Singapore can cash in on our Prime Minister's offer of 500 acres of land for Singapore investors and establish a Singapore Economic Zone in Bangladesh to produce goods and services, taking advantage of the low labour cost, liberal investment regime and other monetary incentives offered by the government for foreign investment in Bangladesh.

"Although many Bangladeshis visit Singapore regularly, very few Singaporeans go to Bangladesh. I would urge Singaporeans to visit Bangladesh and see the beauty of our country. There are six direct daily flights from Singapore to Dhaka, our national capital, and travel cost is affordable. I also invite Singapore Ministers, MPs and high-level government officials to visit Bangladesh," says Mr Rahman.

"There is also potential for further growth in the manpower sector. Although Singapore is reducing reliance on foreign manpower, it may consider taking workers from Bangladesh in sectors which are presently not open for Bangladesh such as services and nursing sectors.

Mr Rahman added: "Presently, Bangladesh is a source country for workers for only three sectors - construction, shipyard and conservancy sectors. Opening up other sectors for Bangladeshi workers would allow Singapore employers to recruit an educated and trained workforce at a reasonable cost."