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Fostering stronger ties
THE first mention of "Singapura" in print was in a 17th-century memoir of Jacobus van de Koutere, a native of Bruges who worked for the Spanish king. During his visit to Singapore, he advised that two fortresses be built in Singapore.
Present-day King Albert Park was also named after Belgium's third king, King Albert.
This bit of historical trivia was shared by Andy Detaille, the current ambassador of Belgium to Singapore.
Long before Belgium and Singapore officially established diplomatic relations, both countries already had a historical connection.
Belgium and Singapore officially established diplomatic relations in 1966 and have achieved several milestones over the years.
Belgium is the first export destination for Singapore in the European Union (EU), with exports worth more than S$6 billion in 2017 and Singapore, which is Belgium's 11th biggest trade partner outside the EU, is Belgium's hub for exports to South-east Asia.
"Belgium is a small country whose economy relies heavily on international trade, exactly like Singapore. One reason why Singapore uses Belgium as its gateway to Europe is the port of Antwerp, which is the second-biggest port in Europe, where PSA has made its biggest investment outside of Singapore. We also share the same open outlook about the world, which is why our political relations are excellent with many visits to and fro," says Mr Detaille.
REMOVAL OF BARRIERS
The most significant event of recent note was the signing of the landmark free trade agreement (FTA) -between the EU and Singapore in Brussels, the EUSFTA.
Around 1,400 Belgian companies currently export to Singapore, with 88 per cent being small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The EUSFTA will boost trade even further as tariffs will be removed for all EU products entering Singapore while 84 per cent of Singapore products can enter the EU tariff-free and tariffs for remaining products such as selected meat and seafood produce, fruits and vegetables will be progressively removed over a period of three to five years.
Mr Detaille believes that the EUSFTA will make it easier for Belgian SMEs to enter Singapore as it also abolishes a number of non-tariff trade barriers and be beneficial to SMEs which "form the backbone" of the Belgian economy. "The FTA sets in stone the low tariffs that we were already granting each other, which results in predictability for our companies and their long-term planning. We should also not underestimate the symbolic value of the FTA and the message of belief in free trade and multilateralism it sends in times in which these notions have come under increased scrutiny," he notes.
On the cultural side of things, Belgium artists have been finding their way to Singapore. Mr Detaille highlights dance troupe Compagnie K and Lisbeth Gruwez's Voetvolk, dancers Miet Warlop, Astrid Boons and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to musicians Robert Casteels and Lilith Verelst who have performed here.
The embassy also supported the opening of Belgian artist Jef Geys' exhibition at Gillman Barracks last year and regularly participates in film festivals such as the Singapore International Film Festival, where the award-winning movie Girl was screened.
As ambassador, Mr Detaille also organises programmes for visiting delegations, activities for the public and works to attract investment together with regional organisations from Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
An important event this year for the embassy is preparing for its elections on May 26 and organising out-of-country voting for the 2,000-strong Belgian community in Singapore, the biggest in any Asian city.
As a result, there will be fewer delegations visiting from Belgium due to the election campaign, but he hopes to attract more Belgian delegations to Singapore in future to showcase the city-state's achievements and to try to identify new avenues of cooperation.
Last year alone saw four ministers, two trade delegations and numerous companies participating in trade fairs in Singapore, with the support of the regional agencies for trade and promotion and investment.
Another thing Mr Detaille hopes to work on is the establishment of a direct passenger flight between Singapore and Brussels.
"The business case for such a connection is excellent and I hope to play my part in convincing the stakeholders to start it up again. It would be a tangible result of my passage here and it is something many people are eagerly awaiting," he adds.